“…MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s major drug and mind control program during the Cold War, was the brainchild of Richard Helms, a high-ranking member of the Clandestine Services -otherwise known as the “dirty tricks department” (see the Document Gallery) who championed such methods throughout his career as an intelligence officer. As Helms explained to CIA director Allen 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 usto 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). 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 ran 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 idiosyncrasies. ARTICHOKE operatives, for example, were attempting to have a hypnotized subject kill 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 notes, 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 exercise better judgment when 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…”

“Sidney Gottlieb in 1977. As a poison expert, he headed the chemical division of the Technical Services Staff (TSS), where Gottlieb became known as the “Black Sorcerer” and the “Dirty Trickster.”[3] Gottlieb proposed spraying Fidel Castro’s television studio with LSD, and took a vial of poison to the Congo with plans to place it on Patrice Lumumba’s toothbrush.[6]  On October 7, 1975, Gottlieb testified before the Church Committee under the alias “Joseph Scheider”.[10]

When the C.I.A. Was Into Mind Control
by Sharon Weinberger / Sept. 10, 2019

“In 1955, R. Gordon Wasson set off for southern Mexico to experience a sacred Indian ceremony rumored to provide a “pathway to the divine.” Wasson later extolled the mystical effects of what he called the “magic mushroom,” the Mexican plant used in the ceremony, in a 1957 photo-essay for Life magazine. Wasson’s article, read by millions, helped set the stage for an eventual cultural revolution that peaked with Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor who proselytized for LSD and called on Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

The seminal role Wasson’s trip played in promoting mind-bending drugs and the accompanying cultural revolution has been described before, including in Michael Pollan’s recent book, “How to Change Your Mind,” but a new biography by Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, adds a key detail to this fascinating history. “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” describes how, unbeknown to Wasson, the spy agency was funding his travel.

In fact, Wasson’s trip “would electrify mind control experimenters in Washington whose ambitions were vastly different from his own.” Kinzer’s book traces the life and career of Gottlieb, the man standing in the shadows of this trip. Sidney Gottlieb was also the brains behind the eventual C.I.A. program it helped spawn, MK-ULTRA, the notorious research endeavor that employed mind-altering drugs, including LSD.

The broad outlines of MK-ULTRA are fairly well established even if many of the details are lost to the C.I.A.’s document destruction. Beginning in 1950, the agency, fearful of reported Communist brainwashing, began a top-secret project initially known as Bluebird, to explore ways to influence the human psyche. The program expanded dramatically with the entry of Gottlieb, a chemist with a deep-seated interest in mysticism. Kinzer describes him as “the first person the United States government ever hired to find ways to control human minds.”

Like other troubling figures of C.I.A. history, for instance the paranoid mole hunter James Jesus Angleton, Gottlieb played a seminal role in shaping the agency in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also an outlier. Gottlieb, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bronx, didn’t fit into the Georgetown set that dominated the C.I.A. in those years. But he was valued and protected, particularly by Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence, who believed deeply in mind-control experiments. Gottlieb was someone who could do the agency’s dirty work.

And dirty it was. In 1952, Gottlieb led a team of scientists to a safehouse in Munich — one of the agency’s “black sites” — where prisoners of war were pumped full of drugs, interrogated and then allowed to die. These were ideal operating conditions. “One of the luxuries that Gottlieb’s interrogators enjoyed was the knowledge that if any ‘expendables’ died during their experiment, disposing of their bodies would be ‘no problem.’” The experiments failed to control any minds, except perhaps for Gottlieb’s, since he was convinced his research would yield results. “Gottlieb and his chemical warriors believed they could transform a persistent legend into reality,” Kinzer writes.

The unit eventually expanded its research, changed its name to MK-ULTRA and shifted to the United States, where Gottlieb worked with a sadistic narcotics officer in opening a “national security whorehouse” to dose unwitting victims being serviced by prostitutes on the C.I.A. payroll. (Proving that even spies have a sense of humor, the brothel “research” was informally called Operation Midnight Climax.) Drugging johns was easy, but when Gottlieb started dosing unwitting government colleagues the research hit turbulence. In what would give the program its lasting black eye, Frank Olson, an Army scientist working with MK-ULTRA who had been given LSD without his knowledge, jumped, or was possibly pushed, out of a hotel room window in New York in 1953.

Kinzer’s retelling of the MK-ULTRA story is unsparing in its gruesome details, but not overwrought. Those looking for entirely new revelations, however, won’t find them here — in part, because information from the surviving records has already come to light, first through the investigations of the Senate committee headed by Frank Church of Idaho in the mid-1970s, and then a few years later, in 1978, thanks to John Marks’s book “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate.”

(Kinzer draws liberally from Marks and other secondary accounts, and occasionally one wishes he had cited more original source material.) Gottlieb has previously been treated as a historical footnote, but Kinzer elevates him to his proper place as one of the C.I.A.’s most influential and despicable characters. Along with mind control, he was involved in a series of schemes to poison Fidel Castro.

Kinzer also goes far beyond the story of Frank Olson, which is well-worn territory, covered most recently in Errol Morris’s docudrama “Wormwood.” Whether murdered or driven to suicide, Olson was a reluctant soldier in Gottlieb’s mind-control army. Yet his death has overshadowed the “expendables.” We just don’t know most of their names since Gottlieb destroyed the records.

Some of the details in the book, like the coercion of African-American prisoners to participate in C.I.A. experiments, are astounding. But it wasn’t that long ago that agency personnel were performing “rectal hydration” on a suspected terrorist. Rather than LSD, Gottlieb’s successors turned to techniques like waterboarding. And like Gottlieb, those involved sought to shred the evidence and move on with their lives, while the people in charge allowed them to do so because they believed these loyal spies were protecting the country from a greater evil.

Today, MK-ULTRA has a permanent place in American culture, though it’s often synonymous with conspiracy theory or a punch line for jokes about tinfoil hats. But the program should be remembered for what it was: a vehicle for abominable experiments that often targeted the most vulnerable — drug users, prisoners and psychiatric patients, who were deprived of meaningful informed consent, if there was any consent at all. Kinzer’s book is also a good reminder that there is rarely legal accountability for the C.I.A.’s misdeeds. In Gottlieb’s case, the only repercussions came during his retirement, when he was hounded by lawsuits and congressional investigations, and compelled to give testimony in which he provided precious few details.

The C.I.A., for its part, never condemned Gottlieb, even if it didn’t enthusiastically support him. “Ah, poor Sid Gottlieb,” Richard Helms, a former director, later lamented, suggesting that the problem was not MK-ULTRA but how Americans responded to news of it. “The nation just saw something they didn’t like and blasted it, and he took the blame for it,” Helms said. Did Gottlieb, a devoted father and generous colleague, struggle with the human damage he left behind? Was he a villain, a mad scientist or just an unsung patriot doing what he believed necessary to protect the country? It’s hard to know, since Gottlieb, forever the loyal company man, avoided committing his thoughts to paper, let alone providing truthful testimony.

But one thing seems certain: Even if his colleagues thought he was brilliant, he was a lousy scientist. His work with experimental drugs never seemed to involve anything as banal as protocols or controls. Given that this is a biography, it’s worth noting there is one Gottlieb endeavor omitted from an otherwise comprehensive book, the poisoner in chief’s role in another equally questionable, though less harmful, endeavor: parapsychology. Near the end of his C.I.A. career, Gottlieb awarded a contract to the Stanford Research Institute to see whether psychics could be used to help spy on American enemies.”


“During the early period of the Cold War, the CIA became convinced that communists had discovered a drug or technique that would allow them to control human minds. In response, the CIA began its own secret program, called MK-ULTRA, to search for a mind control drug that could be weaponized against enemies. MK-ULTRA, which operated from the 1950s until the early ’60s, was created and run by a chemist named Sidney Gottlieb. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who spent several years investigating the program, calls the operation the “most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.”

Some of Gottlieb’s experiments were covertly funded at universities and research centers, Kinzer says, while others were conducted in American prisons and in detention centers in Japan, Germany and the Philippines. Many of his unwitting subjects endured psychological torture ranging from electroshock to high doses of LSD, according to Kinzer’s research. “Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people’s minds, and he realized it was a two-part process,” Kinzer says. “First, you had to blast away the existing mind.

Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void. We didn’t get too far on number two, but he did a lot of work on number one.” Kinzer notes that the top-secret nature of Gottlieb’s work makes it impossible to measure the human cost of his experiments. “We don’t know how many people died, but a number did, and many lives were permanently destroyed,” he says. Ultimately, Gottlieb concluded that mind control was not possible. After MK-ULTRA shut down, he went on to lead a CIA program that created poisons and high-tech gadgets for spies to use. Kinzer writes about Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA in his new book, Poisoner in Chief.”

Interview Highlights
“As part of the search for drugs that would allow people to control the human mind, CIA scientists became aware of the existence of LSD, and this became an obsession for the early directors of MK-ULTRA. Actually, the MK-ULTRA director, Sidney Gottlieb, can now be seen as the man who brought LSD to America. He was the unwitting godfather of the entire LSD counterculture.

In the early 1950s, he arranged for the CIA to pay $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD. He brought this to the United States, and he began spreading it around to hospitals, clinics, prisons and other institutions, asking them, through bogus foundations, to carry out research projects and find out what LSD was, how people reacted to it and how it might be able to be used as a tool for mind control.

Now, the people who volunteered for these experiments and began taking LSD, in many cases, found it very pleasurable. They told their friends about it. Who were those people? Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, got his LSD in an experiment sponsored by the CIA by MK-ULTRA, by Sidney Gottlieb. So did Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, which went on to become a great purveyor of LSD culture.

Allen Ginsberg, the poet who preached the value of the great personal adventure of using LSD, got his first LSD from Sidney Gottlieb. Although, of course, he never knew that name. So the CIA brought LSD to America unwittingly, and actually it’s a tremendous irony that the drug that the CIA hoped would be its key to controlling humanity actually wound up fueling a generational rebellion that was dedicated to destroying everything that the CIA held dear and defended.”

On how MK-ULTRA experimented on prisoners, including crime boss Whitey Bulger
Whitey Bulger was one of the prisoners who volunteered for what he was told was an experiment aimed at finding a cure for schizophrenia. As part of this experiment, he was given LSD every day for more than a year. He later realized that this had nothing to do with schizophrenia and he was a guinea pig in a government experiment aimed at seeing what people’s long-term reactions to LSD was. Essentially, could we make a person lose his mind by feeding him LSD every day over such a long period? Bulger wrote afterward about his experiences, which he described as quite horrific. He thought he was going insane. He wrote, “I was in prison for committing a crime, but they committed a greater crime on me.” And towards the end of his life, Bulger came to realize the truth of what had happened to him, and he actually told his friends that he was going to find that doctor in Atlanta who was the head of that experiment program in the penitentiary and go kill him.

On the CIA hiring Nazi doctors and Japanese torturers to learn methods
The CIA mind control project, MK-ULTRA, was essentially a continuation of work that began in Japanese and Nazi concentration camps. Not only was it roughly based on those experiments, but the CIA actually hired the vivisectionists and the torturers who had worked in Japan and in Nazi concentration camps to come and explain what they had found out so that we could build on their research. For example, Nazi doctors had conducted extensive experiments with mescaline at the Dachau concentration camp, and the CIA was very interested in figuring out whether mescaline could be the key to mind control that was one of their big avenues of investigation. So they hired the Nazi doctors who had been involved in that project to advise them. Another thing the Nazis provided was information about poison gases like sarin, which is still being used. Nazi doctors came to America to Fort Detrick in Maryland, which was the center of this project, to lecture to CIA officers to tell them how long it took for people to die from sarin.

On the more extreme experiments Gottlieb conducted overseas
Gottlieb and the CIA established secret detention centers throughout Europe and East Asia, particularly in Japan, Germany and the Philippines, which were largely under American control in the period of the early ’50s, and therefore Gottlieb didn’t have to worry about any legal entanglements in these places. … CIA officers in Europe and Asia were capturing enemy agents and others who they felt might be suspected persons or were otherwise what they called “expendable.” They would grab these people and throw them into cells and then test all kinds of, not just drug potions, but other techniques, like electroshock, extremes of temperature, sensory isolation — all the meantime bombarding them with questions, trying to see if they could break down resistance and find a way to destroy the human ego. So these were projects designed not only to understand the human mind but to figure out how to destroy it. And that made Gottlieb, although in some ways a very compassionate person, certainly the most prolific torturer of his generation.

On how these experiments were unsupervised
[Gottlieb] operated almost completely without supervision. He had sort of a checkoff from his titular boss and from his real boss, Richard Helms, and from the CIA director, Allen Dulles. But none of them really wanted to know what he was doing. This guy had a license to kill. He was allowed to requisition human subjects across the United States and around the world and subject them to any kind of abuse that he wanted, even up to the level of it being fatal — yet nobody looked over his shoulder. He never had to file serious reports to anybody. I think the mentality must have been [that] this project is so important — mind control, if it can be mastered, is the key to global world power.

On how Gottlieb destroyed evidence about his experiments when he left the CIA
The end of Gottlieb’s career came in [1973], when his patron, Richard Helms, who was then director of the CIA, was removed by [President Richard] Nixon. Once Helms was gone, it was just a matter of time until Gottlieb would be gone, and most important was that Helms was really the only person at the CIA who had an idea of what Gottlieb had been doing. So as they were both on their way out of the CIA, they agreed that they should destroy all records of MK-ULTRA. Gottlieb actually drove out to the CIA records center and ordered the archives to destroy boxes full of MK-ULTRA records. … However, it turns out that there were some [records] found in other places; there was a depot for expense account reports that had not been destroyed, and various other pieces of paper remain. So there is enough out there to reconstruct some of what he did, but his effort to wipe away his traces by destroying all those documents in the early ’70s was quite successful.”





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