Investigative Journalist Annie Jacobsen

The author and 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist discusses her new book “Phenomena” in which she takes a look at some of the U.S. Government’s secret psychic programs.

Annie Jacobsen is a journalist and bestselling author who writes about war, weapons, U.S. national security, and government secrecy.  Her books Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base and Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America were New York Times bestsellers and have both been published in six languages.  Her third book, The Pentagon's Brain, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and is in development with J.J. Abrams's Bad Robot and Warner Brothers.  She lives in Los Angeles.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with investigative journalist, Annie Jacobsen. Her latest book, “Phenomena” gives a behind-the-scenes look at some of the U.S. government’s secret psychic programs used in attempts to locate hostages, fugitives, and even identify possible national security threats.

Then we’ll pivot to a conversation with the president-elect of the “Homeland” universe, actress Elizabeth Marvel. You might also know her as Frank Underwood’s political rival, Heather Dunbar, in the hit series, “House of Cards”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. All of that coming up in just a moment.

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Tavis: Investigator journalist, Annie Jacobsen, has written what she says is the definitive history of the military’s decades long experiment with mental powers like ESP. Her new book reveals how the government used psychic spies during the Iran hostage crisis and the CIA’s search for psychedelic mushrooms.

It is called “Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis”. Annie, good to have you back on this program.

Annie Jacobsen: Thank you.

Tavis: Can you see this, Jonathan? This thing is like — you write these texts that are so like — they’re so dense [laugh].

Jacobsen: It’s a big story.

Tavis: It is a big story, but that’s a lot of research, though. And you just keep going at it.

Jacobsen: That’s the joy of it. I mean, I interviewed a lot of scientists, all the original CIA scientists and the DOD scientists and also a lot of the psychics themselves. So you’re just right in it when you’re doing that.

Tavis: And you heard what?

Jacobsen: I mean, this is a quest story. This is really about man’s quest for knowledge, like what are we capable of? It’s also a story of science versus the supernatural, and that makes a lot of people really uncomfortable.

Tavis: You believe?

Jacobsen: Gertrude Schmeidler was the Harvard experimental psychologist who created these two terms to answer that question.

Tavis: Oh, the sheep and the goat, right.

Jacobsen: The sheep and the goat.

Tavis: Yeah, I read about this, yeah, yeah.

Jacobsen: So the goats are the firm skeptics, the people who think this is utter nonsense. The sheep, on the other hand, are open to the idea of anomalous mental powers. I would say I lean sheep.

Tavis: Yeah. Why? Because of the research?

Jacobsen: Because of the research and also because I think of life experiences.

Tavis: What did you see in the research that pushed you deeper into the sheep category?

Jacobsen: You know, I have a lot of respect for the CIA. I think that they are a national security asset to all of us. And it was the CIA’s research that I found the most profound, that I found really pushing the boundaries of what is known.

And the CIA documents that were declassified as part of this book indicate that the CIA believes that — they used this term. It is inescapable. They believe that the phenomena is real and that you cannot escape the reality that phenomena does exist albeit in a fickle manner.

Tavis: What have they seen? What have they witnessed that makes them believe that the reality in some form of that is inescapable?

Jacobsen: Most of the CIA work falls on the axis of divination. So this idea that — you know, this is as old as the hills, okay — that you could see the future, that you could know the unknowable. And the psychics who were working for the CIA in the 70s predicted a lot of situations and also saw things.

We’re talking, you know, names, places, situations that could not be known in any other manner, particularly looking into the Soviet Union, looking behind the Iron Curtain in places where we could not have assets that were humans. So that kind of really opened up. It kicked down the doorway to this original research.

Tavis: Are there any things, for lack of a better word, any data, any evidence, any victories that you can point to that we have won, things that we have been benefited by, protected from, because of this extrasensory perception on somebody’s part?

Jacobsen: The specifics I detail in the book in chronology because then you can kind of see how it’s an ebbing and flowing, and that’s always what drives the scientists crazy, the scientific skeptics. You mentioned Iran.

I mean, there is some inescapable evidence that the psychics that were working at the time were able to — the Iran hostage situation — were able to determine the location of certain hostages. And even the Joint Chiefs of Staff themselves wrote a letter to the program manager saying, “This is actionable intelligence.”

Tavis: That’s a little scary, though.

Jacobsen: If you could know that, what else could you know? You know, I try to focus less on like “This is exactly the truth” and more asking the reader the question, “What is the truth?” I mean, where do we go with this kind of knowledge?

And what I found most illuminating was going into this thinking that this whole program had been buttoned up in the 1990s, and that’s not the case. It’s back today with the DOD and it’s occurring under a different rubric, all under the idea of anomalous mental cognition.

This idea that perception, the ability to see the future, the ability for soldiers to foresee where an IED might be planted, these kinds of situations led to a resurgence of a new series of programs across the DOD.

Tavis: I’m going to back up just for half a second here and go back to something that you said a moment ago when you said very clearly that you have — I don’t want to misquote you, but you said you have great respect for the CIA. Increasingly, as you well know, and I’m using the word increasingly.

I haven’t done any independent research on this, but it seems to me that, for a variety of reasons, there are many fellow citizens, if not a majority, certainly many who don’t share that point of view because of a number of things that the CIA has done over the last number of years that has eroded that trust.

What do you say to Americans watching this program tonight, fellow citizens who don’t have the same trust in the CIA that you have?

Jacobsen: Well, I mean, in all four of my books, I touch upon serious work done by the CIA. You know, no one’s perfect and no agency is perfect, but if you consider the fact that the CIA’s job is to give intelligence to the president, that’s their job. Most of that intelligence is working to keep America out of a war situation and I think that’s where the curve ball came in, no pun intended.

But, you know, agencies make mistakes and on balance when I look at that agency from a journalist’s point of view, from the perspective of a historian looking at all these thousands of declassified documents that I have looked at, I would say on balance that that agency works very hard to self-improve.

Tavis: And speaking of the CIA and Donald Trump, what do you make of the terse, tense relationship between Mr. Trump and the CIA? And what does that portend for the country if our leader and our chief spy agency can’t seem to get along?

Jacobsen: I notice the word portend, so I feel like there’s a little sheep in you there.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh].

Jacobsen: But, you know, all jokes aside, I think it’s super dangerous. I mean, I think that the intelligence that — again, I’m referring to a body of documents that I’ve looked at over many years. I think that the intelligence community as a whole is working.

They must have a terrific working relationship with the president, and I’ve never seen anything like this current situation. The individuals that I work with, that are retired intelligence agencies, I think share that same fear.

Tavis: They’re scared too?

Jacobsen: I would think so, yeah.

Tavis: Back to the book. Congratulations. I just read that Mr. Spielberg, as in Steven, his company, Amblin, has bought the rights to this. So what are they going to do?

Jacobsen: And together with Blumhouse, so you have these two powerhouses of cultural, you know, influence, and I think that’s what’s great. I think, again, I would say going back to this is a book. This is a story. This is a subject about the reaches of knowledge, and I think that’s important personally, politically, societally, culturally.

I think that’s what television is amazing at doing. And I think that the idea of discounting anything, being such a firm skeptic, and also one of the problems I have with skeptics is that they tend to kind of make people feel intellectually inferior if they even broached this subject.

I find that unuseful and I think that TV is a great way into that world for many people because they can feel comfortable in a narrative and then they can begin to create their own ideas about things.

Tavis: I think I know what you mean, Annie, when you say unuseful, but what do you mean by that?

Jacobsen: It’s insulting. I mean, it’s insulting.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. That’s what I thought you meant.

Jacobsen: I mean, I don’t want anyone to insult my intelligence. And I’m sure many people feel the same way, so people button up and they get quiet about arenas that they find intellectually exciting when they’re told that’s actually, you know, some kind of inferior thinking.

I mean, look. The real problem about all of the phenomena is that — and here’s where the scientists have a legitimate point — ever since the scientific revolution, science is based on five processes. And when those processes are not repeatable, then you must change your idea about the hypothesis until you can move toward general theory.

ESP, psychokinesis, these concepts, if you will, have never been able to move out of the real of hypothesis. They’ve never moved toward general theory because they are not repeatable. Science is absolutely correct in pointing that out, but that doesn’t mean that it should all be thrown out, in my opinion.

Tavis: And yet you had no fear of us laughing at you by spending this much time to approach the subject matter.

Jacobsen: I mean, this is my fourth book. Maybe I couldn’t have written this book as book number two on the heels of “Area 51”, right? But, you know, I’ve been writing about hard science and, when I wrote “The Pentagon’s Brain” about DARPA, about hard science in the military, it led me into this.

And I write about that in the book about how the two subjects go like this, and that’s what I find super interesting. Again, reaches of knowledge.

Tavis: Finally, on a going forward basis, having nothing to do with what they have done heretofore, the millions of taxpayer dollars spent to find this phenomena, is this a good use of taxpayer money in the coming months and years?

Jacobsen: I don’t see why not. I mean, I really don’t. Because I think when you truncate programs, you know, when you cut them off at the knees, then you have a big see-saw. I mean, whereas if you can allow things to kind of — if you fund programs in a neutral and balanced way, they tend to have more success scientifically. That’s my experience of, again, looking at a lot of documents.

Tavis: Has the budget for this kind of phenomena research been increasing over the years, stayed about the same, or decrease? I ask that in light of the fact that we all know Mr. Trump now is trying to dramatically increase the defense budget. Bur I’m just curious. Had the budget for this kind of research gone up, down, or stayed about the same?

Jacobsen: These programs always fall into what are called special access programs, SAP programs. The budgets are so tightly controlled and skewered that I don’t think I could make an accurate assessment either about what as spent or about what is being spent.

Tavis: That’s an honest answer, and I always appreciate you for giving honest answers. Annie’s new book is called “Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations Into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis”.

I’m just glad I said that twice tonight without screwing it up [laugh]. Annie, thank you for coming on and thank you for the research, and congrats on that Spielberg deal.

Jacobsen: Thank you.

Tavis: Up next, actress Elizabeth Marvel. Stay with us.

Last modified: April 7, 2017 at 9:30 am