As he sat before the Senate Committee, the Admiral found himself justifying the actions of his Agency from a time before he had joined their ranks. Ever since a whistleblower had exposed a secret programme that had conducted experiments on American citizens, the lies and corruption perpetuated by the Central Intelligence Agency forced its current Director, Stansfied Turner, to focus on damage control as he attempted to reassure the panel that it was business as usual. Having taken his place before the judgemental eyes of the Senators, Turner, along with several associates from the CIA, spent a long and arduous Wednesday responding to a barrage of questions pertaining to the project that had remained out of the public eye for over twenty years. But when thousands of documents were released under the Freedom of Information Act, stories of drug-induced manipulations, physical coercion, and even accusations of murder soon reached the front page of the country’s most revered publications. Turner remained steadfast as the chairman presiding over these events questioned him regarding the apparent suicide of a civilian biochemist more than two decades earlier, but even as he was asked to shed light on this tragedy, all he could muster in response was, ‘No, sir. I really can’t.’ All those who may or may not have played a role in his death had either long since retired or passed away, and now the Admiral was desperately trying to save the integrity of the intelligence services. When the truth behind this clandestine operation was first revealed, the nation was still reeling over the resignation of a disgraced President, and so the revelation that ordinary Americans had been used as unwitting subjects threatened to destroy whatever faith remained in their leaders. The Agency had blood on its hands, and one death in particular would cast a dark shadow over the trust that the United States had in its government.
It was early morning on 28 November 1953 when officials at the CIA were informed of an incident that had taken place barely three hours earlier in New York City. A man, they were told, had fallen to his death from the thirteenth floor of the Statler Hotel in Manhattan, but as further information came through their office, they learned that the individual had ties to one of their most secretive operations. His death amounted to a breach in national security, and imminent action was required to avoid this tragic event becoming a scandal. An agent was immediately dispatched to investigate, and upon arriving at the hotel, he discovered that the man who had left a pool of blood on the sidewalk was a forty-three-year-old scientist called Frank Olson. The first on the scene had been the facility’s night manager, Armond Pastore, who would later recall to the media his gruesome discovery. ‘He was broken up something awful,’ he told reporters many years later, and it would be through Pastore’s attention to detail that the authorities were quick to identify the room from which the mysterious guest had fallen. ‘After the ambulance took him away, I was looking up at the building,’ he explained. ‘I realised that there was a window shade sticking out. I could never visualise how anyone could get through this window by himself. There wasn’t much running room.’ Obtaining the key from reception, Pastore led officers from the NYPD to Room 1018a, where they found the window had been smashed and another guest, a chemist working for the CIA, was sat alone, seemingly shaken and confused by the strange turn of events. ‘I was asleep at the time, and didn’t see him go out the window,’ the man claimed during questioning.
Within hours of the incident, the local coroner ruled Olson’s death as a suicide, and the Agency succeeded in keeping the truth from both the authorities and his family. But after documents were released in the mid-seventies, it was revealed that Olson had been subjected to a hallucinogenic drug that had left him struggling with depression, forcing the CIA to refer him to a psychiatric hospital before his actions called unwanted attention to his work. ‘At least one death, that of Dr. Olson, resulted from these activities,’ declared Senator Edward Kennedy during the hearing that would take place in August 1977. ‘The Agency itself acknowledged that these tests made little scientific sense.’ But for more than two decades, the CIA were able to bury the truth behind his so-called suicide from the public, with one Director of the Agency later ordering all material related to the programme to be destroyed to avoid risk of criminal prosecution. As a result, Olson’s wife, daughter, and two sons were left to believe that, for reasons unknown, their loving husband and father had taken his own life. A representative from the military installation where he had worked arrived later that morning to inform the family of the tragedy that had befallen their patriarch. ‘Your father was in New York, and he had an accident,’ announced Vincent Ruwet, a Colonel at the nearby Fort Detrick, and a close friend of Frank Olson. ‘It seems he fell, or jumped, from a hotel window.’ Any investigation that may have followed his death was cursory at best, and little attention was given to the loss of life as the CIA continued with its illegal and immoral activities. Olson, meanwhile, was laid to rest at Frederick Memorial Park in Maryland, but in the years following his passing, his family remained unconvinced by the narrative that the government had presented. Frank Olson was a family man that loved his children, was a proud member of his community, and dedicated his life to his work, but in the week leading up to his death, his wife and colleagues grew concerned over his deteriorating mental state.
Named in honour of Frederick Louis Detrick, a surgeon and pilot from Maryland that served on the frontline during the Great War, Fort Detrick is located close to Route 15, a highway that runs along the East Coast from New York to South Carolina. Frank Olson, the son of Swedish immigrants, had graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a PhD in biochemistry, where he was then recruited to join the Agricultural Experiment Station department at Purdue University in Indiana. But soon he was headhunted by his former lecturer, Ira Baldwin, to join the growing scientific team at Edgewood Arsenal, and the family relocated to Maryland. Barely six months later, Olson was transferred to Fort Detrick, where he would spend the next seven years working under the Physical Defence Division. But his life would forever change when he became a member of the Special Operations Division. During this time, the CIA had developed something of an obsession with the concept of mind control, and in collaboration with Olson’s new department, they conducted experiments involving hallucinogens, which the Agency hoped would help coerce enemy agents into revealing details of their secret missions. With the United States and the Soviet Union keeping a close eye on the other’s activities, the Cold War had become a time of increasing paranoia between the two nations. Members of both the CIA and Special Operations Division would regularly meet at a retreat near Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, where they would discuss top secret projects between the two organisations. But on the evening of 19 November 1953, Olson, Ruwet, and several other participants gathered at a two-storey log cabin, where Olson and his associates were administered a relatively new hallucinogen called lysergic acid diethylamide, allegedly without their knowledge. Scientists from the CIA observed as their subjects reacted to the psychedelic experience that their trip had to offer, but following this unorthodox experiment, Olson began to demonstrate symptoms of depression.
Returning home after the two-day retreat, his wife immediately noticed a change in the man that she had known for more than a decade, and his supervisors were as equally concerned by his erratic behaviour. Finally agreeing to be referred to a specialist, Olson’s doctor advised that he take a leave of absence and admit himself to Chestnut Lodge, a private facility in the city of Rockville, where he would receive the care that he so desperately required. But before Olson could commit to his recovery, he fell to his death during an unscheduled stop in New York City. His fate remained a mystery until one day, in 1974, when a journalist from the New York Times published a story that would see the CIA’s dirtiest secrets finally being unearthed, resulting in controversial headlines, arrests, and Senate hearings. By the following year, the public had become familiar with such names as Sidney Gottlieb, Robert Lashbrook, and Frank Olson, and the series of projects funded by the American government that had involved illegal tests conducted on students, prisoners, and hospital patients without their knowledge. On 21 July 1975, Olson’s family received a Presidential apology from Gerald Ford for the death of their loved one, but even though the truth had finally been revealed, this vindication could not bring back the absent father and husband. ‘At every point, there seems to be a convergence of the evidence,’ said his son, Nils Olson, in 1994. ‘It all points to my father being murdered.’ Sometime later, Dr. Robert Gibson, a former psychiatrist at Chestnut Lodge, told the media that he had received a telephone call from a man he believed to be Lashbrook, a scientist working for the CIA, who had been present at the cabin on Deep Creek Lake on the evening that Olson had been given the hallucinogen. ‘The man said that, during the night, he had awakened, and that his friend was standing in the middle of the room,’ he reported. ‘He started to say something to him, and as he did, Olson ran and hurled himself through the window.’
But in 1975, Lashbrook, who denied making the call to Gibson, claimed that Olson was a willing participant in the experiment, and was aware that he was taking the unpredictable drug. ‘It was my understanding that actually everyone there had agreed in advance that such a test would be conducted, that they were willing to be one of the subjects. The only thing was that the time was not specified,’ he said in a statement. An article published by the New York Times following this announcement added, ‘According to New York city police reports, Mr. Lashbrook was one of two men who accompanied Mr. Olson to New York, and was sharing Room 1018a at the Statler Hotel with Mr. Olson, when Mr. Olson went out the window. Mr. Lashbrook, who said he was a friend and a consultant chemist employed by the War Department, identified Mr. Olson’s body at the Medical Examiner’s office, and gave the police most of the information in their report.’ As speculation began to mount surrounding the fate of Olson, and the possibility that the CIA could have been responsible for his death, Lashbrook attempted to reassure the press even long after his retirement. ‘I don’t recall anyone at the CIA suggesting that, just because he’d flipped his lid a bit, that that’s a security risk,’ he insisted. But with the reputation that the Agency had gained in the decades since its formation, conspiracy theorists, several government officials, and even his own family believed that Olson’s death was an assassination, a means to an end in order to silence an individual who could unwittingly reveal secrets that even the country’s commander-in-chief was unaware of. ‘Is there any reason to suppose the President did not know of the project?’ posed Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming during the 1977 hearing. ‘Well,’ responded Admiral Turner. ‘I find it difficult, when it is that far back, to hypothesise what the procedures that the Director was using, in terms of informing his superiors, were. It is quite a different climate from today, and I think we do a lot more informing today than they did back then, but I find it very difficult to guess what the level of knowledge was.’
The thoughts that occupied the mind of Alice Olson ever since Colonel Ruwet had arrived at her door constantly returned to one in particular: why would a man who was happily married and devoted to his children take his own life? The drastic change in his behaviour leading up to that fateful day was clouded in depression, but this had only occurred following his excursion to Deep Lake Creek. But what his wife did not know was that he had been exposed to a new pharmaceutical drug that even scientists at the CIA did not fully understand. The birth of lysergic acid diethylamide came shortly before the advent of the Second World War when Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann conducted a series of experiments with ergot, a fungus grown on crops that he believed could be used in the treatment of circulatory and respiratory conditions. Taking its cue from work carried out in New York, in which scientists had extracted a chemical in the fungus called lysergic acid, he combined this with diethylamide to create a new compound which he called LSD-25. But after accidentally absorbing some of the chemical through his skin, Hofmann began to feel unexpected side-effects from his discovery as he experienced a surreal display of fascinating images that he likened to a kaleidoscope. And yet the more he tried to bring himself back down to earth, the more intense the hallucinations became. ‘My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms,’ he wrote in his memoir. ‘Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world were the alterations that I perceived in myself, my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world, and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be a wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul.’
Frank Olson would not confide in even his closest friends on what nightmarish images he experienced during his psychedelic trip in the cabin, but whatever he was subjected to had a profound effect on his mental state, and this became a growing concern not only for his colleagues at Detrick, but also the watchful eye of the CIA. The truth of what happened at the Statler Hotel on the morning of 28 November 1953 may never be revealed, as all those associated with the scandal have since taken their secrets to the grave, but forty years after his death, Olson’s two sons, who had remained unconvinced by the explanations given by the Agency, decided that they required undisputed evidence that their father had been murdered by the United States government. On 2 June 1994, at the insistence of both Nils and Eric Olson, the body of Frank Olson was exhumed from his resting place at Frederick Memorial Park and handed over to a forensic team from Georgetown University in Washington DC, who were tasked with conducting a thorough autopsy on his remains to conclude whether foul play had been involved in his demise. ‘I don’t know if we’re going to find out what happened to my father, but I want to feel we did what we could do to find out,’ announced Eric Olson, a psychologist based in Frederick. ‘I was only nine-years-old when he died, and it was an overwhelming shock for me, and something from which, in a lot of ways, I’ve never recovered.’ The next morning, Dr. James E. Starrs, a professor in law and forensic sciences, studied the forty-one-year-old embalmed corpse of Olson. Starrs had previously performed similar tests on the remains of the victims of nineteenth century cannibal Alfred Packer, along with the butchered parents of acquitted murderer Lizzie Borden, and so his skills would once again come into play as he attempted to uncover the truth behind Olson’s death.
After scientists at the Hagerstown Police laboratory performed x-rays on the body, it was transported to York College in Pennsylvania for Dr. Starrs to run a series of tests, during which a fracture was discovered at the bottom of the skull that was not consistent with the series of events that had been presented to Olson’s family. ‘It’s significant because it shows that the skull suffered a more powerful blow, or series of blows, than the original medical examinations indicated,’ revealed a spokesman on behalf of Starrs. ‘If Olson went through that piece of glass, there is a lot of glass that would have cut him. If his body went through it, there would have been jagged shards left around the frame, and he would have been cut.’ As further details were announced regarding the forensic findings, government officials soon began to take an interest in the case. James Traficant, who served on the US House of Representatives for Ohio, had long been an outspoken critic of the CIA, and wasted no time in lambasting the covert experiments that the Agency had carried out in years gone by. ‘Frank Olson was an unknowing participant in a secret CIA experiment,’ he declared. ‘The CIA said he committed suicide by jumping through a window, but glass fragments were never found on Olson’s body, and the hotel’s night manager said that Frank Olson did not commit suicide forty years ago. Who do we believe? The CIA said it knew nothing about mining Nicaraguan harbours. It said it knew nothing about Iran-Contra. The Olson family needs the truth. The American people need to know the truth.’ Even as the conspiracy surrounding Olson was featured in an episode of NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries, and computer specialists utilised groundbreaking animation to recreate the specifics surrounding his death, other politicians spoke out against the CIA. John Conyers, a contemporary of Traficant, stated, ‘Today, individuals injured in these experiments, and their families, are still trying to find out the truth about what happened.’
Despite the headway made in the investigation, the findings obtained by Starrs and his family offered no definitive results. ‘We didn’t find a smoking gun,’ admitted the Professor. ‘But there is no question he has a distinctively suspicious bump over the left eye, and every member of my team agrees it has the possibility of being the site where he may have been struck by another person in the process of throwing him out the window.’ By the end of 1994, forensics had offered no indisputable evidence of murder, but Starrs maintained his opinion that Olson had not taken his own life. ‘I am exceedingly sceptical of the view that Dr. Olson went through the window on his own,’ he insisted. Further clarification of wrongdoing came when chief medical examiner Jack Frost offered his report on the investigation, specifically citing the swelling around Olson’s left eye, which was not consistent with a fall. ‘It was smooth. If you hit concrete, you’re going to see abrasions,’ he said. ‘The non-scientific aspects are frankly and starkly suggestive of homicide. There’s no other way I can read them.’ Even though they had yet to bring the Agency to justice, both of Olson’s sons felt reassured that forensic experts had confirmed the doubts that had haunted them for more than forty years. ‘You can solve this thing from a scientific basis, that’s the nature of the crime,’ explained Eric Olson. ‘Starrs himself is convinced it’s a homicide, convinced of exactly what I’ve believed for years.’ In the summer of 1997, the Olsons decided to take further action by retaining the services of a district attorney. ‘The only thing we can say is that we have received a complaint from the family and we’re reviewing it,’ confirmed the Manhattan firm.
Seven years later, former colleagues of Olson, who had served alongside him at Detrick, offered their own thoughts on the fate of their old friend. ‘If the question is, did Frank commit suicide?, my answer is absolutely, positively not,’ insisted Norman Cournoyer, who had become close to the victim during the early fifties. ‘Frank was a talker. His concept of being a real American had changed. He wasn’t sure we should be in germ warfare, at the end.’ Finally, in 2012, Nils and Eric Olson took legal action against the federal government for compensatory damages, while also demanding further documents be released by the Central Intelligence Agency. ‘The evidence shows that our father was killed in their custody,’ claimed Eric Olson. ‘They have lied to us ever since, withholding documents and information, and changing their story when convenient.’ Despite their best efforts, the following July the case was dismissed by James Boasberg, the District Judge presiding over the trial. ‘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 that follow, farfetched as they may sound,’ he announced. Understandably crushed by the verdict, the two siblings had tried but failed to hold the CIA accountable for their crimes of the past. ‘We are disappointed at the court’s decision, particularly in view of the Judge Boasberg’s recognition of the legitimacy of our clients,’ said Scott Gilbert, the lawyer assigned to the case.
The mysterious demise of Frank Olson had threatened to tear a family apart, and as they attempted to heal, the shadow of his death was cast over them. Even the release of declassified documents in the seventies, and the examination of his body in the nineties, failed to bring a guilty party to justice. All the Olsons could do from that moment on was try to move forward. In 2020, Frank Olson’s nephew, crime author Paul Vidich, created a fictional account of the true-life drama with The Coldest Warrior. ‘Frank Olson left behind his wife, Alice, my aunt, and three young children, Eric, Lisa, and Nils,’ he wrote in the introduction. ‘Their lives went on, but were never the same, and Frank’s death traumatised each of them in deeply personal ways. Eric, the eldest, dedicated his life to unpacking the mystery of his father’s death. I observed this tragedy over the years from within the tenuous intimacy of our family connection. I witnessed how my cousin, Eric’s search was frustrated by an Agency clinging to its secrets.’ And yet as fate would have it, Frank Olson became posthumously embroiled in arguably their darkest secret of all, one that the CIA had kept hidden from the world for over twenty years. A series of brutal and unethical experiments that had their origin in the concentration camps of the Third Reich, and the Imperial Japanese Army of the Second World War, and how the American government brought these atrocities home, subjecting their own citizens to all manner of horrific forms of torture, all in the name of science. And this nightmare had a name, one that would remain etched deep in the psyche of American culture for decades to come. The media called it despicable, the public called it unforgivable, but the CIA merely called it Project MKULTRA.
I. Enter the Machine
Although the Third Reich had surrendered to the Allied forces on 7 May 1945, the Holocaust did not come to an end, it merely retreated to the shadows. Whereas the Nazis had openly conducted unimaginable experiments on its prisoners at Dachau and Auschwitz, the United States had continued this work in secret, under the guise of national security. Even as they fought to bring the Axis powers to its knees, the American government had watched with keen interest as they received intelligence reports on such barbaric scientists as Josef Mengele and Kurt Blome. The trial at Nuremberg, in which doctors serving at concentration camps during the war were held accountable for their crimes, had brought a sense of justice and closure to the atrocities that were inflicted upon millions of innocents at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s war machine. But no sooner had the war come to an end, tensions began to grow between America and the Soviet Union, and fearing that their new enemy had made progress in the field of enhanced interrogation, the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency dedicated its resources to exploring the concept of mind control. It was believed that not only the Soviets, but also the Chinese and North Koreans, had succeeded in manipulating the thoughts of their prisoners, and effectively brainwashing them into revealing classified secrets. For the CIA, to master this technique could allow them to infiltrate the Soviet’s KGB and bring the Cold War to an end. ‘By 1949, the Cold War was an established fact of life,’ recalled Richard Helms, who had worked for the Office of Strategic Services, an intelligence agency that was terminated shortly after the end of the Second World War, after which he joined the CIA. ‘The certainty that the American monopoly on atomic weapons could not endure for long as our policymakers had assured added an urgent dimension to the Pearl Harbour syndrome. How long, Washington policymakers asked, would it take the USSR to develop its own atomic weapon? The CIA was established to prevent the risk of another sneak attack.’
The genesis of Project MKULTRA was birthed with the question how can we take control of the human mind? For if the perfect prisoner is one who will divulge all their deepest secrets, then the perfect soldier is not only one who obeys without question, but has no memory of the mission once complete. Is it possible to re-programme the mind, and to manipulate a person’s thoughts at will? This was what America’s enemies had explored through their own classified experiments and, fearing that not pursuing similar activities of discovery would leave them vulnerable to attack, the CIA had prioritised the exploration of mind control in a series of programmes that would culminate with MKULTRA. But how could they justify such morally questionable acts when they had sentenced Nazi scientists to death for laying the groundwork for these trials? Had the CIA merely been the Fourth Reich, and at what point does scientific curiosity become playing God? And yet, as America attempted to return to some sense of normality after four years of war, behind closed doors, government agents were conspiring with Nazi scientists to conduct all manner of experiments on their own citizens. Despite the ethics, the Agency were convinced that if they were going to defeat communism, then the secret to their success lay in the mysteries of the mind. ‘The new word brainwashing entered our minds and dictionaries in a phenomenally short time. This sinister political expression had never been seen in print anywhere until a few years ago,’ wrote Edward Hunter in his 1956 examination Brainwashing: The Story of Men Who Defied It. ‘The word came out of the sufferings of the Chinese people. Put under a terrifying combination of subtle and crude mental and physical pressures and tortures, they detected a pattern and called it brainwashing. The Reds wanted people to believe that it could be amply described by some familiar expression, such as education, public relations, persuasion, or by some misleading term like mind reform or re-education. None of these could define it, because it was much, much more than any one of them alone.’
Before one could even attempt to brainwash an individual, first they must understand what this entails. Over the course of their life, each person develops a set of morals that are established through their education, personal experiences, and observations, and coupled with their memories, external influences, and emotions, these make up their psychological profile. So in order to brainwash, these elements need to be rewritten so that the morality and will are adapted in order to suit the desires of others. ‘Brainwashing has been described by Webster’s Dictionary as ‘a forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and attitudes, and to accept contrasting regimented ideas.’ In common parlance, the term has a broader connotation encompassing any attempt at persuasion or influence which is disapproved of by someone,’ explained Alan W. Scheflin and Edward M. Option, Jr. in The Mind Manipulators. ‘The more technical definition, however, properly focuses upon the process of ideological conversion. Brainwashing exists only when a person has been compelled to believe subjectively a set of principles originally alien to him.’ The more recognised example is the Manchurian Candidate, a term derived from a novel by Richard Condon, itself influenced by brainwashing experiments conducted in the Chinese region of Manchuria, in which an individual is coerced into carrying out an assassination without being consciously aware of their own actions. It was this concept that fascinated the CIA, and would provide the blueprint for not only MKULTRA but its numerous side-projects. But the Agency would adopt other techniques that had been employed in Manchuria, such as torture and murder. In his book Poisoner in Chief, Stephen Kinzer revealed some of the gruesome experiments that Japanese scientists conducted on their patients in this remote Chinese location: ‘They were exposed to poison gas so that their lungs could later be removed and studied; slowly roasted by electricity to determine voltages needed to produce death; hung upside down to study the progress of natural choking; locked into high-pressure chambers until their eyes popped out; spun in centrifuges; infected with anthrax, syphilis, plagues, cholera, and other diseases; forcibly impregnated to provide infants for vivisection; bound to stakes to be incinerated by soldiers testing flamethrowers; and slowly frozen to observe the progress of hypothermia.’
From the very first experiments performed by the CIA at Camp King in Germany, it was clear that the Agency had as little regard for human life as the Nazis they had recruited, with the prisoners held at the facility subjected to all manner of torture and pharmaceutical interrogation. Other trials would be conducted outside of the United States, with similar tests employed in Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. One such experiment took place at Porton Down in the county of Wiltshire, England, in the spring of 1953, when several servicemen from the Royal Air Force were asked to take part in a study that they were led to believe was to find a cure for the common cold. But, unbeknownst to them, the real purpose for this spectacle was to study the effects of a toxic nerve agent called sarin. ‘We were told by two men to roll up the left sleeve,’ recalled one of the subjects, Ken Earl, to National Geographic. ‘These two men took two pieces of material, and they taped them to our forearm. They then gave us each a respirator, and that we were not, under any circumstances, to take off the respirator. And the door was sealed behind us. It was very, very pokey, a small building. And I’ve found out since it was a gas chamber, which puts the fear of death into you, of course. This technician, with a vial and a pipette, went around each of us, and he dropped onto these pieces of material twenty drops, in two rows. I became absolutely claustrophobic. I didn’t know what sheer terror there is in being trapped, and not being able to breathe properly. You feel you can’t breathe. I was sweating profusely. And I now, even today, have nightmares about it. After half an hour, we were released, gasping, and spluttering, and sweating into the open air. It was a beautiful, sunny May morning; absolute bliss, what a wonderful thing to be alive.’
One of the more notorious experiments that the CIA would conduct outside of the United States in conjunction with Project MKULTRA took place in Montreal in the Canadian province. Situated close to McGill University in the centre of the city, the Allan Memorial Institute was a gothic building that overlooked the surrounding neighbourhood, a vast estate that housed a research facility and psychiatric hospital. It was here that a well-respected member of the medical community conducted a series of experiments on local residents throughout the fifties and sixties that tore many families apart. Born in Scotland at the turn of the century, Ewan Cameron obtained numerous degrees in science in both Glasgow and London, before relocating to the United States, where he gained a Diplomate in Psychiatry. In 1942, he was granted citizenship and served as a psychiatrist-in-chief at New York’s Albany Hospital. After accepting a position at McGill University, he was promoted to Director of the Allan Memorial Institute. Having served as President for both the Canadian Psychiatric Association and the American Psychopathological Association, Cameron was revered by his colleagues and admired by his patients. ‘Dr. Cameron’s role in the psychiatric milieu in Canada from his first days in Montreal was not confined to any particular area, but was widespread,’ revealed an article published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1967. ‘He garnered an international reputation, particularly in the field of memory deficit in the ageing. To list but a few of his accomplishments, the Allan Memorial Institute was the first psychiatric division of a general hospital to be opened in Quebec, and the first in Canada to be opened on an ‘open door’ basis. At this institute, he established one of the first day-case hospitals in the world, and original work was fostered with pioneering laboratories, being set up in the fields of geriatrics, neuroendocrinology, and forensic psychiatry, and a pioneering unit for the study of transcultural psychiatry.’
As historians began to study the Holocaust in the years following the Second World War, one aspect that fascinated them was how respectable members of a community could willingly betray their own ethics for the Nazi Party. Renowned scientists and researchers were instrumental in the development of ballistic missiles and deadly chemicals, while lawyers and accountants worked tirelessly to fund the Third Reich’s reign of terror. So perhaps it was inevitable that, with the CIA having recruited Nazi war criminals to lead their projects, doctors as admired as Ewan Cameron would find themselves lending their talents to MKULTRA. Under his direction, the institute welcomed through its doors hundreds of patients, most of whom were young women, and subjected them to such brutal methods as electroshock therapy, hallucinogenic pharmaceuticals, and sensory deprivation, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Once they had been reduced to a comatose state, tape-recorded messages were repeatedly played in order to recondition the patient’s memory, and thus alter their behavioural patterns. ‘Patients were placed in a sealed room, little more than a large box, and deprived of all sensory input: no smells, eyes blindfolded, ears blocked, hands and feet padded. Cameron kept one woman in the box for thirty-five days,’ detailed the Montreal Gazette. ‘After the depatterning came the psychic driving; implanting a new behaviour through tape-recorded cue statements selected from the patient’s conversations with Cameron. Running on a continuous loop recorder, the messages were played sixteen hours daily for several weeks.’ The trauma that each patient was forced to endure would haunt them for the rest of their lives, often resulting in psychotic episodes or an inability to form close relationships with others.
What is perhaps most shocking about Cameron is that less than a decade before he agreed to participate in the CIA’s studies on mind control, he had been present at the trials in Nuremberg, where he had sat in judgement at the crimes committed by Nazi doctors in concentration camps. But now he was effectively continuing their work by torturing his own patients in the name of progress. Dr. Harvey Weinstein, a psychiatrist based in San Francisco, was the son of one of Cameron’s patients, and during a televised study of the project, he discussed how, in just a few short years, Cameron had abandoned his principles. ‘I find that, for someone who, in 1945, 1946, was involved in evaluating and considering what the Nazis had done to helpless people in concentration camps, here he was, five or six years later, invading people’s brains,’ he said. Some of Cameron’s patients became so traumatised by the experiments that their mental capacity had been reduced to infancy, and were often unable to function as adults. When patients were admitted to the Allan Memorial Institute, they believed that they would receive traditional treatment, but many became unwitting participants in Cameron’s devious studies. In 1957, thirty-three-year-old Jean Steel was placed under the doctor’s care following years of manic depression. Undergoing the same kind of torture as many of her fellow patients, Steel never recovered from her experience. ‘She was never able to really function as a healthy human being because of what they did to her,’ claimed her daughter, Alison, who was only four-years-old at the time. The same year, another patient, Velma Orlikow, also became a test subject, in which she was administered LSD on fourteen occasions, and became a victim of Cameron’s psychic driving. ‘She went away, hoping to get better, when she was an unknowing participant of CIA-funded experiments that had lifelong effects on her as a person,’ announced her grandson, Keir Johnson.
Families of many of the patients filed a lawsuit against the institute in 1980, with Orlikow receiving an out-of-court settlement of $50,000, plus legal costs of $15,000 the following year. In 2017, Steel and her daughter became the subject of a gag order as a result of their mission to uncover the truth behind her treatment under Cameron, and were eventually paid $100,000 on the condition that they retract their action against the institute. Ewen Cameron escaped the mid-seventies MKULTRA scandal as, in 1967, three years after his retirement from the programme, he suffered a heart attack while mountain climbing at Lake Placid and passed away at the age of sixty-five. ‘Cameron had great organising abilities, but he remained a clinician till the end. He always insisted on treating a number of his patients himself personally, rather than sitting too much in his professional chair, which also carried so many administrative and teaching responsibilities,’ praised an obituary by the British Medical Journal. ‘He did not always tolerate fools gladly, but supported with all his energies those he felt were doing all they could to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. He refused to follow the craze for psychoanalysis, which swept American medical schools after the Second World War.’ But following the release of classified documents in the seventies, the truth behind Dr. Ewan Cameron was brought to life, and finally his victims had a voice. ‘My dad was at the Royal Victoria asthma clinic, and they told him if he went to the Allan, they could cure his asthma,’ recalled Lana Mills Sowchucks, whose family received compensation more than fifty years after Cameron’s death. ‘He went in there and had fifty-four high-voltage shock treatments, followed by fifty-four grand mal seizures. He had been put in an insulin coma with a recording going around: ‘Your mother hates you.’ I remember coming to visit my father, with my mother holding my hand, climbing those stairs. And I haven’t seen those stairs since I was that young. They just took advantage of people; they never consented to any of these treatments, they were used as guinea pigs. His whole life was destroyed. Our lives were destroyed. We went into poverty; we didn’t have much, because he couldn’t work. My poor mother. I got a tattoo on my heart for my dad.’
As each progress report and evolution landed on the desk of Allen W. Dulles, he somehow turned a blind eye to the macabre details of the experiments that were conducted both in the United States and overseas on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency. From the moment he became its Director in February 1953, his focus had been on how to undermine the communist threat through covert methods, and as they examined the trial of Hungarian cardinal József Mindszenty, who confessed to crimes of treason while in what could only be described as a zombie-like trance, he was convinced that mind control was how they would defeat the Soviet Union. While decades later, the world would question his motives and actions, at the height of the Cold War, the attitude of both governments was succeeded by any means necessary. ‘It is hardly reasonable to expect proper understanding and support for intelligence work in this country if it is only the insiders, a few people within the executive and legislative branches, who know anything whatever about the CIA,’ declared Dulles in his autobiography The Craft of Intelligence. ‘Others continue to draw their knowledge from the so-called inside stories by writers who have never been on the inside. There are, of course, sound reasons for not divulging intelligence secrets. It is well to remember that what is told to the public also gets to the enemy.’ Project MKULTRA would be one of countless programmes or missions run by the CIA ever since its inception in September 1947. With President Harry S. Truman having terminated the Office of Strategic Services at the end of the Second World War, a new intelligence agency was required to serve the nation’s best interests internationally during times of peace, and after Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA was born. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation focused on domestic concerns regarding security and intelligence gathering, it was the CIA whose task it was to search further afield and keep a close eye on their enemies. But with growing concerns that communist nations had begun to experiment with mind control, Dulles and his most trusted asset, Richard Helms, set out to discover the truth for themselves.
Although Dulles had taken control of the Agency, he had been without a strong ally until Helms was transferred to a position where he would have a modicum of influences over their espionage programmes. ‘In January 1953, I replaced Lyman Kirkpatrick in the job we called COPS: Chief of Operations,’ recalled Helms in 2003. ‘This gave me responsibility for both intelligence collection and covert action operations. This job also meant that I was deputy to my old friend, Frank Wisner, who was Deputy Director for Plans. Kirkpatrick had fallen ill with polio, and it had become apparent that his health would not permit him to carry the double duty to the DDP. The new job was demanding and required my quickly coming to grips with a wide variety of covert action operations, some of which were new to me.’ Together, Dulles and Helms would conceive a top secret programme that allowed the CIA to experiment with an array of pharmaceuticals and forms of torture to extract information from enemy agents without falling foul of their own government. The Third Reich had already demonstrated what could be achieved through unorthodox methods, and they wanted to prove that the CIA was superior to their Soviet counterparts, the KGB. ‘Caught in the muck and frustration of ordinary spywork, operators hoped for a miracle tool. Faced with liars and deceivers, they longed for a truth drug,’ explained John D. Marks in his account The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. ‘Surrounded by people who knew too much, they sought a way to create amnesia. They dreamed of finding means to make unwilling people carry out specific tasks, such as stealing documents, provoking a fight, killing someone, or otherwise committing an antisocial act. Secret agents recruited by more traditional appeals to idealism, greed, ambition, or fear had always done such deeds, but they usually gave their spymasters headaches in the process. Sometimes they balked. Moreover, first they had to agree to serve the CIA.’
Dulles gave Project MKULTRA his seal of approval on 4 April 1953, barely three months after Helms had climbed to his new position, and the programme was initially granted a budget of $300,000. Recruiting the talents of a promising young chemist called Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA hoped to continue the work that had been developed by Blome and Mengele during the Holocaust. But this time, they would use their own citizens as unknowing participants. ‘Arrangements were made with a Dr. Harris Isbell of a drug treatment centre in Lexington, Kentucky, to test various drugs supplied by the Agency on addicts in his care. In this case, though not in other tests elsewhere, the testees were informed and their consent obtained,’ revealed author John Ranelagh in his epic study The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA. ‘In one instance, Dr. Isbell kept seven men on LSD for seventy-seven days, a feat that even the most hardened acid heads of the sixties would have balked at. Of course, at this stage, the medium and long-term effects of the drug were not known.’ It would be somewhat ironic that the CIA began to administer the drug in order to control the minds of their patients, but in reality LSD is now known for opening up the consciousness and allowing the user to question the world around them. ‘They were trying to figure out if they could get people to go out and do things that they would ordinarily not do, like assassination,’ said author Richard Stratton. ‘The CIA’s attempt to control people turned out to be just the opposite. It created the counterculture as we know it of the sixties. It was the CIA that introduced LSD to the United States.’ While the drug would later become a significant part of the youth movement during the late sixties, in which thousands of hippies converged on the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco for the Summer of Love, during the fifties, the CIA observed as patients and prisoners were subjected to psychedelic nightmares that many failed to recover from. Yet both Dulles and Helms felt this was a necessary evil in their desperate fight against communism.
The tenure of Allen Dulles as the Director of the CIA marked a significant change in the philosophies of the Agency, and how it came to explain away its crimes with how the ends always justify the means. Over the next twenty years, they would become embroiled in all manner of questionable activities, always in the name of national security, that saw them run drug-smuggling operations during the Vietnam War, and a failed attempt to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro, resulting in the Bay of Pigs. ‘Allen never recoiled from the use of coercive violence,’ claimed biographer Stephen Kinzer. ‘He established secret prisons in Germany, Japan, and the Panama Canal Zone, where suspected double agents were subjected to what would later be called enhanced interrogation. At the same time, he intensified CIA commando operations behind the Iron Curtain. His men trained bands of mercenaries and exiles, armed them, packed them into planes at clandestine airfields in Greece, Germany, Britain, and Japan, and air-dropped them into Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China.’ Even before MKULTRA became common knowledge, the CIA had already gained a reputation through its immoral and occasionally illegal tactics, and as a result, its Directors have often been forced to go on the offensive. ‘A number of major and minor myths have grown up during the last decade about the CIA and the craft of intelligence itself, as we practice it today,’ Dulles said in 1963. ‘However, it is still true today that there are some Americans who are suspicious of any secret agencies of government. Certainly, that Agency must assume the burden of proof that its claim to secrecy is reasonable and in its national interest. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the dangers we face in the Cold War, and that they cannot all be met with tools of open diplomacy.’ Throughout his eight years as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Dulles authorised the torture and experimentation of many of America’s own citizens, and while the truth behind Project MKULTRA may not come to light until after it was abandoned, it was the vision of Adolf Hitler, and his Third Reich, that would help shape the future of the United States, both in the Cold War and out among the stars.
II. Sleight of Hand
As the well-dressed man sat across from him, Walter Jessel studied his nervous mannerisms before turning his attention to the file on the desk between them. He had spent the last few days interviewing one candidate after another, assessing each one and deciding whether they were ideal for the programme he we representing. It was a hot summer’s day in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen as the Jewish agent looked accusatory at the Nazi scientist, the two men locking eyes as one decided the fate of the other. Wernher von Braun was just one year older than his interrogator, yet in his thirty-three years he had achieved scientific breakthroughs that had made him proud, and was haunted by sins that had filled him with regret. And now here he was, sat facing off against a stranger that his beloved Führer would have condemned to death. Von Braun was a prized possession for the American intelligence service, as he best represented a hope of defeating the Soviets in the race for supremacy, but the young man hid a dark secret. As he had presided over the creation of revolutionary missiles that he hoped would one day send mankind to other worlds, his associates had built the manpower to achieve his dream by cultivating a slave labour camp close to the factory called Camp Dora. It was here, under hellish conditions, that prisoners helped to fashion the elements that would create his passion project: the V-1. ‘Nothing had prepared the combat soldiers and medical teams for the grim sight that they had uncovered. This was as close to hell as it was possible to get,’ documented Deborah Cadbury in Space Race: The Story of Two Superpowers and Their Struggle for the Moon. ‘Everyone at the camp was required to watch a hanging. Twelve prisoners could be hanged at the same time by a man operating a crane. The prisoners had wooden gags in their mouths to stop them screaming. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were hanged by a length of wire. They were left hanging for days, sometimes dying slowly. Most of the bodies lost their trousers and shoes, and puddles of urine and faeces covered the floor.’
Jessel spent the war watching as his friends either willingly submitted to the Third Reich, or were imprisoned for crimes against the state. When American forces finally liberated the Fatherland in 1945, Jessel was only too willing to serve alongside his new allies, desperate to administer justice to his former oppressors. Once this mission was complete, he would meet an American girl called Cynthia Jacobsen, a member of the Office of Strategic Services, and the two married in the town of Heidelberg. He later relocated with his bride to the United States, and the two remained together until his death sixty-one years later. Von Braun, on the other hand, had only one true love, and that was to explore the heavens. Ever since he had read an essay on space flight by physician Hermann Oberth, and watched the wonders of Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond, he knew he had found his purpose in life. ‘It filled me with a romantic urge,’ he later explained. ‘Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to. Not just stare through a telescope at the moon and the planets, but to soar through the heavens, and actually explore the mysterious universe. I knew how Columbus had felt.’ Following his first attempt at creating a rocket, the A-1, in the early thirties, his work soon began to attract the interest of Hitler, who saw his missiles as a way of destroying his enemies. Even more fascinated with his invention was Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the SS, and Hitler’s most trusted comrade. Convinced that von Braun’s project could help win the war, Himmler ordered his rising scientist to take refuge in a secluded research facility in Peenemünde, close to the Baltic Sea. It was here that von Braun would spend the rest of the Holocaust, working tirelessly to create Hitler’s super weapon.
Most likely enjoying the authority he now held over members of the Nazi Party, Jessel studied each of the applicants closely, and even though the American government had searched tirelessly for von Braun, it was Jessel who now had the power to either bring the scientists to the United States, or cast him back into the waters of post-war Germany, where he would be executed for his crimes against humanity. Under the authority of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, Jessel wrote detailed reports on each man he interviewed, meticulously filling in a Qualification Sheet for German Scientific Personnel form that dictated whether or not his interrogations were successful. Finally, he came to a conclusion. ‘They were enthusiastic technicians, with their mission, according to [Joseph] Goebbels, of saving Germany,’ he wrote. ‘As a team, they were granted all the financial support, materials, and personnel they required, within the means of the German war machine. Continuance of the work depended on continued conduct of the war. At a time when the generals were dissatisfied with the Party rule, to the extent of attempting to overthrow it, Peenemünde was out of touch and sympathy with such developments; not for the love of the Party, necessarily, but because their work and war were one.’ One thing that Jessel and von Braun would have in common, although neither were aware during their discussions, was that both were about to tie the knot. For von Braun, he married Maria von Quistorp, his first cousin on his mother’s side, and fourteen years his junior. The couple then immigrated to America under the protection of the US government, and von Braun immediately commenced work on developing a worthy successor to his Nazi rockets.
John F. Kennedy, the charming forty-five-year-old politician who had brought a sense of hope and optimism to a nation overcome with fears of communism, stepped out before a vast audience at Rice University Stadium in the Texan city of Houston to address the country. As the thirty-fifth President of the United States, he was about to make a promise to the people, but one he would fail to see come to fruition as, barely a year later, he was assassinated in the same city where he now stood. He was all too aware that the Soviet Union were attempting to develop atomic weapons to defeat their enemy, but both sides had also begun a race to explore the far reaches of the cosmos. The Cold War was no longer limited to the streets of America or the USSR; now it could extend to other worlds and galaxies. Who knew what wonders the future could hold? And it was at this moment that Kennedy pledged to lead the way. ‘We shall send to the moon, two-hundred-and-forty thousand miles away, a giant rocket, more than three-hundred feet tall, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then safely return it to Earth,’ he declared in his historic speech. ‘We choose to go to the moon.’ And yet, while Kennedy committed the newly formed NASA to reach the moon by the end of the sixties, it would be von Braun and his team tasked with making this dream a reality. It was something he had fantasised about since he was a child, and now the United States government was giving him the tools to send mankind. ‘In 1492, Columbus knew less about the far Atlantic than we do about the heavens, yet he chose not to sail with a flotilla of less than three ships, and history tends to prove that he might never have returned to Spanish shores with his report of discoveries, had he entrusted his fate to a single bottom,’ he reasoned in his 1952 study The Mars Project. ‘So it is with interplanetary exploration: it must be done on the grand scale. Great numbers of professionals from many walks of life, trained to cooperate unfailingly, must be recruited.’
It was a mentality such as this that would drive the American intelligence services in the weeks and months following the surrender of the Third Reich. The Office of Strategic Services, under the command of William J. Donovan, a former lawyer and Major General in the United States Army, realised that much information could be harnessed from the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, and while the Nuremberg trials had been held to bring the guilty to justice, Donovan believed that such imagination and determination would only go to waste if every former scientist and officer of the Nazi Party were put to death. Any doubts his superiors may have had in his proposal were soon put to rest when Reinhard Gehlen delivered himself into American hands. Having joined the German army in 1920 at the age of eighteen, Gehlen served as an artillery officer earlier in his career, before later progressing to Battery Commander in the 18th Artillery Regiment by the time war was declared in September 1939. ‘Unpopular though this view may now be, I must state that I have no doubt that Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union was correct, because it was inevitable,’ he insisted many years later. ‘While Moscow had no firm plans to attack us before the Polish campaign, by the time we attacked Russia in June 1941, the picture was very different: it was clear that Stalin had resolved to postpone his attack on his former ally only so long as was necessary, to see us bleeding to death and exhausted after a conflict with the Western Allies. Then he would have attacked us as well, in the knowledge that the capitalist powers had meanwhile torn themselves to pieces, too.’ Gehlen’s priority during the war was the Russian front, and as the head of the Fremde Heere Ost, Germany’s intelligence service, he began to spy on the Soviets in order to anticipate their next move.
In late May 1945, less than three weeks after the German armies had surrendered to the Allied forces, Gehlen suddenly re-emerged in Bolivia and presented himself to the United States Army. After an informal interview with Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert, the value that Gehlen had in terms of information on the Soviet Union was immeasurable, and in return for the protection of the American soldiers, he led a team to the mountains overlooking Lake Schliersee, where they discovered fifty steel chests containing all the data he had collected through his covert missions. As a result of this gesture of cooperation, Gehlen soon found that his jailors began to treat him with less hostility than when he had first arrived. ‘A formality came first: we were discharged from prisoner-of-war status, so that we could move around at will, bound only by the need to return to our place of employment,’ he documented in The Service: The Memoirs of Reinhard Gehlen. ‘The first few days were taken up with conferences with the two American officers on the question of how best to organise our work, and how American and German aims could best be reconciled. The American Colonel William Russell Philip would supervise the work and furnish logistic support. There was never any suggestion that this should be an all-American affair, nor that I was in any way betraying Germany in dealing with the forces of occupation.’ With the support of the CIA following its formation in 1947, he founded the Gehlen Organisation, an intelligence service which shared similarities with the CIA and, during its heyday, saw thousands of operatives and agents under his command. His willingness to share information with the United States officials was enough to convince Donovan that other former Nazis could perform similar duties, and under the authority of President Truman, Operation Overcast was brought into effect.
While the American government had attempted to keep their collaborations and agreements with Nazi agents a secret, it wasn’t long before the prying eyes of the press sensed a story and began to investigate the alleged relationships between Army officials and their enemy. Once the truth was suspected, there was a public outcry, and the American people demanded answers. Fearing a backlash, Overcast was renamed Project Paperclip, its title derived from the clips that were attached to the more troublesome applicants. But with rumours of Nazi criminals loose on the streets of America, the CIA struggled to regain the trust of the people. Even as the authorities tried to hide its dark secret, the Agency sought to expand its number of operatives that could groom former Nazis into the American doctrine. ‘When it became apparent that none of the CIA officers in Germany were interested in picking up this hot potato, there occurred one of the bits of luck that sometimes, if too rarely, save the day,’ recalls Helms in A Look over My Shoulder. ‘Colonel James Critchfield’s file crossed my desk. A regular Army officer from the North Dakota plain, with extensive combat experience in Italy, France, and Germany, and a recent military intelligence assignment in Vienna, Colonel Critchfield had become so convinced of the importance of intelligence in the post-war world that he decided to abandon his promising military career – he was one of the youngest ground-force Colonels in the Army – and join the CIA.’ A highly decorate war hero, and the recipient of the Purple Heart and Silver Star, Critchfield turned his back on his military service and accepted Dulles and Helms’ offer to serve as the Chief of the Eastern European Division, but his first duty for the Agency was to act as a liaison for Gehlen as he built his new organisation. ‘I’ve lived with this for fifty years,’ he later confessed. ‘Almost everything negative that has been written about Gehlen, in which he has been described as an ardent ex-Nazi, one of Hitler’s war criminals, this is all far from the fact.’
After military officials had searched tirelessly through the stacks of scientific data which they had collected from concentration camps and Nazi research laboratories, this information would filter to the desk of Allen Dulles. He had become fascinated with the possibility of controlling a prisoner’s mind, and ordering them to commit an act to which they were powerless to resist, and so authorised a new programme that he christened Project Bluebird. ‘According to a later CIA memo for the Senate investigators, this project began with the objective of ‘discovering means of conditioning personnel to prevent unauthorised extraction of information,’ and ‘establishing defensive means for preventing hostile control of Agency personnel,’’ detailed author Alfred W. McCoy. ‘But the project soon found, through interrogations done overseas, that mind control had broader potentials, and the CIA had another goal: ‘the evaluation of offensive uses of unconventional interrogation techniques, including hypnosis and drugs.’ By 1951, the Agency had shifted the aims of its top secret programme, renamed Project Artichoke, away from simply studying enemy techniques to creating its own capacity for ‘development of any method by which we can get information from a person against his will and without his knowledge.’ In April of that year, Allen Dulles, then CIA Deputy Director for covert operations, met with military intelligence chiefs to seek their assistance in launching Project Artichoke. Within weeks, the Agency had acquired secret prisons in the Canal Zone, West Germany, and Japan, and was dispatching Artichoke teams overseas for interrogation with drugs, hypnosis, psychological harassment, and special interrogation techniques.’
Still feeling that the programme lacked focus, Dulles decided that, if the Nazis had such scientific geniuses as Josef Mengele to run their experiments, then he needed an equivalent to oversee his mind control experiments. Born in New York to an immigrant famiy, Sidney Gottlieb hardly fit the preconceived image of a mad scientist. Having studied at City College in his hometown, he studied chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, before gaining a PhD from the California Institute of Technology. He rejected many of modern life’s comforts, and preferred to live close to nature, while embracing the philosophies of Buddhism. But under Project Artichoke, he committed himself to venturing far beyond acceptable levels of scientific curiosity in order to discover the secrets of the mind. ‘Gottlieb never did what he did for inhumane reasons,’ said journalist John D. Marks. ‘He thought he was doing exactly what was needed. And in the context of the time, who would argue? But with his experiments on unwitting subjects, he clearly violated the Nuremberg standards, the standards under which, after World War II, we executed Nazi doctors for their crimes.’ Enrolling in the CIA in 1951, Gottlieb was charged with overseeing the Chemical Division of the Technical Serves Staff, and, given full autonomy by his superiors, he began to experiment with methods of torture, LSD, and sensory deprivation, all in the name of scientific research. One memo, submitted on 22 January 1954, and later redacted to remove sensitive information, detailed the programme’s focus on developing a Manchurian Candidate. ‘As a ‘trigger mechanism’ for a bigger project, it was proposed that an individual of [redacted] descent, approximately thirty-five-years-old, well-educated, proficient in English, and well-established socially and politically in the [redacted] government, be induced, under Artichoke, to perform an act, involuntarily, of attempted assassination against a prominent [redacted] politician or, if necessary, against an American official,’ detailed a classified document. ‘After the act of attempted assassination was performed, it was assumed that the subject would be taken into custody by the [redacted] government, and thereby ‘disposed of.’’
But Helms, Dulles’ most trusted and ambitious associate at the CIA, believed that if they were to develop the ultimate agent to defeat the communists, that is unaware he is a spy, then their research must go even further. What the Nazis and Japanese had achieved through their experiments had inspired the Agency, but this was only the beginning. ‘Aside from the offensive potential, the development of a comprehensive capability in this field of covert chemical and biological warfare gives us a thorough knowledge of the enemy’s theoretical potential, thus enabling us to defend ourselves against a foe who might not be as restrained in the use of these techniques as we are,’ proposed Helms. ‘For example: we intend to investigate the development of a chemical material which causes a reversible, non-toxic, aberrant mental state, the specific nature of which can be reasonably well-predicted for each individual.’ On 31 April 1953, Dulles authorised the concept offered by Helms, and Project MKULTRA was born. Under this programme, Gottlieb was allowed to explore any areas of science and medicine he felt necessary, to subject his patients to all manner of procedures and techniques, providing he obtain results. The programme would be top secret, and Gottlieb’s duties at the CIA known only to a select few. One possible test was to explore the effects of bulbocapnine, an alkaloid that, similar to apomorphine, induces a trans-like state, but following tests on a variety of animals, its effects have known to be fatal. ‘[redacted] was enthusiastic about the possibility of having his group test the effects of bulbocapnine, and similar drugs, which effect the psyche,’ explained one paper, submitted six weeks after the launch of MKULTRA. ‘On the other hand, he pointed out that he was not familiar with bulbocapnine, and requested that we furnish him with all available publications on its use. He was told that, as far as our office knew, there have been no experiments with the hypnotic effects of bulbocapnine upon humans. He then asked for available literature describing experiments with animals.’
From the various declassified documents that have been made available in recent decades through the Freedom of Information Act, it is evident that the primary focus of the CIA with this revolutionary new programme was subversion. The object of Gottlieb’s work was not to destroy the mind, but re-programme it; to create an agent that could operate under its handler’s authority without ever questioning orders, or fearing the consequences. ‘The idea of a courier that has been hypnotised is not new, and I am absolutely certain [redacted] did not invent this idea,’ wrote the Technical Branch in July 1954. ‘We ourselves have carried out much more complex problems than this, and in a general sense I will agree that it is feasible. However, there is no proof whatsoever that the hypnosis cannot be broken by another competent hypnotist ([redacted] feels this is possible), and the entire test has not yet been subjected to actual field conditions (long travel, time, etc.).’ Less than three years later, however, mind control had become the CIA’s primary goal. ‘Since the international situation is in its present state, I feel the need for positive action in the military application for hypnotism is imperative. In a field such as this, you need an individual, such as myself, who has lived with the problems of hypnotism and its military implications for many years, ‘wrote CIA researcher Morse Allen in 1957. ‘The hypnotic messenger technique is relatively uncomplicated. There are several other projects which I could submit to you for consideration, which are, in my opinion, even more important than this, but involve much more complicated techniques.’ A memo from June 1966 also revealed another potential project, set to begin the following October, on patients on a psychiatric ward of a prison hospital, in which they would study the behaviour of their subjects following the administering of a barbiturate called sodium amytal. ‘The proposed research is an experimental exploration of altered consciousness during an amobarbital interview in order to more accurately define and evaluate clinically observed changes in verbal behaviour,’ wrote an outline of the programme.
As MKULTRA progressed, Gottlieb became more and more ambitious and, with his ever-expanding team of researchers and scientists, began to experiment with all manner of untested pharmaceuticals and techniques. One such method was sensory deprivation. Ostensibly reducing the input of various environmental stimulants, such as sight, smell, and sound, the subject is isolated from the outside world, and can then be subjected to whatever images, sensations, or messages that the doctor wishes to present. The concept of sensory deprivation was first conceived in the early fifties by Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb, a resident of McGill University in Montreal and a colleague of Dr. Ewan Cameron. ‘When Hebb had the ingenious idea of studying perception in human beings by means of sensory deprivation and, especially, when he courageously acted on the idea and performed his experiments, he made a great step forward,’ wrote American neurologist Stanley Cobb in 1961. Gottlieb would utilise the work of Hebb for his own studies, although despite this technique, he still believed that drugs held the secret to unlocking the mind. ‘By the mid-fifties, Gottlieb was subsidising research conducted by many of America’s leading behavioural psychologists and psycho-pharmacologists,’ said biographer Stephen Kinzer. ‘Some of the drug experiments required risking the health of participants, like one at the Walter E. Fernald School in Massachusetts, in which mentally handicapped children were fed cereal laced with uranium and radioactive calcium. Others, especially LSD, were con-coercive, and even attractive. Soon after Dr. Robert Hyde began giving LSD to student volunteers in Boston, doctors, nurses, and attendants who observed the results began signing up to try it themselves. The same thing happened at other research centres.’ Despite the tragic death of Frank Olson in 1953 after his experience with LSD, Gottlieb was convinced that the hallucinogen was the key to his success, and so set about trying to break down the human psyche with the magic of manipulation.
III. Vanished Like a Dream
The door slowly opens and a middle-aged man stumbles in from the cold. Pulling the lock shut behind him, he walks down the hallway and takes hold of a handle, carefully turning it and pushing a second door aside to reveal a small, uninviting room. Turning on a small table lamp, he takes a seat beside it and lays out a notepad and pen in front of him. After leafing through his notes, he looks up at the mirror that stretches out across the wall and peers through it to the empty room on the other side. Checking his watch, he waits patiently until company finally arrives. The light in the adjacent room bursts to life and a scantily clad young woman leads a businessman to the bed and carefully sits him down, whispering sweet nothings in his ear as she starts to undress. Scribbling into his notepad, the man observes the proceedings with a detached interest, as if studying a mundane task performed by a lab rat. Even as the spectacle turns explicit and it comes to a dramatic conclusion, he shows little in the way of emotion. While voyeuristic smut shows were not uncommon in the sleazier suburbs of the city, the purpose of this erotic pantomime is less about sexual gratification and more about gathering data. As the businessman fastens his trousers and turns to leave, he is blissfully unaware that his every move is being scrutinised by a strange figure lurking on the other side of the two-way mirror. Once the lady of the night has concluded her business, she heads back out into the darkness of the city, leaving the man to report his findings to his superiors at the Central Intelligence Agency. What the businessman would never discover was that he had just participated in a top secret government programme which, rather appropriately, had been labelled Operation Midnight Climax. Not content with inflicting pain and terror, Project MKULTRA had now turned its attention to exploiting another part of the human psyche: desire.
Senator Kennedy looked across the large conference room of the Dirksen Senate Office Building at Admiral Turner as he broached the subject of this sub-project of the CIA’s most clandestine programme. Ever since the work of Gottlieb was first released by the press, the questionable ethics of his various trials had become a national scandal, and now they could add prostitution to the list of crimes that had been committed in his name. ‘Just talking about the two safe houses on the East and West Coast as being the sources for the unwitting trials, now, the importance of this and the magnitude of it, I think, is of significance, because we have seen from your records that these were used over a period of eight or nine years, and could have been considerable,’ said Kennedy to his small audience. ‘You are unable to determine, at least in your own research, what the numbers would be and what the drugs were, how many people were involved, but it could have been considerable during this period of time. It would certainly appear to me, in examining the documents, and the flow charts of cash slips that were expended in these areas, that it was considerable, but that is a judgemental factor on it, but I think it is important to try and find out what the Agency is attempting to do to get to the bottom of it.’ He pauses a moment to allow the Admiral the chance to process this, before the continues with his statement. ‘Now, the principal agent that was involved, as I understand it, is deceased, and has been deceased for two years. His overall agent, Mr. Gottlieb, has indicated a fuzzy memory about this whole area. He has testified before the Intelligence Committee. Yet he was responsible for the whole programme. Then, the Director had indicated the destruction of various materials, and unfamiliarity with the project.’
While Gottlieb had the final word on the project, its day-to-day running was conducted by an unassuming individual called Morgan Hall. One would hardly have expected when looking at him that, other than a taste for martinis, something he shared with the fictional James Bond, he was really a covert spy. ‘He kept a pitcher of martinis in the refrigerator, and he’d watch for a while as I installed a microphone, and then slip off,’ laughed an engineer that worked at one of the two safe houses, located on the West Coast in San Francisco. Morgan was later revealed to be George Hunter White, a former journalist whose career took a drastic turn when he joined the Bureau of Narcotics in the mid-thirties. ‘It was the beginning of a career that would send him to the remotest corners of the globe, with the world’s most notorious underworld figures. In the course of his narcotics investigations, White was stabbed, beaten, shot at, and threatened with death,’ explained authors Alan W. Scheflinn and Edward M. Opton, Jr. ‘World War II increased White’s international activities. During those tumultuous years, the joined the OSS and became chief assistant to ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. He travelled around the world, interrogated prisoners, including U-boat captains. He attended the top secret spy school run by British Intelligence in Canada, where he met another illustrious graduate, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and he established a counter-espionage school to train American agents. It was during this period that White switched from confiscating drugs to dispensing them, and using them on himself.’ Eventually trading in the Bureau of Narcotics for the Office of Strategic Services in 1943, White’s primary interest seemed to remain focused on narcotics, and with Gottlieb experimenting with LSD, along with various other drugs, he seemed an idea candidate for Project MKULTRA.
Finally joining the ranks of the CIA in 1953, White would often identify himself as Morgan Hall, and under this pseudonym, he made his way to New York City. It was here that he operated his first safe house for the CIA and, using sex workers that he could easily manipulate, lured male targets to the house. Having laced their alcoholic beverages with LSD, he would observe from behind the mirror as he took meticulous notes on the operation. But when he began to attract too much unwanted attention from both the authorities and the criminal underworld, he finally decided to move the operation to California, where he opened a new safe house in San Francisco. While it would be another decade before the city became the epicentre of the youth movement, post-war life around the Bay was already thriving with excitement and opportunities, and so White found he was in no short supply of prostitutes or willing clients. ‘The programme ran an elaborately decorated brothel in San Francisco under the codename Operation Midnight Climax. Documents made public by the CIA indicate private citizens were taken to the bordello by $100 prostitutes and drugged without their knowledge, usually with LSD,’ explained a 1977 article by the San Francisco Examiner. ‘CIA researchers then watched through a two-way mirror, filming what happened when the subjects went into the bedroom with the prostitutes, according to documents and testimony given to the Senate probers. The purpose of the research, Senate investigators were told, was to learn about thought control and sexual behaviour. The two other former CIA employees identified in the subpoenas were Robert Lashbrook and Walter Pasternak.’
From his surveillance house on Chestnut Street, close to North Beach, White watched couple after couple engage in all manner of sexual games as he sat leering from the other side of the glass. ‘Apparently, the Chestnut Street duplex also was used by the Bureau to lure narcotics dealers and the arrest them,’ claimed the Washington Post. ‘In 1956, White and narcotics agent Ira C. Feldman, who posed as an East Coast mobster, arrested seven San Franciscans as part of a heroin ring. Leo Jones, a friend of White, owned the company that installed the bugging equipment at the apartment. The equipment included four DD4 microphones disguised as wall outlets. These were hooked up to two model F-301 tape recorders monitored by agents in a ‘listening post’ adjacent to the apartment. Jones also sold White a ‘portable toilet observation post.’ It was an L-shape apartment with a beautiful view of San Francisco Bay, and White, who kept pitchers of chilled martinis in the refrigerator, also had photos of manacled women being tortured and whipped. ‘We were contact by White,’ Jones said in an interview. ‘It was a combined project of the CIA and Bureau of Narcotics. It was also referred to as the pad, never the apartment, and was modelled after Playboy magazine.’ White’s diaries indicate that Gottlieb continued to visit, flying out from Washington several times a year at least until 1961. Another visitor was John Gittinger, a CIA psychologist who testified last month before Senate investigative committees that he met with ‘Morgan Hall’ on numerous occasions to interview prostitutes about their drug and sex habits.’ White eventually retired from both Operation Midnight Climax and the CIA in 1966. ‘I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun,’ recalled White, who passed away in 1975. ‘Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?’
Charlie Gasko was a kind and reclusive eighty-one-year-old living in an apartment building with his wife close to the beach in Santa Monica. They were both known for being thrifty, and hanging a sign on their door requesting that no one knock under any circumstances, but they adored the local animals and would regularly make a fuss of their neighbours’ pets. For more than ten years, they had shared a small apartment on the third floor of the rundown complex, and other than his wife enjoying walks along the promenade, they were barely seen around the neighbourhood. But Charlie had a secret none of the other residents knew, a dark past that he had tried hard to forget. In a former life he had been James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a legend in the world of East Coast crime, a kingpin who had once terrified the streets of Boston as the head of the Winter Hill Gang. Once an alleged informer for the FBI, Bulger had been a fugitive from justice since the mid-nineties and now, sixteen years later, he was still at the top of the Bureau’s Most Wanted. ‘Santa Monica was a place where the couple could disappear into a backdrop of palm trees, skaters, and an endless beach; a diverse community that includes many transplanted people from the East Coast,’ described the Seattle Times. But on 22 June 2011, nine years after the last credible sighting, Federal agents seized the elderly man as he left his apartment, and his flight from the law finally came to an end. ‘They were very kind people from my knowledge of them,’ claimed one of their neighbours. ‘I actually was really shaking, because I was really saddened to know it was them. It’s like finding out your grandparents are murderers.’ Almost two-and-a-half years later, Bulger was convicted on eleven counts of murder, and was sentenced to spend his remaining years being bars. ‘The scope and callousness of your crimes are almost unfathomable,’ declared the judge. ‘At times during the trial, I wished that what we were watching was a movie, that what we were hearing wasn’t real. But as the families of the victims here know too well, it was not a movie.’ And yet long before the infamy, the power, and the quiet life of Charlie Gasko, James Bulger had been an inmate at the Atlanta penitentiary in Georgia, where in his youth he had been subjected to the mind-bending horrors of Project MKULTRA, at the hands of yet another doctor that was admired by his peers and considered a pillar to his community.
Seven years had passed since Judge Denise Caspar handed down the sentence of life imprisonment to the frail old man, when one of the jurors publicly expressed her regret at casting her vote against Bulger. This change of heart did not come as a result of new evidence submitted by the defence, but from a series of letters that the inmate had sent to her during the final few years of his life. More than seventy correspondents now lay strewn before her, many of which detailed his experience at the hands of a top secret government programme when he was in his twenties, and as she digested each one of them, she saw the story of a petty criminal, born in the projects of Boston with five siblings, who was arrested on multiple counts of armed robbery when he was twenty-six, and sentenced to twenty years in Atlanta. It was here where he would spend the first six years of his term, during which he was subjected to an array of sadistic and unforgivable experiments. It came as something of a relief when he was finally transferred to the infamous Alcatraz, a maximum security prison stationed on a small island off the coast of San Francisco. After serving only nine years he was released, but what he was forced to endure at the hands of a ruthless doctor would haunt his nightmares for the rest of his life. ‘I seemed to be the perfect juror, with no preconceived idea of the defendant’s guilt or innocence,’ insisted Janet Uhlar in her account The Truth Be Damned. ‘Going into the trial, only the name ‘Whitey’ Bulger was familiar to me. Who from Massachusetts hadn’t heard of the notorious Irish mob boss? And, though I was from Massachusetts, I had lived outside the state for thirty years. During that time, I’d wanted nothing to do with tales of organised crime.’ But it was not what Uhlar would learn during the trial that caused her to second-guess her guilty verdict, but what she later read in the letters he wrote to her from jail.
‘One in a hundred people is diagnosed with suffering from schizophrenia. Many more suffer from depression, anxiety, extreme fears, and phobias,’ wrote Dr. Carl Pfeiffer in his 1988 study Nutrition and Mental Illness: An Orthomolecular Approach to Balancing Body Chemistry. ‘For some, this is controllable just by avoiding stressful situations, but for others, help is badly needed. But what treatment is available? For the seriously mentally ill, this means psychiatric help. Some psychiatrists view mental illness as a psychologically-based disease, a perplexing nightmare often intertwined with suspicious family interactions. The treatment may be endless psychoanalysis and an endless drain on financial resources, with little more than a slim chance of help.’ Another alumnus of the University of Wisconsin, during his studies, Pfeiffer became convinced that the cause of mental health could, in some small way, be dictated by nutrition, and after gaining a bachelor’s degree and doctorate in pharmacology, he turned to teaching, where he educated the students at the University of Chicago on his radical views. While he was celebrated for his work in neuropharmacology at the New Jersey Neuropsychiatry Institute, from the mid-fifties he ran a series of experiments on inmates in both Bordentown, New Jersey, and Atlanta, the latter of which would cause him to cross paths with James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. ‘We were recruited by deception. We were encouraged to volunteer to be human guinea pigs in a noble humanitarian cause; searching for a cure for schizophrenia,’ he documented in his diary, later published by Howie Carr in his account The Brothers Bulger. ‘We were told that they could induce all the symptoms of schizophrenia by a chemical, LSD-25. I was serving a twenty-year sentence, and was motivated by a desire for some kind of reduction of sentence; three days off my sentence for each months of participation. Also, I was a believer in the government, to the degree that they would never take advantage of us, and also felt that I would be giving something back to society. Once a week, we checked into the Neuro-Psychiatric Ward, a large room with bars and a steel door, locked in the basement of the prison hospital.’
Much like Cameron and Isbell, Pfeiffer was given a specific mandate on the purpose of his assignment, although the means to which he could achieve them were often vague. ‘His assignment under Subproject 28 was to test ‘depressants which affect the central nervous system.’ Most intriguingly, under Subproject 47, he would ‘screen and evaluate hallucinogenic materials of interest to Technical Services,’’ explained author Stephen Kinzer. ‘One of his reports describes ‘epileptic-type seizures produced by chemicals.’ Another says that LSD ‘produced a model psychosis…Hallucinations last for three days and are characterised by repeated waves of depersonalistation, visual hallucinations, and feelings of unreality.’ Gottlieb later said Pfeiffer’s work had been in ‘an ultra-sensitive area’ that lent itself to ‘easy misinterpretation and misunderstanding,’ but was worthwhile in the end.’ It was experiences such as these that would cause Bulger to suffer from recurring nightmares, plagued by surreal visions he had been exposed to during his time with Dr. Pfeiffer. ‘We were given the LSD in varying doses,’ continued Bulger. ‘Sometimes light, sometimes massive, that would plunge us into the depths of insanity, and followed by periods of deep depression, suicidal thoughts and nightmares, and interrupted sleep. Two men who went insane on the project were carried down the hall to a strip cell, shipped to Springfield, Missouri, and placed in the wing of the criminally insane…It’s 3am, and years later, I’m still affected by LSD, in that I fear sleep; the horrific nightmares that I fight to escape by waking, the taste of adrenaline, gasping for breath. Often I’m woken by a scream, and find it’s me screaming. I later read while in prison that LSD can cause chromosome damage and birth defects; that one article determined for me that having children was too risky.’
And now here Uhlar was, decades later, reading through Bulger’s accounts of his pain and suffering as a patient of MKULTRA. But during her weeks in the courthouse, where she listened to one testimony after another that documented his violent past, Uhlar knew nothing of his time in Atlanta. ‘Had I known, I would have absolutely held off on the murder charges,’ she admitted to the Associated Press. ‘He didn’t murder prior to the LSD. His brain may have been altered, so how could you say he was really guilty?’ But Bulger was never given the opportunity to present this case in court. On 30 October 2018, almost thirty years to the day since his former interrogator, Carl Pfeiffer, had succumbed to a heart attack, Bulger faced his inevitable violent end. ‘Law enforcement sources tell CBS News, ‘Whitey’ Bulger was apparently beaten by one or more inmates before his death in prison,’ reported the publication. According to the Boston Globe, ‘The men were captured on video surveillance entering Bulger’s cell around 6am. It was about two hours later that Bulger was found beaten, his eyes nearly gouged out.’ As further news reports came in, it was revealed that the attack was a retaliation to Bulger’s cooperation with the FBI during the seventies, and that the suspected perpetrator was Mafia hitman Fotios ‘Freddy’ Geas, who was serving a life sentence for the execution of a former mob boss. ‘Geas has an open hatred for rats, making Bulger a prime target,’ revealed the New York Post. ‘‘He has a great disdain for informants,’ Daniel D. Kelly, a lawyer who represented both Geas, and his younger brother, Ty Geas, in several criminal cases, told MassLive.com. ‘I’m not saying Freddy did just because the media says so. I’m just telling you what I know about him. Freddy is a dying breed,’ added Kelly.’
By the time the CIA finally ordered all work on Project MKULTRA and its successors to be disbanded, their drug of choice had come to define a generation. Tired of the oppressive atmosphere of fifties Cold War paranoia, the youth of the sixties had embraced what historians would come to call the hippie counterculture, and while marijuana was as commonplace as sex, it was LSD and its mind-expanding possibilities that gave the flower children the ability to question their government. What had once been used by the Agency to enslave the mind was now being taken to free it, and while the likes of ‘Whitey’ Bulger may have been left traumatised by their experiences under the influence of hallucinogens, thousands of teenagers gathered at Woodstock in New York and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco to celebrate free love and reject totalitarianism. ‘When LSD was first introduced to the United States in 1949, it was well-received by the scientific community. Within less than a decade, the drug had risen to a position of high-standing among psychiatrists,’ said Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, authors of Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD, and the Sixties Rebellion. ‘If any single theme dominated young people in the sixties, it was the search for a new way of seeing, a new relation to the world. LSD was a means of exciting consciousness and provoking visions, a kind of hurried magic, enabling youthful seekers to recapture the resonance of life that society had denied. Drugs were a passport to an uncharted landscape of risk and sensation, and those who entered the forbidden territory moved quickly into areas where most adults could offer little assistance.’ LSD would also inspire a generation of Beat poets and musicians, with the Beatles famously embracing hallucinogens during the final years of their career. The concept of a Manchurian Candidate had been replaced by an unrestrained consciousness that the government were unable to control.
The sixties had marked a dramatic shift in philosophies and culture, and while the decade had begun with a fear of communism, it had concluded with a paranoia towards its own leaders. In recent years, President Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated, the American people seriously questioned the motives behind the Vietnam War, and a disgraced commander-in-chief was about to leave the White House. But a glimmer of hope came on 20 July 1969, when Wernher von Braun’s lifelong dream finally became a reality when man first stepped foot on the moon. ‘That’s one small step for man,’ declared Commander Neil Armstrong to a captivated world, ‘one giant leap for mankind.’ Four years later, as his time as Director of the CIA came to an end, Richard Helms ordered all the files relating to Project MKULTRA, the programme he had first envisioned two decades earlier, be destroyed. Soon afterwards, Sidney Gottlieb ordered his team to do the same. ‘It has become increasingly obvious over the last several years that this general area had less and less relevance to current clandestine operations,’ concluded Gottlieb in his notes. ‘The reason for this are many and complex, but two of them are perhaps worth mentioning briefly. On the scientific side, it has become very clear that these materials and techniques are too unpredictable in their effect on individual human beings, under specific circumstances, to be operationally useful.’ One event that would inspire Helms to step down as the head of the Agency after seven years was the change in leadership within the American government. Following his service as Vice President during the CIA’s early years, Richard Nixon had succeeded in winning the Presidential vote in 1968, and soon took his place in the Oval Office. ‘Nixon wasted no time in shaping his new administration. At a cabinet meeting, in which those at the table might have expected a few moments to cheer to celebrate the election result, Nixon asked one and all immediately to prepare their letters of resignation,’ recalled Helms. ‘Without a warning from the White House staff to me, the President swore in several members of the new administration on 2 February 1973. Among them, James Schlesinger was named Director of Central Intelligence.’
IV. A Good Soldier
Far from the hustle and bustle of Washington DC lies the rural tranquillity of Rappahannock County. Lying almost seventy miles south-west of the CIA’s headquarters in the Virginian town of Langley, Rappahannock has long been a farming community, and while easily accessible to the major cities in the surrounding areas, it is closed off enough from the hysteria of metropolis life to offer a peaceful retirement for those wishing to feel closer to nature. One such individual who retreated to this region was Sidney Gottlieb, who had retired from the CIA following the dissolution of Project MKULTRA and relocated with his wife of thirty years to dedicate his post-Agency years to the wellbeing of palliative care patients and caring for the wildlife. He believed he had left his world of secrecy behind him, but on 22 December 1973, the New York Times ran a headline which declared, ‘Huge CIA Operations Reported in US Against Anti-war Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years.’ It had only been four months since President Nixon had been forced to resign to avoid impeachment after the Watergate scandal, and now journalist Seymour M. Hersh had published an exposé on illegal surveillance operations orchestrated by the CIA during Nixon’s administration. The newspaper had obtained documents and confirmed sources that the United States government had spied on its own citizens, and this revelation would be the catalyst that was to open the floodgates to expose all of the CIA’s worst secrets. ‘The story produced widespread public dismay and anger over the CIA’s spying at home, as well as two major congressional investigations that uncovered further evidence of wrongdoing, but the congressional pressures for reform were outmuscled by the new Ford administration, managed by Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Chaney, his deputy, who were intent on protecting the Agency,’ wrote Hersh in his memoir Reporter. ‘The CIA is still doing today what it has done around the world since the end of World War II.’
The CIA had succeeded in keeping their covert operations a secret from the public throughout the Cold War, and their lies had survived throughout the administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Nixon, but on 9 August 1974, Gerald Ford assumed the office at a time when the United States was in great turmoil. America was still haunted by both Watergate and the Vietnam War as a recession began to cast its influence over the nation. ‘While I was wrestling with the twin problems of the economy and energy, a new crisis suddenly arose. According to an article by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times, the CIA had, over a long period of years, exceeded its statutory authority by listening in on the telephone conversations of US citizens, breaking into their homes and offices, keeping them under surveillance, and committing other illegal activities,’ explained Ford, who would survive two assassination attempts the following year. ‘CIA Director Bill Colby had warned me that Hersh was working on the story. He predicted that its publication would be embarrassing; but at the same time, he assured me that, while the Agency might have broken the law in the past, it had long since abandoned such practices.’ For William Colby, who had succeeded as the Director of the CIA in September 1973, he took the Agency under his wing just as the greatest scandal in its history began to unfold. ‘Now, although Hersh and I could usually be found on the opposite sides of any issue involving the CIA, I had every reason to respect his journalistic integrity,’ he claimed in Honourable Men. ‘A press and political firestorm immediately erupted. The charge that the Agency had engaged in domestic spying, the inference that it had become a Gestapo, proved the fatal spark. All the tensions, and suspicions, and hostilities that had been building about the CIA since the Bay of Pigs, and had risen to a combustible level during the Vietnam and Watergate years, now exploded.’ What followed next, however, would prove even more damaging, as once declassified government documents were revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, the public were expose to the truth behind Operation Paperclip and Project MKULTRA.
Unlike some of his predecessors, specifically Helms and the late Dulles, William Colby had attempted to bring the CIA into the modern era with a more transparent and by-the-book approach to surveillance, research, and data gathering. But his willingness to speak the truth regarding the Agency’s troubled history would bring him into conflict with President Ford. ‘As CIA Director, Colby had been criticised by Agency professionals, and others in government, for what they perceived as his ‘open book’ candour whenever he testified before a Congressional committee,’ explained George Bush, who replaced him as Director in 1976. ‘Not that Colby’s ‘open door’ policy fully satisfied the Agency’s outside critics. Just as there were closed-minded government officials who wanted everything, down to the last memo, stamped top secret or classified, there were opportunists on Capitol Hill and in the media who viewed CIA-bashing as a vehicle for their own ambitions. What the country’s intelligence community faced in the seventies wasn’t just the loss of public confidence in government institutions. There was also a lot of resistance on the part of some politicians and journalists, a failure to recognise that, while the term can be misused, real national security interests do exist, and have to be protected in today’s world.’ But no matter how hard the CIA attempted to deny the allegations that were levelled against it, one journalist made it his mission to uncover the truth behind the lies, specifically one identified as MKULTRA. And with the declassified documents now in the public domain, he laid out the truth for the whole of American to see. ‘Without these documents, the best investigators reporting in the world could not have produced a book, and the secrets of mind control work would have remained buried forever, as the men who knew them had always intended,’ said John D. Marks, who compiled his wealth of material into the bestseller The Search for the Manchurian Candidate.
On 3 August 1977, Admiral Stansfield Turner, the sixth new Director of the CIA in just four years, was called to Washington DC to appear before the Senate Committee on Intelligence alongside several high-ranking members of the Agency, and two former operatives who were active during the years of MKULTRA. ‘When I arrived, the Committee were concerned that not enough would be told to them. The espionage professionals were concerned that so much would have to be told, that their operations and agents would be quickly compromised,’ he later explained. ‘As I saw it, the CIA professionals had to be encouraged to begin again, taking worthwhile risks at the same time as they were adjusting to Congressional oversight, even though they viewed the two as incompatible. Getting along with Congress turned out to be a lot easier than anyone expected, because the Committee also wanted to get along with us.’ During the Senate hearing, Turner and his associates were asked to detail the history of not only Project MKULTRA but also its predecessors, Bluebird and Artichoke, and the role that Sidney Gottlieb played in their operations. Among the various experiments discussed was the one which resulted in the death of Frank Olson in 1953. ‘According to Gottlieb, a ‘very small dose’ of LSD was placed in the bottle of Cointreau, which was served after dinner on Thursday, 19 November. The drug was placed in the liqueur by Robert Lashbrook,’ noted the report made by the Committee. ‘Dr. Gottlieb stated that ‘up to the time of the experiment,’ he observed nothing in Olson’s behaviour. Once the experiment was underway, Gottlieb recalled that ‘the drug had a definite effect on the group, to the point that they were boisterous and laughing, and they could not continue the meeting, or engage in sensible conversation.’ The meeting continued until about 1am, when the participants retired for the evening.’ Regarding the night of his death, the report continued, ‘Because they could not obtain air transportation for a return trip on Friday night, Lashbrook and Olson made reservations for Saturday morning, and checked into the Statler Hotel…At approximately 2:30am, Saturday, 28 November, Lashbrook was awakened by a loud ‘crash of glass,’ In his report of the incident, he stated only that Olson ‘had crashed through the closed window, and fell to his death from the window of our room.’’
Despite the witch-hunt that the New York Times would lead against the CIA, and the numerous Senate hearings that dominated the late seventies, none of the principal architects of MKULTRA would be prosecuted. Dulles had passed away in 1969, half a decade before the publication of Hersh’s seminal article, while Helms’ autobiography, published in 2003, refused to acknowledge the existence of such a programme. ‘The political climate in Washington, so protective of the CIA for so long, had decisively changed. Stories about CIA excess were spilling into the press. Americans demanded to know more,’ said Stephen Kinzer. As a result, President Ford announced that his Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, would lead an investigation into the conduct of the CIA throughout its thirty-one year history, which became known as the Rockefeller Commission. ‘In the aftermath of Watergate, it was important that we were totally above board about the past abuses, and avoid giving any substance to charges that we were engaging in a cover up. At the same time, I realised that unnecessary disclosures couple cripple the Agency’s effectiveness, lower its morale, and make foreign governments extremely wary about sharing vital information with us,’ admitted Ford. ‘Such unnecessary disclosures would almost certainly result if I let Congress dominate the investigation. I decided to take the initiative. I announced that I was establishing a blue-ribbon Commission on CIA activities within the United States, to look into the allegations, determine the extent to which the Agency had exceeded its authority, and make recommendations to prevent such abuses in the future.’ And yet despite the investigation revealing that not only did the CIA attempt to destroy all documents that could prove that it had engaged in illegal activities against its own citizens, and that Gottlieb’s experiments with LSD may have led to the death of Olson, no convictions were served to the principal members of Project MKULTA as a result of the Rockefeller Commission.
Seven years had passed since the media circus surrounding the Senate hearings, when one warm afternoon, Sidney Gottlieb received three visitors at his door. The last time he had seen these vaguely familiar faces was at the funeral of Frank Olson in 1953, and now, three decades later, he had received an unexpected phone call from his widow, requesting an audience for herself and two adult sons. Gottlieb had come out of the criminal investigation unscathed, but Olson’s family were determined to see justice served for their absent husband and father. Instead of being sentenced for his actions, which were comparable to the war crimes exposed at Nuremberg, he had been allowed to enjoy his retirement like any other civil servant, relaxing in the peaceful quiet of the Virginia countryside. But now he had been forced to recall a promise he had made to Alice Olson all those years earlier: that if she ever needed his help, all she had to do was ask. And now here she was, at his front door, asking for answers to questions that had eaten away at the family since the two men were young boys. ‘Since 1953, we have struggled to understand Frank Olson’s death as inexplicable suicide,’ she declared when trying to make sense of the tragedy. ‘The true nature of his death was concealed for twenty-two years.’ Gottlieb had lived with this now for way too long, but had resolved to take his secret to the grave, a promise he would keep when, at the time of his death in 1999, he had refused to discuss his work on Project MKULTRA or any of their other experimental programmes. He remained a welcoming host throughout their visit, but they left with more questions than they had arrived with. What could drive a man of medicine to commit such vile acts? ‘I just don’t want to talk about it,’ he had insisted. ‘It’s a right that you have, and that I have. I’ve gone on to other parts of my life. That’s in my past, and it’s going to stay there.’ And with the silence that both Sidney Gottlieb and Richard Helms maintained ever since the existence of Project MKULTRA was first revealed, the true extent of its horror may now have become forever lost in the annals of history.