Attempts to manipulate and control one’s mind date back as far as 1550 BCE to the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It details occult rituals using “methods of torture and intimidation (to create trauma), the use of potions (drugs), and the casting of spells (hypnotism), ultimately resulting in the total enslavement of the initiate” (Edward). In the beginning of the Cold War era, rumor had it that Stalin was perfecting mind control techniques in the gulags on Chinese and Korean prisoners, but Allen Dulles and Richard Helms wouldn’t let the Soviets go through with this unchallenged. Initially their research into mind control and hypnosis would produce Project Bluebird in 1951, which would be renamed to Project Artichoke later that year to reflect the changes in scope and study- both of which were to be expanded. Artichoke continued to expand, and in 1953 Project MKULTRA would rise from its ashes.
MKULTRA was the umbrella project for about 150 subprojects all centering on how the CIA could create their own “Manchurian Candidates” to run operations for them without questioning it, and then having no recollection at all. MI6 in Britain did some work with the CIA, with Dr. Ewen Cameron leading much of their research in Canada. Using witting and unwitting test subjects, MKULTRA studied everything from religious cults, behavioral analysis, sensory deprivation, and chemotherapy radiation, to psychedelic drugs. Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD, or acid, was a drug that was given to subjects as a truth serum. Project MKULTRA was officially shut down by the mid to early 1970s, but attempts at mind control, especially on a national scale, were not. The legacies and effects of MKULTRA are not fully known to us yet, but that which we can speculate is severe. The victims, many unwitting American and Canadian citizens, may never be known to us completely. Many of the victims don’t know that they were associated with the project because their trauma was so intense that the body’s natural reaction was to simply dissociate.
The threat of the Soviet Union loomed over Washington like a cloud- ominous and intangible. At the CIA headquarters in Langley it was like a tornado. The Agency’s only mission had become to defend the world from Soviet communism. At the end of WWII there was a race between the British, French, Americans, and Soviets to recruit the intellectual backbone of the Third Reich. This organized, clandestine effort was named Operation Paperclip. Included in this group are those responsible for weaponizing sarin gas and bubonic plague, many of whom would later stand trial for war crimes at Nuremburg. Known as the “Angel of Death” for his work in Auschwitz, “[Josef] Mengele’s research served as a basis for the covert, illegal CIA human research program named MKULTRA” (Edward). Although many in the CIA began their espionage careers in the military or OSS during WWII fighting against the very people they now employed, they saw it as a lesser of two evils scenario. In their minds, they had to make a choice between fascism and communism and using the intellectual leaders of the fascist Third Reich was more appealing than allowing the communist powers a leg up in covert operations (CIA).
MKULTRA was the result of a number of projects within different government agencies. Before 1953 the US Navy was studying the effects of brain concussions, specifically centering on memory loss. At some point during that research, they began to wonder if a drug could induce the same amnesia that occurs with a concussion, allowing the potentially successful Manchurian Candidate to have no recollection of their actions. It was at that point that the project was handed off to the CIA because it required human subjects that could not be justified by medical-therapeutic grounds (Drummond). In 1953 the CIA Chief of Special Operations, Richard Helms, wrote a memo to Director Allen Dulles in which he “proposed a program for the ‘covert use of biological and chemical materials’ both for its offensive potential’ to ‘give us thorough knowledge of the enemy’s theoretical potential.’ He recommended shielding the program under extreme secrecy: ‘Even internally in CIA, as few individuals as possible should be aware of our interest in these fields and of the identity of those who are working for us.’ He recommended Sidney Gottlieb to head its operations” (“1953”). Dr. Sidney Gottlieb was the Director of the CIA’s Chemical Division of Technical Service Staff, who specialized in “lethal poisons and creative methods of assassination,” and has been referred to as the CIA’s sorcerer. The author of the report on these memos wrote that “Sidney Gottlieb personified CIA’s immoral universe; a universe where there was nothing, however evil, pointless or even lunatic, that this unaccountable intelligence agency will not engage in, in pursuit of its secret wars. Gottlieb had used his studies on poisons and applied it to the attempted assassinations of world leaders. It’s been reported that Sidney Gottlieb was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s character “Dr. Strangelove.” Dulles agreed with Helms on all accounts, and he exempted MKULTRA from “normal CIA financial controls, authorizing Gottlieb to start projects ‘without signing the usual contracts or other written documents’” (“1953”). Much of the research for MKULTRA was done with university professors, frequently using prison inmates and hospital patients as the main subjects. Academics and scholars at the University of Oklahoma, UCLA, University of Wisconsin, Harvard University, University of Illinois, Stanford University, Yale University, Cornell University, and Emory University, to name a few, were involved in MKULTRA research, some wittingly and others unwittingly. Aside from being top individuals in their fields, who would provide excellent research, the CIA had other motivations for using them as well; the idea was that as the project goes on, these individuals could be used as top- secret consultants (Jackman).
MKULTRA didn’t begin as an experiment with psychedelic drugs, as its more commonly known for today. In the memo from Richard Helms, we saw that what he described was more centering around chemical and biological weapons, which they had a basis on from the Nazi scientists recruited through Operation Paperclip. However, the goal of MKULTRA shifted from the offensive use of biological and chemical agents to the creation of a Manchurian Candidate. The Manchurian Candidate is a novel published in 1959 by Richard Condon that describes the son of a prominent family in American politics who had been brainwashed into becoming an assassin for a Communist conspiracy. Amid rumors that American soldiers had returned from Korea brainwashed, the CIA didn’t hold back in trying to perfect this as well. Gottlieb, having a specialty in assassination techniques, was the natural architect. The process by which a Manchurian Candidate could be created is known as Monarch Programming. A successful monarch slave will carry out operations, will not question orders, and will not remember their actions. The name comes from a monarch butterfly “who begins life as a worm (representing undeveloped potential), and, after a period of cocooning (programming) is reborn as a beautiful butterfly (the monarch slave)” (Edward).
Monarch programming tears down a person’s psyche, so that it can be built back up to have multiple personality disorder, and the different personalities can be triggered at will by the handler. These methods include “electroshock, torture, abuse and mind games in order to force them to dissociate from reality” (Edward). The torture may include confinement in boxes or cages for extended periods of time, near drowning, submersion into ice water or burning chemicals, forced ingestion of offensive body fluids like blood, urine, feces, or flesh, sleep deprivation, stress positions, hanging upside down, sensory deprivation, injection of chemicals such as chemotherapeutic agents, forced ingestion of amphetamines and barbiturates, and being forced to witness the abuse of others. Edward writes, “Due to the severe trauma induced... the mind splits off into alternate personalities from the core... Further conditioning of the victim’s mind is enhanced through hypnotism, double-blind coercion, pleasure-pain reversals, food, water, sleep, and sensory deprivation, along with various drugs which alter certain cerebral functions.” Once the victim dissociates and a split in personality occurs, the programmer can create alter personas to be triggered with a phrase or symbol. An official Monarch Program within the CIA has never been proven to have existed, however when CIA Director William Colby was asked, “he replied angrily and ambiguously, ‘We stopped that between the late 1960s and the early 1970s’” (Edward).
The CIA’s Monarch-like experiments were not held in the United States, and were performed by Dr. Ewen Cameron, a British psychiatrist, in Canada. Cameron had been studying what he considered psychotherapy, which involved a three-step process on mostly involuntary hospitalized women. The first step, mental depatterning, put subjects into a drug-induced coma for prolonged periods of time- some up to eighty-six days. The second step involved three high-voltage electroshock treatments every day, continuing the electroshock until the subject stops convulsing. The final step puts victims into isolated confinement, being kept on LSD while under food, water, sleep, and sensory deprivation. During this third step the victim would be subjected to what Cameron called psychic driving, “by use of a football helmet clamped to the head with taped messages played for hours non-stop" (“1950s”). This psychic driving could go on for weeks. After their “treatment,” most of his patients after were reduced to a state of infancy and lost almost all basic cognitive and motor functions. In the case of Gail Kastner, “The shock treatment turned the then 19-year-old honours student into a woman who sucked her thumb, talked like a baby, demanded to be fed from a bottle and urinated on the floor” (“1950s”). Cameron had been doing research like this before he was contracted by the CIA, but it was an opportunity that neither of them could refuse. For the CIA, they had found someone who was willing to perform electroshock experiments, drug tests, and deprivation exercises on unwitting subjects. For Cameron, he found someone to fund his sadistic research. Cameron gave his plans, and the Agency funded them.
MKULTRA experimented with the same techniques on American soil. However, the CIA did more experiments with drugs than the basic monarch programming. The CIA didn’t just use LSD, in fact one of their methods to force sleep deprivation was to give subjects a constant cocktail of amphetamines and barbiturates- uppers and downers. While awake, the victims would be given barbiturates which would make them calm and sleepy- at which point they’d be given amphetamines to make sleep near impossible. The victims of this could be anyone- witting volunteers, unwitting victims, pregnant women, prison inmates, hospital patients, rehab patients, or even members of the US military. CIA experiments with drugs were very holistic, almost all demographics were targeted to give an encompassing view of how people respond to physical trauma and drugs. One experiment studying the effects of prolonged exposure to LSD at the US Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, then called the Federal Addiction Research Center, had heroin addicts be put on LSD for 77 days straight under the supervision of Dr. Harris Isbell, a CIA contracted psychiatrist. The subjects were told they would be doing drug experiments, nothing more specific, and were promised free heroin at the end of the tests as a reward for their participation (Mernit and Morowitz). Another experiment looked to see LSD’s effect on soldiers. The US Army had been conducting tests in conjunction with the CIA to see if LSD could be used as a drug to incapacitate enemies, but not kill them. Using witting volunteers, the Army had soldiers run basic drills on command from their drill sergeant, which they performed like clockwork. Then, the soldiers were given LSD, and after a certain amount of time (which allowed the drug to kick in) they were ordered to do the same basic drills. The results were confounding for the observing scientists. Soldiers became giggly, fell out of line, performed slower than normal, and had a hard time doing simple tasks like jumping over a wooden obstacle (Mernit and Morowitz).
The CIA’s LSD experiments expanded past labs and controlled tests on witting volunteers, however. One subproject of MKULTRA, Operation Midnight Climax, involved the CIA running brothels in San Francisco and New York, hiring prostitutes to pick up men at bars, bring them back, and dose their cocktails with LSD. Two-way mirrors were put into the bedrooms, behind which a CIA officer would be observing the men's behavior. Aside from simply observing the johns, the CIA also was observing the women. They wanted to look at how the women responded to being given clandestine missions, and whether they could be turned into agents with split personalities, Manchurian candidates. The man Sidney Gottlieb put in charge of overseeing Midnight Climax was Col. George White. White had earned the rank of lieutenant colonel during his time in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, during WWII. Upon White’s death in 1975, his widow left his diaries and papers to a junior college outside of San Francisco, from which we now have dates, names, and thoughts behind Midnight Climax which had yet to be uncovered. White wrote that he had met with Sidney Gottlieb and his deputy, Dr. Robert Lashbrook. Gottlieb recruited him to be a consultant, and a year later he was on CIA payroll. White was officially put in as the regional head of the Bureau of Narcotics, and unofficially oversaw Midnight Climax. In the safehouse that became White’s residence, he was known to keep pitchers of chilled martinis in the refrigerator and had photos of women being tortured and whipped, implying that he may have taken pleasure from his new position. White was so intrigued with his research that he himself used LSD under the supervision of psychiatrists, psychologists, and pharmacologists. White wrote, “So far as I was concerned, ‘clear thinking’ was nonexistent while under the influence of any of these drugs. I did feel at times that I was having a ‘mind-expanding experience,’ but this vanished like a dream immediately after the session” (“Diaries...”). The supervisors of Midnight Climax wanted to step up the experiment to a more realistic scenario. If the goal was to use LSD as a truth serum for foreign diplomats, foreign agents, or anyone with information to share, they needed to test it as such on people who had secrets. The CIA sought out drug dealers to be used, drugged, and questioned to simulate a real-life interrogation.
Some experiments had to do with contaminating entire cities with LSD, as was tested in New York and France by CIA research scientist Dr. Frank Olson and Lt. Col. George White. Dr. Olson specialized in aerosol chemical delivery, which subsequently was how LSD was released into the New York subway system in 1952 by White- among unwitting American citizens as subjects. The evidence of this experiment is spotty, however it was documented in White’s personal diary and confirmed by a colleague of Dr. Olson’s, Dr. Henry Eigelsbach. However, the New York experiment pales in comparison to an alleged CIA experiment in the French town of Pont St. Esprit. A New York Post article reports, “Over a two-day period, some 250 residents sought hospital care after hallucinating for no apparent reason. Thirty-two patients were hauled off to mental asylums. Four died. Mercury poisoning or ergot, a fungus of rye bread, was cited as the cause of the symptoms. Ergot is also one of the central ingredients of LSD. And curiously enough, Olson and his government pals were in France when the craziness erupted” (Messing). It’s unknown whether the French government was consulted hitherto.
For much of the duration of MKULTRA, other government agencies were involved to make the process go by without complication. The Department of Agriculture was helpful in speeding up the process of bringing “various botanicals” into the country for Project Artichoke and shows the FDA cooperating to allow the CIA to use laboratories and testing facilities- making these agencies complicit, whether they knew the CIA’s intentions or not (Jacobs). In his personal writings, Lt. Col. White discussed that although the Bureau of Narcotics was involved, its chief would “disclaim any knowledge of it” if he were ever to be asked (Drummond). The FDA was perhaps the agency most closely linked to MKULTRA. In 1962, a regulation was passed through Congress stating that any and all testing with LSD was to be done with special permission from the FDA, however there were loopholes for the CIA and Department of Defense in which the FDA could grant “selective exemptions.” If any research was classified for reasons of national security, the FDA ignored it, stating that “those seeking to develop hallucinogens as weapons were somehow more ‘sensitive to their scientific integrity and moral and ethical responsibilities’ than independent researchers dedicated to exploring the therapeutic potential of LSD” (Martin and Shlain). The FDA also provided personnel with security clearance to act as “consultants for chemical warfare projects” (Martin and Shlain).
When LSD was declared illegal in the late 1960s, MKULTRA began to quietly shut down. Conveniently, in the early 1970s Director Richard Helms and Sidney Gottlieb, one of the masterminds behind MKULTRA ordered all relevant paperwork be destroyed (Boylan). Gottlieb said that [MKULTRA and MKSEARCH] had been a waste of time, citing certain “scientific and operational flaws” ("June 1972”). The techniques that they were using to try to control human behavior proved to be too unpredictable, which, ironically enough, was the same conclusion that Nazi scientists had reached at Dachau in the 40s ("June 1972”). MKULTRA officially ended without anything going too public.
That was, however, until Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist, published an article in the New York Times just a few months after the Watergate scandal announcing that the CIA was spying on American citizens. This forced President Ford’s hand to create a commission led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller into unlawful CIA activities. Only two pages of the entire commission were about MKULTRA, because the report downplayed the scope of the project. It did, however, mention the story of a CIA employee who jumped from his hotel window in New York City after having been dosed with LSD a few days earlier. The family quickly recognized the story as being about Dr. Frank Olson, whose family was told he committed suicide in 1953. Within ten days, the Olson family had made public accusations that the CIA had a role in Dr. Olson’s death, and were in the Oval Office receiving a formal apology from President Ford and $750,000 as compensation. The implicit reasoning for the money was to appease the family so they would drop their lawsuit against the US government. Later in 1974, Seymour Hersh exposed MKULTRA in an article he published which eventually led to the special hearings of the Church Committee (Boylan). The Church Committee is what provided us with testimonies about MKULTRA and gives us most of the information we have now. Although Helms and Gottlieb ordered the paperwork destroyed, the committee found a money trail with corresponding documents. More of MKULTRA was exposed by John Marks, who got about 16,000 pages of CIA documents through the Freedom of Information Act. There were several smaller commissions, including the Pike Committee Investigation. Although many of them, including Pike, were met with hostility by the CIA and White House. The opening line of the Pike report reads, “If the Committee’s recent experience is any test, intelligence agencies that are to be controlled by Congressional lawmaking are, today, beyond the lawmaker’s scrutiny” (“February 1975”).
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About the Author:
Joseph "Jojo" Senecal McCann II is a student completing undergraduate research in international studies and political science at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. McCann is interested in structuralism, post-structuralism, ideology, revolutionary history, and translation. Particularly inspired by French structuralist and existentialist writers of the 1960s, McCann hopes to translate works that have yet to be put in English for an American audience. Applying to doctoral programs in philosophy and political science, McCann hopes to continue his education in Marxian thought. In his personal life, he works as a cook, enjoys blues rock, and has an adored cat named Carlos Santana.