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5 Declassified CIA Programs

Vintage Area 51 Warning Sign Hanging On A Gate
Dean Clarke/Shutterstock

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is shrouded in mystery. Since the National Security Act of 1947 asserted that the director of the CIA must keep documents classified as they pertain to national security, the organization’s actions have been kept very hush-hush. Therefore, many projects only come to light years after they take place. Here are a few examples of declassified CIA programs (or projects the CIA was involved in) that have since been released to the public.

Area 51

The Nevada Test and Training Range, part of the Nellis Air Force Base northwest of Las Vegas, is one of the most popular sources for CIA declassified myths. Named 51 for the area of the Nevada map, the site was used to test the U-2 reconnaissance planes in 1955, but soon became inexplicably linked to extraterrestrial and alien life. One of the most frequently told myths is that in 1947, a flying saucer crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, and that the remains of the aliens were taken to Area 51 to be analyzed. Conspiracy theorists love to opine about how scientists study aliens and learn from their technology in the Nevada heat.

To this day the CIA insists that the base was only used for flight-training missions, but that doesn’t stop people from hounding the gates in their search for aliens. From Facebook events encouraging citizens to storm Area 51, to the Alienstock festival that was canceled in 2019 due to lack of infrastructure, Area 51 will always be filled with lore and wonder for people who are fascinated by extraterrestrial life.

Operation Northwoods

In 1988, The National Security Archive in conjunction with CNN reported on one of the most bizarre CIA initiatives created by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This unbelievable campaign was fueled by Cold War paranoia and took place in 1962. Unbelievably, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to have the CIA stage military terrorist acts on its own citizens and then blame the attacks on Cuba to have a reason to start a war with the new communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The terrorist attacks were to take place in Miami, other areas of Florida, and even Washington. The plans included staging hijackings, using creatively marked passenger aircraft and secretly dropping off the passengers, staging fires, blowing up ammunition, and even destroying U.S. military vessels. These would be part of the psychological operations that would garner U.S. support of military movements, as well as portray the Cuban government as dangerous and untrustworthy. This “false flag” operation never came to fruition, being shot down by John F. Kennedy before it could even begin. The Cold War continued and the Americans had a new enemy to fear: one much closer to home than Russia.

The Manhattan Project

First Atomic Explosion on July 16, 1945
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

No project has gotten the United States more involved with the arms race than the Manhattan Project. After getting the green light from Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942, scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico began trying to create nuclear bombs. Roosevelt’s support for a study on uranium had paved the way for this research several years prior.

But in the early 1940s, theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his nuclear fission studies opened the door for destruction on a new level. On July 16, 1945, the Trinity Test took place in a remote desert of New Mexico, where scientists detonated the first atomic bomb and shot a mushroom cloud 40,000 feet into the air. Later in 1945, the United States put the test bombs to work, detonating an atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the Japanese refused to surrender to end World War II. The bomb killed over 100,000 people. The agency had begun to spin the story of the making of the atomic bomb in 1944, and shortly after the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the story went public.

Project Azorian

Operation Northwoods was not the only Cold War-initiated operative that the CIA undertook. The fear and worry of the Cold War launched many CIA projects that have since been declassified. Could there have been a better Cold War coup than the CIA’s discovery of a Soviet submarine that had been lost 1500 miles northwest of Hawaii? The Soviet Golf class II submarine sank in 1968, and the subsequent, expensive Soviet search could not determine its whereabouts. Through meticulous searching, the CIA soon learned the whereabouts of the Soviet submarine lost at sea and began planning to resurrect it in order to garner Soviet secrets and artifacts. To that end, they built the Glomar Explorer, a 1750-ton, 132-foot longboat, supposedly created by billionaire Howard Hughes for mining purposes.

On July 4, 1974, the Glomar Explorer set off to recover the sunken submarine. Remarkably, Soviet ships were in the waters nearby but never noticed what was going on around them. During the early days of the procedure, everything seemed to be going according to plan. The claw apparatus attached carefully to the sunken submarine and started hauling it to the surface. The sailors and agents were devastated, however, when the submarine broke apart about one-third of the way up.

Remarkably, a random theft of papers tying the CIA to Howard Hughes leaked the story and made it impossible to try a second mission to raise the sub. Although technically considered a failure because the entire ship was not able to be recovered, Project Azorian taught the CIA deep-ocean mining techniques and also enhanced their use of claw technology for lifting.

Project Star Gate

What began in a Stanford Research Lab in California in the 1970s and continued in Maryland at an Army base, has to be one of the most bizarre projects the CIA has ever classified. During the Cold War, operatives recruited people claiming extra-sensory perception to read minds and unearth military secrets.

Psychic Uri Geller, well-known for his ability to bend cutlery, was the key to creating the program that helped the CIA bend people’s minds and learn their secret thoughts. At first glance, the project did seem to net some success. For instance, psychics supposedly aided agents in finding a shortwave radio in the pocket of a possible KGB agent who was apprehended in South Africa, as well as assisting the Army in finding hostages hidden in Iran.

But in 1995, the agency admitted to the study of psychic abilities and declared Star Gate a failure. Apparently, not all the American agencies learned the lesson because not long afterward in 2014, the Office of Naval Research embarked into a four-year, $3.85 million program to study clairvoyance or premonition, sometimes known as the “Spidey sense.”

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Listverse and Introvert, Dear, and she is currently working on her first novel. When she's not breaking down complex topics into readable material, she loves to stay on the lighter side and blog about Disney and Universal parks on Taylored Trips Blog. Read Full Bio »