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Myths and Misinformation

William Newton Thetford and the Central Intelligence Agency


by William W. Whitson, Ph.D.



Published by the Foundation for Inner Peace
PO Box 598 Mill Valley, CA 94942-0598


Between October 1965, and May 1975, Doctors William Thetford and Helen Schucman, both psychologists, scribed A Course in Miracles, a self- study spiritual thought system that Thetford once summarized as a "Christian Vedanta." The Course consists of 1286 pages offering a Preface, Text, a Workbook, a Manual for Teachers, Clarification of Terms and Supplements.

In the 1990's, a malicious myth full of deliberate misinformation began to circulate that the CIA had promoted the Course as an experiment in behavior modification. Two fundamental questions thus challenged a few students of the Course. Before or after Doctors Thetford and Schucman began to scribe the Course in October 1965, did they work for the CIA? If so, did their work for CIA have any relationship to the Course? The purpose of this article is to explore those questions.

For those who prefer to skip or only scan the details, a review of documents and interviews with the scribes' colleagues provides clear answers.

From 1951 to 1954, including a brief assignment to the Mid-East for three months in 1953, Bill served as a Senior Psychologist at CIA in Washington, D.C. During that period and thereafter, Bill worked almost exclusively with John Gittinger, a CIA psychologist, to help refine the Personality Assessment System (PAS). The PAS was a test that sought to describe personality traits and predict behavior.

Between 1955 and 1958, Bill served as a research psychologist for the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. Organized by the Cornell Medical Center in New York City, the Human Ecology Fund employed Bill's sophistication with the PAS to direct a cross-cultural study of Chinese in New York City.

From 1958 to 1965, Bill was a Professor of Medical Psychology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He hired Helen Schucman to assist him and serve as the Senior Psychologist for the Neurological Institute at Columbia University. In addition to their heavy teaching load, Bill and Helen fulfilled Columbia University's contract with the Human Ecology Fund or Psychological Assessments Associates, to help John Gittinger improve the psychometric and intellectual rigor of the PAS.

The operative theme is "intellectual," not "behavior modification."

Indeed, John Gittinger testified in an interview with the author in 1997 that, in the CIA culture of stringent "need to know" and functional compartmentalization, neither Bill nor Helen was ever associated with CIA operations such as Project BLUEBIRD or MK-ULTRA. Instead, their aim was to help create perhaps the most sophisticated personality test in the world.

The final version of the PAS was completed before October 1965, when Bill and Helen started to work on A Course in Miracles. For the next decade, they feared that public knowledge of their work on the Course might imperil their professional academic standing. For that personal reason, they therefore considered their work on the Course even more confidential than the PAS. No one at CIA knew about or cared about the Course. In fact, in the late 1990's, when a friend described the broad principles of the Course to John Gittinger, he expressed surprise and said that, besides a few papers for the Human Ecology Fund, disbanded in 1964, and a final paper for Psychological Assessments Associates in 1968, he had wondered what Bill and Helen had been doing.

Those conclusions notwithstanding, it would be hard to appreciate their work with CIA without some understanding of the growing importance of personality assessment in the political, social and professional environment of intelligence between 1938 and 1962.

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