How is this for a movie idea: a regular man becomes the subject of a secret government program. The shadowy figures behind this program want to test different mind altering drugs on unsuspecting people so that they can find out the best way to torture the human mind… Sound too far-fetched? Even for a conspiracy-themed flick? Well, this is better than any scary movie – this is the almost unbelievable story of a real-life secret agency who tried to do exactly that. Their name? The United States Central Intelligence Agency.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established by the U.S. government in September 1947. The agency was tasked with gathering and analyzing information pertaining to national security from around the world using human intelligence (read spies). Their unofficial motto is "And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Five years after the agency was formed they launched a highly controversial secret program known as Project MKUltra hoping to master brainwashing and interrogation techniques that they could use to their advantage in conflicts with other nations. Before it was over the program cost an estimated $10 million or about $87.5 million in today’s money.
Here are 15 things you didn't about this covert CIA program…
15 The Project Goals
The MKUltra Project was started by order of CIA director Allen Welsh Dulles in 1953 and headed up by Sidney Gottlieb. The CIA had received reports that the Soviets, Chinese and North Koreans had developed mind control techniques that were being used on U.S prisoners of war and the agency wanted to develop similar methods to use on their own prisoners. They were also interested in finding ways to influence foreign leaders without drawing attention to themselves. They wanted to “unlock” the secrets of the human mind and find the best way to control people and make captives share information.
The program, which consisted of about 149 subprojects, ran between 1953 and 1966 and their purpose was "the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior."
14 How The CIA Got Away With It
The CIA contracted out the research for MKUltra to a number of different universities and research foundations. We know now that at least 185 private researchers and 80 institutions were involved in the project. But if so many people were working on something so bizarre, how on earth did the CIA keep the project secret for so long?
Well, the CIA funded MKUltra indirectly, which means that they worked through front organizations so the researchers involved didn’t know that they were working for the CIA or what their research was being used for. Sometimes the top officials of the universities or research facilities knew that the work was for the agency, but this was not always the case. And if you think about it – who would have even believed them if they had tried to spill the beans?
13 They Often Did Human Experiments Without Consent
When MKUltra was exposed to the public it wasn’t their experiments that caused outrage, but the fact that many of these trials were carried out on people without their express permission. It’s one thing to give people weird and wonderful drugs, but it’s quite something else to do it without their consent.
Research into the practical application of LSD dominated many of MKUltra’s programs. Among other objectives, the CIA wanted to find out if the drug could be used on foreign spies to make them deflect against their will. They used mental patients, drug addicts, prostitutes, and even prisoners for LSD experiments – all people who couldn’t fight back. They also administered the drug to CIA employees, soldiers, doctors, and even members of the general public; all without their knowledge or consent.
12 The Programs Bizarre Objectives
The CIA had some pretty strange objectives for the MKUltra project beyond finding drugs and methods that could be used for successful interrogations. One document from 1955 gives a good indication of the scale and range of the project.
According to this document the project was looking to identify materials and substances that would cause temporary or permanent loss of memory, cause people to age slower or faster, promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness (so that the person would act in a way that could discredit them), lower ambition and working efficiency, and change personality structures to make people more dependent – just to name a few. They were also interested in finding substances that could be administered without detection that would result in physical disablement and produce signs of recognized diseases that could be reversed.
11 How MKUltra Was Exposed
In 1975 the Church Committee of the U.S. Congress and a Gerald Ford commission launched an investigation into CIA activities within the United States. Their efforts to investigate and uncover the truth about the operations of MKUltra were hampered by the fact that almost all the documentation relating to the project and it’s many subprojects had been destroyed. Two years before, in 1973, CIA Director Richard Helms had given the order for all the files to be destroyed so the investigation relied heavily on testimony from people who had been involved.
A Freedom of Information Act request in 1977 uncovered about 20,000 documents which had survived the purge because they had been incorrectly stored. This shed light on the funding of the projects but gave little insight into the operations themselves.
10 He “Exited” The Thirteenth-Floor Window
Because so many of the files related to MKUltra were destroyed, we’ll probably never know how many deaths the program caused. But we do know about the mysterious case of United States Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher Frank Olson.
From what we can gather it seems Olson agreed to participate in an experiment, but he was only told the exact nature of the drug (LSD) about twenty minutes after he had ingested it. The agency failed to consider the fact that Olson was suffering from depression at the time. According to their internal investigation Olson “exited the window” of a hotel room later that night and fell to his death. His family received a $750,000 settlement from the U.S. government.
But Olson’s family claims that the researcher was murdered by the CIA because he had become a security risk and an autopsy conducted in 1994 supports their claim. The autopsy found that he had been knocked unconscious before he fell from the thirteenth-floor window.
9 Operation Paperclip
After WWII the Nuremberg Trials were conducted to bring German doctors who had carried out unethical medical practices during the war to justice. Following the trials and verdicts in 1947 the Nuremberg code was established as a set of research ethics for human experimentation. Part of this code included the fact the no person should be made to participate in scientific or medical experiments against their will. Five years later the MKUltra project began and flaunted the consent rules that the United States had agreed to.
Operation Paperclip was a secret U.S. government program that recruited more than 1,600 German scientists and engineers – many of whom had been high-ranking Nazi officials during the war – and brought them to work for the United States. This was controversial because it helped some Nazi’s escape prosecution for war crimes.
8 Sidney Gottlieb AKA The Black Sorcerer
Project MKUltra was headed up by a man called Sidney Gottlieb, an American chemist and bona fide spymaster. He joined the CIA in 1951 as a poison expert and headed up the chemical division of Technical Services Staff (TSS), the same division that would later orchestrate MKUltra. Gottlieb’s work involved preparing lethal poisons and overseeing experiments in mind control.
Two years later he became head of the secret MKUltra program and in this role, he dosed subjects with LSD and other drugs and oversaw financing of the front organizations that the CIA used to conceal the program from the people carrying out the research. His objective was to develop "techniques that would crush the human psyche to the point that it would admit anything". His nicknames at the agency included the "Black Sorcerer" and the "Dirty Trickster."
Gottlieb retired from the FBI in 1972 and received a Distinguished Intelligence Medal from the government.
7 Is MKUltra Really Over?
Now I don’t mean to make you feel paranoid, but some people do believe that secret programs similar to MKUltra still continue to this day. And considering what actions the CIA took during this project, is this really such a far-fetched idea?
Victor Marchetti worked for the CIA for 14 years and has been interviewed many times on the agency’s mind control research programs. He claims that the CIA regularly embarks on disinformation campaigns (which makes perfect sense given that they are spies after all) and that their claim that MKUltra was abandoned was nothing more than a cover story. Author John D. Marks also disputed the CIA claims that mind control programs were phased out, citing that work on MKUltra continued into the 1970s.
I suppose the question comes down to this – can we trust an agency that we know has lied to us in the past?
6 Operation Midnight Climax
One of the subprojects overseen by MKUltra head Sidney Gottlieb was an operation known as Operation Midnight Climax (you couldn’t even make up projects' names like this!). The project consisted of a number of CIA-run “safe houses” located throughout the US. The objective of the project was to observe and study the effects of LSD on non-consenting test subjects. The CIA employed prostitutes who would bring men to the safe houses/brothels where they were given LSD or other substances and observed by means of one-way glass.
This “research” helped the agency to understand the effects of sexual blackmail and how mind altering drugs could be used in future field operations. The agency declared that the safe houses were officially closed down by 1966, or at least that is what they would like us to believe.
5 The Case Of Whitey Bulger
Whitey Bulger was an infamous gangster and Boston crime boss who managed to evade capture for almost half a century. If you’ve watched the movie Black Mass you’ll remember Johnny Depp playing the character of Bulger.
But before he became a crime boss he served time for armed robbery and truck hijacking. He was sent away in 1956 and during his sentence, he claims that he was the subject of an MKUltra experiment. According to him, he took part in exchange for a reduced sentence. He was given regular doses of LSD and other drugs and was told that the purpose was to help find a cure for schizophrenia. He described the drug testing in his notebook as “horrible LSD experiences followed by thoughts of suicide and deep depression.” He was finally released from prison nine years later.
4 Death By MDA Infusion
Harold Blauer was an American tennis player who booked himself into the New York Psychiatric Institute in late 1952. Harold was recently divorced and was struggling with depression. What he didn’t know was that the US government had a classified agreement with this institute that allowed them to study the effects of chemicals and substances by administering them to patients. This was an early subproject of Project MKUltra.
Without his consent or knowledge, Harold was given an intravenous infusion of 450mg of Methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA – which would later be used to create MDMA, a recreational drug) on the 8th of January 1953. Even the doctor who administered the treatment had no idea what the infusion really contained. Blauer died the same day. The CIA altered his medical records to conceal his actual cause of death.
3 Warning: Punch May Contain LSD
The CIA believed that they could use LSD to help them achieve their “mind-control” objectives but before they began experiments on test subjects the drug was tested by in-house agents working in the MKUltra program. At first, this was done with their consent but project head Sidney Gottlieb soon realized that the drug had different effects in a controlled setting so he authorized agents to dose each other without prior consent.
If you thought your job was bad, imagine if getting dosed with LSD at work was a common occupational hazard! That’s how it was for these poor agents as this type of testing expanded. The agency grew concerned about the scale of in-house testing after it was revealed that someone had plotted to spike the punch bowl of a CIA Christmas party and send out an official memo regarding the effects of LSD and condemning such practices.
2 The Canadian Experiments
MKUltra experiments were not just carried out in the USA, they were conducted in Canada as well by CIA recruited Scottish psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron. Between 1957 and 1964 he was paid roughly $69,000 to conduct “research” at the Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University, however, he was unaware that the money was coming from the agency.
Dr. Cameron was looking for a way to cure schizophrenia by erasing existing memories with different drugs and techniques and reprogramming the human brain. It’s easy to see why the CIA became interested in his work. His bizarre treatments which included mind-altering drugs like LSD and electroconvulsive therapy at forty times the normal power resulted in permanent damage to many of his patients/victims, most of whom were experimented on without consent. Some developed incontinence, others lost their memories, and a few even lost the ability to speak.
1 The Methods Of MKUltra
Besides from LSD the MKUltra Project also experimented with a variety of drugs and mind-control techniques. They dosed people with drugs such as heroin, temazepam, mescaline, sodium pentothal (a so-called “truth serum”), alcohol, marijuana, and psilocybin.
Another technique that they used was to connect a barbiturate IV in one arm and an amphetamine IV in the other. They would first release the barbiturates and when the person started to fall asleep, they would open the amphetamine IV. The subject would begin to babble and it was sometimes possible to get answers out of them in an interrogation scenario. They also studied hypnosis hoping to find a way to create "hypnotically induced anxieties” to use on their enemies and increase learning and recall abilities for their agents.