MK Ultra: the secrets of the CIA’s mind-control programme

In 1953, CIA scientist Frank Olson plunged to his death under the influence of LSD. But his fate, Pat Kinsella reveals, may not have been a tale of tragic misadventure

Through MK ULtra's experiments, often performed on unwitting test subjects, the CIA hoped to make 'brainwashing' real. (Image by RF CREATIVE/Getty Images)

In the small hours of the morning, on 28 November 1953, a research scientist plunged to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel. As far as his family was aware, Dr Frank Olson had been working for the US army, and the official line was that he had committed suicide because of job-related stress.

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Twenty-two years later, the CIA confessed that its agents had given Olson the hallucinogen LSD, without his consent or knowledge, and that his subsequent death was probably caused by the effects of the drug. US President Gerald Ford even issued an official apology. This was an extraordinary sequence of events, but it transpired that the real story was much deeper, and a whole lot darker. If the US government thought it had drawn a line under the affair by admitting limited culpability for one man’s death and saying sorry, it was gravely mistaken.

As the increasingly sticky layers were peeled back, this episode would become one of the biggest scandals to ever hit US intelligence services – a troubling tale involving biological weapons, pharmaceutical torture, illegal drug experimentation on innocent US citizens, and murder.

Ultra secret

The narrative revolves in concentric circles around a clandestine project known as MK Ultra, most tangible traces of which were hastily destroyed by the authorities involved during investigations into rogue CIA activity following the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

But some documents were not destroyed and not everyone was silenced. New clues came to the fore too, not least a report by a forensic scientist after Olson’s body was finally exhumed in 1994, which discovered physical evidence suggesting that he had been struck on the head and then thrown through the window.

The full extent of the story and scale of the cover-up is still unravelling. In 2012, six decades after Frank Olson’s death and following years of indefatigable work by his eldest son Eric, the family filed a lawsuit against the CIA, claiming the scientist had been tortured and killed by the agency after witnessing horrendous human rights abuses.

Even now, documents are being drip-fed into the public sphere that shine more light on one of the shadiest episodes of the CIA’s history, and the US government’s extraordinary attempts to conceal the truth – a saga that involves names that remain part of the tapestry of modern US politics.

CIA researcher Carl Pfeiffer (right) is given a dose of LSD; he would later administer it to prisoners. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
CIA researcher Carl Pfeiffer (right) is given a dose of LSD; he would later administer it to prisoners. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Brain games

By the time the US became embroiled in Vietnam, the official strategy was all about winning hearts and minds. But before that – during the deepfrozen depths of the early Cold War, as a decidedly warm war sparked on the Korean peninsular – the focus was on the ability to break hearts and control minds.

In the early 1950s, the US military – which had just lost its monopoly on the atomic bomb – was increasingly paranoid about Soviet-Bloc intelligence services potentially employing aggressive brainwashing techniques on US soldiers and POWs. In response, the obliquely named MK Ultra was officially authorised by CIA director Allan Dulles in April 1953. Led by CIA chemist and poison expert, Sidney Gottlieb (aka the ‘Black Sorcerer’ or ‘Dirty Trickster’), it conducted research into the use of psychological operation (PsyOp) strategies on enemy combatants and prisoners, experimenting with reality-altering drugs – including psychedelics and paralytics – and brain-twisting techniques to radically influence human behaviour.

The CIA purchased a huge supply of LSD from Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that discovered the hallucinogen. Gottlieb championed the idea of harnessing the mind-bending properties of the drug to inflict torture, extract information and influence people’s performance in combat or clandestine operations. The programme also experimented with heroin, MDMA (ecstasy), methamphetamine, mescaline, barbiturates, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), temazepam, cannabis and alcohol.

Besides drugs, electroshock therapy and hypnosis were also employed to create confusion, panic, anxiety and amnesia. The idea, according to Gottlieb, was to use “techniques that would crush the human psyche to the point that it would admit anything”.

Dirty deeds

Wholesale human experimentation was conducted in universities (including Columbia and Stanford), hospitals, mental institutions and jails across the US and Canada between 1953 and 1964.

Some of the subjects were volunteers, many of them students – including Ken Kesey (who later wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Ted Kaczynski (who became the murderous Unabomber). Others were prisoners, patients, drug addicts, vulnerable children, drop-outs and sex workers, and plenty – including CIA staff – didn’t even know they were being tested on, and were given psychological manipulators while at work to see how they would perform.

Subjects were routinely administered LSD and given mock interrogations in extreme conditions, with sensory deprivation or over-amplification used to disorientate and scare them. Threats of extending bad trips were used to extract information. LSD was reportedly inflicted on a mental patient in Kentucky for almost six months, while anothergroup of volunteers were given the hallucinogen for 77 consecutive days.

Unsurprisingly, this sometimes resulted in death and permanent mental disability. During Operation Midnight Climax, conducted primarily in San Francisco and New York City, the CIA hired prostitutes to lure men back to safe houses, where – completely unbeknown to them – they were given LSD. Their behaviour was observed by agents who were stationed behind two-way mirrors (agents who were often, they later admitted, drinking cocktails). Videos were also made of these activities, with recording equipment disguised as electrical devices.

Around 80 institutions were involved in the tests, most oblivious to what was really happening. The CIA even recruited eminent British psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, then chairman of the World Psychiatric Association and president of the American and Canadian psychiatric associations, who was ostensibly attempting to cure schizophrenia by erasing patients’ memories and reprogramming their psyche.

Handsomely paid through a fake organisation called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, Cameron apparently never knew he was being employed by the CIA. Nevertheless, some of the most disturbing experimental and unethical practices of MK Ultra allegedly took place under his supervision at Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute.

Subjects (many of whom were children) were placed in drug-induced comas for long periods, forced to listen to looped tapes of repetitive noises, subjected to electroconvulsive therapy at extreme levels and exposed to sexual abuse. Olson was a minor character in opening scenes of this horror show, but his violent death would eventually expose the whole affair.

President Ford (third from right) invited the Olson family to the White House to apologise for the US Government's role in Frank's apparent suicide. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
President Ford (third from right) invited the Olson family to the White House to apologise for the US Government’s role in Frank’s apparent suicide. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Death of a scientist

In 1950, Olson had been selected to work for the Special Operations Division (SOP) of the US Army’s biological laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Initially engaged as a civilian contractor, he was later recruited by the CIA’s Technical Services Staff (TSS), run by Sidney Gottlieb and his deputy, Robert Lashbrook.

By 1952, he was head of department, tasked with developing aerosol weapons capable of transmitting diseases like anthrax. Unsurprisingly, his family recall that his work seldom made him happy. When he came home in particularly sombre moods, they knew experiments had gone well that day and that all the monkeys had died.

The following year, Olson visited military bases in Paris, Norway and West Germany, and Britain’s biological and chemical warfare research centre in Porton Down, near Salisbury, Wiltshire. During these trips, according to the lawsuit his bereaved family filed against the CIA, his group “witnessed extreme interrogations in which the CIA committed murder using biological agents that Dr Olson had developed”.

Olson had already relinquished the division leader role to Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Ruwet, and had been harbouring severe ethical concerns about the application of his research. This trip crystallised his resolve to leave the programme and, upon returning home, he told his wife, Alice, that he would resign. However, on 19 November, Olson was taken to a meeting at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, with Gottlieb, Lashbrook and Ruwet, where he was served a glass of Cointreau laced with LSD.

Consuming food or drink spiked with mind-bending substances was almost an occupational hazard for CIA staff at the time. Gottlieb wanted to see how his wavering staff member would react under the influence – would Olson blab about what he had been working on and witnessed?

The effect of the drug was profound. Exactly what Olson revealed to his CIA handlers over the weekend isn’t known, but Alice reported that her husband returned from the three-day meeting depressed and withdrawn. On 24 November, he told Ruwet he wanted to be removed from the project.

Instead, the troubled scientist was talked into subjecting himself to psychiatric evaluation, and three days later, on Thanksgiving  weekend, he travelled to New York. On 27 November, he checked into the Statler Hotel, where he shared a room with a CIA doctor.

He saw a physician – an allergist, not a psychiatrist – went to the theatre and returned to the hotel. In the early hours of the following morning, 42-year-old Dr Frank Olson smashed through the window of his room and plummeted to his death on the sidewalk below. According to the lawsuit later brought by the family, immediately after the incident, someone in Olson’s hotel room made a phone call, and the operator heard a voice say: “Well, he’s gone”.

In 1984, Eric Olson visited that hotel room and concluded, from the dimensions, it wouldn’t have been possible for someone to run and throw themselves through the window. That’s when he began proceedings to get his father’s body exhumed.

What the CIA learned from the Nazis

At the end of World War II, as the US switched focus from fascism to the rising Soviet threat, hundreds of German scientists (senior Nazis among them) were brought to the US to help with military advancement. The priority was rocket technology, but some of the 1600 scientists recruited in Operation Overcast (later renamed Operation Paperclip) had been involved in human experimentation and the development of chemical and biological weapons, including the use of bubonic plague and sarin.

It was controversial, but the US was hungry for the scientists’ expertise, and desperate to keep them away from the Soviets, so complicity in war crimes – even involvement in infamous medical experiments at Dachau and Ravensbrück – was overlooked.

The Third Reich’s deputy health minister, Dr Kurt Blome, who admitted experimenting with plague vaccines on concentration camp prisoners, was acquitted during the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial thanks to US intervention. By 1951, he was working on chemical weapons for the US Army Chemical Corps.

More disturbing still, despite the Nazis’ horrifying scientific practices being condemned and outlawed at Nuremberg, US authorities started secretly experimenting on humans themselves, even their own people. The nerve agent tabun was tested on unwitting soldiers, disabling them for weeks. When Brigadier- General Charles Loucks, Chief of US Chemical Warfare Plans in Europe, learned about the development of LSD, he immediately envisaged it as a weapon.

The CIA became involved and the projects evolved through several name changes and sprouted off-shoots – from Operation Paperclip to Bluebird, and then Artichoke and MK Ultra.

But the overall objective remained the same: developing PsyOps techniques and biological and chemical weapons capable of bending and breaking minds during interrogation, or spreading widespread death or incapacitation on the battlefield. They even toyed with creating unwitting assassins, programmed while under the influence of hypnosis and drugs, and activated remotely, as in Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate.

Until MK Ultra saw experiments take place in universities and hospitals across the US, most research happened at the Army Chemical Corps at Fort Detrick, Maryland.  The worst human testing was done in what would later be called ‘black sites’ – clandestine facilities such as Camp King near Frankfurt, Germany, out of sight and reach of US law. Frank Olson worked at Fort Detrick and, in 1952, travelled to Camp King to witness his handiwork being used on human subjects, with lethal consequences for both the subjects and the doctor.

The come down

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote a piece for The New York Times in 1974, exposing how the CIA had orchestrated nonconsensual drug experiments and illegal spying operations on US citizens.

The nation had recently been rocked by the Watergate scandal, in which the CIA was complicit, and newly installed president Gerald Ford set up the United States President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States, better known as the Rockefeller Commission, to scrutinise illegal CIA activities, including MK Ultra.

In 1975, the Church Committee conducted another, more expansive investigation into illicit CIA (and FBI) operations during Nixon’s presidency. These included assassination plots against foreign heads of state, such as Fidel Castro, which MK Ultra leader Sidney Gottlieb was also heavily involved in. The findings of these investigations led to President Ford’s 1976 Executive Order on Intelligence Activities, which specifically outlawed “experimentation with drugs on human subjects, except with the informed consent, in writing and witnessed by a disinterested party, of each such human subject”. Leading government officials – including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – calculated that a personal apology from the President, coupled with a promise of a financial settlement and a glimpse at the surviving paperwork, would appease (and silence) the grieving Olson family. And they were correct – but only temporarily.

As more evidence dripped out, documentation from the period was declassified and court cases were successfully fought by victims of MK Ultra, Eric Olson – a Harvard-qualified doctor of psychology – began compiling a collage which convinced him the CIA was still withholding crucial information and covering up the truth.

In July 2013, the lawsuit against the US Government brought by the Olson family was dismissed, primarily because of conditions attached to the original 1976 ruling and settlement. However, after making his decision, US District Judge James Boasberg wrote: “While the court must limit its analysis to the four corners of the complaint, the sceptical reader may wish to know that the public record supports many of the allegations [in the family’s suit], far-fetched as they may sound.”

The men who stared at goats

In the late 1970s, a top-secret army unit was envisaged by leading US military figures. These supersoldiers would master and weaponise such metaphysical skills as invisibility, psychokinesis, levitation and the ability to walk through walls. They also attempted to kill goats simply by looking at them, as detailed in The Men Who Stared at Goats, the book by British journalist Jon Ronson that was later made into a film staring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.

The film employs poetic licence, but the true story is astonishing. In 1979, Vietnam veteran Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Channon combined his frontline combat experience with some Californian LSD-laced New Age thinking and scripted a 125-page operations manual for the ‘First Earth Battalion’ – a platoon of Jedi Knight–like warrior monks.

Amazingly, when Channon presented his ideas to the US military’s top brass, he won enthusiastic backing from Major-General Albert Newton Stubblebine III, a highly decorated career officer with three decades of service, who was in charge of revitalising US military intelligence and was obsessed with psychic warfare.

It’s unclear how close the First Earth Battalion came to realisation, but Ronson documents the existence of goat labs and the Major-General’s failed attempts to walk through walls. Stubblebine, who presided over the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, was eventually encouraged into retirement when his spoon-bending tricks were perceived as Satanist behaviour by the devoutly Christian US Army Chief of Staff, General John Adams Wickham Jr.

Ronson’s research indicates that elements of MK Ultra and First Earth Battalion thinking still echo through military intelligence, most chillingly in PsyOps techniques employed against prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. These involve playing blindfolded and shackled captives Matchbox 20, Meatloaf, Limp Bizkit and Barney the Dinosaur theme music on endless earsplitting loops, possibly with subliminal messages underneath.

Murky results

Some findings from MK Ultra experiments apparently fed into the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual, and it’s thought the agency also used them in the development of its two-stage psychological torture method (first you create a state of disorientation in the subject, and then you instigate a second situation of ‘self-inflicted’ discomfort, through which the terrified and befuddled subject can alleviate their pain by capitulating).

Most of the MK Ultra-era test results are poorly recorded. Partially this is due to bad documentation (unsurprising, given that the observers were typically agents, not scientists, and were sometimes – willingly or unwittingly – under the influence of drugs themselves), and partly because of the shredding and burning frenzy ordered by CIA Director Richard Helms in 1973.

In the media maelstrom that was to follow, the CIA conceded that all such experimentation had little scientific rationale or practical use, and the use of LSD in field operations was ruled out because it was such an unpredictable drug. Rumours persist, though, that the programme was buried, not entirely abandoned, and the pursuit of PsyOps techniques certainly continued apace.

Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor.

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This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed