– The dozens of U.S. diplomats taken hostage by revolutionary students who seized the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979 may have had some secret company during their 15-month captivity: U.S. intelligence agencies had a squad of military-trained psychics using extrasensory perception to watch them, according to declassified documents in a newly available CIA database.

In an operation code-named Grill Flame, half a dozen psychics in an old house in Fort Meade, Md., on more than 200 occasions tried to peer through the ether to see where the hostages were being held, how closely they were guarded and the state of their health.

Officially, the psychics worked for U.S. Army intelligence. But the documents make it clear their efforts were monitored, and supported, by a wide array of government intelligence agencies, as well as top Pentagon commanders.

They were even consulted before the super-secret U.S. raid that attempted to free the hostages in April 1980, which ended in disaster when a plane and a helicopter collided at a desert staging area.

In a memo on April 23, 1980, one day before the rescue mission, a chief of the psychic unit told a superior officer that a representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had contacted the unit and “requested we intensify our efforts and that we attempt to set up a situation wherein the possibilities for aborting the mission would be sharply reduced.”

Whether the psychics provided any useful intelligence was the subject of a debate among intelligence officials as heated as it was secret. After the hostages were released in January 1981 and extensively questioned, the Pentagon compared the information with 202 reports from the Grill Flame psychics. “Only seven reports” were proven correct, wrote an Air Force colonel on the staff of the Joint Chiefs.

More than half, he added, were “entirely incorrect.” And although 59 contained information that was partly or possibly right, the colonel noted that “these same reports often included erroneous data.”

Army officers supervising Grill Flame hotly contested the Air Force colonel’s evaluation, claiming 45 percent of the psychic reports contained some accurate information. They argued, “that was information that could not be obtained through normal intelligence collection channels. The degree of success appears to at least equal, if not surpass, other collection methods.”

Debate continues today

“The stuff that the CIA has declassified is garbage,” one Grill Flame psychic, Joseph McMoneagle, told the Miami Herald. “They haven’t declassified any of the stuff that worked.” Edwin May, a physicist who oversaw parapsychology research for government intelligence agencies for 20 years, agreed: “The psychics were able to tell, in some cases, where the hostages were moved to. They were able to see the degree of their health. If you can sit in Fort Meade and describe the health of hostages who are going to be released, so that the right doctors can be on hand, that’s very helpful.”

Others are more skeptical. “The intelligence agencies might as well get a crystal ball out and stare into space and hope they see something,” said James Randi, a former professional magician who turned his career into debunking psychics. “It’s a huge waste of time and money and it doesn’t help the hostages one bit.”

Randi’s skeptical perspective was shared by many inside the intelligence community. One hostage, William Daugherty, a CIA case officer, told the Herald he learned of the psychic probing after his release.

“It was at lunch, and they were laughing,” he said. “It was in the nature of, ‘Can you believe the crazy stuff we did?’ ”

Daugherty himself, while in captivity, had been wondering if the CIA might be monitoring the embassy with something else from its bag of odd tricks, the so-called ornithopter — a mechanical bird, wired with microphones to pick up nearby conversations as it perched on windowsills. The spymasters kept the ornithopter in its coop, but Daugherty was impressed with another CIA ploy he learned about.

“I guess, all these years later, they won’t shoot me for telling you this,” he said. “After we’d been captives for a while, one of the NFL teams began sending us videocassettes of football games, and we got to watch them on the embassy TVs. We had no idea that the CIA had put little tracking devices inside them. When they were played, the devices activated and they beamed a signal that could be picked up by a satellite beacon, which relayed word that at least one hostage was at such and such a location.”

Operation Grill Flame was just one part of a broader U.S. intelligence project involving psychics and ESP that continued for 20 years. It went through as many as 10 different code names as its management shifted from agency to agency and carried out 26,000 telepathic forays by 227 psychics before the government shut it down in 1995.

Scores of documents in the CIA database trace its history and its involvement in everything from searches for missing aircraft to tracking shipments of illegal drugs. Established in 1975 after a series of more fleeting encounters between the intelligence community and the parapsychological world, the program was originally more of a research project than a spy mission, one of the odder parts of the perpetual Cold War arms race. “Mostly at the beginning, we were doing foreign assessment — that is, what the other side was doing,” said May, who joined the program nearly at its inception. “We’d get a report that China or Russia was experimenting with psychics who claimed to be able to do this or that, and our job was to judge whether this was possibly true and if so, what threat was it to us.”

The program also began working directly with psychics. At first it sought out people who publicly claimed extrasensory powers, but then began searching within the ranks of military intelligence officers who shared personality qualities with what it called “established psychics,” especially those with a talent for “remote viewing” — the mental ability to see across vast distances and through walls.

“Successful remote viewers tend to be confident, outgoing, adventurous, broadly successful individuals with some artistic bent,” wrote an Army colonel who managed Grill Flame in a briefing on the program’s history that was widely delivered to top echelons of the Pentagon and civilian intelligence agencies in 1982 and 1983.

From hundreds of candidates, project managers selected six for psychic training. And in the fall of 1979, Grill Flame abruptly went from theory to practice when the six were put to work looking for a missing U.S. Navy plane.

On Sept. 4, 1979, the psychics were able to pinpoint the location of the missing plane to within 15 miles. Other details are blacked out in CIA documents, but Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time, may have been alluding to it in an interview he gave 12 years ago.

“We had a plane go down in the Central African Republic — a twin-engine plane, small plane. And we couldn’t find it,” even with satellite photography, Carter said. “So the director of the CIA came and told me that he had contacted a woman in California that claimed to have supernatural capabilities. And she went in a trance, and she wrote down latitudes and longitudes, and we sent our satellite over that latitude and longitude, and there was the plane.”

That seemed to validate the ESP approach to intelligence, at least to some officials, and the psychics were put to work at other tasks — though Grill Flame overseers fretted that if news leaked out that the American government was using psychic spies, the program would be buried in ­ridicule.

But fears were swept away when the students burst into the embassy in Tehran a week later and took more than 60 diplomats hostage. As U.S. intelligence hit a stone wall in its efforts to find out exactly what was happening inside the embassy — the hostages included all the CIA officers in Iran — the military turned in frustration to the psychics.