After the end of World War II, the climate of worldwide conflict changed and the dawn of the Cold War altered the direction of military strategy. The United States saw a need to establish an agency to conduct worldwide intelligence-gathering operations and to engage in espionage and counter-terrorism. During the war, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) occupied this role. After the war, the National Security Act of 1947 officially established the Central Intelligence Agency with the intent to expand these operations and create a formal authority to oversee covert activities worldwide.
One of the first missions tasked of the new agency was to study behavioral engineering and mind control. Project MKUltra is thought to have first begun in the early 1950s, and for nearly 20 years the CIA’s programs would see countless unsuspecting Americans exposed to drugs, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, abuse, and torture. It wasn’t until the Church Committee Congressional hearings in 1975 that many of the CIA’s activities from MKUltra would come to light.
Unfortunately we’ll never know the full extent of the program after former CIA director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of MKUltra documents in 1973. But what we do know is alarming.
History & Scope
Project MKUltra wasn’t the first sanctioned government program to study torture and brainwashing; early experiments into mind control during World War II were conducted by U.S. intelligence officials and former Nazi scientists under the name Operation Paperclip. More harm than good came from Paperclip, but the possibilities of mind control were too great for the CIA to ignore.
U.S. prisoners of war in Korea spoke of various techniques being tested by the Chinese & North Koreans for mind control, and the United States didn’t want to be left behind. To show commitment to the program, the CIA was authorized to commit 6% of their entire operating budget to Project MKUltra with no guidelines or oversight as to how it was spent. Dr. Sidney Gottlieb (right) was tasked to head the project which would officially begin in 1953.
MKUltra called for numerous mind control experiments to be conducted on a variety of patients. Secrecy was key; the paranoia of being infiltrated by a Cold War spy meant all operations would be segmented from each other to prevent any one person from understanding of the scope of the project. To maintain secrecy and avoid bias in results, researchers would either not tell the patients they were being given drugs or the patients would be lied to.
Over 44 different college and universities were used in Project MKUltra. In addition, numerous hospitals, prisons, and pharmaceutical companies were paid by CIA front companies to conduct various experiments without raising suspicion. In total over 80 separate research entities were paid through various CIA subprograms to conduct the experiments, and most of the researchers had no idea why they were running the experiments or for whom they were working.
Operations for MKUltra were so secretive, even the agents running the CIA front companies were alleged to have not known anything beyond their own operations.
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The goal of MKUltra was to examine methods of controlling and influencing the mind – primarily for the extraction of information from resistant subjects during interrogation.
There were nearly one hundred additional experiments: the feasibility of a brainwashed Manchurian candidate, the testing of drugs to cause amnesia, paralysis, and the inability to perform physical activity.
MKUltra also sought to find substances to cause paralysis, simulate the effects of alcohol, to increase paranoia, or to cause brain damage.
This was just the tip of the iceberg for MKUltra – the experimentation did not stop there.
The early efforts of MKUltra involved the testing of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). First synthesized in 1938, the effect and power of LSD were still largely unknown by the 1950s. CIA operatives wanted to know if foreign intelligence agents could be made to defect against their will, and conversely if the same could be applied to United States operatives.
Finding thousands of willing test subjects for such a massive program, while maintaining secrecy, would be difficult. Officials determined the best way to conduct experimentation without arising public suspicion or tipping off the enemy was to not tell anybody – even the subjects.
Subjects the least likely to “put up a fight” were chosen. Nursing homes, prisons, and mental hospitals were popular sources for test subjects. LSD would also be administered to doctors, military personnel, CIA agents, and members of the general public – in most cases without their knowledge.
One patient was given LSD for 174 days straight; another story told of patrons of brothels in San Francisco who were unknowingly drugged with LSD and observed, the assumption being they would be too embarrassed to talk.
Those that were aware of their participation were usually poor, destitute, or taken advantage of. Heroin addicts were bribed with offers of more heroin to participate. There were allegations that scientists would hire and then drug prostitutes, knowing they would not go to the police or press charges.
The few subjects who did volunteer were usually singled out for the more extreme experiments. One such case saw seven volunteers given LSD for 77 consecutive days.
LSD was not the only drug used during Project MKUltra. Many drugs were experimented with in the various tests, including but not limited to heroin, morphine, MDMA, mescaline, sodium pentothal, alcohol, and marijuana. Doctors also experimented with drug combinations, in one instance injecting a patient with barbiturates in one arm and amphetamines in another.
Since most MKUltra records were destroyed, we don’t know the full scope of the program’s collateral damage. Despite this, we can say with some confidence there are some known deaths associated with the project.
Perhaps the most well-known death from the MKUltra program is that of Dr. Frank Olson (right), an army scientist and one of the researchers for the CIA’s bio-warfare program. Accounts vary, but according to Olson’s family he had become disenfranchised with the operations of the bio-warfare program and was looking for a way out.
After a CIA retreat at Deep Creek Lake where all agents were unknowingly given LSD, Dr. Olson suffered severe paranoia and a nervous breakdown. After an internal evaluation by an Agency psychiatrist, it was recommended Dr. Olson be placed in a mental institution for recovery.
Unfortunately Dr. Olson would never make it to the institution; during his evaluation time in New York, Dr. Olson jumped to his death from his 10th floor hotel room window. To this day many believe Dr. Olson was “coerced” out of the window. When Dr. Olson died, any threat of exposure of the biowarfare program died with him. Although they would never admit involvement, the CIA would eventually offer Dr. Olson’s family a settlement of $750,000.
Another known death from Project MKUltra was that of professional tennis player Harold Blauer, who died in January of 1953 after a secret Army experiment with heavy dosages of MDA.
Hypnosis & Other Experimentation
Hypnosis was a large part of the program. The CIA recruited noted Scottish psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron (right), who had been experimenting with reprogramming the human psyche by erasing memories. Some of the experiments were inhumane and secretive enough to warrant the CIA moving Cameron’s operations to Canada, away from U.S. jurisdiction and the media’s eyes.
Cameron’s methods would involve putting patients into a drug-induced coma for several weeks while playing loops of repetitive noises or sounds. He would use electroshock therapy at 30-40 times normal power. He would use sensory deprivation, locking patients in a room with no stimulus for weeks at a time.
There was significant collateral damage from these experiments; Cameron’s his patients would become incontinent, start to develop amnesia, and in the most extreme cases forget who their parents were or even how to talk.
Throughout his career Donald Cameron insisted he had honorable intentions of researching methods to correct schizophrenia through the reprogramming of the psyche, but the string of discarded patients who became permanently disabled under his care tell a different tale.
Many experts in the years since have debated Cameron’s methods and intent. Instead of noble intentions, they assert Cameron was designing a scientific system for extracting information from resistant sources (i.e. torture). Cameron’s detractors also like to point out he was paid handsomely and allowed to conduct his operations with virtually no oversight – a system ripe for abuse.
Unfortunately we’ll never know what Cameron observed or concluded from his experiments; he would die in 1967 while hiking, in the middle of Project MKUltra. For reasons unknown, Cameron’s family is said to have destroyed his records.
While perhaps not as obvious as the case of Dr. Olson, there is lingering suspicion among some experts surrounding the series of events leading to Cameron’s death and the subsequent destruction of all his records.
Program Cancellation & The Church Committee
The Watergate scandal in 1972 would start to bring major government impropriety to the public’s attention. Sensing the growing heat, CIA director Richard Helms ordered the cancellation of Project MKUltra and the immediate destruction of all associated documents and files.
Helms was on the money; a New York Times article in December of 1974 would allege the CIA had conducted illegal domestic activities on unsuspecting American citizens.
This article prompted an investigation by Congress into the allegations, and a committee was appointed to head the investigation. Senator Frank Church (left) was appointed the chair of the committee named for him.
Despite Helms’ destruction order, some 20,000 documents relating to Project MKUltra survived the CIA’s purge. The documents escaped because they were financial and stored elsewhere (and were subsequently overlooked after the purge order).
Being financial in nature, the documents would reveal little other than the players involved and how much was spent. The real discoveries during the investigation would come from interviews conducted by the Church Committee on those involved with Project MKUltra.
Those who were still alive and willing to talk, that is.
Findings & Results
In 1977 the U.S. Senate released a report on the findings of Project MKUltra. Senator Ted Kennedy revealed to the U.S. the CIA had indeed been testing on unwitting citizens, that the tests involved LSD, and there have been known deaths from the activities.
The CIA would later admit the tests made little scientific sense since, among other reasons, the agents doing the monitoring of MKUltra were not qualified scientific observers. Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the person responsible for MKUltra, has said little on the record about the program other than admitting at his retirement in 1972 the results were “useless.”
A follow-up report from the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1984 would reveal that between 1940 and 1974, the CIA exposed thousands of human test subjects to hazardous substances. Of course, with no remaining program documents and few witnesses willing to talk, most expect the true numbers to be higher.
Notable Subjects & Related Theories
Several notable people were unknowingly involved with Project MKUltra. Theodore Kaczynski (right) was a researcher for Harvard University between 1959 and 1962 when the school was carrying out experiments for MKUltra. He would later of course go on to become more well-known as the Unabomber.
Author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was one of the volunteers for the LSD-testing program of MKUltra, although at the time he thought it was just a research study conducted by his local VA hospital.
Grateful Dead member Robert Hunter was another volunteer for the program, but years later admitted he thought it was harmless research for an innocuous study at Stanford.
The attorney for assassin Sirhan Sirhan asserts the convicted killer was under the influence of hypnosis from the MKUltra program when he shot Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Even more fringe theories exist. Some have proposed Jonestown in Guyana was actually one of the test sites for MKUltra, and that it was no coincidence outspoken CIA-critic Congressman Leo Ryan was assassinated on his visit.
It’s unlikely the CIA has terminated all experimental psychotherapy and drug-testing programs. The ever-changing climate of war suggests this type of experimentation isn’t going away anytime soon, either.
Official documents state Project MKUltra was terminated in 1973, although later evidence suggested the program merely continued on under a different name.
Some remaining MKUltra documents
In a 1977 interview, 14-year CIA veteran Victor Marchetti said the CIA’s claim Project MKUltra had been abandoned was a “cover story” and that experiments likely continue. He indicated a re-allocation of the budget and a new acronym could likely extend the program’s life into the future indefinitely.