Grill Flame: Iranian Hostage Crisis, 1980.

A recent CIA declassification drive of the CREST database sheds light on a peculiar intelligence programme called Grill Flame, ongoing at the time of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. By the summer of 1980, US-Iranian relations were tense: Iran was still finding its way through to the other side of a violent revolution; the US government had withdrawn formal foreign relations; dozens of US Embassy Staff spent over 200 days as hostages in Tehran; and on the 10 July, a participant in Grill Flame only referred to as "#8.5" sat in a room at an undisclosed location, conjuring images of one of the hostages solely with the power of their mind. The hostage crisis is but one tense episode in a history of diplomatic complications between the two nations, and which may yet be further complicated by the Trump administration's plans to scrap the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.

The origins of American political meddling in Iran goes back a further thirty years before the hostage crisis. The United States played their initial hand into the country after Mohammed Mossadegh rose to power as Prime Minister in 1951. An idealistic aristocrat with a profound belief in nationalism and democracy, Mossadegh quickly set about establishing sovereign control over Iran's oil resources, which until then had been under the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It was a lucrative monopoly which the British had enjoyed since 1901, and they weren't quite willing to give it up. Under pressure from Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, and with fears—somewhat unfounded, it must be said (Kinzer, 2006: 121)—that Mossadegh's leftist politics might facilitate the spread of communism in the region, the US State Department began to develop plans for a CIA-led overthrow of the Mossadegh government. They began to prepare the ground for a coup: they orchestrated propaganda campaigns in Iran and the US; paid thugs appearing to be under Mossadegh's command to publicly assault religious figures; and bribed politicians to raise a motion of no confidence in parliament. When this failed to sufficiently destabilise Mossadegh, it fell to the monarch, Mohammed Reza Shah, to enact a legal loophole that would undermine the Prime Minister's power. Again, this failed, and the Shah fled the country, fearing for his safety. Ultimately, the "success" of the coup came in 1953. It turned on cash bribes of important figures in the police and military who amplified unrest, stoking the violent riots in Tehran incited by CIA-bankrolled street gangs. Mossadegh was placed under house arrest, and the more "politically convenient" General Zahedi was installed as Prime Minister. The shah subsequently returned, ushering in an era of close formal ties with the United States. However, "a generation of Iranians grew up knowing that the CIA had installed the Shah" (Weiner 105)—an underlying threat that eventually came to surface 25 years later.

The political follies of the Shah in the subsequent decades were numerous. One example, explored in the BBC Storyville documentary Decadence and Downfall, was his exhorbitant celebration of the 2500th year of the Iranian "Peacock Throne"—a spectacular yet ultimately doomed gesture of opulence during a time when many Iranians were living in poverty and without basic services. The years that followed saw a decline in the Shah's power, ultimately ending in his defeat. The Shah fled the country for good in January 1979 as events in the Islamic Revolution gathered pace. Ayatollah Khomeini, a vital symbolic figure for the revolutionaries, returned from exile a few weeks later. It was in the midst of this political upheaval and violence that the US Embassy in Tehran was raided by a student group from a nearby university, who then proceeded to take 52 members of staff hostage in protest of American imperialism.

The documentary 444 Days—a reference to the duration of the hostage crisis—features interviews with students who describe the 1953 coup as a key motivating factor. The Shah had been admitted to America for cancer treatment: the fear in Iran was that this was a mere cover story to plan a new coup and reinstate US influence over the country. The documentary also points out that the Iranian caretaker government were keen to resolve the crisis diplomatically, although these efforts ultimately failed after its collapse in 1980. The result was a complex drama for the Carter administration that unfurled over a prolonged, tumultuous period that also saw the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan.

The document featured at the top of this article is a report on a so-called "Remote Viewing" session, as part of the CIA's Grill Flame programme, the subject of which was the Iranian Hostage Crisis. In essence, a "remote viewing" session involves a psychic individual tuning into another specified geographical location with the power of their mind alone, and subsequently produce drawings or a descriptive text about what they can "see". The practice is sometimes associated with the CIA's conspiracy-laden MKULTRA programme, which in popular journalism such as The Men Who Stare At Goats has been described as involving various esoteric para-psychological experiments. Despite its stranger-than-fiction methods, a recent declassification drive by the CIA provides further evidence that dozens (at least) of these "Secret/NOFORN" sessions were carried out in 1980 on the subject of the hostage crisis.

But what is the institutional context for this document? Was the Iranian Hostage Crisis just a happenstance focus of an ongoing intelligence programme, or were the CIA actively trying to "peer into" events in Tehran in the hope of gaining crucial intelligence? The second page of the document states:

"This report documents a remote viewing session conducted in compliance with a request from SOD, J3, OJCS, Pentagon, Washington, DC. The purpose of the session was to provide information relevant to the hostage situation in Iran."

The above quote suggests that the request came from Harold Brown, then Secretary of Defense (SOD). Specifically, the remote viewer was asked to find the whereabouts of the hostage John Graves, a man who was Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy. The document contains a transcript (pictured above, p3), labeled "SESSION CD-82", of the tape-recorded RV Session. A CIA operative titled "#14" introduces the session, indicating it occurred on the 10 July 1980, at 1400 hours. He pauses, then address the Remote Viewer codenamed "#8.5":

"All right, #8.5, the time is now 1400 hours. Your mission for today is to find John Graves. I want you to focus on John Graves. I want you to identify his location, any other hostages at this location, and describe physical security. I want you now to relax. Focus your attention on John Graves."

Elsewhere, the document states that it was conducted according to the GRILL FLAME Protocol, the standardised operating procedure for remote viewing. This manual presses the importance for the interviewer to adopt a relaxed but clear manner of speaking, expressed in the above extract. The Protocol manual states that the "interviewer" and the "remote viewer" should function as a team, with the interviewer providing "encouragement with words of reassurance that the task is in fact possible", and reassuring the viewer that "they have all the time in the world" (3).

Some of the responses from the remote viewer are peculiar in their specificity. A hand-marked section reads:

"It smells like August...smells like it's time to harvest grain. Don't see anyone else. Way in distance, I think I see a large body of water. It's kind of yellow haze at a distance. I either see a long wide pier that's leading out into the water, or it's a long, wide runway, disappearing into ground haze, I can't tell. Got a yellow haze."

The remote viewer continues to describe an image of Graves "playing with some kind of branch or a plant or a flower". When pressed to look for other hostages in the vision, the viewer states (circled in biro on transcript):

"[...] I'm in trouble. I can't even see the building. There's more than one fence."

According to the time codes in the left-hand margin of the transcript, the RV Session in its entirety took between 25-30 minutes. In TAB A of the document, there is an attached illustration of John Graves' location produced by the remote viewer:

The issue of how we categorise knowledge production into legitimate and illegitimate modes comes to the fore when confronted with a programme such as Grill Flame. Could it really be that the CIA, at the behest of the US Secretary of Defense, asked an individual to conjure an image, through thought alone, of one of the hostages? Who was this individual referred to as #8.5 and on what basis were they selected as a remote viewer? What viable intelligence was reasonably expected to be gained from this exercise?

The temptation is to dismiss Grill Flame outright as a fringe programme and a bizarre historical curiosity. But to suspend our disbelief for a moment, what might it indicate about the epistemic practices of the defence and intelligence agencies of Cold War America? Firstly, while Grill Flame is of course an extreme case, other technologies of speculation such as forecasting and simulation were widely used during the Cold War—and indeed examples can also be found throughout the history of armed conflict. In the 1950s, systems analysis at the RAND corporation was one such practice, and was applied to anything from simulating the consequences of hypothetical US military strategies, to designing new bombers for the Air Force (Hoag, 1956: 4-5). To conflate Grill Flame with the self-described rational analyses of RAND may seem to be over-stretching the point, however there was at times an extraordinary faith placed in the speculative knowledge that was gained through the reduction of complex real-world events or objects into numerical vectors and algorithms. The precise results of a given algorithm would not be known by the analyst in advance, but by designing and running a programme on a computer, the analyst could supposedly "predict" pretty much anything, from appropriate military strategy and the resultant balance of power in different regions, to logistical supply-chain management and aircraft design. In the case of systems analysis in wars such as that in Vietnam, however, the violent shortcomings of these technologies of speculation and their disconnections with the reality on the ground are abundantly clear.

A speech given in 1956 by a RAND employee named Malcolm Hoag makes a distinction between systems analysis and other speculative technologies of knowledge production:

"We contrast Systems Analysis with a manner of reaching decisions that is largely intuitive, perhaps unsystematic, and in which much of the implicit argument remains hidden in the mind of the decision-maker or his advisor." (5)

To take Grill Flame as it is presented in these documents, it would mean that the programme entirely relies on unaccountable intuition and subjectivity as a matter of cause—perhaps having more to do with the traditional "artfulness" rather than the "science" of war, as Hoag would have us believe. Speaking in technical terms, the mind of the remote viewer can be understood as a "black box" system where the input—the objective of the RV session—and the output—the intelligence gathered from the vision—are separated by a non-transparent process of pure thought that is abstracted from the interviewer. There is no technical algorithm open to analysis and peer-review here: there has to be some degree of blind faith put into the mind of the remote viewer. Does this black-boxing render it an illegitimate technology of knowledge production? Not necessarily. An insight into the "scientific logic" behind the practice of remote viewing, however, raises far more questions than it answers. A heavily annotated document titled Coordinate Remote Viewing: Theory and Dynamics, authored by "DM" and dated 14 July 1988, states:

The basic theory of how CRV [Coordinate Remote Viewing] works is very logical and is easily comprehended—even by a 'non-psychic'. While many theory questions remain unanswered, the fact is... 'the stuff works'." (2)

The document continues by providing an intensely pseudo-scientific summary of how "the stuff works", featuring a notional compartment of the unconscious referred to as "The Matrix", which produces "Thought Balls", which in turn produce associated patterns called "congnitrons" that ultimately assist the viewer in constructing their imagery of the target site. The text concludes that, "while analytical data may not be in abundance to support this theory, session reports and historical and experimental data exist to substantiate the fact that CRV is a reality" (6). It might seem odd then, considering the gravity of the hostage crisis, that the Secretary of Defense apparently placed his trust in intelligence gathered from the practice of remote viewing. While it is unclear if the intelligence gathered from this remote viewing session was "used" in any way, it is especially curious that it was even requested in the first place, and possibly from such a high level in the Carter Administration.

Perhaps the existence of the CIA's remote viewing programme can be explained as yet another obscure proxy war over technology, fought between the United States and the Soviet Union. The careful balance of power depended on the management of information: In some people's minds, the opponent gaining the upper hand—even in the esoteric field of para-psychology—could contribute to the loss of the war.

A footnote: Kobresia, a track on Biosphere's ambient record Substrata, features the voice of Russian psychic Karl Nikolaev. Reportedly sampled from a Russian radio station, Nikolaev's words suggest he is in a remote viewing experiment, attempting to describe an object in another room:

"This is either a metal or... If it is a metal, then it's painted... Cold surface... This is either a metal, painted, or could be a plastic... Colorful, there are... Bright... Seems like... Is this a toy? Probably. The surface is smooth, but... There are some bumps on it... Even the finger stucks in it... Probably it is... Some marks, or is this a letters?... Or just a bumps... Looks like a toy... Colorful metal, or a plastic... Painted metal... That's all... Stop."


Further context around CIA remote viewing experiments and comments on the CREST database at Muckrock.

  • Anon. (1980) Transcript Remote Viewing (RV) Session CD-82. CREST, STARGATE, ID: CIA-RDP96-00788R002100300001-6. [Web]
  • DM. (1988) Coordinate Remote Viewing: Theory and Dynamics. CREST, STARGATE, ID: CIA-RDP96-00789R001300010001-6. [Web]
  • Hoag, Malcolm W. (1956) An Introduction to Systems Analysis. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1956. [Web]
  • Kinzer, Stephen. (2006) Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. Times Books, New York. Print.
  • Kramar, John W. (1978) (S) Grill Flame Protocol (U) (S-ORCON) AMSAA Applied Remote Viewing Protocol (S-ORCON). CREST, STARGATE, ID: CIA-RDP96-00788R001700210083-1. [Web]
  • Weiner, Tim. "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA". London: Penguin, 2007. Print.