The death (or possibly murder) of Frank Olson was but a hint of the enormous secret CIA program of research into techniques of mind alteration and control. The whole enterprise was assigned the code-name MK-ULTRA and was run out of the CIA’s Technical Services Division, headed in the 1950s by Willis Gibbons, a former executive of the US Rubber Company. In the division’s laboratories and workshops researchers labored on poisons, gadgets designed to maim and kill, techniques of torture and implements to carry such techniques to agonizing fruition. Here also were developed surveillance equipment and kindred tools of the espionage trade. All of these activities made the Technical Services Division a vital partner of the covert operations wing of the Agency.
Within Technical Services MK-ULTRA projects came under the control of the Chemical Division, headed from 1951 to 1956 by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a New York Jew who received his doctorate in chemistry from California Tech. Born with a clubfoot and afflicted with a severe stammer, Gottlieb pushed himself with unremitting intensity. Despite his physical affliction he was an ardent square dancer and exponent of the polka, capering across many a dance floor and dragging visiting psychiatrists and chemists on terpsichorean trysts where appalling plans of mind control were ruminated amidst the blare of the bands.
Gottlieb and his wife, a fundamentalist Christian, lived on a farm in the Shenandoah Mountains in northern Virginia. Their house was a former slave quarters, and Gottlieb rose every morning before sunrise to milk his herd of goats.
As was demonstrated in the Olson affair, Gottlieb had powerful friends inside the Agency, notably Richard Helms, at that time deputy director for covert operations. MK-ULTRA was created on April 13, 1953, when CIA director Allen Dulles approved Helms’s proposal to develop the “covert use” of biological and chemical materials. The code-name ULTRA may have been an echo from Helms’s and Dulles’s OSS days, when ULTRA (the breaking of the primary German code) represented one of the biggest secrets of World War II.
Gottlieb himself said that the creation of MK-ULTRA was inspired by reports of mind-control work in the Soviet Union and China. He defined the mission as an investigation into how individual behavior could be “altered through covert means.” He gave this description in 1977 during the Kennedy hearings, testifying via remote speaker from another room. “It was felt to be mandatory,” Gottlieb went on, “and of the utmost urgency for our intelligence organization to establish what was possible in this field.”
The CIA had followed the trial of the Hungarian Roman Catholic Cardinal Josef Mindszenty in Budapest in 1949 and concluded that the Cardinal’s ultimate confession had been manipulated through “some unknown force.” Initially the belief was that Mindszenty had been hypnotized, and intrigued CIA officers conjectured that they might use the same techniques on people they were interrogating. The CIA’s Office of Security, headed at the time by Sheffield Edwards, developed a hypnosis project called Bluebird, whose object was to get an individual “to do our bidding against his will and even against such fundamental laws of nature as self-preservation.”
The first Bluebird operations were conducted in Japan in October 1950 and were reportedly witnessed by Richard Helms. Twenty-five North Korean prisoners of war were given alternating doses of depressants and stimulants. The POWs were shot up with barbiturates, allowing them to go to sleep, then abruptly awoken with injections of amphetamines, hypnotized, then questioned. This operation was in total contravention of international protocols on the treatment of POWs. These Bluebird interrogations continued throughout the Korean War.
Simultaneously, US POWs held in North Korea were being paraded by their captors, alleging that the US was using chemical and biological agents against the Koreans and the Chinese. An international commission in 1952 concluded that the charges had merit. But the CIA’s response was to leak to favored reporters at Time, the Chicago Tribune, and the Miami Herald stories to the effect that the American POWs had been brainwashed by their Communist captors. This had the double utility of squelching the charges of germ warfare and also of justifying the Bluebird program.
In fact, US military and intelligence agencies had been dabbling in mind control research for more than forty years. One of the early experimenters was George H. Estabrooks, a research psychologist who taught for years at Colgate College in upstate New York. Estabrooks was a Rhodes scholar who had trained in psychology at Harvard with Gardner Murphy. The psychologist, whose specialty was the use of hypnosis in intelligence operations, worked as a contractor for Naval Intelligence and was later to advise CIA researchers such as Martin Orne and Milton Erickson.
In 1971, Estabrooks gave a chilling portrait of his career in an article in Science Digest titled “Hypnosis Comes of Age.” “One of the most fascinating but dangerous applications of hypnosis is its use in military intelligence,” Estabrooks wrote. “This is a field with which I am familiar through formulating guidelines for the technique used by the US in two world wars. Communication in war is always a headache. Codes can be broken. A professional spy may or may not stay bought. Your own man may have unquestionable loyalty but his judgement is always open to question. The hypnotic courier, on the other hand, provides a unique solution.” Estabrooks related in matter-of-fact detail his role in hypnotizing intelligence officers for dangerous missions inside occupied Japan, describing how through hypnosis he had “locked” information inside the mind of unwitting soldiers, information that could only be retrieved by Estabrooks and other designated military psychologists.
Then Estabrooks described how he and other government doctors developed techniques to split personalities, using a combination of hypnosis and drugs. “The potential for military intelligence has been nightmarish,” Estabrooks wrote. In one case, he claimed that he had created a new personality in a “normal” Marine. The new personality “talked Communist doctrine and meant it.” Estabrooks and the army contrived to have the Marine given a dishonorable discharge and encouraged him to penetrate the Communist Party. All along, Estabrooks said, the “deeper personality” was that of the Marine, which had been programmed to operate as a kind of “subconscious spy.” “I had a pipeline straight into the Communist camp. It worked beautifully for months with this subject, but the technique backfired. While there was no way for an enemy to expose Jones’s dual personality, they suspected it, and played the same trick on us later.”
The CIA’s Bluebird project, which investigated hypnosis and other techniques in the early 1950s, was headed by Morse Allen, a veteran of Naval Intelligence and a specialist in techniques of interrogation. Criminologists revere Allen as a pioneer in the use of the polygraph. Allen eventually became disappointed with the research into hypnosis, and developed a keen interest in the more robust fields of electro-shock therapy and psycho-surgery.
One of the CIA’s first grants to an outside contractor was to a psychiatrist who claimed that he could use electro-shock therapy to produce a state of total amnesia “or excruciating pain.” Another $100,000 CIA grant went to a neurologist who vouched for lobotomies and other types of brain surgery as useful tools in the art of interrogation. Both of these techniques would later become staples of the operations of one of MK-ULTRA’s most infamous contractors, Dr. D. Ewen Cameron.
In 1952, the codeword Bluebird was changed to Artichoke. A CIA report on the project says that, among other things, Artichoke was meant to investigate the theory that “agents might be given cover stories under hypnosis and not only learn them faultlessly, but actually believe them. Every detail could be made to sink in. The conviction and apparent sincerity with which an individual will defend a false given under post-hypnotic suggestion is almost unbelievable.”
In one experiment, a female CIA security officer was hypnotized and provided with a new identity. When she was later interrogated, the agent “defended it hotly, denying her true name and rationalizing with conviction the possession of identity cards made out to her real self.” Artichoke also explored using hypnosis to recruit high-level political agents and unmask spies and double agents, a particular obsession of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s counterintelligence chief.
The CIA memos of the time are filled with complaints about the difficulties of finding suitable human subjects for experimental research. “Human subjects” were evoked in the tactful phrase “unique research material.” At first the CIA experimented mostly on prisoners, drug addicts and terminally sick destitutes. Details are scanty because Helms ordered all CIA records on the programs destroyed, but much of the “unique research material” came in the form of prisoners at California’s Vacaville prison, the Georgia state penitentiary and the Tennessee state prison system. There was a problem, however. In these instances a certain modicum of informed consent was often required. Prisoners could get reduced sentences for agreeing to participate in the experiments. Drug addicts would get cash, drugs or treatment. Informed consent was often a condition in any treatment of the terminally ill poor. For the CIA researchers any type of informed consent was antithetical to their research task, which was to make unwilling subjects talk and covertly elicit cooperation.
By 1952 the CIA’s scientists began to test their techniques on what a CIA memo described as “individuals of dubious loyalty, suspected agents or plants, subjects having known reasons for deception.” As one CIA psychologist told John Marks, author of The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, a pioneering investigation into these activities in the late 1970s, “one did not put a high premium on the civil rights of a person who was treasonable to his own country.” One suspected double agent was taken to a “thoroughly isolated” CIA safehouse in rural Germany, “far removed from surrounding neighbors.” The man was told that he was to undergo a series of routine medical and psychological tests as condition of his employment. According to detailed account in the Artichoke files, the entire operation was conducted on the second floor of the safehouse, so as not to arouse the curiosity of “the household staff and security detail.”
The session was recorded with “a special device that is easily concealable” and was monitored by the CIA medical division and investigators from Angleton’s counterintelligence division. The subject was brought to the safehouse at about 10:30 p.m. and was given a casual interview that lasted about an hour. Then he was offered a glass of whiskey, which had been spiked with Nembutal. Over the next three days, the subject underwent intense interrogation, while CIA doctors gave him “intravenous infusions” of hallucinogens and placed him under hypnosis. The subject was also attached to a polygraph machine. The Artichoke scientists deemed the interrogation “profitable and successful.” They noted that post-hypnotic suggestion had left the subject “completely confused” with a “severe headache” and a “vague and faulty” memory of the interrogation.
Though Bluebird had begun in the CIA’s Security division, a contretemps at the CIA station in Frankfurt, Germany caused the transfer of these CIA researchers to the Covert Operations sector of the agency. In Frankfurt, where the CIA was ensconced in the former offices of IG Farben, a CIA civilian contractor – an American psychologist named Richard Wendt – was assigned the task of testing a cocktail of THC, Dexedrine and Seconal on five people under interrogation who were suspected of being double agents or bogus defectors. Wendt brought along his mistress to the Frankfurt sessions and was partying hard when his wife arrived. Amid the ensuing fracas, the CIA’s man fled up a cathedral tower and threatened to throw himself off it. Amid these security lapses, the Security branch lost control of research, which now passed to Covert Operations, and eventually into the hands of Dr. Gottlieb.
Furnished with $300,000 from Allen Dulles, Gottlieb started farming out research to characters such as Harold Abramson, Olson’s nemesis. In 1953, Dr. Abramson was given $85,000. His grant proposal listed six areas of investigation: disturbance of memory, discrediting by aberrant behavior, alteration of sex patterns, eliciting of information, suggestibility and creation of dependency.
Another early recipient of Gottlieb’s money was Dr. Harris Isbell, who ran the Center for Addiction Research in Lexington, Kentucky. Passing through Isbell’s center was a captive group of human guinea pigs in the shape of a steady stream of black heroin addicts. Isbell developed a “points system” to secure their cooperation in his research. These people, supposedly being delivered from their drug habits, were awarded heroin and morphine in amounts relative to the nature of a particular research task. It was the normal habit of Gottlieb and his CIA colleagues back in Virginia to test all materials on themselves, but more than 800 different compounds were sent over to Isbell’s shop for the addicts to try first.
Perhaps the most infamous experiment in Louisville came when Isbell gave LSD to seven black male heroin addicts for seventy-seven straight days. Isbell’s research notes indicate “double,” “triple” and “quadruple” as he hiked the doses. Noting the apparent tolerance of the subjects to this incredible regimen of lysergic acid, Isbell explained in chilling tones that “this type of behavior is to be expected in patients of this type.” In another eerie reprise of the Nazi doctors’ Dachau experiments, Isbell had nine black males strapped to tables, injected with psilocybin, rectal thermometers inserted, lights shown in their eyes to measure pupil dilation and joints whacked to test neural reactions. The money for Isbell’s research was being funneled by the CIA through the National Institutes of Health.
Isbell also played a key role as the middleman for the CIA in getting supplies of narcotics and hallucinogens from drug companies. The Agency had two main concerns: the acquisition of supplies and new compounds, and veto power over sales of such materials to the Eastern bloc. To take one example, in 1953 the CIA became concerned that Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm for which Albert Hoffman had developed LSD, was planning to put the drug on the open market. So the Agency offered to buy Sandoz’s entire production run of LSD for $250,000. Ultimately, Sandoz agreed to supply the Agency with 100 grams a week, deny requests from the Soviet Union and China, and also to furnish the Agency with a regular list of its LSD customers.
In the meantime, the CIA helped underwrite Eli Lilly’s efforts to produce synthetic LSD. Lilly, the Indianapolis-based drug company, succeeded in this endeavor in 1954. Gottlieb hailed this triumph as a key breakthrough that would enable the CIA to buy the drug “in tonnage quantities.” Such large amounts were not of course required for interrogation: Gottlieb’s aim was instead to have the ability to incapacitate large populations and armies.
The MK-ULTRA projects were not limited to research on adults. The CIA funded a project at the Children’s International Summer Village. The objective was to research how children who spoke different languages were able to communicate. But CIA documents reveal that an ulterior motive was the identification of promising young foreign agents. The well-known psychiatrist Loretta Bender was also a recipient of MK-ULTRA funds. The author of the Bender-Gestalt used her CIA money to pump hallucinogens, including LSD, into children between the ages of seven and eleven. Many of the children were kept on the drugs for weeks at a time. In two cases, Dr. Bender’s “treatments” lasted, on and off, more than a year.
The CIA funneled large grants to the University of Oklahoma, home to Dr. Louis “Jolly” West. West would later go on to head the Violence Project at UCLA, where he and Dr. James Hamilton, an OSS colleague of George White and a recipient of CIA largesse, performed psychological research involving behavior modifications on inmates at Vacaville state prison in northern California. The MK-ULTRA funds pouring into the University of Oklahoma in the 1950s had a similar purpose: the study of the structure and dynamics of urban youth gangs. These studies indicate that from the CIA’s earliest days it has had a keen interest in developing methods of social control over potentially disruptive elements in American society.
Certainly, one of the most nefarious of the MK-ULTRA projects was the “depatterning” research conducted by Scottish-born psychiatrist Dr. D. Ewen Cameron. Cameron was not hidden away in a dark closet: he was one of the most esteemed psychiatrists of his time. He headed both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Psychiatry Association. He sat on numerous boards and was a contributing editor to dozens of journals. He also enjoyed a long relationship with US intelligence agencies dating back to World War II, having been brought to Nuremberg by Allen Dulles to help evaluate Nazi war criminals, most notably Rudolf Hess. While in Germany Cameron also lent his hand to the journals. He also enjoyed a long relationship with US intelligence agencies dating back to World War II, having been brought to Nuremberg by Allen Dulles to help evaluate Nazi war criminals, most notably Rudolf Hess. While in Germany Cameron also lent his hand to the crafting of the Nuremberg Code on medical research.
After the war Cameron developed a near obsession with schizophrenia. He believed that he could cure the condition by first inducing a state of total amnesia in his patients and then reprogramming their consciousness through a process he termed “psychic driving.” Cameron’s base of operations was the Allan Memorial Institute at McGill University in Montreal. Through the early 1950s, Cameron’s work received the lavish support of the Rockefeller Foundation. Then in 1957 Cameron found a new stream of money, Gottlieb’s MK-ULTRA accounts. Over the next four years, the CIA gave Cameron more than $60,000 for his work in consciousness-alteration and mind control.
Using CIA and Rockefeller funds, Cameron pioneered research into the use of sensory deprivation techniques. He once locked a woman in a small white “box” for thirty-five days, where she was deprived of all light, smells and sounds. The CIA doctors back at Langley looked on with some amazement at this research, since its own experiments with a similar sensory deprivation tank in 1955 had induced severe psychological reactions in subjects locked up for less than forty hours.
Cameron used a variety of exotic drugs on his patients, once slipping LSD to an unsuspecting woman fourteen times over a two-month period. He also investigated the practical benefits of inducing paralysis in some of his patients by giving them injections of curare. Lobotomies were another area of intense interest for Dr. Cameron, who instructed his psycho-surgeons to perform their operations using only mild local anesthetics. He wanted the patients awake so that he could chart the minute changes in their consciousness the deeper the scalpel blade sliced into the frontal lobe.
Nothing satisfied Cameron quite like the use of electro-shock therapy, which he believed could “wipe the mind clean,” allowing him to purge his patients of their disease. To this end Cameron developed a dire treatment. First, he put his patients into a prolonged sleep by injecting them with a daily mixture of Thorazine, Nembutal and Seconal. Using injections of amphetamines he brought patients out of their sleep three times a day when they would be forced to endure severe electro-shock treatments involving voltages forty times more intense than those considered safe and therapeutic at the time. This treatment would sometimes last two and half to three months. Then Cameron would begin his “psychic driving” experiment. This bizarre foray in behavioral conditioning consisted of the patients being assaulted by verbal messages played on a loop-feed tape player for sixteen hours a day; the speaker was often hidden under a pillow and was designed to deliver the messages subliminally while the patient slept.
These experiments were conducted on more than 150 patients, one of whom was Robert Loguey. Loguey was sent to Cameron by his family doctor, who believed that a persistent pain Loguey complained about in his leg was psychosomatic. Loguey was duly diagnosed as a schizophrenic by Cameron, which rendered him immediately available as a guinea pig for Cameron’s CIA project. Loguey recalls that one of the negative messages Cameron piped into his room for twenty-three straight days was, “You killed your mother. You killed your mother.” When Loguey went home, he was shocked to discover that his mother was alive and apparently well.
Linda McDonald was typical of Cameron’s victims, who tended to be women. McDonald was a 25-year-old mother of five young children. She was suffering from a modest case of post-partem depression and chronic back pains. Her physician advised her husband that he should take Linda to see Dr. Cameron at his clinic in Montreal. The doctor assured her husband that Cameron was “the best there was” and would have her back home and healthy in no time. “So we went,” Linda McDonald recalled in 1994 on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program, The Fifth Estate. “My medical file even says I took my guitar with me. And that was the end of my life.”
After a few days of observation, Cameron had diagnosed McDonald as an acute schizophrenic and had her transferred to the medical torture chamber he called “the Sleep Room.” For the next eighty-six days, McDonald was kept in a near comatose state by the use of powerful narcotics, and awakened only for massive jolts from Cameron’s electro-shock machine. Over that period, McDonald received 102 electro-shock treatments.
“The aim was to wipe out the patterns of thought and behavior which were detrimental to the patient and replace them with healthy patterns of thought and behavior,” said Dr. Peter Roper, a colleague of Cameron’s who still defends the experiments. “I think this was stimulated by the effects on the American troops of the war in Korea, how they seemed to have been brainwashed.”
Linda McDonald emerged from Cameron’s care in a near infantile condition. “I had to be toilet trained,” McDonald said. “I was a vegetable. I had no identity, no memory. I had never existed in the world before. Like a baby.”
Cameron was eased out of his post at Allan Memorial in 1964 and died of a heart attack while mountain climbing in 1967 at the age of sixty-six. But that didn’t end the matter. After the MK-ULTRA program was exposed, McDonald, Loguey and six other Cameron victims filed suit against the CIA. The Agency eventually agreed to a settlement, paying out $750,000 – but the CIA still maintains it was not culpable for Cameron’s actions.
Anthropologists also got into the MK-ULTRA act. Richard Prince was given CIA money for research on “folk medicine and faith healing” among the Yoruba people in Nigeria. Gottlieb was interested in finding possible new drugs in Nigeria and in the mind-control techniques of Yoruba shamans. Margaret Mead sat with Ewen Cameron on the editorial board of a CIA-funded publication called the Research in Mental Health Newsletter, which discussed the use of psychedelic drugs to induce and treat schizophrenia. Mead’s former husband, medical anthropologist Gregory Bateson, was given CIA-procured LSD by Harold Abramson. Bateson, in turn, gave some to his friend, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. It was also Bateson’s stash of LSD that eventually found its way to experiments being conducted on student volunteers by Dr. Leo Hollister. One of his subjects was a young creative writing student at Stanford, Ken Kesey, who would become the drug’s chief proponent in the sixties counterculture.
In the early 1960s, the CIA even helped set up a company to scour the Amazon for potential new drugs, the Amazon Natural Drug Company. This nominally private enterprise was run by an old CIA hand named J. C. King, who had headed the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division during the Bay of Pigs and was officially moved out of the Agency shortly thereafter. Operating from his houseboat, King supervised a network of Amazon tribespeople, anthropologists and botanists to bring back new toxic compounds, including yage, the powerful hallucinogen used by the Yanomamo.
In 1954, Gottlieb and his colleagues in the Technical Services Division concocted a plan to spike punchbowls with LSD at the Agency’s Christmas party, an amazing idea considering that only a year earlier a similar stunt had resulted in the death of Frank Olson. A more ambitious project was described in a CIA memo as follows “Technical Services Division concocted a plan to spike punchbowls with LSD at the Agency’s Christmas party, an amazing idea considering that only a year earlier a similar stunt had resulted in the death of Frank Olson. A more ambitious project was described in a CIA memo as follows: “We thought about the possibility of putting some [LSD] in a city water supply and having citizens wander around in a more or less happy state, not terribly interested in defending themselves.”
This was certainly a hazardous time to be at any public function attended by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb and his associates. In the midst of their MK-ULTRA researches, the CIA had concluded that since prisoners had lawyers who might turn ugly, it was probably not a good idea to use them as human guinea pigs. Initially they cut down the risk margin by administering the various hallucinogens to themselves, tripping regularly at CIA safehouses and institutions such as the CIA’s wing at Georgetown and at Dr. Abramson’s floor at Mount Sinai Hospital. The trips lacked the consciousness-heightening ambitions of the Leary generation, however. As John Marks put it, “the CIA experimenters did not trip for the experience itself, or to get high, or to sample new realities. They were testing a weapon; for their purposes, they might as well have been in a ballistics lab.” But the Olson disaster reduced their enthusiasm for self-testing, and so did another mishap that occurred when an unwitting CIA officer had a dose of LSD slipped into his coffee at the Agency’s offices on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The man dashed out the building, across the street, past the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, hallucinating that he was beset by monsters with huge eyes. Hotly pursued by CIA colleagues, he fled across a bridge over the Potomac and was finally cornered, crouching in a fetal position near Arlington National Cemetery.”
After these mishaps, Gottlieb became persuaded that the best course was simply to test the hallucinogens on a random basis at public gatherings, or to pick out street people and induce them to swallow a dram of whatever potion was under review that day.
In late 1953, Gottlieb took his black bag to Europe, where at a political rally he primed the water glass of a speaker whom the CIA wanted to render ridiculous. The psycho-sabotage was apparently a rousing success, and greatly encouraged Gottlieb with the potential for similar dosing of charismatic left figures around the world. Gottlieb then gave the green light for CIA station officers in Manila and Atsugi, Japan, to begin the operational use of LSD.
For continued experimentation, Gottlieb now decided to begin widespread testing on the urban poor: street people, prostitutes and other undesirables. He had two reasons: they were unlikely to complain, and there was, he believed, a higher potential that these people could handle untoward side-effects. To oversee this operation, Gottlieb turned to George Hunter White, whom we last encountered testing the marijuana truth drug on Mafia muscle man Augusto Del Gracio. White had now gone back to work at the Narcotics Bureau in New York. He was a somewhat bizarre-looking figure, 200 pounds, 5-feet-7-inches tall and bald. White claimed he was such an expert in physical combat that he had killed a Japanese agent in a hand-to-hand encounter. He was also a lusty drinker with a preference for straight gin.
Gottlieb asked White to establish a CIA safehouse in New York, invite suitable subjects to party there, drug them covertly and then review their behavior. White rented two adjoining apartments at 81 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village. The cooperation of the Narcotics Bureau was secured by a deal whereby the bureau could use the apartments for drug stings during CIA down time. White was guaranteed an unceasing flow of drink, all of it paid for by Gottlieb. The safehouse became a working lab for the CIA’s Technical Services Division, fitted out with two-way mirrors, listening devices and concealed cameras. Indeed, the house became a model for subsequent CIA interrogation facilities.
From the fall of 1953 to the late spring of the following year, White hosted a string of parties, inviting a stream of unsuspecting CIA subjects to Bedford Street, spiking their food and drink with chemicals such as sodium pentothal, Nembutal, THC and, of course, what White referred to as “the LSD surprise.” White’s immediate supervisor in New York was Richard Lashbrook, the man who shared Frank Olson’s room on the latter’s last night on earth.
White’s diary records that Lashbrook visited the apartment on numerous occasions, delivering drugs and watching the human guinea pigs through the two-way mirror.
Connoisseurs of CIA denials should study Lashbrook’s performance in 1977, when he was questioned during Ted Kennedy’s senatorial probe. Despite the fact that Kennedy’s subcommittee had White’s records, which documented Lashbrook’s visits to Bedford Street, Lashbrook received no challenge from the subcommittee when he insisted that he had never gone anywhere near the CIA safehouse. And not only did the subcommittee have White’s diary, it also had Lashbrook’s signature on receipts for White’s substantial expenses in New York.
In 1955 the Narcotics Bureau transferred White to San Francisco. This didn’t end his role as an agent for MK-ULTRA. He simply continued his researches in Baghdad-by-the-Bay. He rented a new safehouse on Telegraph Hill and had it wired with state-of-the-art equipment from Technical Services. This time White’s surveillance post was a small bathroom, with a two-way mirror allowing him to peer into the main room.
White would sit on the lavatory, martini in hand, watching prostitutes give CIA designer drugs to their unsuspecting clients. White called this enterprise Operation Midnight Climax. He assembled a string of whores, many of them black heroin addicts whom he paid in drugs, to lure their clients to the CIA-sponsored drug and sex sessions. The women, who were known by the San Francisco police as George’s Girls, were protected from arrest.
To further the scientific work, Gottlieb sent out the Agency’s chief psychologist, John Gittinger, to evaluate the prostitutes through personality tests and, since part of the research was to evaluate the use of sex as a means of eliciting information, to instruct the women in interviewing techniques. Unsurprisingly, it was soon discovered that the clients were more likely to talk after sexual activity. The content of their conversations often centered on family and work problems – something the prostitutes probably could have told the CIA without any investment of taxpayer money.
All of these San Francisco sessions were filmed and tape-recorded, in another eerie parallel with Nazi research: Himmler had recommended to the doctors conducting the Dachau experiments in cold water immersion that perhaps the subjects be revived by “animal warmth,” meaning sex with prostitutes held in a special building at Dachau. The therapeutic sessions were filmed and passed along for viewing by Himmler.
It wasn’t long before the CIA researchers carried their investigations beyond the safehouse on Telegraph Hill. CIA men would often go down to the Tenderloin district, visit bars and slip hallucinogens into patrons’ drinks. They would also hand out doctored cigarettes. Hundreds of people were thus unknowingly dosed, and there is no way of knowing how many psychological and physical traumas the CIA was responsible for. The CIA did know of several test victims who took themselves or were taken to hospitals in the San Francisco area. But it never assisted in diagnosis or paid any hospital bills, or in any other way took the slightest responsibility for what it had done. In fact, it was in the Agency’s self-interest that these people be diagnosed as drug addicts or as psychotics. Some of the drugs being thus furtively administered were extremely dangerous. One of the men in the CIA’s Technical Services Division later told Marks, “If we were scared enough of a drug not to try it on ourselves we sent it to San Francisco.”
The CIA men organized a weekend party at another Agency safehouse in Marin County, north of San Francisco. The plan was to invite a crowd of party-goers and then spray the rooms with an aerosol formulation of LSD concocted in Gottlieb’s shop. But it turned out to be an exceedingly hot day and the party-goers kept the windows open, allowing breezes off the Pacific to swirl through the room, thus dispersing the LSD. In frustration, Gittinger, the CIA psychologist, locked himself in the bathroom, sprayed furiously and inhaled as deeply as possible.
The LSD safehouse program continued in both New York and San Francisco until 1963, when the CIA’s new Inspector General, John Earman, stumbled across the enterprise. Earman was particularly galled by the itemized list of expenses, including $44 for a telescope, $1,000 for a few days of White’s liquor bill and $31 to pay off a local lady whose car White had rammed. Earman probed deeper, unearthing what he swiftly concluded was an illegal, indeed criminal, venture. He gathered his findings and confronted Gottlieb and Helms.
Helms knew he was in a spot of trouble. He had not told new agency director John McCone about the program, and he double-crossed Earman on a promise to do so. Eventually Earman wrote a 24-page report for McCone in which he harshly denounced the drug-testing program, which he said “put the rights and interests of all Americans in jeopardy.” Helms and Gottlieb fiercely defended MK-ULTRA to McCone, with Helms raising the spectre of a Soviet chemical gap, claiming that widespread testing was necessary to keep pace with Soviet advances. Helms told McCone that “positive operational capacity to use drugs is diminishing owing to a lack of realistic testing.”
McCone put a freeze on CIA-sponsored testing at the safe-houses, but they remained open for George White’s use – with the CIA paying the bills – until 1966, when White retired. As he headed off toward eventual death from cirrhosis of the liver, White wrote an envoi to his old sponsor Sidney Gottlieb: “I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and bidding of the All Highest.”
Gottlieb’s colleagues at Army Intelligence were conducting their own experiments with LSD, called Operation Third Chance. In 1961, James Thornwell, a black US Army sergeant who worked at a NATO office in Orleans, France, came under suspicion of stealing classified documents. He was interrogated, hypnotized, and given a polygraph and truth serum. All these attempts to coerce a confession from him failed, but the Army Intelligence men remained convinced of his guilt. They even concocted a bizarre scenario involving the French police, who pulled over Thornwell’s car, drew their guns and opened fire as he sped away.
The officers also told colleagues of Thornwell that the black man had been sleeping with their wives and girlfriends: several of these men beat up Thornwell in a jealous rage. Eventually Thornwell turned to the intelligence officers for help in escaping this harassment. They duly offered to put the sergeant in protective custody in an abandoned millhouse. There Thornwell was secretly given LSD over a period of several days by army and CIA interrogators, during which he was forced to undergo extremely aggressive questioning, replete with racial slurs. At one point his interrogators threatened “to extend the state indefinitely, even to a permanent condition of insanity.” They consummated this promise. Thornwell experienced a major mental crisis from which he never recovered. In 1982 he was found drowned in his swimming pool in Maryland. There was never any evidence that Thornwell had anything to do with the missing NATO papers.
MK-ULTRA was never designed to be pure research. It was always intended as an operational program, and by the early 1960s these techniques were being fully deployed in the field, sometimes in situations so vile that they rivaled in evil the efforts of the Nazi scientists in German concentration camps. Well-known is the journey of Dr. Sidney Gottlieb to the Congo, where his little black bag held an Agency-developed biotoxin scheduled for Patrice Lumumba’s toothbrush. Less well-known is the handkerchief laced with botulinum that was to sent to an Iraqi colonel. Then there are the endless potions directed at Fidel Castro, from the LSD the Agency wanted to spray in his radio booth to the poisonous fountain pen intended for Castro that was handed by a CIA man to Rolando Cubela in Paris on November 22, 1963.
And even less well remembered is one mission in the Agency’s Phoenix operation in Vietnam in the late 1960s. In July 1968 a team of CIA psychologists set up shop at Bien Hoa Prison outside Saigon, where NLF suspects were being held after Phoenix Program round-ups. The CIA had become increasingly frustrated with its inability to break down suspected NLF leaders by using traditional means of interrogation and torture. They had doped up NLF officers with LSD, hoping that by inducing irrational behavior, the seemingly unbreakable solidarity of their captives could be broken and that the other inmates would then begin to talk. These experiments ended in failure, leaving the prisoners to became little more than lab material for experiments.
In one such experiment, three prisoners were anaesthetized; their skulls were then opened and electrodes were implanted by CIA doctors into different parts of their brains. The prisoners were revived, placed in a room with knives and the electrodes in the brains activated by the CIA psychiatrists who were covertly observing them. The hope was that they could be prompted in this manner to attack each other. The experiment failed. The electrodes were removed, the patients were shot and their bodies burned. This rivaled anything in Dachau.
The CIA’s drug testing and adventures into mind control became the subject of four ground-breaking book-length investigations: John Marks’s The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (1979), Walter Bowart’s Operation Mind Control (1978), Alan Scheflin’s The Mind Manipulators (1978) and Martin Lee and Bruce Schlain’s Acid Dreams (1985). But aside from these pioneering works, how did the American press and historians of the CIA deal with this astonishing saga, in which a man such as Olson lost his life, thousands of people were involuntarily and unknowingly dosed with drugs so dangerous or untested that the CIA’s own chemists dared not try them? A story in which for more than twenty years the CIA paid for such illegal activities, protected criminals from arrest, let others suffer without intervention and tried to destroy all evidence of its crimes? When the saga did unfold before the Kennedy hearings in 1977, the Washington Post offered this laconic and dismissive headline, “The Gang that Couldn’t Spray Straight,” accompanied by a trivial story “designed to downplay the whole MK-ULTRA scandal. Tom Powers, the biographer of MK-ULTRA’s patron and protector, Richard Helms, skips over the program in his 350-page book The Man Who Kept the Secrets.
“I thought in 1978 when our books were appearing, when we were doing media work all over the world, that we would finally get the story out, the vaults would be cleansed, the victims would learn their identities, the story would become part of history, and the people who had been injured could seek recompense,” recalled Alan Scheflin. “Instead, what happened was the great void. As soon as the story hit the paper it was yesterday’s news, and we waited and waited for real congressional hearings and we waited for the lists of people who were victims to be notified. And none of that happened.”
This essay is adapted from Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press.