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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Controlling the Human Mind – The CIA’s Adventures with LSD

Written by Olivier Guiberteau 

The early 1950s in the United States was a period of prosperity that saw the middle class clamber higher than it ever had. Fresh from its military success during World War II and buoyed by its booming economy, the American Dream was burning brightly. 

And yet behind this facade lay a government beginning to grit its teeth against the impending showdown with the Soviet Union. On the surface, the United States was flying, but behind the scenes, paranoia, competitiveness, and mistrust were about to spawn one of the most disturbing U.S governmental operations you are ever likely to hear about. 

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Project MK-Ultra was a wide-ranging program that sought to investigate whether certain drugs, such as LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA, mescaline, heroin, barbiturates, and methamphetamine could be used to influence, or even control minds. While the distant goal was said to be able to covertly turn Soviet agents without their knowledge, the testing phase on U.S citizens, often without their consent, was disturbing, to say the least. 

To make it all worse, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the vast majority of documents relating to Project MK-Ultra were destroyed in 1973 on the orders of CIA Director Richard Helms. 

These days it can be easy to fall down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole and get carried away with suspicions about various governments, but when you hear about programs like MK-Ultra, it’s not hard to see why.  

World War II

Like many Cold War-era tales of intrigue, we need to begin this one back amid the horrors of World War II. You see, the idea of testing different kinds of drugs on people to see what would happen and whether they could be used to control minds did not start with the CIA, but rather the Nazis. 

The depths of Nazi depravity and their pseudo-medical procedures could fill numerous posts, so we’re going to focus on experiments specifically using certain drugs. As you can imagine information is patchy here, but it’s thought that at the Dachau Concentration Camp there was a program that tested the effects of mescaline and other drugs on inmates.  

The idea seemed to have originated from the failure of the SS to break certain Polish prisoners under interrogation. As a final resort, the decision was made to drug them with powerful substances and then when they started to feel strange, the interrogator would inform them that their minds were now being controlled. 

It sounds almost ridiculous but apparently, there was some real success with this method. So successful in fact, that when Dachau was liberated by the Americans on 29th April 1945, all the paperwork was handed over to the U.S military – and surprise, surprise, much of it hasn’t been seen in public since.  

Cold War

World War II blended into the Cold War with astonishing speed, and before you knew it, allegiances had changed, as had the enemy. With Soviet influence now spreading, a battle for ideological supremacy was soon underway. 

It was during the Cold War that some of the more outlandish ideas were tried and tested in the hope of getting one up on the Soviets. The Stargate Project was started in 1978 to investigate the potential for psychic phenomena in military and domestic intelligence, while Project Acoustic Kitty was a 1960s program that sought to implant listening devices in cats to be used for spying. 

What’s clear is that as the Cold War developed, the United States experienced a seismic level of paranoia – as did the Soviets it must be said – perhaps most clearly seen during the ‘red scare’ that led to the infamous McCarthy Trials in 1954 in which numerous Americans were denounced as being Soviet collaborators. 

Yet while some of the more outrageous experiments saw spectacular amounts of money spent on programs that never went anywhere, the effect on human life often remained relatively low. That is of course except for a certain avenue of experimentation that began with Project Artichoke in 1951.      

Project ARTICHOKE 

Project Artichoke can probably be best summarised by a question posed in a declassified internal memo that was sent in January 1952, it reads:

“Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?”

The idea that the United States actively pursued the possibility of creating assassins who had been brainwashed by a combination of hypnosis and large quantities of psychedelic drugs might sound insane, but essentially that’s exactly what happened. 

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The following decade a film titled The Manchurian Candidate, in which an American is brainwashed by the Soviets into becoming an assassin targeting a U.S politician, provided to be a huge cinematic hit, but the resemblance to Project Artichoke was undeniable.    

There is a lot we don’t know about this program but it appears the CIA carried out in-house and overseas experiments using LSD, hypnosis, and total isolation. Other drugs, including marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and mescaline had also been trialled, but LSD was quickly deemed the most effective. 

In 1952, LSD was being given unbeknown to CIA agents both in the U.S and overseas, with one report of a single agent being kept on LSD for quite an astonishing 77 days. Unfortunately, we have very little idea of the results of Project Artichoke, but considering the U.S decided to expand the program under a different name, you would have expected at least some degree of success. 

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The Death of Frank Olson

As 1953 began, Project Artichoke was quietly succeeded by Project MK-Ultra, which would continue until 1973, and almost immediately a death occurred in which the causes are still being argued over nearly 70 years later. 

Frank Olsen, an American bacteriologist, biological warfare scientist, began his military service as a captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps during World War II. He was officially discharged from the military in 1944 but continued working on a civilian contract within a wide range of projects. 

He was said to have worked with ex-Nazis who were brought to the U.S under Project Paperclip and in May 1952, he was appointed to the committee for Project Artichoke – becoming one of the few who truly understood what was happening. 

In 1953, after years of working on projects that frequently saw plenty of death and torture, both with animals and humans, Olsen stepped down as head of the Special Operations Division, citing health concerns. Those close to him reported a general sagging of morale and considering what we know now, you can only begin to imagine what must have been going through the man’s mind. 

How much of his condition was a crisis of morality and how much was a genuine psychiatric issue we have no idea, but Olsen was a man who knew things, things that the U.S government certainly didn’t want to get out. 

On 18th November 1953, Olsen and the other top brass involved with Project MK-Ultra arrived at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland for their regular retreat, and the following morning Olsen and possibly other members were given LSD without their consent. 

The next day Olsen returned home and seemed distant and distracted from his family. At work, he told his superior he now felt ‘mixed up’ about what they were doing and was sent home, with an escort because he was now deemed a danger to his family. Later that same day, Olsen, Lt. Col. Vincent Ruwet, and CIA chemist Robert Lashbrook flew to New York City to meet with a CIA doctor. 

What happened over the next few days we don’t know, but what we do know is that at 2 am on 28th November, Olsen’s body plummeted 10 storeys down to the pavement outside his hotel. He died before paramedics could arrive on the scene.

The incident was quickly painted as a troubled man who chose to end his life, but there was a lot that doesn’t stack up. Not least that the hotel’s telephone operator connected a phone call from that very room shortly after Olsen’s body dropped to the ground, in which she heard the occupant in 1018A say “Well, he’s gone.” to which the call’s recipient had replied, “Well, that’s too bad.”  

In the mid-1990s, Olsen’s body was exhumed to be buried with his then-deceased wife, and his son decided to have a second autopsy. It revealed a large hematoma on the left side of Olson’s head and a large injury on his chest, that most in the autopsy team concluded had occurred before he hit the ground. To this day we still don’t know the truth about the death of Frank Olsen.    

Operation Midnight Climax

In 1954, one of the most disturbing programs under Project MK-Ultra got underway. Operation Midnight Climax involved CIA ‘safe houses’ in San Francisco and New York that had been converted into brothels, where paid prostitutes would entice men back to. Once there, the unsuspecting men would be given a hefty dose of LSD, while CIA researchers watched on from behind two-way wall mirrors. 

The aim was to see whether LSD paired with sex could coax certain information out of the subjects, or ‘Johns’ as they were referred to. The prostitutes were frequently instructed to use post-coital questioning (after sex) to investigate whether the victims could be convinced to involuntarily reveal secrets. But it was also much darker, with the occasional use of subliminal messages in attempts to induce them to involuntary actions, such as robbery, assault, and even assassination.

This operation caused quite a storm when evidence of it emerged in the mid to later 1970s but despite some high-level congressional hearings, the book was simply and quietly closed on the U.S government program that drugged hundreds, perhaps even thousands without their knowledge.

But this was just another off-shoot of the brazen Project MK-Ultra. It’s been reported that as early as 1953, U.S citizens, often the mentally ill, prisoners, prostitutes, or homeless, were being given LSD. In what must surely be the most astonishing example, a patient in Kentucky suffering an unspecific mental disorder was given LSD for 174 days.  

The Montreal experiments

Things were not just constrained to the United States and what has become known as “the Montreal experiments” remain highly classified to this day. 

What we know is that the experiment’s stated goal was to treat schizophrenia by changing memories and erasing the patients’ thoughts. This was to be done under the direction of Scottish psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron and his method of “psychic driving” – where patients were often subjected to repeated audio messages that could go on for hours – but also included drug-induced sleep, intensive electroconvulsive therapy, sensory deprivation, and Thorazine – an antipsychotic medication.  

Between 1957 and 1964, these experiments were carried out at the Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University, with funding put in place by the CIA as part of Project MK-Ultra. Cameron was convinced that he could cure schizophrenia and the CIA was more than a little interested in whether a human could be effectively brainwashed with a series of techniques, perhaps enough to create a super-soldier. In Cameron, they found the perfect, morally questionable man, who was paid $20,000 a year for his troubles – around $200,000 today.    

What exactly happened to patients has never been fully revealed, but many experienced catastrophic problems late in life. It’s thought that the techniques involved electro-shock therapy, forced listening of a repetitive verbal signal, sensory isolation, and drug-induced comas that could last anywhere up to 10 days.  

While there have been several court cases, both in Canada and the U.S, including some frankly paltry payouts, the CIA and the Canadian government have long refused to acknowledge the existence of the Montreal experiments.    

Alleged subjects

Thousand of people got caught up in Project MK-Ultra without their consent, while there were certainly many who knew full well what they were getting themselves into. It’s difficult to gauge the long-term impact on those subjected to this program, but there are two names, both deeply infamous in the United States, that were rumoured to be attached to MK-Ultra: Charles Manson and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. 

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In 2019, journalist Tom Oneil released his book, CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, in which he made the quite extraordinary claim that Charles Manson had been used by the CIA as part of Operation Choas, yet another offshoot from MK-Ultra.

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As you may, or may not know, the CIA is not technically allowed to spy on American citizens, but that hasn’t slowed them down one bit over years. Operation Chaos was a program that ran from 1967 to 1974 that aimed to infiltrate various groups and investigate foreign influence on domestic race, anti-war and other protest movements, including the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, Young Lords, and Women Strike for Peace. 

Like almost everything else under the MK-Ultra umbrella, details of Operation Chaos are vague at best, but it’s thought that when the program was closed in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the CIA held files on 7,200 Americans, and a computer index totalling 3,000 civilians and approximately 1,000 groups. 

Where exactly Charles Manson came in all of this – if there was any link whatsoever – we can’t be sure. However, Oneil makes a compelling case that Manson may have been one of the test subjects first used under Operation Midnight Climax. When we consider that the CIA was actively investigating whether LSD and other drugs could be used to brainwash subjects into doing various devious acts against their own will, it perhaps doesn’t sound so crazy. Why were Manson’s parole officers so spectacularly lax with him despite him being on parole and continuously committing acts that under any interpretation of the law would be considered a parole violation? Was the murder spree committed by his ‘family’ one of the terrifying consequences of the CIA’s rash experimentation with psychedelic drugs? 

Alas, this is one theory that still has one leg firmly planted in the conspiratorial realm and it seems unlikely that we’ll have any firm answers any time soon. However, links to Ted Kaczynski might be a little clearer.

When Ted Kaczynski entered Havard in 1958 at the age of just 16, he was considered exceptionally gifted and there were high hopes for the young man. Just a year into his studies, he became one of 22 Havard students to take part in a study exploring the effects of stress on the human psyche under the direction of psychologist Henry A. Murray. 

The study began with each participant writing an essay that outlined their worldview and beliefs, which was followed by what Murray himself described as “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive” interrogations that looked to attack the very core beliefs that had been outlined in the essays. 

This study went on for the best part of three years in which participants were regularly subjected to the kind of abuse that you could never get away with today. Kaczynski himself described the experience as the worst of life and it seems clear that this is where things began to unravel for the once gifted young man.

This study has long been held up as about as unethical as it gets, but there have also been consistent rumours that the CIA may have been involved in some way or another. Certainly, the field of study would have been of great interest to them and many see the Murray experiments at Harvard as yet another not-so-secretive branch of MK-Ultra.             

Disclosure

The end of Project MK-Ultra came about because of another scandal. When the Watergate affair broke in 1972 it soon led to more intense investigations into the more secretive government programs. In 1973, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files destroyed, which is what happened, save for a few boxes that had been incorrectly labelled. 

In December 1974 a New York Times article painted a damning picture of what the CIA and other government organizations had been up to over the last 15 years. This led to the U.S Congress taking a keen interest, which in turn led to a Senate select committee known as the Church Committee to investigate, along with another group known as the Rockefeller Commission. 

In 1975, both reports revealed the patchy truth behind Project MK-Ultra to the public for the first time. However, with so little documentation remaining, both were light on facts and specifics. Over time, several lawsuits have been brought against the government, which have either been fought with the full force of the U.S government or quietly settled in a way that it was clear that the victims wouldn’t be talking to anybody further about the matter.

Decades on from Project MK-Ultra, there is still so much that we don’t know about this clandestine governmental program. We have no idea what the long-term effects were, or even who was actually involved, but it remains one of the darkest government-sponsored initiatives you can imagine and one that almost certainly destroyed countless lives.  

One of the Most Shocking CIA Programs of All Time: Project MKUltra (todayifoundout.com)

Project MKUltra – Wikipedia

Operation Midnight Climax – Wikipedia

Montreal experiments – Wikipedia

The Secret Montreal Experiments They Don’t Want You To Know About – MTL Blog

MK-Ultra – HISTORY

https://www.npr.org/2019/09/09/758989641/the-cias-secret-quest-for-mind-control-torture-lsd-and-a-poisoner-in-chief?t=1645531566475

Transcript: Drug Experiments in Concentration Camps | Apr 17, 2018 | TVO.org

Pseudo-medical experiments in Hitler’s concentration camps | Medical Review Auschwitz

st02.pdf (gwu.edu)

‘Deadly Intelligence’: ‘Project Artichoke’ Had Some, Uh, Interesting Interrogations (Exclusive Video) (thewrap.com)

Document Friday: Project ARTICHOKE, or the CIA Attempt to Create an Unwitting Assassin Through Hypnosis | UNREDACTED

The CIA’s Operation ‘Midnight Climax’ Is Exactly What It Sounds Like (coffeeordie.com)

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