Whenever you actively participate in any activity involving “secrets” of any sort, you’re bound to draw in people that are a little bit…unstable.
When I first got started here at Top Secret Writers, I dug into the history surrounding the Bavarian professor Adam Weishaupt and his student group at the University of Ingolstadt known as the Perfectibilists. This was the group that later became known as the “Illuminati”, integrated with secret societies through Europe, and even helped fuel the French Revolution.
Unfortunately, even when you are doing legitimate historical research, you get inundated with nutcases asking you how they can join the Illuminati. Did they even read the articles? Probably not.
Apparently, the CIA faces the same issue constantly. This occurred so much during the 40s and 50s that, in 1965, David McLean wrote a CIA paper titled “Cranks, Nuts and Screwballs”, detailing just how extensive this problem was.
In his paper, internally classified as “Confidential” at the time, David described how every time the CIA makes the news, the “flow of oddball letters and phone calls increases perceptibly.”
I thought that his descriptions of the sorts of “screwballs” they came in contact with over the years was more than worthy of an article right here at TSW. This confidential paper was finally released to the public on September 18, 1995. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s an entertaining read.
Clairvoyance and Contrivances
One section of the paper is focused on a portion of the CIA fan base who claim to be clairvoyant. These “clairvoyants” claim that they obtained information about the Communists through these powers.
One man walked into a CIA office and informed the secretary that he had been kidnapped by the Communists, who opened his head, removed his brains, and installed a radio. His request was for the CIA to please remove the radio and reinstall his brain.
I’d say he’d be better off installing someone else’s brain, because his was clearly not working.
No one can say that the CIA folks don’t have a sense of humor. Such was the case where a man came in to volunteer to work as a spy in the Czech uranium mines. He said that he had come up with a way to avoid becoming sterile from radiation by wrapping his private part in the tinfoil from his Chesterfield cigarette pack.
The paper explained the Agency Secretary’s response, “The Agency secretary who transcribed a memorandum on his visit never could understand why he insisted on Chesterfields.”
Apparently, the Agency has been poking fun at the “nutjobs and screwballs” since at least the 1950’s.
Stimulating the Imagination
One case that actually intrigued CIA investigators was the case of a school superintendent “of unassailable reliability” that told the CIA he could, through hypnotism, induce clairvoyance in one of his engineering students.
Apparently, the CIA was so enthralled with this claim that they set up a demonstration, where the superintendent put the student under hypnosis, and in front of a “research chief of a respected American aircraft plant”, described an advanced Soviet ballistic missile that was at that time “of a type unknown in the United States”.
After questioning the hypnotized subject in detail, and hearing answers where “the subject used technical and scientific terminology which neither he nor the hypnotist could be expected to know,” the expert – as well as other experts who listened to the recorded session – concluded that there was “just enough substantive data to stimulate the imagination”.
In this section of the paper, David reported that the CIA concluded that clairvoyance was “a very risky approach to the collection of Soviet guided missile data”. David concluded that “the mystery remains unsolved.”
The irony is that in the years subsequent to his paper, the CIA did in fact delve into this area of research in the form of the controversial Stargate program – eventually transferred from DIA to CIA before getting shut down for good.
The paper also details a long list of people that convinced themselves they were working for the CIA, even without any feedback or approval from the Agency whatsoever.
David described how one “probable James Bond fan” sent the Agency a list of suggested methods to kill people covertly, such as “the usual poisons and trick guns”, but one particularly creative method noted in the paper was the idea to use “a lethally exploding cigar disguised with a band reading “It’s a boy!”
Yet another person – an “attractive divorcee” who worked a day job as an airline secretary – regularly flew herself to other countries in order to rub shoulders and interact with political leaders there. She would then submit everything she learned during her vacation travels to the CIA.
David concluded, “For all her Mata Hari complex, she has brought useful information.”
It would appear that even though they make fun of the “crazies”, the CIA still values the potential information that they might provide.
Another interesting case was that of “Old Woody”, a man who traveled the world and the country portraying himself as either a CIA agent or an FBI agent. In one case in August of 1960, Old Woody managed to arrange an appointment over the phone with the commanding officer at an Air Force base in Nevada. He arrived to conduct a “CIA security inspection”, which he was allowed to do, and even called CIA headquarters in Washington from the base commander’s own office telephone.
David did not explain how “Old Woody” was allowed onto the base without legitimate identification.
One particular con-artist noted in the paper reminded me of my own interactions with one Gordon Novel, and the commonalities were shocking. David described the con artist as follows:
“As late as 1963, however, he was still trying with some success to interest leading American industries in technical data from anti-Communist researchers behind the Iron Curtain. Having abandoned the atomic cannon he offered the government, he was tempting industry with everything from synthetic fibers to jet engine designs, high temperature ceramics, and flexible concrete.”
I actually had to double check, just to be sure this little excerpt wasn’t about Gordon Novel – but in fact it couldn’t have been, because the timing wasn’t quite right.
We’ll cover more about screwball Gordon Novel’s similar antics in a future post.
Apparently, the bulk of “cranks and screwballs” contact the agency through correspondence like email. In the first eight months of 1964, the CIA had received at least a whopping 1,143 letters “identified as from cranks”.
I can’t even imagine how many the agency must receive today.
Some examples of those 1965 letters included a woman who believed she was Catherine III the Empress of Russians. Another woman wrote to the CIA director that a grey cloud blocked her from seeing his psyche, but “after taking Alka Seltzer and sodium bicarbonate I can sing Hokus Pokus you’re in focus.”
That’s one interesting psychic approach that I’ve never heard about before…
If you think the CIA doesn’t take these “cranks” seriously, consider that David also explained the CIA maintains a “watch list” of any person or organization that has ever tried to contact its officials. As of 1965, that list amounted to about four thousand individuals.
Every suspected crank contact is checked against this list. The signatures include ‘The Green Russian’ in Charlotte, N.C., and ‘Your Aunt Minnie’ in San Francisco. Nearly all crank letters are domestic, but alongside addresses in Pewee Valley, KY and Big Bear City, CA are foreign listings from Quito to Warsaw and from Edinburgh to Australia.
It would appear that if anyone wanted to take a snapshot of the current state of mental health in the country today, one need only check the incoming correspondence of the CIA.