The current incarnation of America’s Central Intelligence Agency was established in 1947. The CIA is a foreign intelligence agency authorized to undertake covert operations in order to protect American interests. Of course, the matter of whether a particular operation protects American interests is subjective. Whether or not the operations on the list below are justified or unjustified is a matter of personal opinion. All of them are weird.
10. Project 1794
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans believe the government knows more about extraterrestrial life than American civilians do. If the CIA’s interests are any indication, those Americans may not be wrong. In 2012, the CIA declassified information about Project 1794.
Project 1794 was a 1956 collaboration between American and Canadian intelligence agencies. Both agencies contracted Canadian John Frost to develop a disc shaped, super-sonic aircraft that could intercept Soviet missiles. In other words, a flying saucer. The project was eventually abandoned, but the declassified documents will doubtlessly inspire any UFO enthusiasts.
9. Operation CHAOS
Whistleblower Edward Snowden is one of the few former intelligence community officers who has become a household name. In 2013, Snowden released classified documents to media outlets that he considered trustworthy. The documents revealed that the National Security Agency surveils American citizens. Snowden currently resides in Russia in order to avoid facing a charge of theft of government property and charges under the United States’ 1917 Espionage Act.
Regardless of how one feels about Snowden’s actions or the information he revealed, it’s worth noting that domestic spying isn’t uncharacteristic for the CIA. Both Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation CHAOS, a domestic surveillance program intended to determine whether or not foreign agents were recruiting Americans to protest the Vietnam War. (No evidence suggests the protests were organized by a foreign government.) Information uncovered in Operation CHAOS was, at best, of minor importance. A file on the small publishing company Grove Press, Inc. reveals one author published by the press was an agent for the Soviet Union. However, the same file reveals that the CIA kept track of unfavorable film reviews of a Swedish film with explicit sex scenes, solely because the film happened to be financed by Grove Press, Inc. Despite the dearth of information it unearthed, the operation remained in effect until 1974.
8. Enhanced Interrogation Techniques
Enhanced interrogation techniques were widely discussed in the media when they were used on Al-Qaeda operatives after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Enhanced interrogation techniques reportedly included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, physical degradation, and physical and sexual threats. Whether or not these tactics are ethical and justified is a matter of personal opinion. The reason enhanced interrogation techniques appear on this list is because, in the Senate’s 2012 investigation of their use, even the legislative body noted the defense for the program provided by James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two psychologists hired by the CIA, was unusual.
The psychologists claimed the techniques used were not intended to inflict pain or suffering, and thus didn’t meet the criteria for torture under the U.S. legal code. Mitchell told the American media outlet Vice News that the “point of the bad cop is to get the bad guy to talk to the good cop.” In other words, the objective of these techniques was to make the detainees submissive to their interrogators, and thus more likely to provide valuable information. No one was charged as a result of the Senate investigation. Gina Haspel, who supervised these interrogations, was sworn in as the CIA Director in 2018.
7. Operation Paperclip
The CIA assisted Jewish intellectuals who feared for their safety escape the Nazi regime during World War II. Perhaps the most notable evacuees were scientists Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. While they were U.S. residents, Einstein and Oppenheimer respectively developed the theory of relativity and headed the Manhattan Project.
The U.S. government considered all gifted scientists to be valuable assets in its geopolitical, sociopolitical, and sociocultural Cold War against the communist Soviet Union, not just the Jewish ones seeking to escape Germany. President Harry Truman forbade the Office of Strategic Service, which was later renamed the CIA, to evacuate any known Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Declassified documents reveal the organization defied Truman’s order, eliding or falsifying facts on the records of scientists who could have been justifiably charged with war crimes.
6. Project Azorian
During the Cold War, the CIA valued any opportunity to gain intelligence about the Soviet Union. In 1968, K-129, a Soviet submarine carrying three ballistic missiles, wrecked 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii. The CIA, which had been tracking the submarine, recognized an opportunity to gain valuable information about the Soviet Union’s defense strategy. The organization started building its own submarine, one with a mechanical claw that would pull the Soviet submarine more than three miles up to the surface.
Project Azorian took six years, but it was never completed. The CIA ship only successfully pulled up one section of the Soviet submarine before thieves broke into the building company the CIA had contracted, stole the plans for the secret project, and released those plans to the American media.
5. Project ARTICHOKE
In Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate, an American soldier is exposed to Soviet propaganda while he is under hypnosis. Then he is trained to assassinate American officials while he is hypnotized. If that plot sounds strange, consider that the CIA attempted to make it true to life in 1951. In the optimal deployment of Project ARTICHOKE, a foreign operative who had ceased to cooperate with the CIA would be contacted and asked to attend an in person meeting with a CIA agent in a social setting.
The foreign operative would be hypnotized by the CIA agent during that meeting when the agent slipped a drug into his or her drink. The body and mind of the foreign operative would be entirely controlled by the U.S. government. Project ARTICHOKE was abandoned because the scenario required that the foreign operative be susceptible without knowing a hypnotization was taking place. The CIA was only permitted to contact the foreign operative in social settings, which limited opportunities for communication. Most importantly, hypnosis had not been proven to have the effect of making the subject susceptible to mind control techniques. In the end, Project ARTICHOKE paved the way for a more infamous, and arguably more nefarious project we’ve covered before: MKUltra.
4. Infiltrating The Media
As we have detailed in our previous list about bizarre CIA programs, Operation Mockingbird was allegedly an operation wherein the CIA promoted news stories unfavorably representing communist countries or domestic sociocultural and sociopolitical protests. Starting in the latter half of the 20th century, the CIA has allegedly subtly altered its relationships with news agencies. Some reporters claim the CIA has sent them abroad, asking them to cover international events in ways that are sympathetic to the American intelligence agency.
In his 1977 article for Rolling Stone, Carl Bernstein — the Washington Post reporter who is best known for being one half of the investigative reporting duo that uncovered the Watergate scandal — claimed (citing his sources) that the CIA has partnered with at least 25 news organizations.
3. The Phoenix Program
During the Vietnam War, a hot war with the communist North Vietnamese that the U.S. entered as part of its Cold War with the Soviet Union, the CIA sought to give American soldiers who weren’t used to the NorthVietnamese soldiers’ guerrilla warfare a military advantage. The Phoenix Project was a CIA operation wherein the organization attempted to capture, torture, and kill the most valuable Viet Cong, such as military personnel.
The Phoenix Program didn’t help the U.S. win the Vietnam War. However, the CIA was very successful at achieving its objective. According to the CIA approximately 15,438 Vietnamese citizens were killed. 38 innocent citizens were targeted for every correctly identified member of the Viet Cong.
2. CIA Pornography
Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president after the country declared its independence from Holland, had allies with communist sympathies. He also had a fondness for seducing beautiful women. Concerned about the former, the CIA attempted to oust Sukarno from power by exploiting the latter. The CIA produced a pornographic propaganda film wherein an actor wearing a Sukarno mask is seduced by a Soviet Union spy.
The video was produced, but it was never released. Originally, the CIA had believed the Soviet spy’s seduction of the president would emasculate Sukarno in front of his supporters. The video wasn’t released because the narrative the CIA intended to create didn’t take Indonesian cultural values into account. In 1950s Indonesia, a woman would never be perceived as mastering a powerful man.
1. The Bin Laden Vaccination Drive
In 2011, the U.S. military successfully assassinated Osama bin Laden, the Saudi mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The assassination was possible because the CIA staked out bin Laden’s location. In order to confirm their intelligence, undercover CIA agents recruited Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi to organize a false vaccination drive. The operation was a ruse to allow agents to collect blood and DNA samples from any children in the compound the CIA was monitoring. Any samples gathered from the vaccine drive could be compared to the CIA’s DNA sample from bin Laden’s deceased sister. Any children who shared the genetic material in that sample might be bin Laden’s children.
If his children were present in the compound, bin Laden likely would be as well. In order to add legitimacy to the vaccination drive, Afridi didn’t go to bin Laden’s compound first. He started in a more socially disadvantaged area, Nawa Sher — an area where he never finished delivering his promised rounds of vaccinations. Once it became aware of his actions, the Pakistani intelligence agency arrested Afridi, claiming he was, “working for a foreign spy service[.]” And, well… they weren’t wrong, were they?