1953: Central Intelligence Agency director Allen Dulles authorizes the MK-ULTRA project. The agency launches one of its most dubious covert programs ever, turning unsuspecting humans into guinea pigs for its research into mind-altering drugs. More than a decade before psychologist Timothy Leary advocated the benefits of LSD and urged everyone to “turn on, tune in, […]
1953: Central Intelligence Agency director Allen Dulles authorizes the MK-ULTRA project. The agency launches one of its most dubious covert programs ever, turning unsuspecting humans into guinea pigs for its research into mind-altering drugs.
More than a decade before psychologist Timothy Leary advocated the benefits of LSD and urged everyone to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the CIA’s Technical Services Staff launched the highly classified project to study the mind-control effects of this and other psychedelic drugs, using unwitting U.S. and Canadian citizens as lab mice.
Dulles wanted to close the “brainwashing gap” that arose after the United States learned that American prisoners of war in Korea were subjected to mind-control techniques by their captors.
Loathe to be outdone by foreign enemies, the CIA sought, through its research, to devise a truth serum to enhance the interrogations of POWs and captured spies. The agency also wanted to develop techniques and drugs — such as “amnesia pills” — to create CIA superagents who would be immune to the mind-control efforts of adversaries.
MK-ULTRA even hoped to create a “Manchurian Candidate”, or programmable assassin, and devise a way to control the minds of pesky despots, like Fidel Castro — giving credence forevermore to claims by the tinfoil-hat contingent that the government is out to control our minds.
In addition to drugs, the program included more than a hundred sub-projects that involved radiological implants, hypnosis and subliminal persuasion, electroshock therapy and isolation techniques. (The MK in the project name referred to the Technical Services Division that oversaw the project, and ULTRA was a security classification applied to top-secret intelligence.)
More than 30 universities and institutions participated in CIA-funded research, though not all were aware the spy agency was their benefactor, because funding was sometimes laundered through shell organizations.
Under the guise of research, LSD, whose psychedelic properties were discovered by a Swiss chemist in 1943, was secretly administered to CIA employees, U.S. soldiers and psychiatric patients, as well as the general public.
One federal drug agent who worked as a “consultant” for the CIA for a project dubbed “Operation Midnight Climax” hired prostitutes to slip the drug to unsuspecting clients, then watched through two-way mirrors as the clients tripped out. He also reportedly slipped the drug to patrons at bars and restaurants.
The CIA ultimately concluded that the drug was too unpredictable for reliable research, but that was too late for Frank Olson.
Olson was a 43-year-old civilian germ-warfare researcher for the U.S. Army who was also a CIA employee and an unwitting recipient of CIA acid. During a 1953 meeting at a mountain retreat with MK-ULTRA head Dr. Sidney Gottlieb and other CIA employees, Olson and four other scientists drank a glass of Cointreau that had been secretly spiked with LSD.
They were told about the drug about 20 minutes after ingesting it. Olson apparently had a severe reaction and left the retreat in an agitated state and later threatened to resign.
The CIA claimed he suffered a sudden bout of extreme paranoia and depression and sent him to a psychiatrist in New York for consultation. He died in a “fall” from the 10th floor of his New York hotel room. A CIA employee who had accompanied him to New York reported that he awoke at 1:30 a.m. to see Olson hurl himself through the closed window.
Olson left a 38-year-old widow and three children under the age of 10. In the absence of other evidence, Olson’s family reluctantly accepted the CIA’s puzzling explanation that the scientist had been suddenly seized by a fatal depression.
When news of the CIA’s secret LSD program finally leaked out 20 years later, the family learned through a congressional inquiry that Olson had been slipped some of the hallucinogen days before his death. The CIA continued to insist that Olson had committed suicide, but at President Gerald Ford’s urging, the family was paid $750,000.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, when Olson’s son had his father’s body exhumed and examined, that he discovered that his father might have actually died from a blunt force trauma to the head, which may have been received prior to his fall from the window.
Olson wasn’t the only casualty of the CIA’s drug tests. A tennis pro who had gone to the New York Psychiatric Institute for depression following a divorce fell into a coma and died. He’d been administered a derivative of mescaline. There were other cases of suspect deaths and lives left in ruin.
The victim’s families might have sued to obtain records of the secret program, but CIA Director Richard Helms had ordered the MK-ULTRA project files destroyed in 1973.
The program was brought to light in 1975 through investigations by the Church Committee and Rockefeller Commission that were established to investigate government surveillance operations in the wake of the Watergate wiretapping scandal and other domestic-spying revelations.
By then, the MK-ULTRA project had supposedly been closed. But this was by no means the end to misguided covert government programs, such as the remote-viewing project at SRI. Another, less-organized military project, inspired the story behind the recent film The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Dulles gave the go-ahead for MK-ULTRA, as it turns out, on the very day that Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, appeared. Coincidence? You decide.
Image: Frank Olson’s passport.
Courtesy Frank Olson Legacy Project
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