The CIA & LSD
What follows is a chapter from Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book, Acid Dreams_. The book is a terrific read. The following selection is chapter 1, which examines the development of the CIA’s interest in the mysterious new drug, LSD. It is alternately funny, disgusting, and horrific. Lemme give you a preview of what follows. At first, the CIA thought LSD would make them virtual masters of the universe. Later, after sober second thought, they realized they might have to set their sights little lower, but they continued their enthusiasm for the drug (which Richard Helms called “dynamite”). The CIA realized that an adversary intelligence service could employ LSD “to produce anxiety or terror in medically unsophisticated subjects unable to distinguish drug-induced psychosis from actual insanity”. The only way to be sure that an operative would not freak out under such circumstances would be to give him a taste of LSD (a mind control vaccine?) before he was sent on a sensitive overseas mission. Such a person would know that the effects of the drug were transitory and would therefore be in a better position to handle the experience. CIA documents actually refer to agents who were familiar with LSD as “enlightened operatives”.
At one point, CIA employees were running around, dosing themselves and their buddies in acid to either “immunize” themselves to its effects, or just test its limits. This part makes amusing reading—to borrow the hackneyed phrase: truth is stranger than fiction.
Finally, someone had to clamp down on the CIA’s LSD consumption. One of my favorite passages quotes a security memo (dated Dec. 15, 1954) dealing with a rumored proposal to “spike” the annual CIA Christmas party punch with acid. The writer of this memo concluded indignantly and unequivocally that he did “not recommend [LSD] testing in the Christmas punch bowls usually present at the Christmas office parties”. CIA was consumed with interest in developing the perfect drug for every emotion/intellectual brain reaction. Dial-a-brain drugs. What’s more, according to a document dated May 5, 1955, the CIA placed a high priority on the development of a drug “which will produce ‘pure euphoria’ with no subsequent letdown”. (I think I might place a “high priority” on such a thing myself...)
All this interest led to extravagant CIA funding of LSD research everywhere—including a soon-to-be famous fellow named Timothy Leary. The rest, as they say, is history.
ACID DREAMS The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion Martin A Lee and Bruce Shlain Grove Press, New York: 1985 ISBN 0-394-55013-7 chapter 1 IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS MADNESS...
The Truth Seekers
In the spring of 1942, General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, chief of the OSS, the CIA’s wartime predecessor, assembled a half-dozen prestigious American scientists and asked them to undertake a top-secret research program. Their mission, Donovan explained, was to develop a speech-inducing drug for use in intelligence interrogations. He insisted that the need for such a weapon was so acute as to warrant any and every attempt to find it.
The use of drugs by secret agents had long been a part of cloak-and-dagger folklore, but this would be the first concerted attempt on the part of an American espionage organization to modify human behavior through chemical means. “We were not afraid to try things that had never been done before,” asserted Donovan, who was known for his freewheeling and unconventional approach to the spy trade. The OSS chief pressed his associates to come up with a substance that could break down the psychological defenses of enemy spies and POWs, thereby causing an uninhibited disclosure of classified information. Such a drug would also be useful for screening OSS personnel in order to identify German sympathizers, double-agents, and potential misfits.
Dr Windfred Overhulser, superintendent of Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, was appointed chairman of the research committee. Other members included Dr Edward Strecker (then president of the American Psychiatric Association) and Harry J Anslinger (head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics). The committee surveyed and rejected numerous drugs—including alcohol, barbituates, and caffeine. Peyote and scopolamine were also tested, but the visions produced by these substances interfered with the interrogation process. Eventually, marijuana was chosen as the most likely candidate for a speech-inducing agent.
OSS scientists created a highly-potent extract of cannabis and, through a process known as esterification, a clear and viscous liquid was obtained. The final product had no color, odor, or taste. It would be nearly impossible to detect when administered surreptitiously—which is exactly what the spies intended to do. “There is no reason to believe that any other nation or group is familiar with the preparation of this particular drug,” stated one classified OSS document. Henceforth, the OSS referred to the marijuana extract as “TD”—a rather transparent cover for “Truth Drug”.
Various ways of administering TD were tried upon witting and unwitting subjects. OSS operatives found that the medicated goo could “be injected into any type of food, such as mashed potatoes, butter, salad dressing, or in such things as candy.” Another scheme relied on using facial tissues impregnated with the drug. But these methods had drawbacks. What if someone had a particularly ravenous appetite? Too much TD could knock a subject out and render him useless for interrogation. The OSS eventually determined that the best approach involved the use of a hypodermic syringe to inject a diluted TD solution into a cigarette or cigar. After smoking such an item, the subject would get suitably stoned, at which point a skillful interrogator would move in and try to get him to spill the beans.
The effects of TD were described in an OSS report:
“TD appears to relax all inhibitions and to deaden the areas of the brain which govern an individual’s discretion and caution. It accentuates the senses and makes manifest any strong characteristics of the individual. Sexual inhibitions are lowered, and the sense of humor is accentuated to the point where any statement or situation can become extremely funny to the subject. On the other hand, a person’s unpleasant characteristics may also be heightened. It may be stated that, generally speaking, the reaction will be one of great loquacity and hilarity.” (This was a rather mild and playful assessment of the effects of marijuana compared to the public rantings of Harry Anslinger, the narcotics chief, who orchestrated an unrelenting media campaign against “the killer weed”.)
After testing TD on themselves, their associates, and US military personnel, OSS agents utilized the drug operationally, although on a limited basis. The results were mixed. In certain circumstances, TD subjects felt a driving necessity “to discuss psychologically-charged topics. Whatever the individual is trying to withhold will be forced to the top of his subconscious mind.” But there were also those who experienced “toxic reactions”—better known in latter-day lingo as “bummers”. One unwitting doper became irritable and threatening and complained of feeling like he was “two different people”. The peculiar nature of his symptoms precluded any attempt to question him. That was how it went, from one extreme to the other. At times, TD seemed to stimulate “a rush of talk”; on other occasions, people got paranoid and didn’t say a word. The lack of consistency proved to be a major stumbling block and “Donovan’s dreamers”—as his enthusiastic OSS staffers have been called—reluctantly weaned themselves from their reefer madness. A handwritten comment in the margins of an OSS document summed up their stoned escapades:
“The drug defies all but the most expert and searching analysis and, for all practical purposes, can be considered beyond analysis.” After the war, the CIA and the military picked-up where they OSS had left off in the secret search for a truth serum. The navy took the lead when it initiated Project CHATTER in 1947 -- the same year the CIA was formed. Described as an “offensive” program, CHATTER was supposed to devise means of obtaining information from people independent of their volition but without physical duress. Toward this end, Dr Charles Savage conducted experiments with mescaline (a semi-synthetic extract of the peyote cactus that produces hallucinations similar to those caused by LSD) at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. But these studies, which involved animal as well as human subjects, did not yield as effective truth serum, and CHATTER was terminated in 1953. The navy became interested in mescaline as an interrogation agent when American investigators learned of mind control experiments carried out by Nazi doctors at the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. After administering the hallucinogen to 30 prisoners, the Nazis concluded that it was “impossible to impose one’s will on another person as in hypnosis even when the strongest dose of mescaline had been given.” But the drug still afforded certain advantages to SS interrogators, who were consistently able to draw “even the most intimate secrets from the [subject] when questions where cleverly put.” Not surprisingly, “sentiments of hatred and revenge were exposed in every case.” The mescaline experiments at Dachau were described in a lengthy report by the US Naval Technical Mission, which swept across Europe in search of every scrap of industrial material and scientific data that could be garnered from the fallen Reich. This mission set the stage for the wholesale importation of more than 600 top Nazi scientists under the auspices of Project paperclip—which the CIA supervised during the early years of the Cold War. Among those who emigrated to the US in such a fashion was Dr Hubertus Strughold, the German scientist whose chief subordinates (Dr Sigmund Ruff and Dr Sigmund Rascher) were directly involved in “aviation medicine” experiments at Dachau, which included the mescaline studies. Despite recurring allegations that he sanctioned medical atrocities during the war, Strughold settled in Texas and became an important figure in America’s space program. After Werner von Braun, he was the top Nazi scientist employed by the American government, and he was subsequently hailed by NASA as the “father of space medicine”. The CIA, meanwhile, had launched an intensive research effort geared toward developing “special” interrogation techniques. Two methods showed promise in the late 1940s. The first involved narcohypnosis—in which a CIA psychiatrist attempted to induce a trance state after administering a mild sedative. A second technique involved a combination of two different drugs with contradictory effects. A heavy dose of barbituates was given to knock the subject out, and then he received an injection of a stimulant, usually some type of amphetamine. As he started to come out of a somnambulant state, he would reach a certain ineffable point prior to becoming fully conscious. Described in CIA documents as “the twilight zone”, this groggy condition was considered optimal for interrogation.
CIA doctors attempted to extend the stuporous limbo as long as possible. In order to maintain the delicate balance between consciousness and unconsciousness, an intravenous hookup was inserted in both the subject’s arms. One set of works contained a downer, the other an upper (the classic “goofball” effect), with a mere flick of the finger an interrogator could regulate the flow of chemicals. The idea was to produce a “push”—a sudden outpouring of thoughts, emotions, confidences, and whatnot. Along this line, various combinations were tested. Seconal and Dexedrine;
Pentothal and Desoxyn; and depending on the whim of the spy in charge,some marijuana (the old OSS stand-by, which the CIA referred to as “sugar”) might be thrown in for good measure. The goofball approach was not a precision science. There were no strictly prescribed rules or operating procedures regarding what drugs should be employed in a given situation. The CIA interrogators were left to their own devices, and a certain degree of recklessness was perhaps inevitable. In one case, a group of CIA experts hastily drafted a memo after reviewing a report prepared by one of the Agency’s special interrogation teams. The medical consultants pointed out that “the amounts of scopolamine administered were extremely heavy.” They also noted that the best results were obtained when two or at most three different chemicals were used in a session. In this case, however, heavy doses of scopolamine were administered along with thiamine, sodium luminal, atropine sulfate, sodium pentothal and caffeine sulfate. One of the CIA’s professional consultants in “H” techniques also questioned why hypnosis was attempted “after a long and continuous use of chemicals, after the subject had vomited, and after apparently a maximum tolerance point had been reached with the chemicals.” Everyone who read the interrogation report agreed that hypnosis was useless, if not impossible, under such conditions. Nevertheless, the memo concluded by reaffirming that “no criticism is intended whatsoever” and that “the choice of operating weapons” must be left to the agents in the field.
Despite the potential hazards and tenuousness of the procedure as a whole, special interrogations were strongly endorsed by Agency officials. A CIA document dated November 26, 1951, announced:
“We’re now convinced that we can maintain a subject in a controlled state for a much longer period of time that we heretofore had believed possible. Furthermore, we feel that by use of certain chemicals or combinations, we can, in a very high percentage of cases, produce relevant information.”
Although these techniques were still considered experimental, the prevailing opinion among members of the special interrogation teams was that there had been enough experiments “to justify giving the green light to operational use of the techniques.” “There will be many a failure,” a CIA scientist acknowledged, but he was quick to stress that “very success with this method will be pure gravy.”
In an effort to expand its research program, the CIA contacted academics and other outside experts who specialized in areas of mutual interest. Liaison was established with the research sections of police departments and criminology laboratories; medical practitioners, professional hypnotists, and psychiatrists were brought on as paid consultants, and various branches of the military provided assistance. Oftentimes, these arrangements involved a cover to conceal the CIA’s interest in behavior modification. With the bureaucratic apparatus already in place, the CIA’s mind control efforts were integrated into a single project under the codename BLUEBIRD. Due to the extreme sensitivity of the project, the usual channels for authorization were bypassed—instead of going through the Projects Review Committee, the proposal for BLUEBIRD was submitted directly to CIA director Roscoe Hillenkoetter, who authorized the use of unvouchered funds to finance the hush-hush undertaking. With this seal of approval, the CIA’s first major drug-testing program was officially launched. BLUEBIRD was to remained a carefully guarded secret, for if word of the program leaked out, it would have been a great embarrassment and a detriment to American intelligence. As one CIA document put it, BLUEBIRD material was “not fit for public consumption.” From the outset, the CIA’s mind control program had an explicit domestic angle. A memo dated July 13, 1951, described the Agency’s mind-bending efforts as “broad and comprehensive, involving both domestic and overseas activities, and taking into consideration the programs and objectives of other departments, principally the military services.” BLUEBIRD activities were designed to create as “exploitable alteration of personality” in selected individuals; specific targets included “potential agents, defectors, refugees, POWs,” and a vague category of “others.” A number of units within the CIA participated in this endeavor, including the Inspection and Security Staff (the forerunner of the Office of Security), which assumed overall responsibility for running the program and dispatching the special interrogation teams. Colonel Sheffield Edwards, the chairman of the BLUEBIRD steering committee, consistently pushed for a more reliable speech-inducing substance. By the time BLUEBIRD evolved into Operation ARTICHOKE (the formal change in codenames occurred August 1951), Security officials were still searching for the magic technique—the deus ex machina—that would guarantee surefire results.
The whole concept of a truth drug was a bit farfetched to begin with. It presupposed that there was a way to chemically bypass the mind’s censor and turn the psyche inside out, unleashing a profusion of buried secrets, and that surely some approximation of “truth” would emerge amidst all the personal debris. In this respect the CIA’s quest resembled a skewed version of a familiar mythological theme from which such images as the Philosopher’s Stone and the Fountain of Youth derive—that through touching or ingesting something one can acquire wisdom, immortality, or eternal peace. It is more than a bit ironic that the biblical inscription on the marble wall of the main lobby at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, reads, “And ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free”. The freewheeling atmosphere that prevailed during the CIA’s early years encouraged an “anything goes” attitude among researchers associated with the mind control program. This was before the Agency’s bureaucratic arteries began to harden, and those who participated on Operation ARTICHOKE were intent on leaving no stone unturned in an effort to deliver the ultimate truth drug. A number of agents were sent on fact-finding missions to all corners of the globe to procure samples of rare herbs and botanicals. The results of one such trip were recorded in a heavily deleted document entitled “Exploration of Potential Plant Resources in the Caribbean Region”. Among the numerous items mentioned in this report, a few were particularly intriguing. A plant called a “stupid bush”, characterized by the CIA as a psychogenic agent and a pernicious weed, was said to proliferate in Puerto Rico and Saint Thomas. Its effects were shrouded in mystery. An “information bush” was also discovered. This shrub stumped CIA experts, who were at a loss to pin down its properties. The “information bush” was listed as a psychogenic agent followed by a lingering question mark. What type of information -- prophetic or mundane—might be evoked by this unusual herb was unclear. Nor was it known whether the “information bush” could be used as an antidote to the “stupid bush” or vice versa. [grin grin grin]
The CIA studied a veritable pharmacopoeia of drugs with the hope of achieving a breakthrough. At one point during the early 1950s Uncle Sam’s secret agents viewed cocaine as a potential truth serum. “Cocaine’s general effects have been somewhat neglected”, noted an astute researcher. Whereupon tests were conducted that enabled the CIA to determine that the precious powder “will produce elation, talkativeness, etc.” when administer by injection. “Larger doses,” according to a previously classified document, “may cause fearfulness and alarming hallucinations.” The document goes on to report that cocaine “counteracts... the catatonia of catatonic schizophrenics” and concludes with the recommendation that the drug be studied further. A number of cocaine derivatives were also investigated from an interrogation standpoint. Procaine, a synthetic analogue, was tested on mental patients and the results were intriguing. When injected into the frontal lobe of the brain through trephine holes in the skull, the drug “produced free and spontaneous speech within two days in mute schizophrenics”. This procedure was rejected as “too surgical for our use”. Nevertheless, according to a CIA pharmacologist, “it is possible that such a drug could be gotten into the general circulation of subject without surgery, hypodermic or feeding.” He suggested a method known as iontophoresis, which involves using an electric current to transfer the ions of a chosen medicament into the tissues of the body. The CIA’s infatuation with cocaine was short-lived. It may have titilated the nostrils of more than a few spies and produced some heady speculation, but after the initial inspiration it was back to square one. Perhaps their expectations were too high for any drug to accommodate. Or maybe a new approach to the problem was required. The search for an effective interrogation technique eventually led to heroin. Not the heroin that ex-Nazi pilots under CIA contract smuggled out of the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia on CIA proprietary airlines during the late 1940s and 1950s; nor the heroin that was pumped into America’s black and brown ghettos after passing through contraband networks controlled by mobsters who moonlighted as CIA hitmen. The Agency’s involvement in worldwide heroin traffic, which has been well documented in _The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia_ by Alfred McCoy, went far beyond the scope of Operation ARTICHOKE, which was primarily concerned with eliciting information from recalcitrant subjects. However, ARTICHOKE scientists did see possible advantages in heroin as a mind control drug. According to a CIA document dated April 26, 1952, heroin was “frequently used by police and intelligence officers on a routine basis [emphasis added]”. The cold turkey theory of interrogation: CIA operatives determined that heroin and other habit-forming substances “can be useful in reverse because of the stresses produced when they are withdrawn from those who are addicted to their use”.
It was with the hope of finding the long-sought miracle drug that CIA investigators first began to dabble with LSD-25 in the early 1950s. At the time very little was known about the hallucinogen, even in scientific circles. Dr Werner Stoll, the son of Sandoz president Arthur Stoll and a colleague of Albert Hoffmann’s, was the first person to investigate the psychological properties of LSD. The results of his study were presented in the Swiss Archives of Neurology in 1947. Stoll reported that LSD produced disturbances in perception, hallucinations, and acceleration in thinking; moreover, the drug was found to blunt the usual suspiciousness of schizophrenic patients. No favorable aftereffects were described. Two years later in the same journal Stoll contributed a second report entitled “A New Hallucinatory Agent, Active in Very Small Amounts”.
The fact that LSD caused hallucinations should not have been a total surprise to the scientific community. Sandoz first became interested in ergot, the natural source of all lysergic acid. The rye fungus had a mysterious and contradictory reputation. In China and parts of the Mideast it was thought to possess medicinal qualities, and certain scholars believe that it may have been used in sacred rites in ancient Greece. In other parts of Europe, however, the same fungus was associated with the horrible malady known as St Anthony’s Fire, which struck periodically like the plague. Medieval chronicles tell of villages and towns where nearly everyone went mad for a few days after ergot-diseased rye was unknowingly milled into flour and baked as bread. Men were afflicted with gangrenous limbs that looked like blackened stumps, and pregnant women miscarried. Even in modern times, there have been reports of ergot-related epidemics.
FOOTNOTE: In 1951 hundreds of respectable citizens in Pont-Saint-Esprit, a small French village, went completely berserk one evening. Some of the town’s leading citizens jumped from windows into the Rhone. Others ran through the streets screaming abut being chased by lions, tigers, and “bandits with donkey ears”. Many died, and whose who survived suffered strange aftereffects for weeks. In his book The Day of St Anthony’s Fire, John C Fuller attributes this bizarre outbreak to rye flour contaminated with ergot. The CIA inherited this ambiguous legacy when it embraced LSD as a mind control drug. An ARTICHOKE document dated October 21, 1951, indicates that acid was tested initially as part of a pilot study of the effects of various chemicals “on the conscious suppression of experimental or non-threat secrets”. In addition to lysergic acid this particular survey covered a wide range of substances, including morphine, ether, Benzedrine, ethyl alcohol, and mescaline. “There is no question,” noted the author of this report, “that drugs are already on hand (and new ones are being produced) that can destroy integrity and make indiscreet the most dependable individual.” The report concluded by recommending that LSD be critically tested “under threat conditions beyond the scope of civilian experimentation”. POWs, federal prisoners, and Security officers were mentioned as possible candidates for these field experiments.
In another study designed to ascertain optimal dosage levels for interrogation sessions, a CIA psychiatrist administered LSD to “at least 12 human subjects of not too high mentality”. At the outset the subjects were “told only that a new drug was being tested and promised that nothing serious or dangerous would happen to them.... During the intoxication they realized something was happening, but were never told exactly what.” A dosage range of 100 to 150 micrograms was finally selected, and the Agency proceeded to test the drug in mock interrogation trials. Initial reports seemed promising. In one instance LSD was given to an officer who had been instructed not to reveal “a significant military secret”. When questioned, however, “he gave all the details of the secret... and after the effects of the LSD had worn off, the officer had no knowledge of revealing the information (complete amnesia).” Favorable reports kept coming in, and when this phase of experimentation was completed, the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) prepared a lengthy memorandum entitled “Potential New Agent for Unconventional Warfare”. LSD was said to be useful “for eliciting true and accurate statements from subjects under its influence during interrogation”. Moreover, the data on hand suggested that LSD might help in reviving memories of past experiences.
It almost seemed to good to be true—a drug that unearthed secrets buried deep in the unconscious mind but also caused amnesia during the effective period. The implications were downright astounding. Soon the entire CIA hierarchy was head over heels as news of what appeared to be a major breakthrough sent shock waves rippling through headquarters. (C.P.Snow once said, “The euphoria of secrecy goes to the head.”) For years they had searched, and now they were on the verge of finding the Holy Grail of the cloak-and-dagger trade. As one CIA officer recalled, “We had thought at first this was the secret that was going to unlock the universe.” But the sense of elation did not last long. As the secret research progressed, the CIA ran into problems. Eventually they came to recognize that LSD was not really a truth serum in the classical sense. Accurate information could not always be obtained from people under the influence of LSD because it induced a “marked anxiety and loss of reality contact”. Those who received unwitting doses experienced an intense distortion of time, place, and body image, frequently culminating in full-blown paranoid reactions. The bizarre hallucinations caused by the drug often proved more of a hindrance than an aid to the interrogation process. There was always the risk, for example, that an enemy spy who started to trip out would realize he’d been drugged. This could make him overly suspicious and taciturn to the point of clammy up entirely. There were other pitfalls that made the situation even more precarious from an interrogation standpoint. While anxiety was the predominant characteristic displayed during LSD sessions, some people experienced delusions of grandeur and omnipotence. An entire operation might backfire if someone had an ecstatic or transcendental experience and became convinced that he could defy his interrogators indefinitely. And then there was the question of amnesia, which was not as cut-and-dried as first supposed. Everyone agreed that a person would probably have a difficult time recalling exactly what happened while he was high on LSD, but that didn’t mean his mind would be completely blank. While the drug might distort memory to some degree, it did not destroy it. When CIA scientists tested a drug for speech-inducing purposes and found that it didn’t work, they usually put it aside and tried something else. But such was not the case with LSD. Although early reports proved overoptimistic, the Agency was not about the discard such a powerful and unusual substance simply because it did not live up to its original expectations. They had to shift gears. A reassessment of the strategic implications of LSD was necessary. If, strictly speaking, LSD was not a reliable truth drug, then how else could it be used? CIA researchers were intrigued by this new chemical, but they didn’t quite know what to make of it. LSD was significantly different from anything else they knew about. “The most fascinating thing about it,” a CIA psychologist recalled, “was that such minute quantities had such a terrible effect.” Mere micrograms could create “serious mental confusion... and render the mind temporarily susceptible to suggestion”. Moreover, the drug was colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and therefore easily concealed in food and beverage. But it was hard to predict the response to LSD. On certain occasions acid seemed to cause an uninhibited disclosure of information, but oftentimes the overwhelming anxiety experienced by the subject obstructed the interrogation process. And there were unexplainable mood swings—from total panic to boundless blissout. How could one drug produce such extreme behavior and contradictory reactions? It didn’t make sense.
As research continued, the situation became even more perplexing. At one point a group of Security officers did an about-face and suggested that acid might best be employed as an anti-interrogation substance:
“Since information obtained from a person in a psychotic state would be unrealistic, bizarre, and extremely difficult to assess, the self-administration of LSD-25, which is effective in minute doses, might in special circumstances offer an operative temporary protection against interrogation [emphasis added].”
This proposal was somewhat akin to a suicide pill scenario. Secret agents would be equipped with micro-pellets of LSD to take on dangerous assignments. If they fell into enemy hands and were about to be interrogated, they could pop a tab of acid as a preventive measure and babble gibberish. Obviously this idea was impractical, but it showed just how confused the CIA’s top scientists were about LSD. First they thought it was a true serum, then a lie serum, and for a while they didn’t know what to think. To make matters worse, there was a great deal of concern within the Agency that the Soviets and the Red Chinese might also have designs on LSD as an espionage weapon. A survey conducted by the Officer of Scientific Intelligence noted that ergot was a commercial product in numerous Eastern Bloc countries. The enigmatic fungus also flourished in the Soviet Union, but Russian ergot had not yet appeared in foreign markets. Could this mean the Soviets were hoarding their supplies? Since information on the chemical structure of LSD was available in scientific journals as early as 1947, the Russians might have been stockpiling raw ergot in order to convert it into a mind control weapon. “Although no Soviet data are available on LSD-25,” the OSI study concluded, “it must be assumed that the scientists of the USSR are thoroughly cognizant of the strategic importance of this powerful new drug and are capable of producing it at any time.”
Were the Russian really into acid? “I’m sure they were,” asserted John Gittlinger, one of the CIA’s leading psychologists during the Cold War, “but if you ask me to prove it, I’ve never seen any direct proof of it.” While hard evidence of a Soviet LSD connection was lacking, the CIA wasn’t about to take any chances. What would happen, for example, if an American spy was caught and dosed by the Commies? The CIA realized that an adversary intelligence service could employ LSD “to produce anxiety or terror in medically unsophisticated subjects unable to distinguish drug-induced psychosis from actual insanity”. The only way to be sure that an operative would not freak out under such circumstances would be to give him a taste of LSD (a mind control vaccine?) before he was sent on a sensitive overseas mission. Such a person would know that the effects of the drug were transitory and would therefore be in a better position to handle the experience. CIA documents actually refer to agents who were familiar with LSD as “enlightened operatives”. Along this line, Security officials proposed that LSD be administered to CIA trainee volunteers. Such a procedure would clearly demonstrate to select individuals the effects of hallucinogenic substances upon themselves and their associates. Furthermore, it would provide an opportunity to screen Agency personnel for “anxiety proneness”; those who couldn’t pass the acid test would be excluded from certain critical assignments. This suggestion was well received by the ARTICHOKE steering committee, although the representative from the CIA’s Medical Office felt that the test should not be “confined merely to male volunteer trainee personnel, but that it should be broadened to include all components of the Agency”. According to a CIA document dated November 19, 1953, the Project Committee “verbally concurred in this recommendation”.
During the next few years numerous CIA agents tried LSD. Some used the drug on repeated occasions. How did their firsthand experience with acid affect their personalities? How did it affect their attitude to their work—particularly those who were directly involved in mind control research? What impact did it have on the program as a whole?
At the outset of the CIA’s behavior control endeavors the main emphasis was on speech-inducing drugs. But when acid entered the scene, the entire program assumed a more aggressive posture. The CIA’s turned-on strategic came to believe that mind control techniques could be applied to a wide range of operations above and beyond the strict category of “special interrogation”. It was almost as if LSD blew the Agency’s collective mind-set—or was it mind-rut? With acid acting as a catalyst, the whole idea of what could be done with a drug , or drugs in general, was suddenly transformed. Soon a perfect compound was envisioned for every conceivable circumstance: there would be smart shots, memory erasers, “antivitamins”, knock-out drops, “aphrodisiacs for operational use”, drugs that caused “headache clusters” or uncontrollable twitching, drugs that could induce cancer, a stroke or a heart attack without leaving a trace as to the source of the ailment. There were chemicals to make a drunk man sober and a sober man as drunk as a fish. Even a “recruitment” pill was contemplated. What’s more, according to a document dated May 5, 1955, the CIA placed a high priority on the development of a drug “which will produce ‘pure euphoria’ with no subsequent letdown”.
This is not to suggest that the CIA had given up on LSD. On the contrary, after grappling with the drug for a number of years, the Agency devised new methods of interrogation based on the “far-out” possibilities of this mind-altering substance. When employed as a third-degree tactic, acid enabled the CIA to approach a hostile subject with a great deal of leverage. CIA operatives realized that intense mental confusion could be produced by deliberately attacking a person along psychological lines. Of all the chemicals that caused mental derangement, none was as powerful as LSD. Acid not only made people extremely anxious, it also broke down the character defenses for handling anxiety. A skillful interrogator could exploit this vulnerability by threatening to keep an unwitting subject in a tripped-out state indefinitely unless he spilled the beans. This tactic often proved successful where others had failed. CIA documents indicate that LSD was employed as an aid to interrogation on an operational basis from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s.
Laboratories of the State
When the CIA first became interested in LSD, only a handful of scientists in the United States were engaged in hallucinogenic drug research. At the time there was little private or public support for this relatively new field of experimental psychiatry, and no one had undertaken a systematic investigation of LSD. The CIA’s mind control specialists sensed a golden opportunity in the making. With a sizable treasure chest at their disposal they were in a position to boost the careers of scientists whose skill and expertise would be of maximum benefit to the CIA. Almost overnight a whole new market for grants in LSD research sprang into existence as money started pouring through CIA-linked conduits or “cutouts” such as the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, the Society for the Study of Human Ecology, and the Josiah Macy, Jr Foundation. Among those who benefited from t he CIA’s largesse was Dr Max Rinkel, the first person to bring LSD to the United States. In 1949 Rinkel, a research psychiatrist, obtained a supply of LSD from Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland and gave the drug to his partner, Dr Robert Hyde, who took the first acid trip in the Western Hemisphere. Rinkel and Hyde went on to organize an LSD study at the Boston Psychopathic Institute, a pioneering mental health clinic affiliated with Harvard University. They tested the drug on 100 volunteers and reported the initial findings in May 1950 (nearly three years before the CIA began funding their work) at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Rinkel announced that LSD had produced “a transitory psychotic disturbance” in normal subjects. This was highly significant, for it raised the possibility that mental disorders could be studied objectively in a controlled experimental setting. Rinkel’s hypothesis was supported and expanded upon during the same forum by Dr Paul Hoch, a prominent psychiatrist who would also proffer his services to the CIA in the years ahead. Hoch reported that the symptoms produced by LSD, mescaline, and related drugs were similar to those of schizophrenia: intensity of color perception, hallucinations, depersonalization, intense anxiety, paranoia, and in some cases catatonic manifestations. As Hock put it, “LSD and Mescaline disorganize the psychic integration of the individual.” he believed that the medical profession was fortunate to have access to these substances, for now it would be possible to reconstruct temporary or “model” psychoses in the laboratory. LSD was considered an exceptional research tool in that the subject could provide a detailed description of his experience while he was under the influence of the drug. It was hoped that careful analysis of these data would shed new light on schizophrenia and other enigmatic mental diseases.
Hock’s landmark thesis—that LSD was a “psychotomimetic” or “madness-mimicking” agent—caused a sensation in scientific circles and led to several important and stimulating theories regarding the biochemical basis of schizophrenia. This in turn sparked an upsurge of interest in brain chemistry and opened new vistas in the field of experimental psychiatry. In light of the extremely high potency of LSD, it seemed completely plausible that infinitesimal traces of a psychoactive substance produced through metabolic dysfunction by the human organism might cause psychotic disturbances. Conversely, attempts to alleviate a “lysergic psychosis” might point the way toward cutting schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness.
FOOTNOTE: While the miracle cure never panned out, it is worth nothing that Thorazine was found to mollify an LSD reaction and subsequently became a standard drug for controlling patients in mental asylums and prisons.
As it turned out, the model psychosis concept dovetailed particularly well with the secret schemes of the CIA, which also viewed LSD in terms of its ability to blow minds and make people crazy. Thus it is not surprising that the CIA chose to invest in men like Rinkel and Hoch. Most scientists were flattered by the government’s interest in their research, and they were eager to assist the CIA in its attempts to unravel the riddle of LSD. This was, after all, the Cold War, and one did not have to be a blue-ribboned hawk or a hard-liner to work in tandem with American intelligence.
In the early 1950s the CIA approached Dr Nick Bercel, a psychiatrist who maintained a private practice in Los Angeles. Bercel was one of the first people in the United States to work with LSD, and the CIA asked him to consider a haunting proposition. What would happen if the Russians put LSD in the water supply of a large American city? A skillful saboteur could carry enough acid in his coat pocket to turn an entire metropolis into a loony bin, assuming he found a way to distribute it equally. In light of this frightening prospect, would Bercel render a patriotic service by calculating exactly how much LSD would be required to contaminate the water supply of Los Angeles? Bercel consented, and that evening he dissolved a tiny amount of acid in a glass of tap water, only to discover that the chlorine neutralized the drug. “Don’t worry,” he told his CIA contact, “it won’t work.”
The Agency took this as a mandate, and another version of LSD was eventually concocted to overcome the drawback. A CIA document state accordingly, “If the concept of contaminating a city’s water supply seems, or in actual fact, is found to be far-fetched (this is by no means certain), there is still the possibility of contaminating, say, the water supply of a bomber base or, more easily still, that of a battleship.... Our current work contains the strong suggestion that LSD-25 will produce hysteria (unaccountable laughing, anxiety, terror).... It requires little imagination to realize what the consequences might be if a battleship’s crew were so affected.” The CIA never got in touch with Bercel again, but they monitored his research reports in various medical journals. When Bercel gave LSD to spiders, they spun perfectly symmetrical webs. Animal studies also showed that cats cringed before untreated mice, and fish that normally swam close to the bottom of a water tank hovered near the top. In another experiment Dr Louis Joylon (“Jolly”) West, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma, injected an elephant with a massive dose of 300,000 micrograms. Dr West, a CIA contract employee and an avid believer in the notion that hallucinogens were psychotomimetic agents, was trying to duplicate the periodic “rut” madness that overtakes male elephants for about one week each year. But the animal did not experience a model elephant psychosis; it just keeled over and remained in a motionless stupor. In attempting to revive the elephant, West administered a combination of drugs that ended up killing the poor beast.
Research on human subjects showed that LSD lodged primarily in the liver, spleen, and kidneys. Only a tiny amount (.01%) of the original dose entered the brain, and it only remained there for 20 minutes. This was a most curious finding, as the effect of LSD was not evident until the drug had disappeared entirely from the central nervous system. Some scientists thought LSD might act as a trigger mechanism, releasing or inhibiting a naturally occurring substance in the brain, but no one could figure out exactly why the drug had such a dramatic effect on the mind. Many other questions were in need of clarification. Could the drug be fatal? What was the maximum dose? Were the effects constant, or were there variations according to different personality types? Could the reaction be accentuated by combining LSD with other chemicals? Was there an antidote? Some of these questions overlapped with legitimate medical concerns, and researchers on CIA stipends published unclassified versions of their work in prestigious scientific periodicals. But these accounts omitted secret data given to the CIA on how LSD affected “operationally pertinent categories” such as disturbance of memory, alteration of sex patterns, eliciting information, increasing suggestibility, and creating emotional dependence. The CIA was particularly interested in psychiatric reports suggesting that LSD could break down familiar behavior patterns, for this raised the possibility of reprogramming or brainwashing. If LSD temporarily altered a person’s view of the world and suspended his belief system, CIA doctors surmised, then perhaps Russian spies could be cajoled into switching loyalties while they were tripping. The brainwashing strategy was relatively simple: find the subject’s weakest point (his “squeaky board”) and bear down on it. Use any combination or synthesis which might “open the mind to the power of suggestion to a degree never hitherto dreamed possible”. LSD would be employed to provoke a reality shift, to break someone down and tame him, to find a locus of anonymity and leave a mark there forever. To explore the feasibility of this approach, the Agency turned to Dr Ewen Cameron, a respected psychiatrist who served as president of the Canadian, the American, and the World Psychiatric Association before his death in 1967. Cameron also directed the Allain Memorial Institute at Montreal’s McGill University, where he developed a bizarre and unorthodox method for treating schizophrenia. With financial backing from the CIA he tested his method on 53 patients at Allain. The so-called treatment started with “sleep therapy”, in which subjects were knocked out for months at a time. The next phase, “depatterning”, entailed massive electroshock and frequent doses of LSD designed to wipe out past behavior patterns. Then Cameron tried to recondition the mind through a technique known as “psychic driving”. The patients, once again heavily sedated, were confined to “sleep rooms” where tape-recorded messages played over and over from speakers under their pillows. Some heard the message a quarter of a million times.
Cameron’s methods were later discredited, and the CIA grudgingly gave up on the notion of LSD as a brainwashing technique. But that was little consolation to those who served as guinea pigs for the CIA’s secret mind control projects. Nine of Cameron’s former patients have sued the American government for $1,000,000 each, claiming that they are still suffering from the trauma they went through at Allain. These people never agreed to participate in a scientific experiment—a fact which reflects little credit on the CIA, even if the Agency officials feared that the Soviets were spurting ahead in the mind control race. The CIA violated the Nuremberg Code for medical ethics by sponsoring experiments on unwitting subjects. Ironically, Dr Cameron was a member of the Nuremberg tribunal that heard the case against Nazi war criminals who committed atrocities during World War II.
Like the Nazi doctors at Dachau, the CIA victimized certain groups of people, who were unable to resist: prisoners, mental patients, foreigners, the terminally ill, sexual deviants, ethnic minorities. One project took place at the Addiction Research Centre of the US Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington was ostensibly a place where heroin addicts could go to shake a habit, and although it was officially a penitentiary, all the inmates were referred to as “patients”. The patients had their own way of referring to the doctors—“hacks” or “croakers”—who patrolled the premises in military uniforms.
The patients at Lexington had no way of knowing that it was one of 15 penal and mental institutions utilized by the CIA in its super-secret drug development program. To conceal its role the Agency enlisted the aid of the navy and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which served as conduits for channeling money to Dr Harris Isbell, a gung-ho research scientist who remained on the CIA payroll for over a decade. According to CIA documents the directors of NIMH and the National Institutes of Health were fully cognizant of the Agency’s “interest” in Isbell’s work and offered “full support and protection”.
When the CIA came across a new drug (usually supplied by American pharmaceutical firms) that needed testing, the frequently sent it over to their chief doctor at Lexington, where an ample supply of captive guinea pigs was readily available. Over 800 compounds were farmed out to Isbell, including LSD and a variety of hallucinogens. It became an open secret among street junkies that if the supply got tight, you could always commit yourself to Lexington, where heroin and morphine were doled out as payment if you volunteered for Isbell’s wacky drug experiments. (Small wonder that Lexington had a return rate of 90%.) Dr Isbell, a longtime member of the Food and Drug Administration’s Advisory Committee on the Abuse of Depressant and Stimulant Drugs, defended the volunteer program on the grounds that there was no precedent at the time for offering inmates cash for their services. CIA documents describe experiments conducted by Isbell in which certain patients—nearly all black inmates—were given LSD for more than 75 consecutive days. In order to overcome tolerance to the hallucinogen, Isbell administered “double, triple and quadruple doses”. A report dated May 5, 1959, comments on an experiment involving psilocybin (a semi-synthetic version of the magic mushroom). Subjects who ingested the drug became extremely anxious, although sometimes there were periods of intense elation marked by “continuous gales of laughter”. A few patients felt that they “had become very large, or had shrunk to the size of children. Their hands of feet did not seem to be their own and sometimes took on the appearance of animal paws.... They reported many fantasies or dreamlike states in which they seemed to be elsewhere. Fantastic experiences, such as trips to the moon or living in gorgeous castles, were occassionally reported.”
“Despite these striking subjective experiences, the patients remained oriented in time, place, and person. In most instances, the patients did not lose their insight but realized that the effects were due to the drug. Two of the nine patients, however, did lose insight and felt that their experiences were cased by the experimenters controlling their minds.”
In addition to his role as a research scientists, Dr Isbell served as a go-between for the CIA in its attempt to obtain drug samples from European pharmaceutical concerns which assumed they were providing “medicine” to a US Public Health official. The CIA in turn acted as a research coordinator, passing information, tips, and leads to Isbell and its other contract employees so that they could keep abreast of each other’s progress; when a new discovery was made, the CIA would often ask another researcher to conduct a follow-up study for confirmation. One scientist whose work was coordinated with Isbell’s in such a manner was Dr Carl Pfeiffer, a noted pharmacologist from Princeton who tested LSD on inmates at the federal prison in Atlanta and the Bordentown Reformatory in New Jersey.
Isbell, Pfeiffer, Cameron, West, and Hoch—all were part of a network of doctors and scientists who gathered intelligence for the CIA. Through these scholar-informants the Agency stayed on top of the latest developments within the “aboveground” LSD scene, which expanded rapidly during the Cold War. By the mid-1950s numerous independent investigators had undertaken hallucinogenic drug studies, and the CIA was determined not to let the slightest detail escape its grasp. In a communique dated May 26, 1954, the Agency ordered all domestic field offices in the United States to monitor scientists engaged in LSD research. People of interest, the memo explained, “will most probably be found in biochemistry departments of universities, mental hospitals, private psychiatric practice.... We do ask that you remember their importance and report their work when it comes to your attention.” The CIA also expended considerable effort to monitor the latest development in LSD research on a world-wide scale. Drug specialists funded by the Agency made periodic trips to Europe to confer with scientists and representatives of various pharmaceutical concerns, including, of course, Sandoz Laboratories. Initially the Swiss firm provided LSD to investigators all over the world free of charge, in exchange for full access to their research data. (CIA researchers did not comply with this stipulation.) By 1953, Sandoz had decided to deal directly with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which assumed a supervisory role in distributing LSD to American investigators from then on. It was a superb arrangement as far as the CIA was concerned, for the FDA went out of its way to assist the secret drug program. With the FDA as its junior partner, the CIA not only had ready access to supplies of LSD (which Sandoz marketed for a while under the brand name Delysid) but also was able to keep a close eye on independent researchers in the United States. The CIA would have been content to let the FDA act as an intermediary in its dealings with Sandoz, but business as usual was suspended when the Agency learned of an offer that could not be refused. Prompted by reports that large quantities of the drug were suddenly available, top-level CIA officials authorized the purchase of 10 kilos of LSD from Sandoz at an estimated price of 4240,000 -- enough for a staggering 100 million doses. A document dated November 16, 1953, characterized the pending transaction as a “risky operation”, but CIA officials felt it was necessary, if only to preclude any attempt the Communists might make to get their hands on the drug. What the CIA intended to do with such an incredible stash of acid was never made clear. The CIA later found out that Sandoz had never produced LSD in quantities even remotely resembling ten kilograms. Apparently only 10 milligrams were for sale, but a CIA contact in Switzerland mistook a kilogram, 1,000 grams, for a milligram (.001 grams), which would explain the huge discrepancy. Nevertheless, Sandoz officials were pleased by the CIA’s interest in their product, and the two organizations struck up a cooperative relationship. Arthur Stoll, president of Sandoz, agreed to keep the CIA posted whenever new LSD was produced or a shipment was delivered to a customer. Likewise, any information concerning LSD research behind the Iron Curtain would be passed along confidentially. But the CIA did not want to depend on a foreign company for supplies of a substance considered vital to American security interests. The Agency asked the Eli Lilly Company in Indianapolis to try to synthesize a batch of all-American acid. By mid-1954 Lilly had succeeded in breaking the secret formula held by Sandoz. “This is a closely guarded secret,” a CIA document declared, “and should not be mentioned generally.” Scientists as Lilly assured the CIA that “in a matter of months LSD would be available in tonnage quantities”.
In a speech before the National Alumni Conference at Princeton University on April 10, 1953, newly appointed CIA director Allen Dulles lectured his audience on “how sinister the battle for men’s minds had become in Soviet hands”. The human mind, Dulles warned, was a “malleable tool”, and the Red Menace had secretly developed “brain perversion techniques”. Some of these methods were “so subtle and so abhorrent to our way of life that we have recoiled from facing up to them”. Dulles continued, “The minds of selected individuals who are subjected to such treatment... are deprived of the ability to state their own thoughts. Parrot-like, the individuals so conditioned can merely repeat the thoughts which have been implanted in their minds by suggestion from outside. In effect the brain... becomes a phonograph playing a disc put on the spindle by an outside genius over which is has no control.”
Three days after delivering this address Dulles authorized Operation MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s major drug and mind control program during the Cold War. MK-ULTRA was the brainchild of Richard Helms, a high-ranking member of the Clandestine Services (otherwise known as the “dirty tricks department”) who championed such methods throughout his career as an intelligence officer. As helms explained to Dulles when he first proposed the MK-ULTRA project, “Aside from the offensive potential, the development of a comprehensive capability in this field... 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.”
The supersecret MK-ULTRA program was run by a relatively small unit within the CIA known as the Technical Services Staff (TSS). Originally established as a supplementary funding mechanism to the ARTICHOKE project, MK-ULTRA quickly grew into a mammoth undertaking that outflanked earlier mind control initiatives. For a while both the TSS and the Office of Security (which directed the ARTICHOKE project) were engaged in parallel LSD tests, and a heated rivalry developed between the two groups. Security officials were miffed because they had gotten into acid first and then this new clique started cutting in on what the ARTICHOKE crowd considered their rightful turf. The internecine conflict grew to the point where the Office of security decided to have one of its people spy on the TSS. This set off a flurry of memos between the Security informant and his superiors, who were dismayed when they learned that Dr Sidney Gottlieb, the chemist who directed the MK-ULTRA program, had approved a plan to give acid to unwitting American citizens. The Office of Security had never attempted such a reckless gesture—although it had its own idiosyncracies;
ARTICHOKE operatives, for example, were attempting to have a hypnotized subject skill someone while in a trance.
Whereas the Office of Security utilized LSD as an interrogation weapon, Dr Gottlieb had other ideas about what to do with the drug. Because the effects of LSD were temporary (in contrast to the fatal nerve agents), Gottlieb saw important strategic advantages for its use in covert operations. For instance, a surreptitious dose of LSD might disrupt a person’s thought process and cause him to act strangely or foolishly in public. A CIA document notes that administering LSD “to high officials would be a relatively simple matter and could have a significant effect at key meetings, speeches, etc.” But Gottlieb realized there was a considerable difference between testing LSD in a laboratory and using the drug in clandestine operations. In an effort to bridge the gap, he and his TSS colleagues initiated a series of in-house experiments designed to find out what would happen if LSD was given to someone in a “normal” life setting without advance warning. They approached the problem systematically, taking one step at a time, until they reached a point where outsiders were zapped with no explanation whatsoever. First everyone in Technical Services tried LSD. They tripped alone and in groups. A typical experiment involved two people pairing off in a closed room where they observed each other for hours at a time, took noted, and analyzed their experiences. As Gottlieb later explained, “There was an extensive amount of self-experimentation for the reason that we felt that a first hand knowledge of the subjective effects of these drugs [was] important to those of us who were involved in the program.” When they finally learned the hallucinogenic ropes, so to speak, they agreed among themselves to slip LSD into each other’s drinks. The target never knew when his turn would come, but as soon as the drug was ingested a TSS colleague would tell him so he could make the necessary preparations—which usually meant taking the rest of the day off. Initially the leaders of MK-ULTRA restricted the surprise acid tests to TSS members, but when this phase had run its course they started dosing other Agency personnel who had never tripped before. Nearly everyone was fair game, and surprise acid trips became something of an occupational hazard among CIA operatives. Such tests were considered necessary because foreknowledge would prejudice the results of the experiment.
Indeed, things were getting a bit raucous down at headquarters. When Security officials discovered what was going on, they began to have serious doubts about the wisdom of the TSS game plan. MOral reservations were not paramount; it was more a sense that the MK-ULTRA staff had become unhinged by the hallucinogen. The Office of Security felt that the TSS should have exercised better judgment in dealing with such a powerful and dangerous chemical. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when a Security informant got wind of a plan by a few TSS jokers to put LSD in the punch served at the annual CIA Christmas office party. A security memo dated December 15, 1954, noted that acid could “produce serious insanity for periods of 8 to 18 hours and possibly for longer”. The writer of this memo concluded indignantly and unequivocally that he did “not recommend testing in the Christmas punch bowls usually present at the Christmas office parties”. The purpose of these early acid tests wa not to explore mystical realms or higher states of consciousness. On the contrary, the TSS was trying to figure out how to employ LSD in espionage operations. Nevertheless, there were times when CIA agents found themselves propelled into a visionary world and they were deeply moved by the experience. One MK-ULTRA veteran wept in front of his colleagues at the end of his first trip. “I didn’t want it to leave,” he explained. “I felt I would be going back to a place where I wouldn’t be able to hold on to this kind of beauty.” His colleagues assumed he was having a bad trip and wrote a report stating that the drug had made him psychotic.
Adverse reactions often occurred when people were given LSD on an impromptu basis. One one occassion a CIA operative discovered he’d been dosed during his morning coffee break.
“He sort of knew he had it,” a fellow-agent recalled, “but he couldn’t pull himself together. Somehow, when you known you’ve taken it, you start the process of maintaining your composure. But this grabbed him before he was aware, and it got away from him.”
Then he got away from them and fled across Washington stoned out of his mind while they searched frantically for their missing comrade. “He reported afterwards,” the TSS man continued, “that every automobile that came by was a terrible monster with fantastic eyes, out to get him personally. Each time a car passed he would huddle down against a parapet, terribly frightened. It was a real horror for him. I mean, it was hours of agony... like being in a dream that never stops—with someone chasing you.” Incidents such as these reaffirmed to the MK-ULTRA crew just how devastating a weapon LSD could be. But this only made them more enthusiastic about the drug. They kept springing it on people in a manner reminiscent of the ritual hazing of fraternity pledges.
“It was just too damned informal,” a TSS officer later said. “We didn’t know much. We were playing around in ignorance.... We were just naive about what we were doing.”
Such pranks claimed their first victim in November 1953, when a group of CIA and army technicians fathered for a three-day work retreat at a remote hunting lodge in the backwoods of Maryland. On the second day of the meeting Dr Gottlieb spiked the after-dinner cocktails with LSD. As the drug began to take effect, Gottlieb told everyone that they had ingested a mind-altering chemical. By that time the group had become boisterous with laughter and unable to carry on a coherent conversation. One man was not amused by the unexpected turn of events. Dr Frank Olson, an army scientist who specialized in biological warfare research, had never taken LSD before, and he slid into a deep depression. His mood did not lighten when the conference adjourned. Normally a gregarious family man, Olson returned home quiet and withdrawn. When he went to work after the weekend, he asked his boss to fire him because he had “messed up the experiment” during the retreat. Alarmed by his erratic behavior, Olson’s superiors contacted the CIA, which sent him to New York to see Dr harold Abramson. A respected physician, Abramson taught at Columbia University and was chief of the allergy clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was also one of the CIA’s principal LSD researchers and a part-time consultant to the Army Chemical Corps. While these were impressive credentials, Abramson was not a trained psychiatrist, and it was this kind of counseling his patients desperately needed.
For the next weeks Olson confided his deepest fears to Abramson. He claimed the CIA was putting something in his coffee to make him stay awake at night. He said people were plotting against him and he heard voices at odd hours commanding him to throw away his wallet—which he did, even though it contained several uncashed checks. Dr Abramson concluded that Olson was mired in “a psychotic state... with delusions of persecution” that had been “crystallized by the LSD experience”. Arrangements were made to move him to Chestnut Lodge, a sanitorium in Rockville, Maryland, staffed by CIA-cleared psychiatrists. (Apparently other CIA personnel who suffered from psychiatric disorders were enrolled in this institution.) On his last evening in New York, Olson checked into a room at the Statler Hilton along with a CIA agent assigned to watch him. And then, in the wee hours of the morning, the troubled scientist plunged headlong through a closed window to his death 10 floors below.
The Olson suicide had immediate repercussions within the CIA. An elaborate cover-up erased clues to the actual circumstances leading up to his death. Olson’s widow was eventually given a government pension, and the full truth of what happened would not be revealed for another 20 years. Meanwhile CIA director Allen Dulles suspended the in-house testing program for a brief period while an internal investigation was conducted. In the end, Gottlieb and his team received only a mildly worded reprimand for exercising “bad judgment”, but no records of the incident were kept in their personnel files which would harm their future careers. The importance of LSD eclipsed all other considerations, and the secret acid tests resumed.
Gottlieb was now ready to undertake the final and most daring phase of the MK-ULTRA program: LSD would be given to unwitting targets in real-life situations. But who would actually do the dirty work? While looking through some old OSS files, Gottlieb discovered that marijuana had been tested on unsuspecting subjects in an effort to develop a truth serum. These experiments had been organized by George Hunter White, a tough, old-fashioned narcotics officer who ran a training school for American spies during World War II. Perhaps White would be interested in testing drugs for the CIA. As a matter of protocol Gottlieb first approached Harry Anslinger, chief of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. Anslinger was favorably disposed and agreed to “lend” one of his top men to the CIA on a part-time basis.
Right from the start White had plenty of leeway in running his operations. He rented an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, and with funds supplied by the CIA he transformed it into a safehouse complete with two-way mirrors, surveillance equipment, and the like. Posing as an artist and a seaman, White lured people back to his pad and slipped them drugs. A clue as to how his subjects fared can be found in White’s personal diary, which contains passing references to surprise LSD experiments: “Gloria gets horrors.... Janet sky high.” The frequency of bad reactions prompted White to coin his own code word for the drug: “Stormy”, which was how he referred to LSD throughout his 14-year stint as a CIA operative.
In 1955 White transferred to San Francisco, where two more safehouses were established. During this period he initiated Operation Midnight Climax, in which drug-addicted prostitutes were hired to pick up men from local bars and bring them back to a CIA-financed bordello. Unknowing customers were treated to drinks laced with LSD while White sat on a portable toilet behind two-way mirrors, sipping martinis and watching every stoned and kinky moment. As payment for their services the hookers received $100 a night, plus a guarantee from White that he’d intercede on their behalf should they be arrested while plying their trade. In addition to providing data about LSD, Midnight Climax enabled the CIA to learn about the sexual proclivities of those who passed through the safehouses. White’s harem of prostitutes became the focal point of an extensive CIA study of how to exploit the art of lovemaking for espionage purposes.
When he wasn’t operating a national security whorehouse, White would cruise the streets of San Francisco tracking down drug pushers for the Narcotics Bureau. Sometimes after a tough day on the beat he invited his narc buddies up to one of the safehouses for a little “R&R”. Occassionally they unzipped their inhibitions and partied on the premises—much to the chagrin of the neighbors, who began to complain about men with guns in shoulder straps chasing after women in various states of undress. Needless to say, there was always plenty of dope around, and the feds sampled everything from hashish to LSD. “So far as I’m concerned,” White later told an associate, “’clear thinking’ was non-existent while under the influence of any of these drugs. I did feel at times like I was having a ‘mind-expanding experience’, but this vanished like a dream immediately after the session.” White had quite a scene going for a while. By day he fought to keep drugs out of circulation, and by night he dispensed them to strangers. Not everyone was cut out for this kind of schizophrenic lifestyle, and White often relied on the bottle to reconcile the two extremes. But there were still moments when his Jekyll-and-Hyde routine got the best of him. One night a friend who had helped install bugging equipment for the CIA stopped by the Safehouse only to find the roly-poly narcotics officer slumped in front of a full-length mirror. White had just finished polishing off a half gallon of Gibson’s. The he sat, with gun in hand, shooting wax slugs at his own reflection. The safehouse experiments continued without interruption until 1963, when CIA inspector general John Earman accidentally stumbled across the clandestine testing program during a routine inspection of TSS operations. Only a handful of CIA agents outside Technical Services knew about the testing of LSD on unwitting subjects, and Earman took Richard Helms, the prime instigator of MK-ULTRA, to task for not fully briefing the new CIA director, John J McCone. Although McCone had been replaced by President Kennedy to replace Allen Dulles as the dean of American intelligence, Helms apparently had his own ideas about who was running the CIA.
Earman had grave misgivings about MK-ULTRA and he prepared to 24-page report that included a comprehensive overview of the drug and mind control projects. In a cover letter to McCone he noted that the “concepts involved in manipulating human behavior are found by many people within and outside the Agency to be disasterous and unethical”. But the harshest criticism was reserved for the safehouse experiments, which, in his words, placed “the rights and interests of US citizens in jeopardy”. Earman stated that LSD had been tested on “individuals at all social levels, high and low, native American and foreign”. Numerous subjects had become ill,and some required hospitalization for days and weeks at a time. Moreover, the sophomoric procedures employed during the safehouse sessions raised serious questions about the validity of the data provided by White, who was hardly a qualified scientist. As Earman pointed out, the CIA had no way of knowing whether White was fudging the results to suit his own ends.
Earman recommended a freeze on unwitting drug tests until the matter was fully considered at the higher level of the CIA. But helms, then deputy director for covert operations (the number two position within the Agency), defended the program. In a memo dated November 9, 1964, he warned that the CIA’s “positive operational capacity to use drugs is diminishing owing to a lack of realistic testing”, and he called for a resumption of the safehouse experiments. While admitting that he had “no answer to the moral issue”, Helms argued that such tests were necessary “to keep up with Soviet advances in this field”.
This Cold War refrain had a familiar ring. Yet only a few months earlier Helms had sung a different tune when J Lee Rankin, chief counsel of the Warren Commission investigating the Kennedy assassination, asked him to report on Soviet mind control initiatives. Helms stated his views in a document dated June 16, 1964:
“Soviet research in the pharmacological agents producing behavioral effects had consistently lagged five years behind Western research [emphasis added].” Furthermore, he confidently asserted that the Russians did not have “any singular, new potent drugs... to force a course of action on an individual.”
The bureaucratic wrangling at CIA headquarters didn’t seem to bother George Hunter White, who kept on sending vouchers for “unorthodox expenses” to Dr Sidney Gottlieb. No definitive record exists as to when the unwitting acid tests were terminated, but it appears that White and the CIA parted ways when he retired from the Narcotics Bureau in 1966. Afterwards White reflected upon his service for the Agency in a letter to Gottlieb:
“I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” By this time the CIA had developed a “stable of drugs”, including LSD, that were used in covert operations. The decision to employ LSD on an operational basis was handled through a special committee that reported directly to Richard Helms, who characterized the drug as “dynamite” and asked to be “advised at all times when it was intended for use”. A favorite plan involved slipping “P-1” (the code name for LSD when used operationally) to socialist or left-leaning politicians in foreign countries so that they would babble incoherently and discredit themselves in public. Fidel Castro was among the Third World leaders targeted for surprise acid attacks. When this method proved unworkable, CIA strategists thought of other ways to embarrass the Cuban president. One scheme involved dusting Castro’s shoes with thalium salts to make his beard fall out. Apparently they thought that Castro would lose his charisma along with his hair. Eventually the Agency shifted its focus from bad trips nd close shaves to eliminating Castro altogether. Gottlieb and his TSS cohorts were asked to prepare an array of bizarre gadgets and biochemical poisons for a series of murder conspiracies allying the CIA with anti-Castro mercenaries and the Mob. Egyptian president Gamal Abdal Nasser also figured high on the CIA’s hallucinogenic hit list. While he managed to avoid such a fate, others presumably were less fortunate. CIA documents cited in a documentary by ABC News confirm that Gottlieb carried a stash of acid overseas on a number of occasions during the Cold War with the intention of dosing foreign diplomats and statesmen. But the effects of LSD were difficult to predict when employed in such a haphazard manner, and the CIA used LSD only sparingly in operations of this sort.
Mirrors of this are all over the place.