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Every journalist has a hand-full of stories in limbo, written for publications that no longer exist. This one appeared in The Outline in 2017. We're dusting it off today because the latest episode of the Failed State Update podcast features an interview with a member of the Targeted Individual community who references this article.

It was mid-December, about a week before Christmas, in Phoenix. Phil Drummond (not his real name) was sitting in a grey Ford Focus, in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. The 23-year-old had a Geiger counter in his pocket, and he was on the phone with a 911 operator.

Operator: Where’s the emergency?

Phil: What’s going on right now is, there’s some issues in regards to a shooting right now. Someone’s happened to go ahead and utilize radiological weapons, and there’s a conspiracy of terrorism that’s occurring right now.

Operator: So, you’re seeing shots fired, is that what you’re saying?

Phil: No, I’m actually an expert in radiological weapons and psychotronic weapons, and I happen to have a device here that’s able to detect that type of weaponry being omitted, and right now this device is going ahead and detecting [these weapons].

Operator: Sir, we have a really poor connection. You need to speak a little slower and talk more directly into your phone.

Phil: Sure, right. There is a radiological weapon that is being fired in the form of radiation, which is a — with that being said, I’m unable to identify a suspect at the moment, but I wanted to give you guys a call to let you know that this type of stuff is occurring, and see if we can get an investigation going forward, or at least I can speak to an officer here.

Phil is a Targeted Individual. He claims that he is being tracked and tormented by a loose network of anonymous agents wielding exotic, top secret weaponry. I repeatedly asked him for some sort of evidence of his harassment, without any luck. Then, just before Christmas, Phil sent me the audio recording of his encounter with the Phoenix Police Department.

There was a time when this might have seemed funny. But that was before conspiracy theory was weaponized to help win elections, before the whole world seemed to lose its collective mind. After Edgar Maddison Welch stormed Comet Ping Pong with an AR-15, motivated by tales of a child-sex ring spun in troll breeding grounds like 4chan, I wasn’t feeling so great writing about conspiracy theorists like Phil anymore. Then I learned that both Baton Rouge cop-killer Gavin Long and the FSU shooter Myron May were self-described Targeted Individuals.

Soon after making the 911 call, Phil found himself knees-down on the pavement, hands behind his back, towered over by a cop wielding an AR-15.

At one point on the tape, after Phil was moved to the back seat of a police car, you could hear maybe 20 minutes’ worth of near-silence, punctuated occasionally by weird electronic bleeps and buzzes and overheard snippets of the cop radio.

In the midst of all this, Phil let out a loud, weary breath. The kind of breath that sounded like, How the hell did I get myself into this?

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Like Phil, Brian Tanner (also not his real name) is a Targeted Individual — a victim of “gang stalking,” or surveillance and harassment at the hands of the government or private security firms. This is an internet subculture of people who believe that they’re being hounded by a secret police force that most of us don’t even agree exists.

For a number of years, Brian said, he was a security professional in the California offices of a large multinational corporation. At first, he said things went pretty well for him — until a minor disagreement with his boss sent everything spiraling out of control. Soon, he found himself the target of workplace bullying, or “mobbing.”

It took some time for Brian to even realize that he was being harassed. But soon it was evident that he was “being spied on at my home,” he said. For example, Brian might have a conversation with his girlfriend after hours, then hear the same conversation at work the next day. “People [at work] would be told things to say,” he said. “I don’t know if they even knew themselves what they were always specifically referencing, but just things that made it clear that I was being watched very closely at my residence.”

Brian is convinced that his landlord, an “older, super-conservative white dude who’s got friends who are cops,” was conducting “pretty high-tech surveillance” and coordinating with his tormentors in the office. “And so then, it was just like pure hell.”

Eventually Brian lost his job, his apartment, and his girlfriend. These days, he works in a production facility, doing “low-level logistics and warehouse work,” while suffering what he described as persistent, high-tech harassment.

And to this day, he said, his harassment continues.

According to Brian, the American security apparatus (including the intelligence community, all levels of law enforcement, and private spooks like Stratfor and HBGary) is more vast, more out-of-control than even Julian Assange would suspect. The result of having so many people running around with surveillance tools and law enforcement connections is that America is a de facto surveillance state, where we’re all victims of decentralized, lone wolf Stasi. Most of us just haven’t realized it yet.

As for Brian, all he really knows is that he feels persecuted and that this persecution defies reasonable expectation. Unable to document hard evidence of his harassment, he assembled a theory to explain what might be happening to him.

“I personally think that there are different people,” he said, “different groups who use these same tactics,” one of which was hired by his ex-boss. Surveillance culture and gang stalking are so firmly fixed in the American psyche, said Brian, that all sorts of groups have the mandate (and the technology, and the budget) to target anyone who pisses them off. Many of these people are “ex-cops or former agents. They know these tactics. I don’t think there’s a single entity that coordinates federally all this stuff that’s going on.”

So far, however implausible Brian’s story may seem, it certainly is possible. That is, it’s all within the realm of material possibility. How about the more exotic stuff, the psychotronic weapons that Phil reported? I wondered if Brian had been targeted by anything like that.

“It’s called V2K [voice-to-skull] technology,” Brian explained, “which is where you electronically generate a sound, but the sound essentially can only be heard by the person that you’re pointing the device at.” Brian has felt the effects of V2K firsthand.

“It’s not a painful thing,” he continued, “it’s not like you’re being zapped, but you just hear a noise. But the noise, it doesn’t sound — you can tell when you hear it, it doesn’t sound like it’s external. You hear it as a sound, it has a clear property, like a noise or a sound, but it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from around you. It’s hard to describe, but it’s real. It’s totally real.”

This isn’t something that Brian really wants to talk about.

“It’s impossible to describe this,” he said, “without having it go through your mind that this is going to sound textbook crazy. Because it’s like okay, so you hear voices.”

It’s classified technology, he explained, the news of which only escapes the Pentagon black box in dribs and drabs. “It’s one of those things where people know that it exists, but there’s no sort of official public discussion about [it]. It’s classified, but it’s known. It’s in that realm, and I can tell you from experience that it’s real.”

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QuWave is a New Jersey-based online retailer of gadgets designed to protect you from the deleterious effects of electromagnetic radiation. These things are supposed to produce “scalar waves” using “Schumann resonance,” both concepts that are very popular in the pseudoscientific community. Among QuWave’s product line is the USB Harmonizer, a $159 dongle that somehow turns anything with a USB port into “a radiating source of stabilizing healthy energy.” The company also sells something called Defender, which “uses Scalar Waves and Solfeggio Energies to protect effected [sic] individuals from electronic harassment, EMF, psychotronic, spiritual, and psychic attacks.”

I called QuWave with a concocted story about a roommate who was hearing voices and feeling “out of it” — as if drugged or being subjected to psychotronic weaponry. I also said that I was feeling pretty “anxious and out of it” myself lately. (You’d be too, if your roommate was hearing voices.) I left a message with an operator, and a product specialist named Amy returned my call in a matter of minutes.

“Usually the V2K is electronic harassment,” she explained. “That’s going to be using frequencies directed at your roommate, probably. They use pulses to make you hear voices. So what our product does is it emits a high-frequency scalar wave that scrambles those frequencies that are being directed at them, so that they can’t get to them, and it should stop the voices.”

She told me that it seemed like the number of Targeted Individuals has been increasing over the four years or so that she’d been with the company. “It’s very similar obviously to some mental illness, so I think we have some customers who aren’t sure what’s going on, but they don’t want to think it’s mental illness. Basically, the biggest difference between mental illness and being electronically harassed is, if you have a mental illness it usually shows up throughout your life. Whereas, electronic harassment usually starts out of nowhere, or from specific events. Talking to customers, whistleblowers a lot of the time it will happen to them, or if somebody has a big lawsuit against the city or state or a large company.”

Amy said she knew nothing about any of this before she was hired. “But now I’m a product specialist, and now I know too much!” she laughed.

“This type of technology came out a long time ago, in the ’40s and ’50s,” she explained, “and it was used by the CIA during war as human experiments. It’s actually, if you Google ‘MK-ULTRA,’ they used this type of technology. It’s supposed to be illegal, it was supposed to be shut down, but clearly that hasn’t happened. Not completely, anyways.”

But Amy admitted that the Personal Defender (list price: $297) wasn’t for everybody.

“I’ve even got calls,” she said, “being yelled at by people’s caretakers or parents or whatever, because they know that their child does have a mental illness, and they ordered the product. I assure them that if that’s the case then obviously the product’s not going to work, and they can send it back.” Of course, V2K has not been proven to exist, so there’s little chance that a USB dongle will stop the voices in your head, regardless of the cause. Fortunately, QuWave products include a money-back guarantee.

The intersection of science and national security is indeed a very weird place. If you believe the Targeted Individuals, it’s a place where governments and corporations collaborate to develop high-tech super-weapons and surveillance gear that works almost as if by magic. The more unscrupulous contractors, this theory goes, even take these inventions out of the laboratory, where they’re tested on innocent civilians.

At least, this is the premise of a book called Chameleo: A Strange But True Story of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security by Robert Guffey. Chameleo is the story of “Dion,” a pseudonymous friend of Guffey’s with a fondness for “speed and meth and heroin and everything in between.” In the book, which is published as nonfiction, Dion ends up in jail for possession of stolen goods — including 25 pairs of night-vision goggles and a laptop taken from the Department of Defense by an AWOL Marine who was crashing on Dion’s couch. This was in the early days of the global War on Terror, and Dion’s treatment at the hands of his jailers is described as resembling something out of Abu Ghraib prison. Dion was never charged with the crime.

If you believe Guffey, Dion’s run-in with the law put him on a “list” of some sort. Soon after his release, Dion realized he was being followed; at first, by people in unmarked police cars. But eventually, he came to realize that “invisible midgets” (his words, not mine) were running amok in his apartment.

The book gets its title from chameleo, the commercial name for an as-yet-unrealized invisibility technology patented in the early 1990s by an engineer living in Costa Mesa, California, named Richard Schowengerdt.

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“Most of my career has been with the military,” Schowengerdt told me recently. “Department of Defense. I have about 10 years of aerospace experience.” According to an article by Guffey in the now-defunct UFO Magazine, Schowengerdt’s work over the last five years has included a number of innovations in the field of electromagnetics — including developing the first digital voltmeters, developing a concept for closed-loop testing of guided missiles, and work on the EA-18G Growler combat aircraft.

“I did some experimentation” with chameleo in the lab, Schowengerdt told me over the phone, “but we don’t have a working mock-up that we can show you.”

That said, he’s pretty sure the Army has developed a working model. “I’ve seen pictures of it, demos of it” online. “It’s pretty good, you know. There are little imperfections there, but it’s working.”

I’m pretty sure that the demos he refers to are actually green screen mock-ups (like those seen on CNN a few years back), but I let it drop. I was more interested in hearing his impression of Dion. So I asked Schowengerdt, was somebody using Dion to test chameleo?

“I believe so, yeah,” he replied. "He was probably the first."

I then asked if Dion’s story aligned with what he described in his patent.

“Yes, pretty much,” he said. “All they’d done to him was done at night, and apparently they went into his house and moved things around, according to him. He was under some suspicion because he was a drug addict, but he was not a drug addict at that particular time. So there’s some credibility to what he says.”

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“Psychotronics” is a word coined by a Soviet-era Czech scientist to replace the the scientifically discredited term “parapsychology.” The term “psychotronic weapons” has been adopted by conspiracy theorists to mean any sort of weapon that uses things like extremely low frequency (ELF) waves to control a victim’s emotions or make them hear voices.

According to Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century, there simply isn’t any proof that psychotronic weapons have been developed, or that they could even work. He stops short of saying that psychotronic weapons don’t exist, pointing out helpfully that you can’t prove a negative.

“This is like a baby boomer conspiracy theory, you know?” he said. “This is an old idea. When I was a kid we were excited about lasers and all they could do, and some of the old science fiction movies messed around with this stuff. It’s getting old-fashioned.” With all that’s in the news these days, from escalating nuclear tensions to fake news to hacking elections, psychotronic weapons are simply “not sexy anymore, even as a fantasy,” let alone as the subject of military research.

But all this is of little comfort to Phil Drummond, whose life has been steadily falling apart over the last few years. He’s had multiple scrapes with the law, including a pot bust and some sort of physical altercation with his stepdad. And there was a cross-country road trip, during which he said he was bombarded by radioactive waves. As proof of this last point, he sent me video of a Geiger counter registering what appeared to be dangerously high radiation levels, but I couldn’t really say what that actually demonstrated.

Phil insisted that he has meticulous documentation of his harassment, but aside from the one video, he was unwilling (or unable) to produce any of it for me. My efforts to get some sort of concrete evidence out of him eventually led to a terse email exchange.

“Perhaps after its [sic] ensured that we both share the same values for journalism,” Phil wrote, “I will present to you everything I have in bulk. Its [sic] nothing personal, its [sic] just that proof of what some people call ‘mind control’ can be a little hard to handle.”

And that was the last that I heard from the guy until the week before Christmas, when he emailed me audio recordings of his run-in with the Phoenix Police Department. This is “what happens when you report radiological weapons (a component of gang stalking) to law enforcement,” he wrote. “You get assault rifles drawn on you with the police not having a clue as to what they’re even pointing guns for. The conversation that occurs with the last cop is the best.”

The “last cop” that Phil referred to is a member of the department’s Crisis Intervention Squad (CIS), also known as the “mental health squad.” The CIS was called in after first responders determined that Phil wasn’t actually threatening the city of Phoenix with a weapon of mass destruction, even if it sounded like he was to the 911 operator.

The CIS officer politely but firmly told Phil that his claims seemed “very, very far-fetched. Because you have no proof, and no real idea of who’s doing this to you.” He then offered his business card, which Phil took. Then he suggested a mental health evaluation, which Phil politely declined.

After hearing the tape, I was concerned for Phil’s well-being. I wondered if this brush with law enforcement could be some sort of escalation, and if I should be worried. I decided to give him a call and check in. But first, I took a look at his Facebook page. The latest update was from Christmas Eve. In the post, he spoke about fighting back against government mind control, and using his “blue steel” to do so.

“The moment when you realize you've gotta use your blue steel to fight back,” it said. “#mindcontrol”

This didn’t seem very good.

“Blue steel” or “bluing” can refer to a technique for protecting the metal finish of a firearm. Perhaps this was a reference to “Blue Steel” by MOP (“Say what, say what, say what? / I'm packin blue steel / Plow! I'm shootin muthafuckas in the belly”). Was Phil announcing his intention to shoot someone? I gave him a call.

“Are you safe right now?” I asked, after an initial greeting. “I just noticed a Facebook post where you mentioned mind control and ‘blue steel,’ so I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“Yeah,” he replied, in his sort of stilted manner of speaking. Imagine Dan Aykroyd’s Conehead voice but an octave lower and with more weird vocal tics. “In regards to that post, it was posted with a humorous intent.”

I asked him if he had a gun, if I should be worried.

“I’m not too sure where you go ahead and get as to where you need to be concerned about me, Joseph. That was you know, a jokative [sic] post. Have you ever seen Zoolander?”

No, I haven’t. If I had, I would know that “blue steel” has another, less ominous meaning.

For some reason, Phil seemed to be in a hurry to get off the phone.

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Everyone (well, almost everyone) I talked to while writing this story came across as credible, as very normal. Targeted Individuals are obviously experiencing something highly traumatic and anxiety-inducing, something they’re at a loss to adequately understand. Otherwise, they all tend to be pretty unremarkable. That is, you probably wouldn’t be able to pick one out in a lineup. If anything, the people I spoke with seemed a little smarter than the average.

Ian Gold, a professor of philosophy and psychiatry at McGill University and co-author of the book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness, told me that I shouldn’t be surprised that I would find delusional beliefs in otherwise normal-seeming individuals. “Delusions are symptoms,” he said, “not illnesses in their own right.” Unless someone has a mental illness that manifests other, more extreme behavior, someone with “a relatively isolated island of delusional thought” is going to otherwise appear “perfectly normal.”

In fact, Gold explained, “lots of people who are delusional never come to the attention of psychiatrists.”

Now, I have no desire to diagnose anybody — even if I could. The most I’m willing to say about any of the individual claims here is that I’m not convinced that the institutional “gang stalking,” the phenomenon that Brian and others have described, is actually happening. There very well could be truth to some of the claims made by Targeted Individuals, but I just don’t believe that the surveillance state works in the way that they described.

But it’s hard to entirely dismiss the Targeted Individuals — probably because the framework for their theoretical dystopia conforms so closely to that of the currently existing dystopia that’s been unveiled by whistleblowers and investigative journalists over the last several years. When Edward Snowden’s revelations were made public in 2013, the reaction in the Targeted Individual community must have been little more than a wary “told you so.” And most recently, a raft of FBI documents uncovered by The Intercept revealed how the federal law enforcement agency (using the war on terrorism as a pretext) dismantled reforms enacted after the COINTELPRO disclosures of the 1970s.

“If you’re a psychiatrist,” Gold said, “and someone comes into your office and says, ‘Oh, I’ve been kidnapped by the NSA and they put a microphone in my tooth,’” that person is probably delusional. “But if another patient comes in and says, ‘People across America are being kidnapped by the NSA and microphones are being inserted into their teeth,’” that’s not a delusion — it’s a conspiracy theory.

The idea that people with unrealistic or unreasonable ideas (read: conspiracy theorists) can be almost functionally identical to people with a mental disorder gives me considerable pause. If this is the case, a population solely informed by fake news, pseudoscience, and pseudohistory would be almost indistinguishable from a population of psychotics. Psychotics suffer from a disorder that causes them to lose contact with reality. And it is now painfully obvious that flooding social media with “fake news” can have the impact of severing non-psychotics from reality just as severely. Of course, reality does tend to reassert itself eventually, if seldom in time to prevent large-scale Trump voter remorse.

The percentage of the population with delusional disorder is quite low, while the percentage of the population that can’t tell a real news story from The Onion (or FOX News) only seems to be growing. If this continues, a generation fed on a steady diet of internet bullshit is going to make the current community of Targeted Individuals seem rather quaint and charming.

The world may very well be going crazy, whether or not it has a diagnosable disorder.