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Project MKUltra: The CIA’s Attempt at Psychedelic Mind Control

The CIA is famous for its oft-overreaching hand into the affairs of foreign countries, particularly during the Cold War era. Along with the rest of the American government, the CIA would go to any lengths to keep Communism from spreading across the globe. Well, in the 1950s, the CIA determined that the best way to fight Communism could be mind control. So, they started a secretive program involving LSD, Nazis, sex, secret agents, and, eventually, hippies. Let’s explore.

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In the years following World War Two, the United States and USSR went from allies to enemies in the blink of an eye. Paranoia dominated the Cold War era, as both countries attempted to gain the upper-hand in mysterious new ways. One of these ways was espionage— the CIA and KGB took center stage in the conflict, with their roles in their countries’ defense expanding rapidly.

James Jesus Angleton.

In the early 1950s, the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence, James Angleton, believed that a Soviet mole had penetrated his agency. Simultaneously, rumors were floating around that the KGB had devised a means of mind-control. Veterans of the Korean War claimed that KGB agents in the north used brainwashing tactics to get American POWs to spill secrets. Some Americans even believed the Russians were reprogramming their agents’ minds to turn them into emotionless super-soldiers.

The CIA was panicked. The US had many advantages over the Soviets, but espionage and intelligence gathering was one evident weakness. So, Allen Dulles, the CIA director, green-lit a program designed to overcome this capabilities gap by finding a means for mind-control. Dulles placed a CIA poison expert named Sidney Gottlieb in charge of the program and gave him carte-blanche to do whatever he wanted. The one stipulation was that Dulles didn’t want to hear a word of Gottlieb’s methods— the less he knew, the better. The project, called MKUltra, kicked-off in 1953.

The overarching goal was simple: find a means for mind-control. From a psychology perspective, the CIA saw this as a two-part job. First, they needed to break down the victim’s mind, essentially removing all prior identity and information. Second, they wanted to insert a new, custom consciousness into the victim.

This broad target was broken into 17 smaller aims, some quite reasonable, and others downright ridiculous. They sought substances to promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness. Not too difficult. They wanted ways to confuse victims and dull their senses. Again, not too difficult. But they also explored inducing deep hypnosis, altering personalities, withstanding torture, brainwashing, and causing total memory loss. If the agency could solve these puzzles, then they could break the toughest of KGB spies. They could trust their own agents with classified secrets. In the right circumstances, they could even convince the world that unfavorable politicians and leaders had gone mad, necessitating their removal from public office.

So, the goals were clear and ambitious, but how would the CIA crack the mind control code? Gottlieb had a plan.

In the 1920s, scientists discovered the psychoactive effects of a chemical compound called mescaline, which is derived from peyote and other cactus species. Of course, the plant was well-known to Native Americans already, but these scientists isolated the psychedelic compound for the first time. Doctors wondered whether mescaline could treat patients with mental illness, but the drug fell into the wrong hands.

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.By Rzfrie,
is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It became a favorite of Nazi doctors and torturers, who tested it on prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp. These mad scientists claimed that the drug could break down a victim’s mind, especially when paired with other physical and mental torture. The global community looked at these doctors as war criminals, and many were treated as such, but not all. Sidney Gottlieb, on the other hand, saw them as collaborators. He hired all the ex-Nazi doctors who had escaped punishment and brought them to the states to work on MKUltra, but they informed Gottlieb that mescaline hadn’t produced the effect they wanted. If their trials were going to succeed, they’d need to find a new compound. Lucky for them, one had just been synthesized. 

In 1943 a Swiss scientist named Albert Hofmann came upon an odd discovery. He was researching the various forms of lysergic acid when he accidentally absorbed some through his finger. The compound that he ingested was lysergic-acid diethylamide, and it sent him on a trip, unlike what anyone in the world had ever experienced. Hofmann was working for a Swiss pharmaceutical company at the time, and they saw it as a potential treatment for mental health issues like schizophrenia. However, Gottlieb saw it as a possible cause for schizophrenia. With CIA funds, Gottlieb imported all of the LSD in the world to America and started giving it to just about anyone he could. 

Experiments were set up at colleges whereby students would be paid to take acid. Gottlieb established a handful of fake non-profits to distribute LSD and cash rewards to psychology professors across the country. The students were often allowed to listen to their favorite records or look at art while they tripped, while others were interrogated by the experimenters. But this kind of test only made up a small portion of the program.

More commonly, LSD was slipped into the food given to mental patients and prison inmates. Drug addicts were offered bags of heroin or meth if they agreed to try it. Most of all, the agency was looking for people who couldn’t fight back and those that they knew they could give the drug to day after day. In the most extreme circumstances, a mental patient in Kentucky was given acid for six straight months. 

Despite all of these tests, though, Gottlieb felt they weren’t going far enough. So, he started testing on CIA employees. At first, people from the technical services division would get in pairs, find a room, and take turns observing each other while they tripped. But Gottlieb wanted to see how people would react if they didn’t know they were taking it. As the experiment progressed, people in the CIA started to drug each other at random times, and surprise LSD trips became an occupational hazard. Sometimes, when these agents were drugged, they were brought into interrogation rooms under bright lights and told to share all of their secrets. If they refused, then they would be given more LSD.

But, believe it or not, Gottlieb and his team took things even further with the establishment of a sub-project within MKUltra called Project Midnight Climax. This side-project was run by a narcotics agent named George Hunter White, who, even among the mad scientists and ex-Nazis, has stood out in history as a ruthless and terrible person. White is perhaps most infamous for his victimization of famed American jazz singer Billie Holliday, but, with Midnight Climax, his job focused again on CIA agents. White established a brothel in a San Francisco hotel and directed the prostitutes there to target agency employees. These prostitutes would bring the unsuspecting men back to their hotel room, slip them LSD, and then, after doing the deed, try to get them to spill all their secrets. To make matters worse, this all happened in special rooms with one-way mirrors so that White could watch the entire process unfold while he sipped martinis in another room.

Despite Gottlieb and his team’s best and most absurd efforts, the group could never convincingly find a way to control the human mind. They found that the two-step directive of destroying the old consciousness and inserting a new one was impossible. Force-feeding someone LSD and torturing them was an excellent way to obliterate a person’s sanity and leave them a shell of their old self, but it was not the miracle drug that they sought. After about a decade of tests on all kinds of subjects, Gottlieb determined that mind control was impossible. Unfortunately, by the time he realized this, Gottlieb had already wreaked havoc on the lives of countless individuals.

Identification photo of Kaczynski from 1978, 

There are plenty of stories of these CIA tests causing schizophrenia and other mental illnesses in the test’s subjects, including the famed Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and a man named Ted Kaczynski, who would become the Unabomber. But perhaps the worst of these stories that we know of is of a man named Frank Olson. Olson was a biochemist for the US Army, so he worked in conjunction with the CIA Technical Services team. 

According to an official agency statement, Olson was slipped LSD without his knowledge or consent in November of 1953. He became convinced that he was going insane, and the next week was marked by an intense psychotic episode, where he checked himself into a hotel room. The CIA had a doctor observing Olson, who was in the hotel room with him. While this doctor slept, Olson climbed out of the hotel’s window and jumped thirteen stories to his death.

Years later, though, it would be revealed that this was not the case at all. A few days before his death, Olson had quit his job at the Army due to a moral crisis around his work’s nature. He hated that his love of science was being used to build biochemical weapons to decimate humankind. He knew the CIA was using strange psychoactive drugs to torture unsuspecting people. Decades after his death, a medical examiner revealed that Olson’s head displayed cranial damage inflicted before his death. They ruled that he had been knocked unconscious before being thrown from the window. The US government had feared that Olson would share their secrets, and they disposed of him for it. Olson’s family received a payout of 750,000 dollars in 1975 for drugging the man without his consent, but they never received an admission of guilt for his death.

Of course, this is just the only death that we know about. The consensus is that there were many more, but the victims were typically people without caring families to press charges. In fact, it was later revealed that the US military conducted experiments under the MKUltra umbrella at American prisons in Japan, Germany, and Korea. 

Beyond being obviously cruel, these tests were all highly illegal. Remember the Nazi mad scientists that the CIA paid to work on MKUltra? Well, in the years following World War Two, the USA and its allies came together to establish the Nuremberg Code. This code was a set of rules and regulations to ensure that research involving human subjects was ethical and safe. The Americans played an important role in establishing those rules in response to the horrific experiments done by Josef Mengele and his Nazi colleagues. 

In his search to defeat Communism, Gottlieb and his team violated every single one of those codes. The project had made a widespread practice of drugging subjects without their consent with the sole purpose of committing physical and mental harm. It appears that, in the intense conflict of the Cold War, Gottlieb convinced himself that everything he did was for the greater good— the fight against Communism. However, instead of being tried for crimes against humanity, Gottlieb got a new job title within the agency. 

He moved into a role where he built gadgets and gizmos for covert operations before he eventually faded into obscurity. He lived in an eco-cabin in the woods, practiced meditation, studied Buddhism, and wrote poetry. In 1977, Gottlieb was living in India and working at a leprosy hospital when he received a call to return to the United States. 20,000 pages of details on MKUltra had been discovered in the basement of a CIA building in Virginia, and the government was investigating.

With reams of evidence proving that Gottlieb and the CIA intentionally drugged and tortured American citizens and violated the Nuremberg Code, the Senate initiated a series of hearings. Shortly thereafter, everyone, including Gottlieb, got off with little more than a slap on the wrist. It seems that the only real outcome of these hearings was that the information is now publicly available.

In an odd twist of fate, though, despite all of his cruelty, Gottlieb’s experiments were an even bigger failure than he imagined. Remember, the project was started to find new ways to defeat Communism, but it may have had the opposite effect within the United States. Despite the horrific experiences of most of the program’s subjects, the one demographic that seemed to enjoy taking LSD was college students. That’s because they weren’t tortured while they were tripping. They listened to Gertrude Stein readings, played bongos, and had what some might call a groovy time. 

Many of the students who participated encouraged friends to give it a try, and the drug quickly became a favorite on campuses across the country. Before long, it became a staple in the American counterculture of the 60s and 70s, a counterculture that shirked capitalism in favor of Communism. One of the program’s subjects even went on to join the Grateful Dead, a band whose members and fans were famous for their love of LSD. So, in hindsight, the most long-lasting impact of Gottlieb’s experiment may be the popularity of psychedelics and Marxism among college students.

So what do you think? Is there any reasonable justification for Gottlieb’s and the CIA’s actions during MKUltra? Was fighting Communism enough of a cause to break the Nuremberg Code and torture government employees and unsuspecting victims? And what about the bigger picture? Many critics and conspiracy theorists claim that the CIA and American military never actually gave up on their attempts at mind control, but they only changed their method. What is the CIA doing today that we don’t know about? Is it ever okay for governments to do such horrible things under the pretext of helping their citizens?

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