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On January 1st, former Senator Claiborne Pell passed away aged 90. Pell will probably be remembered most for the student grant program that bears his name, which changed the lives of many. But a number of obituaries also made note of his interest and support for parapsychology research. According to The Washington Times:

His interest in extrasensory perception was such that he had a Senate staffer assigned to the subject. During the 1990 campaign, the aide played speeches by Bush and other high officials on the topic of Iran backward. In doing so, Sen. Pell informed the secretary of defense, the word “Simone” had been discerned, and he described this as “a code word that would not be in the national interest to be known.”

“It sounds wacky but there may be some merit to it,” Sen. Pell commented. He told an interviewer later that the “Simone” issue “had not been helpful in the campaign.”

At the time of his retirement in 1995, Time magazine dubbed him “Senator Oddball,” rehashing a 1987 incident when, fearing an extrasensory perception gap with the Soviets, he invited carnival-level spoon bender Uri Geller to Washington to demonstrate his skills. Sen. Pell also attended a symposium on UFO abductions.

Wired Magazine’s ‘Danger Room’ noted the senator’s passing and psi interests in a short entry – which attracted the attention of skeptical supremo James Randi, and also Col. John Alexander, known for his research into ‘non-lethal’ weapons and also various facets of psi, both of whom posted comments beneath the story about Pell’s interest in the topic (prompting a follow-up story from Wired).

What the Wired folk seem to have missed is that another person of note made a critical comment below the story – Major Paul Smith, one of Project Stargate’s remote viewing team. Smith notes:

The story about “Simone” and the secretary of defense is, in fact, false. The aid was C.B. Scott Jones, and he himself has certified that there was no such conveying of the word “Simone” to the SecDef by Pell or anyone else. The truth is that reverse speech guru David John Oates made this claim to Jones, Jones mentioned it noncommittally to Pell, and Pell didn’t take it any further than that. The Geller story is also a fabrication. Geller testified before not about ESP but about the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union, and he was there on his own — Pell did not arrange Geller’s presence…

However, James Randi’s comment disagreed with Smith’s take on the Geller meeting, saying that “the Geller connection is quite true. I was there. And Pell’s preoccupation with silliness like Geller is an important part of the Pell story.” John Alexander then rebutted Randi in his comment:

James Randi was not present at the meeting in the U.S. Capitol Building. I was there and in uniform at the time. I know Randi and would have spotted him in a heartbeat. As a matter of fact, this meeting took place in a SCIF (classified facility). The topic, as reported by Smith, had nothing to do with psi or a pyschic gap (though a spoon was bent). Uri was concerned about the plight of Jews living in the Soviet Union. That was the topic. Both Time and the Washington Post’s shameful obituary got it wrong.

Randi has since posted some memories on his website, of a run-in he had with Claiborne Pell some years ago. Interestingly, he says quite plainly that “the one and only time that I met the Senator, he was certainly eccentric, but he was not laughing. He showed up backstage, uninvited, on an occasion when I was being given some award or other in Washington.” (my emphasis). Is Randi forgetting the meeting, or is he playing fairly loose with definitions in saying “I was there” (that is, he “was there” in the Washington D.C. area, or he “was there” during the debate over psi back in the 1980s)?

Just to muddy the waters some more, Uri Geller gives a different description of the meeting in D.C. to the accounts of Paul Smith and John Alexander, on his own website (and not written recently), which is closer to the Time description…although also slightly at odds, again:

…towards the end of my coast-to-coast tour I received yet another of those invitations of the kind you cannot refuse. This was to the meeting at the Capitol at which, as US News & World Report put it, I was asked to reveal to US government officials what I had ‘divined’ of Soviet strategic intentions.
I flew in from Minneapolis, and was met at the airport by Senator Pell’s aide, who drove me straight to the Capitol…

The meeting was not an unqualified success for me. The audience, according to Newsweek, consisted of ‘forty government officials, including Capitol Hill staffers and Pentagon and Defense Department aides, gathered in a high-security room to hear Geller hold forth on his abilities’. That was not quite correct – I did not hold forth on my abilities, but on my usual theme of world peace and the need to invest more in the development of mental abilities. I reminded the officials that I now knew what I was talking about from first-hand experience when I said that top Soviet officials were aware of the psychic dimension. I had only recently spent an evening with the Number Three man in the Soviet foreign affairs hierarchy, and I had, I thought, left him with something to think about.

So far, so good. Then, as Newsweek reported quite correctly, ‘the psychic tried guessing – unsuccessfully – the shapes that the assembled guests had drawn on bits of paper’. I just had a bad day as far as telepathy was concerned.

Indeed, lest anyone out there think that I’m trusting Smith and Alexander’s word, or Geller’s claims, over Randi’s, then I point you back to last year’s Daily Grail post “Down the Rabbit-Hole” (note that the C.B. Scott Jones mentioned in that article was Claiborne Pell’s aide in the late 1980s). Although we’ve almost ended up at the old “Trust No-one” conspiracy mantra by this stage. I’m not sure how a definitive history of these strange events will ever be written…

In any case, from all I’ve read of Pell and his support of parapsychology research, he seems to have been genuinely respected and admired by those involved with him. Add that to the many contributions he made during his public service, and he appeared to be one of the ‘good guys’. So I hope he’s now getting the inside word from a really trustworthy source on all the mysteries of life…

Update: James Randi has posted another comment at Wired, ‘clarifying’ whether he was present at the meeting:

Alexander, as usual, is misinformed. I was referring to one of the occasions when I was given an award by the International Platform Association in Washington, D.C., and Pell univited and very incensed – just walked in and confronted me, backstage. This did NOT take place at the Capitol building, nor did I say it did. Alexander might read a little more carefully before offering his objections.

One wonders why Randi doesn’t take the author of the article to task, seeing as they were the ones who (quite understandably) construed Randi’s comment as meaning he was actually there at the meeting in Washington, D.C. As I’ve said before, he’s quite adept at the verbal sleight-of-hand…