As far as government schemes come, the NSA's super-surveillance PRISM program sounds like something straight out of dystopian science fiction.
But conspiracy theorists would say that PRISM, which stands for "Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management," isn't that surprising. In fact, some of the projects and investigations that the U.S. government is rumored to be conducting make PRISM look pretty unremarkable.
Now that's not to say that even a fraction of what you'll hear from famous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones or conspiracy forum abovetopsecret.com is true. But most theories have a kernel of truth at their core. [Why the NSA's PRISM Program Shouldn't Surprise You]
For example, did you know that Area 51 is a real place? It's a high-security portion of Edwards Air Force Base, located near Groom Lake, Nev.
Now, there probably aren't actual extaterestrial remains or flying saucer artifacts at Area 51, but if evidence of alien life existed, that's a likely place you would find it.
Alien life aside, here are four other alleged government programs — some confirmed, some rumored and some just plain crazy.
PLOT: International surveillance system
LIKELIHOOD: A stretch
PRISM is child's play compared to ECHELON, an alleged worldwide network of radio satellites and intelligence-gathering equipment.
First, here's what we know for sure: In 1946, the United States and United Kingdom signed an agreement called the UKUSA Signals Intelligence Agreement to share covert intelligence gathered from radio surveillance. UKUSA (standing for United Kingdom United States Agreement, pronounced "eu-koo-sa") later expanded to include Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and is now sometimes called the "Five Eyes" agreement.
Rumors say that the countries accomplished the agreement's goals with a program called ECHELON, in which the nations spied on their own citizens and shared the information with each other. What ECHELON is, exactly, isn’t clear. However, there is some evidence that something called ECHELON does, in fact, exist.
The term ECHELON appears in several official and semi-official documents, including author and journalist James Bamford's books on the National Security Agency. A commission from the European Parliament in 2001 concluded that ECHELON does exist and that it has some kind of civilian surveillance capability.
There are plenty of theories that fill in the informational gaps. Some, for example, believe that UKUSA was actually an agreement wherein the United States and United Kingdom agreed to spy on each other's citizens for each other and share the information.
Others say that British Princess Diana was one of ECHELON's targets, and the program had gathered massive amounts of information on her at the time of her death. [See also: Future Metadata Will Reveal Even More About You]
Even if ECHELON exists, though, reports of its capabilities are most likely greatly exaggerated. It seems unlikely that this type of big-data collection and analysis was even possible a few decades ago.
PLOT: Weaponized weather control
LIKELIHOOD: Nearly impossible
HAARP, or the High-frequency Active Aurora Research Project, is definitely real — but probably not in the way that conspiracy theorists envision it.
According to the program's official site, the HAARP installation is a research station located in Alaska that investigates the "fundamental physical principles which govern the earth's ionosphere," an electrically charged layer about 200 miles high in the atmosphere.
The station houses a powerful radio transmitter called the Ionosphere Research Instrument. Comprised of a series of 180 antennae capable of blasting powerful and highly targeted radio waves, the device is "used to stimulate small, well-defined volumes of ionosphere" in order to study the layer's behavior.
Some people, however, believe that HAARP can control the weather and could even be used as a weapon.
According to some scientists, highly concentrated radio waves could push into the ionosphere, shifting its location with respect to Earth's surface. This might affect the air pressure and weather patterns beneath the layer, causing unstable weather patterns and powerful storms.
Conspiracy theorists therefore believe that the government could use HAARP to create highly targeted storms and other extreme weather systems. These theorists often blame HAARP and the handful of other ionosphere observation stations around the world when a natural disaster occurs.
PLOT: Slipping enemies LSD
LIKELIHOOD: It's real
From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, government researchers were getting high as a kite on LSD while investigating truth drugs, chemical persuasion and mind control.
In the MKUltra program, U.S. military researchers experimented with LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and other hallucinogenic drugs to facilitate interrogations. In some cases, the researchers themselves served as test subjects; there are reports of two researchers going into a closed room, taking LSD and observing the results.
In other cases, however, test subjects were unaware that they had been given LSD. Officials conducted these experiments to test the effects of unexpected hallucinations, but the results were, predictably, unpredictable.
Later, researchers expanded the study to see if LSD could be used in covert operations to sabotage or even influence enemy combatants or politicians. The CIA even considered slipping LSD to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, though apparently that never worked out.
In 1973, CIA director Richard Helms had all MKUltra files destroyed. A year later, The New York Times published an article on the program that prompted a congressional investigation. [See also: How Well Do You Know the CIA?]
PLOT: The gay bomb and other "incapacitation" of enemy troops
PROGRAM: The so-called "gay bomb" (no formal designation)
LIKELIHOOD: Real, but failed
In the 1990s, the United States was researching nonlethal chemical warfare. One of the possibilities the military looked into was dropping an aphrodisiac on enemy troops, which would cause "homosexual behavior."
Reports from the U.S. Air Force Wright Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, which were later obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, describe such a weapon as "distasteful but completely non-lethal."
Other non-lethal chemical possibilities included substances that would attract bees and wasps, make enemies' skin supersensitive to sunlight, or produce "severe and lasting halitosis" that would mark enemies even when they tried to blend in with a crowd.
The military eventually determined that none of these ideas were feasible. The so-called "gay bomb," for example, relies on the theory of human airborne pheromones, about which there are still only very incomplete and problematic studies.
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