Declassified CIA Documents: CIA Considered Weaponizing Lightning

lightning bolts

Ed Maker/The Denver Post via Getty Images/CIA

  • The CIA once considered making a weapon out of artificial lightning.
  • The weapon could be used without directly implicating the CIA or the rest of the U.S. government.
  • Although the weapon was scientifically sound, the CIA ultimately never pursued it for reasons unknown.

    The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) once considered the idea of using lightning as a weapon system. In the late 1960s, an unknown scientist proposed the service use lightning strikes as a weapon that would leave behind “little or no evidence,” making it difficult to identify the U.S. government as the perpetrator. The CIA, despite always being interested in covert weapons, never developed the idea. Probably.

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    The pitch, which Forbes discovered in declassified CIA files, involved using “artificial leaders” of thin metal wires to “cause discharges to occur where and when we desire them.” The wires, a few thousands of an inch in diameter, would unfurl from aircraft or rockets launched into the atmosphere.

    Then, once lightning occurred, it would be drawn to the metal wire and strike the ground where the wire terminated. The idea seems to be that the wire would be close enough to fry whomever the CIA wanted to assassinate with 300 million volts of electricity.

    There were some interesting upsides to the weapon unique to using natural weather phenomena. For one, it was cheap, since lightning is practically free. Second, it left behind no traces like bullet casings, missile fuselages, or other telltale signs of state-sponsored assassination. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the chances of being struck by lightning are only 1 in 500,000, and an observer would likely believe the target was simply a victim of bad luck.

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    Obviously there are a few problems with using lightning as a weapon. The CIA could only use it during lightning storms, and the lightning-attracting wire would have to stay close enough to the target to be lethal. Everything would need to line up just right for the assassination to take place.

    Today’s CIA has seemingly abandoned subtlety, with the sword-laden Hellfire R9X the preferred tool for targeted killings. Still, this is fascinating proof that the nation’s intelligence agency entertained some pretty unusual ideas.

    The real question: Did anything as weirdly exotic as using lightning as an assassination tool ever become operational in CIA service, and could it be responsible for events we know about? We may never know.

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