As a staff officer in the US Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) in the 1980s, John Alexander was one of the most visible drivers of the US government’s interest in the paranormal. Whether it was arranging spoon-bending sessions for fellow officers, employing military psychics or looking into Out-Of-Body and Near-Death Experiences, Alexander was there. And, far from trying to cover up evidence for these phenomena, he was – and still is – an outspoken advocate for their scientific acceptance and their further study.
Born in New York in 1937, Alexander enlisted in the US Army at the age of 18 “to jump out of airplanes”. By the early 1960s, he had risen through the ranks, joined the officer corps, and seemed destined for an outstanding Army career. In 1967–69, he served in Thailand and Vietnam with the Army’s Special Forces (the “Green Berets”), including a year commanding a Special Forces camp at Ba Xoai on Vietnam’s border with Cambodia – roughly where the nightmarish “Do Long Bridge” in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was meant to be. Three weeks into Alexander’s command there, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Although the Ba Xoai camp, with 1,200 local troops, was one of the few in the Delta region that wasn’t overrun during Tet, Alexander remembers: “Those hills on the border were always contended. I can’t say we controlled them. We kind of shared them.”
In the years after Vietnam, as Alexander’s Army career progressed, he began to indulge a fascination with the paranormal that he says had begun in childhood. In the late 1970s, for example, he began work on a doctorate in “near-death studies”, and persuaded the celebrated psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross [FT194:20] to be his thesis adviser. A few years later, working at the Army’s Inspector General (IG) office at the Pentagon, he wrote an article on the possible military uses of the paranormal – “The New Mental Battlefield” – and submitted it to the respected journal Military Review. As it happened, the editor had had a Near-Death Experience (NDE) in battle, and was sympathetic enough to accept it for publication. Alexander’s attempt to expand the military’s consciousness soon brought him to the attention of senior Pentagon officials.
JIM SCHNABEL: How did you end up getting the job at INSCOM?
JOHN ALEXANDER: One day, I spoke at a big civilian conference in the Washington area on various psi phenomena. It turned out that a friend of the woman who had organised the conference was the wife of Richard Stillwell, a retired four-star general who was then an undersecretary of defence. She convinced her husband to talk to me, and soon I was called to have a meeting with him. It was a one-on-one meeting, a free ranging thing, and he asked me what sort of work I was doing and so on. Turned out he had plans for me, so I was taken out of IG and a short time later ended up at INSCOM under Major General Stubblebine.
JS: What was your job description at INSCOM?
JA: We created a position: Chief of Advanced Human Technology.
JS: I understand that, in addition to all the unusual things you did while at INSCOM, you looked in on a famous UFO incident – the Cash Landrum case [in which two people in a car in rural Texas received radiation-like injuries, said to have been caused by a diamond-shaped UFO].
JA: What happened with Cash Landrum is that the Air Force got sued. The witnesses said that they had seen helicopters with the UFO. But their description matched CH-47 helicopters, which are Army. So the case got thrown to the Army, and it ended up at the Army IG where I had worked. A lieutenant colonel at IG by the name of George Sarran got the case. Previously, I had worked with George on other, regular investigations. And he basically called and said, “Help! What is this?”
There were three of us that really got involved. A Navy captain, Paul Tyler, who was an MD, and a guy by the name of Richard Niemtzow, an Air Force MD.
And George just had us come in, look at the material and talk to the witnesses. He had done a really thorough job. But all we came up with was, WTF? We had no idea what this was. And what eventually happened was that the lawsuit was dismissed, because there didn’t appear to be a causal relationship between the US government and the incident. Which is probably true, though the case really was a major mystery.
JS: Do you think the US government now is covering up some essential truth about UFOs?
JA: Almost certainly not. It’s funny how people tend to think the US government is incompetent in all other areas, but is super-efficient and omniscient on the subject of UFOs.
JS: One of the less well-known phenomena you looked into, in those days, was the so-called Hutchison Effect [see FT92:25], in which a Canadian inventor, John Hutchison, claimed to be able to create some kind of previously undescribed force that could levitate objects, among other things.
JA: George Hathaway, a Canadian electrical engineer, came down to Washington with a friend of Hutchison’s named Alex Pezarro, and showed us an 8-millimetre film they had made of Hutchison’s phenomena. And on this tape there wasn’t just one thing going on that on its own might have been explained easily – there were a host of things going on. For instance, there was a rat-tail file, held between two wooden boards, that lit up like an incandescent light and actually burned, although according to Hathaway and Pezarro it didn’t burn the wooden boards. And they said that as soon as the power went off, the file was cold. There also were things that apparently levitated. There were pieces of case-hardened steel that went soft as lead at one end. And Hathaway and Pezarro said that they were witnesses to many events. We said, okay, can you replicate it?
And we paid them to work with Hutchison to do that, and at a certain point we sent a couple of guys up there from Los Alamos [National Laboratory] and some others from INSCOM. I arrived a day early, and they said, wow, we just had levitation, and we just turned the system off, haven’t touched a thing. So the idea was that the next day we’d turn it back on when the scientists came. Well, the scientists came and they turned it back on and absolutely nothing happened. Except that the power supply caught fire. They took a day to get a new one in, and turned it on and we watched – and again, nothing happened.
JS: You never knew what to make of it?
JA: I think events happened, but I can’t explain them. My key question to Hutchison was: “Are you part of the system?” Because I suspected that these were poltergeist-type phenomena.
One of the usual factors in poltergeist phenomena is emotionally disturbed people. And when I knew him, Hutchison was on methadone.
By the way, all this had started because he liked to sit in the dark and watch sparks. So he had set up Van de Graaf generators and Tesla coils and Jacob’s Ladders and stuff like that. He said that the effects he initially came up with were accidental.
And when I asked him whether he was part of the system, he said, “Yes.” So I really wondered if what we had was a guy doing poltergeist phenomena in a lab. At the time at INSCOM I already had been looking into psychokinesis.
JS: I remember that you helped organise some “PK parties” in the DC area, with Boeing engineer Jack Houck, who had popularised these events on the West Coast. Apparently some high-ranking government officials attended those PK parties in the early 1980s, including John McMahon from the CIA, who somehow bent a spoon.
JA: Yeah, John was at one party. And I didn’t know it, but as a result of his experience he went back and caused some things to happen [in favour of psi-related programmes] at the Agency, that I didn’t find out about for a decade.
There was also one early party, organised by Jack, in which a woman named Anne Gehman held a fork that bent over with no direct physical force. That happened right in front of Major General Stubblebine, and got our attention. That’s why we got more serious about PK.
JS: Did you ever get any good video evidence of cutlery-bending?
JA: Jack had made some videos of it. But the problem was that although the really dramatic events happened on occasion, you would never know when it was going to happen. So it became sort of anecdotal. Nonetheless, it happened with sufficient frequency for us to keep going forward.
JS: After you retired from the Army in 1988, you worked at Los Alamos for some years on non-lethal weapons, and later helped set up an organisation called NIDS (National Institute for Discovery Science). How did NIDS come about?
JA: One Sunday morning, when I was still living in New Mexico, out of the blue I got a call from [entrepreneur and philanthropist] Bob Bigelow, whom I’d only met briefly once before. He said, “I’ve heard of you, have you got any projects that might be of interest, that need funding?” Coincidentally, at that moment Hal Puthoff, Pharis Williams, and several other researchers were standing in my kitchen discussing how to get a project started.
Well, we talked. And initially Bob came down and looked at the Santa Fe Institute [an interdisciplinary research centre full of blue-chip scientists, with a focus on complexity/chaos theory]. At one point, he decided he wanted to buy it – just basically buy it. But he ended up not doing that, and NIDS came into existence instead. And its focus was on evidence for the survival of consciousness after death, and UFOs.
JS: NIDS is known for its purchase of a Utah ranch known as “Skinwalker Ranch”, so that it could research the apparent cattle mutilations and other strange events taking place there (see FT169:44–47). Did NIDS ever come up with anything there?
JA: On the ranch, stuff happened continuously. George Knapp and Colm Kelleher have done a whole book about it. But here’s one of the classic events that happened:
One day in May, I believe – calving season – the rancher went out and came across a mother with a newborn calf. So, as usual, he tagged the calf and weighed it. He drove across this open field for about 300 metres, found another mother with a newborn calf, tagged it, weighed it. Elapsed time 45 minutes. Then he came back across the field and found that the mother of the first calf was berserk. Her calf now was dead. Not only was it dead – it had been eviscerated; an ear had been sliced off; it was regular cattle mutilation, and there was about 20lb of stuff missing. And there was absolutely nothing on the ground.
We had our veterinarian fly in that day. One thing we did was to get a couple of gallons of blood from a slaughterhouse and pour it on the ground. Weeks later, you could look at the area and see that blood had been spilled there. But in the case of this eviscerated calf there was no sign of blood on the ground. Nor was there any blood in the calf.
That’s just one of the many events that happened. Can we explain them? No. But things would happen so that it would seem like the phenomenon was something conscious that was playing with us.
JS: Why was NIDS shut down?
JA: It wasn’t meant to last forever – in fact Bob tended to stick with projects like this for only a few years. NIDS lasted nine years. And of course Bigelow Aerospace came along [a company Bigelow recently founded to develop spaceflight-related technology].
JS: Do you agree with Jacques Vallée’s suggestion that some of these paranormal, folkloric phenomena are connected in some way?
JA: Yes, I think many of them are interrelated, and consciousness is the key component. But the investigations of these phenomena tend to stovepipe, so that we end up with narrowly defined categories such as “NDEs” and “poltergeists” and “PK” and “UFOs”.
Take NDEs. They were called Near-Death Experiences because typically the people who had these experiences had been close to death. But when I was the president of the International Association of Near-Death Studies, I used to answer the mail, and I would get letters from people, and some would describe actual NDEs, but others would write that they had experienced Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) and other NDE-type phenomena without being near death.
I also came to understand that for such people this was not necessarily a single event. Sometimes odd events continued. Some of them felt that they had become precognitive, some claimed to have experienced PK events. So “Near-Death Experience” began to seem like a misnomer. These phenomena generally seem more complex to me now than what I’d assumed initially.
JS: These days you seem to spend a lot of time writing about non-paranormal issues. You just did a monograph on modern irregular warfare in Africa, for example.
JA: There’s never been a time when I wasn’t also doing straight, non-paranormal things. Even when I was at NIDS, I was only half-time there, and was otherwise doing non-lethal weapons things, running conferences, consulting on international security and so on.
And I think that’s healthy. Because I watched a number of people walk off the cliff, so to speak. And those that did, and went crazy, are the ones who did not have a foot in “reality”. So I think it’s crucial to keep working on “mundane”, non-paranormal things. There’s the moth in the fire thing – you can get too close to the flame.
Having said that, in addition to lecturing these days on military and geo-strategic stuff, I am working on a book that has to do with the paranormal.
JS: What is the book about specifically?
JA: I’m not ready to reveal that yet. But soon.