many Americans, the 1950s were a docile decade. In U.S. history books, the
period is mostly portrayed as a mellow, orderly one, especially in light of the
social upheavals that followed in the 1960s. But for the CIA, the “I Like
Ike” years were packed with adventure and action, much of it conducted
outside of the public’s view. Few programs were sheltered with more secrecy
than the Agency’s mind control experiments, identified together with the
code-name MKULTRA.

Concerned about rumors of communist brainwashing of POWs during the Korean war,
in April 1953 CIA Director Allen Dulles authorized the MKULTRA program, which
would later become notorious for the unusual and sometimes inhumane tests that
the CIA financed. Reviewing the experiments five years later, one
secrecy-conscious CIA auditor wrote: “Precautions must be taken not only
to protect operations from exposure to enemy forces but also to conceal these
activities from the American public in general. The knowledge that the agency
is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious
repercussions in political and diplomatic circles.”

Though many of the documents related to MKULTRA were destroyed by the CIA in
1972, some records relating to the program have made it into the public domain,
and the work of historians, investigative reporters, and various congressional
committees has resulted in the release of enough information to make MKULTRA
one of the most disturbing instances of intelligence community abuse on record.
As writer Mark Zepezauer puts it, “the surviving history is nasty

The most notorious MKULTRA experiments were the CIA’s pioneering studies of the
drug that would years later feed the heads of millions: lysergic acid
diethylamide, or LSD. The CIA was intrigued by the drug, and harbored hopes
that acid or a similar drug could be used to clandestinely disorient and
manipulate target foreign leaders. (The Agency would consider several such
schemes in its pursuit of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who they wanted to send
into a drug-induced stupor or tirade during a public or live radio speech.) LSD
was also viewed as a way to loosen tongues in CIA interrogations.

In his thorough book on MKULTRA and similar projects, The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate,”
John Marks reports that most of the CIA researchers tried LSD themselves. In
fact, an early phase of the experiments was probably the setting for the first
acid trip in the United States — experienced by a courageous CIA man no less!

The fact that these experiments took place is remarkable in and of itself, but
the story of the CIA’s LSD trips approaches the unbelievably bizarre when the
cast of characters is considered. In his recent history of the early exploits
of the CIA, The Very Best Men, Evan Thomas describes Sidney
Gottlieb, the Stranglovian scientist who ran the MKULTRA project: “Born
with a clubfoot and a stutter, he compensated by becoming an expert folk dancer
and obtaining a Ph.D. from Cal Tech. A pleasant man who lived on a farm with
his wife, Gottlieb drank only goat’s milk and grew Christmas trees, which he sold
at a roadside stand.” When he wasn’t busy on the farm, Dr. Gottlieb was
dosing subjects with LSD-laced drinks, scrutinizing their reactions, and
searching for qualities of the drug that would benefit CIA covert actions.

The CIA’s LSD experiments were conducted on many unwitting subjects, most often
prisoners or patrons of brothels set up and run by the Agency, which had
installed two-way mirrors in the establishments to allow for observation of the
drug’s effects (these studies were referred to as “Operation Midnight
Climax”). Some of the MKULTRA subjects who were informed faced even more
inhumane treatment: during one experiment in Kentucky, seven volunteers were
given LSD for 77 days straight.

One of the experiments probably proved fatal. On November 19, 1953, an Army
scientist and germ warfare specialist named Frank Olson, who was working on an
MKULTRA project, was slipped a solid dose of LSD in his drink. Then, after
spending eight days stumbling about in what many observers described as a
paranoid, depressed state, Olson jumped through his hotel window in New York
and fell ten stories to his death.

The Agency covered up its role in Olson’s demise, and twenty-two years would
pass before his family would learn of the events leading up to his death. When
the CIA’s acid exploits were made public in the mid-1970s, the Agency found
itself facing heavy criticism. One Senate committee put it this way in 1975:

“From its beginning in the early 1950s until its termination in 1963, the
program of surreptitious administration of LSD to unwitting non-volunteer human
subjects demonstrates a failure of the CIA’s leadership to pay adequate
attention to the rights of individuals and to provide effective guidance to CIA
employees. Though it was known that the testing was dangerous, the lives of
subjects were placed in jeopardy and were ignored…. Although it was clear
that the laws of the United States were being violated, the testing

Though the most prominently discussed aspect of MKULTRA is the CIA’s LSD work,
the program included many other unusual investigations relating to the science
of mind control. CIA researchers probed the potential of numerous
parapsychological phenomena, including hypnosis, telepathy, precognition,
photokinesis and “remote viewing.”

These studies weren’t conducted merely to satisfy the CIA’s scientific
curiosity — the Agency was looking for weapons that would give the United
States the upper hand in the mind wars. Toward that objective, the Agency
poured millions of dollars into studies probing literally dozens of methods of
influencing and controlling the mind. One 1955 MKULTRA document gives an
indication of the size and range of the effort; the memo refers to the study of
an assortment of mind-altering substances which would:

  • “promote
    illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient
    would be discredited in public”
  • “increase
    the efficiency of mentation and perception”
  • “prevent
    or counteract the intoxicating effect of alcohol”
  • “promote
    the intoxicating effect of alcohol”
  • “produce
    the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so that
    they may be used for malingering, etc.”
  • “render
    the indication of hypnosis easier or otherwise enhance its
  • “enhance
    the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion
    during interrogation and so-called ‘brainwashing'”
  • “produce
    amnesia for events preceding and during their use”
  • “produc[e]
    shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious
  • “produce
    physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia,
  • “produce
    ‘pure’ euphoria with no subsequent let-down”
  • “alter
    personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to
    become dependent upon another person is enhanced”
  • “cause
    mental confusion of such a type that the individual under its influence
    will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning”
  • “lower
    the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in
    undetectable amounts”
  • “promote
    weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably
    without permanent effects”

Few of MKULTRA’s objectives were realized, but the
very conduct of these experiments caused many critics of the CIA to argue that
successful or not, CIA scientists shouldn’t pry at the doors of perception.