In January 2017 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released 13 million pages of hitherto-inaccessible documents on the internet. Although most of the 800,000 declassified files had technically been available previously, it was only then that the agency put the whole lot online. Before, curious parties had to visit the National Archives in Maryland, where the files were only accessible on four computers. But now you can search for documents about flying saucers, magicians and cats trained as spies to your heart’s content. So, with that in mind, here are the strangest secrets ever revealed in declassified CIA documents.
40. Operation Gladio
Operation Gladio was formulated during the Cold War when the communist world squared off against the U.S. and her allies in NATO. Those latter nations created a network of secret armies in Western Europe which would fight back in the event of a Soviet invasion. And it wasn’t until the 1990s that the wider world learned about these plans.
39. Nuclear bombs lost in Greenland
Losing one hydrogen bomb would be careless, but losing four? That’s downright outrageous. Unfortunately, that’s just what happened in 1968 when a U.S. Air Force B52 bomber crashed not far from Thule Air Base in Greenland. Three of the bombs were later recovered, but a BBC report from 2008 questioned whether the fourth was ever located.
38. The mysterious men
This story is perhaps one of the weirdest, and it relates to a document declassified by the CIA in 2009. A glance at it shows nothing more than two black-and-white images. Each portrays the outline of an unidentifiable shadowy man. One of the men is numbered 1569 – the other 1572. The question is, why were these two entirely anonymous images kept secret? Indeed, it’s anyone’s guess.
37. Oleg Penkovsky
Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky was a Red Army soldier who fought against the Nazis in World War II. In 1949 he joined the Soviet intelligence service – the GRU – and rose to the rank of colonel. But he became increasingly disillusioned by the communist regime and in 1961 offered to pass secrets to the U.K. and U.S. But the GRU unmasked him and he was executed two years later. Furthermore, various CIA papers about the episode were only released in 1992.
36. Project Grudge
During the late 1940s the U.S. experienced an astonishing number of UFO sightings. The CIA was keen to damp down what it saw as unwarranted public anxiety about these supposedly alien spacecraft. And that was the impetus for the 1949 launch of the strangely named Project Grudge – a publicity campaign designed to counter some of the more lurid UFO media reports of the day. However, it was soon abandoned on the grounds that its very existence tended to confirm the public’s suspicion that there must be some truth in the UFO scare.
35. The Manhattan Project
This was the highly secret U.S. project to build the world’s first nuclear weapon. For obvious reasons, it was absolutely crucial that the authorities should keep this operation under wraps after it was initiated in 1939. The United States succeeded in keeping its nuclear secrets from its WWII enemies, but it was a different story with its ally of the time: the Soviet Union. Communist spies comprehensively infiltrated the nuclear project, and the extent of this was only revealed in 1995.
34. Mapimi Silent Zone
It was in 1970 when the U.S. Air Force launched a test missile – an ATHENA V-123-D – from Utah’s Green River base. The rocket was meant to land at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, but something went wrong. Instead, it crashed into a section of the Durango Desert called the Mapimi Silent Zone. This was some 200 miles inside Mexico, so the event was embarrassing to say the least; especially since the missile had a dangerous radioactive isotope called cobalt 57 aboard. Meanwhile, documents about the incident were only released in 2013.
33. Iran Flight 655
In this notorious 1988 incident, the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes shot down the passenger jet Iran Air Flight 655 – killing all 290 passengers and crew. Apparently, the ship had mistaken the aircraft for a hostile fighter plane. The U.S. paid out $68 million in compensation, though a confidential internal report absolved Vincennes’s crew of blame. But the secret report was later declassified, and some reporters highlighted inconsistencies in the evidence that it revealed.
32. Operation Crossroads
It was already no secret that the U.S. military had conducted nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. But documents declassified 70 years later revealed previously unknown details about Operation Crossroads. In particular, information about the residents of Bikini Atoll who were forced to leave was revealed for the first time. Also unveiled were the concerns of some scientists about carrying out these nuclear detonations at all.
31. Operation Tacana
America was prepared to use a variety of tactics to keep their communist adversaries guessing during the height of the Cold War. But one secret weapon was truly extraordinary: pigeons. Yes, with Operation Tacana, U.S. spooks actually planned to use pigeons to spy on the Soviets, according to documents declassified in 2019. The spies would attach cameras to the birds and smuggle them into Moscow. Sadly, the declassified papers didn’t reveal if the CIA ever carried out the pigeon mission.
30. The CIA joke book
During the 1980s the CIA decided to compile a list of jokes which Soviet citizens were telling against their own regime. Sadly, the quality of the gags – declassified in 2013 – left something to be desired. One read, “A man goes into a shop and asks, ‘You don’t have any meat?’ ‘No,’ replies the sales lady, ‘We don’t have any fish. It’s the store across the street that doesn’t have any meat.’” Perhaps it would have been better if the jokes had remained secret.
29. Slaves or humans?
This truly bizarre document from 1974 was released by the CIA 29 years later. The anonymous paper was presented to the National Caucus of Labor Committees and entitled Are you a self-conscious human being or a programmed slave? In an extraordinary outpouring of paranoia, it claimed that the CIA had plans to brainwash the American citizenry. It would turn them into “zombie-like slaves.” What the intelligence service made of this frothing denunciation is not recorded, but operatives obviously felt it was worth preserving in the secret files.
28. Project Devil Eyes
Bizarrely, the CIA hatched an outlandish plan to make Al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden even more frightening than he already was. The agency commissioned Donald Levine – the man who’d designed the G.I. Joe doll – to create a Bin Laden action figure. When the model’s face was exposed to heat, it would transform into a frightening devil. This, it was hoped, would lessen support for the terrorist leader. Prototypes were apparently manufactured, but the scary doll was never deployed.
27. The parapsychology arms race
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans competed to have the most advanced technology and weaponry. But there was also a race to have the most advanced parapsychology techniques. Yes, they really took this seriously. One CIA report from 1975 which was partly declassified 26 years later details concerns in the 1960s that the Soviets were pulling ahead of the Americans in esoteric arts such as “electrostatics of telekinesis” – whatever that might be.
26. Blue movies
One of the more salacious CIA operations in the 1950s was to fake up a compromising film featuring the leader of Indonesia. Apparently, some in the CIA thought that President Sukarno wasn’t pro-American enough. So, they made a lewd film called Happy Days using a look-alike actor. The idea was that this would destabilize Sukarno’s government. In fact, a coup orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence toppled Sukarno in 1967 without resorting to the blue movie.
25. Disgruntled agent
Among the 12 million pages of files released by the CIA in 2017 is a startling story of an agent who couldn’t stomach the practices of his employers. The individual – whose name was withheld – sent an email to his bosses in the early 2000s. In part, the message reads, “This morning I informed the front office of CTC that I will no longer be associated in any way with the interrogation program due to serious reservation[s] I have about the current state of affairs.” Indeed, we can speculate that CIA interrogation techniques were not to his taste.
24. Aliens and a president’s assassination
Americans got one of their most traumatic national shocks of the 20th century when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in 1963. Conspiracy theories about the shooting in Dallas soon proliferated after his death. The CIA released a letter in 2011 which had been sent to the agency seven years prior by a suspicious citizen. It was a freedom of information request asking for “information or records on extra-terrestrial alien involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” The CIA’s response, meanwhile, is unknown.
23. Flying saucers over the Congo
Reports and papers concerning UFOs are common enough in the CIA archives. But this one from 1952 about a sighting in what was then the Belgian Congo stands out. Witnesses reported seeing “two fiery discs” over uranium mines in the Elisabethville district. A commander called Pierre then apparently took off in a fighter plane and chased the discs. He even went to the trouble of producing a detailed drawing of the UFO, which is reproduced in the CIA report.
22. The missing Coke bottles
Obviously, CIA agents were dealing with serious matters – sometimes life-and-death situations – on a regular basis. But there was also time to confront minor gripes within the service. And one such affair was that of the missing Coca-Cola bottles. Some unruly officers had not been returning their empty soda bottles to the vending machine. Deputy assistant director for personnel George F. Meloon issued a memo in 1954 imploring agents to return them. If they failed to do so, they faced a “discontinuance of this service.” Incredibly, this sensitive document remained classified until 2002.
21. Psychic probe of Jupiter
The CIA released a 1973 report grandly titled An experimental psychic probe of the planet Jupiter 35 years later. Two self-professed psychics – Ingo Swann and Harold Sherman – had used their paranormal powers to probe the planet. And they reported their findings in great detail – all 13 pages of it. What the CIA made of this remains a mystery, but the report made it into the secret archive.
20. Uri Geller
Uri Geller – a man who is arguably the world’s top spoon bender – might be a mere entertainer in the eyes of many. But the CIA took him much more seriously, according to the files. Indeed, in 1973 scientists at the Stanford Research Institute in California spent eight days testing his psychic capabilities. Geller told The Telegraph in 2017, “I did many things for the CIA… I was asked to stop the heart of a pig.” Let’s hope that was the worst thing they asked him to do.
19. The Stargate Project
But the CIA’s investigation into Geller’s powers was just one facet of a wider operation looking at all types of psychic and supernatural phenomena. In fact, the CIA also ran a series of investigations into parapsychology for 17 years from 1978. It was given the name “Stargate Project” in 1991 and had 22 personnel at the height of its operations. As well as spoon bending, the operation considered such subjects as tarot cards and the possibility of walking through walls. The 2009 movie The Men Who Stare at Goats is, in fact, based on the work of Stargate.
18. Flying Saucers
The 1950s was arguably the golden age of flying saucers, and we now know that the CIA spent time and money looking into the phenomenon. Indeed, the above diagram of a flying saucer – from an official 1952 CIA document – was apparently “based on reports by pilots who pursued the disks.” What’s more, the file goes on to say that, “The launching occurs at a sharp angle in the manner of a discus throw; the revolutions per minute of the rim probably amount to 22,000.” But the report also admits that the diagram is “purely conjecture.”
17. Looking for aliens
As the files show, CIA agents continued to investigate reports of UFOs – especially in the 1950s. Sadly for alien enthusiasts, however, a report by the CIA-led Robertson Panel in 1953 decided that most claims of UFO sightings ended up being wrongly identified everyday objects. What’s more, it asserted that further investigations into unexplained reports would likely arrive at the same conclusion.
16. Invisible ink
A key weapon in the spy’s arsenal is secret writing – using invisible ink that can later be made to appear by the intended recipient of the message. Consequently, the CIA had various formulae for invisible ink. One recently revealed recipe used nitrate of soda and starch, which was written onto starched shirts or handkerchiefs and subsequently ironed out. The secret message could then later be revealed by treating it with something called “iodite of potassium.”
15. Barbara Walters and Fidel Castro
The CIA is famous for its many attempts to do away with the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, which included the use of everything from exploding cigars to booby trapped seashells. However, they were also interested in any scraps of information they could get about the man – from whatever source possible. And when journalist Barbara Walters interviewed Castro in 1977, the CIA zoomed in on one particular question from her. She asked, “Do you have proof of the last CIA attack against you, the last plan, to perhaps assassinate you?”
In a CIA report from 1980 entitled Remote perturbation techniques, the intelligence agency actually considered the possibilities of “telekinesis, psychokinesis, teleportation, etc.” During the course of the tests, agents experimented by seeing if a random number generating computer could be psychically “perturbed.” Apparently, the results were inconclusive, but the report did contend, “It is to the advantage of the army to assess the validity of the [remote perturbation] claims.”
13. Magician from Tbilisi
Another bizarre instance of the CIA’s investigation into the supernatural comes from a declassified document from 1969, which was published under the splendid title, “‘Magician’ walks into the laboratory.” The author of the nine-page report was a construction engineer called A. Rafailyan from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi – which was at that time in the Soviet Union. In it, the man talks of “a certain A. Krivoroltov who somehow is successfully healing patients by the ‘laying on of hands.’” What the CIA made of this strange file, however, we can only imagine.
12. The Berlin Tunnel
Thanks to the developments of January 2017, you can now find out about everything – or, at least, everything the CIA wants you to know – about the Berlin Tunnel Operation. Construction began in 1954 and it lead from the American sector of Berlin to the Soviet one. At that time, Berlin was still a divided city, and the tunnel was actually used to tap into Soviet and East German phone lines. But the communists uncovered the passageway after less than a year of American and British intelligence operations in the tunnel.
Amazingly, seven of the CIA’s declassified documents deal with poltergeists. These are troublesome household spirits whose name derives from the German word for “noisy ghosts.” And one report in particular deals with a French family who had been plagued by a poltergeist that moved beds around and unlocked doors. However, further study of these weird happenings was curtailed when the long-suffering family decided to move to Guadeloupe to escape the pesky ghost.
10. Project Iceworm
Project Iceworm was an ambitious – though some might say, madcap – plan to construct a secret missile base beneath the ice layer that covers most of Greenland. And the nuclear weapons inside would be aimed at the Soviet Union. So, an underground base called Camp Century was built in 1960 to test the feasibility of the idea. But this was abandoned six years later when the shifting ice made the operation totally impracticable. Greenland was part of Denmark at the time, though the Iceworm plans were sneakily concealed from the Danish government.
9. Acoustic Kitty
Everyone knows the saying that likens a difficult or impossible task to “trying to herd cats.” However, that didn’t deter the CIA; in 1967 agents apparently attempted to train domestic cats as spies. Electronic listening devices were to be hidden on cats, which would then be infiltrated into the Kremlin and other important Soviet strongholds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the project failed – but not before $20 million had been blown, according to one former agent.
8. Bombing the moon
This bizarre 1959 plan was actually spearheaded by the U.S. Airforce, and it envisaged setting off a nuclear weapon on the surface of the moon. One of the scientists involved in the scheme – Leonard Reiffel – told The New York Times in 2010 that the project’s “foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.”
7. Borrowing the Lunik
In the early 1960s the Soviets decided to send one of their successful Lunik satellites on an international tour. This was, essentially, to show that they were winning the space race. However, the CIA dearly wanted a closer look at the craft. And so, they actually managed to steal, dismantle and photograph the Lunik before returning it. It is also thought that the Soviets were blissfully unaware of what had happened right under their noses.
6. Doctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak’s classic 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago was banned in the Soviet Union as its portrayal of the 1917 Russian Revolution was regarded as subversive. But in collaboration with Dutch security services, the CIA actually managed to get 1,000 copies of the work into the Soviet Union. This was, presumably, in the belief that the books would help to hasten the end of communist rule.
5. Operation Paperclip
During the tail-end of World War II, Londoners could certainly attest to the effectiveness of the Nazi’s V2 rockets which wrought havoc on the city in 1944. Though the Americans had also noticed that the Germans appeared to have the best brains when it came to missile technology. Consequently, Operation Paperclip saw the best of those scientists brought to the U.S. after the war. This was, in some cases, irrespective of their previous Nazi affiliations.
4. Operation Northwoods
Operation Northwoods was a plan formulated in 1962 by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and approved by Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer. The idea was for the CIA to carry out false-flag terrorist operations against U.S. military and civilian targets alike, which could then be blamed on Castro’s Cuba. This, consequently, would give a pretext to declare war on the country. Thankfully, President Kennedy rejected this harebrained and ghastly plan.
3. Project 1794
It seems that the U.S. Air Force just couldn’t get enough of flying saucers back in the day. So much so, in fact, it actually planned to build one in the 1950s. Engineers were asked to design a saucer-shaped craft that could fly at an altitude of 100,000 feet and attain a velocity of four times the speed of sound. Sadly for sci-fi fans everywhere, Project 1794 was cancelled in 1961 because the craft would have been terminally unstable in flight.
2. Operation Washtub
The top-secret Operation Washtub involved the training of special agents in Alaska, who were to collect intelligence on the Soviets should they invade. As a result, 89 agents were trained in the area at the beginning of the 1950s. But as we now know, the Soviets didn’t quite get round to invading Alaska, so the agents never got to use their espionage skills.
The CIA’s MK-ULTRA program was a series of experiments focused on mind control. CIA boss Richard Helms had much of the project documentation destroyed in 1973, but some information has leaked out or been declassified. Twenty years prior, a U.S. Army scientist called Dr. Frank Olson had been dosed with LSD without him knowing. As a result, he jumped out of a Manhattan hotel window and died. Two movies – The Manchurian Candidate and The Men Who Stare at Goats – are said to have been based on what happened during MK-ULTRA’s operations.