Photograph by Nicolas Kazamia
It’s difficult to remember a time when the Reagan presidency’s connection to astrology was unknown. The secret was revealed in 1988, when the president’s former Chief of Staff Don Regan wrote his memoir For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington (their astrologer would later publish her own book, with chapters such as “How Merv Griffin Introduced Me to Nancy Reagan,” and “The ‘Teflon Presidency’ and the President’s Health and Safety.”)
Don Regan teased his bombshell in the book’s foreword. “Because actions that would otherwise bewilder the reader cannot be understood in its absence, I have revealed in this book what was probably the most closely guarded domestic secret of the Reagan White House.” He waited until the second paragraph of Chapter 1 to spill the beans:
“Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise.
Nancy Reagan seemed to have absolute faith in the clairvoyant powers of this woman, who had predicted that ‘something bad’ was going to happen to the President shortly before he was wounded in an assassination attempt in 1981. Before that, Mrs. Reagan had consulted a different astrologer, but now believed that this person had lost her powers. The First Lady referred to the woman in San Francisco as ‘My Friend.’
Although I never met this seer–Mrs. Reagan passed along her prognostications to me after conferring with her on the telephone–she had become such a factor in my work, and in the highest affairs of the nation, that at one point I kept a color-coded calendar on my desk (numerals highlighted in green ink for ‘good’ days, red for ‘bad’ days, yellow for ‘iffy’ days) as an aid to remembering when it was propitious to move the President of the United States from one place to another, or schedule him to speak in public, or commence negotiations with a foreign power.”
The first time he had a test scheduled he asked for advice from his KGB handlers, who wrote back, “Get a good night’s sleep, and rest, and go into the test rested and relaxed. Be nice to the polygraph examiner, develop a rapport, and be cooperative and try to maintain your calm.”
“Dear Mr. Aftergood,
Having had considerable experience with the polygraph (well beyond that which you referred to), I read your very sensible essay in Science with great interest. I offer you a few comments on the topic for whatever interest or use they may have.
Like most junk science that just won’t die (graphology, astrology and homeopathy come to mind), because of the usefulness or profit their practitioners enjoy, the polygraph stays with us.
Its most obvious use is as a coercive aid to interrogators, lying somewhere on the scale between the rubber truncheon and the diploma on the wall behind the interrogator’s desk. It depends upon the overall coerciveness of the setting — you’ll be fired, you won’t get the job, you’ll be prosecuted, you’ll go to prison — and the credulous fear the device inspires. This is why the Redmond report ventures into the simultaneously ludicrous and sinister reality that citizens’ belief in what is untrue must be fostered and strengthened. Rarely admitted, this proposition is of general application for our national security apparatus.
You didn’t mention one of the intriguing elements of the interrogations of Dr. Lee which is in fact quite common — the false representation to the subject of the polygraph results. Because interrogations are intended to coerce confessions of one sort or another, interrogators feel themselves entirely justified in using their coercive means as flexibly as possible to extract them. Consistency regarding the particular technique is not important; inducing anxiety and fear is the point.
Polygraphers are fond of the technique used by psychics called cold reading, as a slightly less dramatic practice than actually lying to the subject about the results. In this sort of cold reading, the interrogator will suggest to the subject that there may be a potential problem, an ambiguous result, to one of the questions and inquire whether the subject knows of anything that might help clear it up, etc, etc.
Your account of the Redmond report — I haven’t seen it — shows how another hoary slider is thrown past the public. The polygraph is asserted to have been a useful tool in counterintelligence investigations. This is a nice example of retreating into secret knowledge: we know it works, but it’s too secret to explain. To my own knowledge and experience over a thirty year career this statement is a false one. The use of the polygraph (which is inevitably to say, its misuse) has done little more than create confusion, ambiguity and mistakes. I’d love to lay out this case for you, but unfortunately I cannot — it’s a secret too…
…Deciding whether to trust or credit a person is always an uncertain task, and in a variety ofI’ve seen these bureaucratically-driven flights from accountability operating for years, much to the cost of our intelligence and counterintelligence effectiveness. The US is, so far as I know, the only nation which places such extensive reliance on the polygraph. (The FBI, to its credit in a self-serving sort of way, also rejects the routine use of the polygraph on its own people.) It has gotten us into a lot of trouble.
On the other hand, there have been episodes in which high-level pressures to use or acquire certain persons entirely override pious belief in the polygraph. One instance which made the press is that of the Iranian connection in the Iran-Contra affair.
I wish you well in this particularly important theater of the struggle against pseudoscience: the national security state has many unfair and cruel weapons in its arsenal, but that of junk science is one which can be fought and perhaps defeated by honest and forthright efforts like yours.
Aldrich H. Ames
P.O. Box 3000
White Deer, PA 17887
P.S. I should say that all my outgoing mail goes through the CIA — unlawfully — for review, censorship and whatever use it chooses to make of it.”
Letter to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, November 28, 2000.
The film adaptation of the book Fifty Shades of Grey recently made its cable debut in the UK. Yeah, I watched it. As befitting a story originally published on a Twilight fan-fiction site, the movie is set in Seattle, Washington, but the film was shot in Vancouver, British Columbia.*
A meticulously lit and art-directed film, the scene of the self-made-billionaire-and-sadist Christian Grey addressing his inamorata’s graduating class was obviously shot at a real university. A university which is– as the sign below the podium clearly states–located in Vancouver.
* Canadian cities have a proud tradition of standing in for American ones because production costs are so much cheaper. “You can wipe your arse on the dollar,” Keith Richards once replied to a hopeful Canadian journalist who’d asked if the Rolling Stones rehearsed their tours in Toronto because they loved the city so much.