MK Ultra holds the distinction of being the most well-known CIA conspiracy of all time. And the thing is that it is based on facts, not fiction. During the nascent stages of the Cold War era, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) harbored a profound conviction that communist adversaries had unearthed a substance or methodology capable of exerting dominion over the human psyche.
In response to this perceived threat, the CIA clandestinely initiated an enigmatic initiative by the name of MK-ULTRA, its primary objective being the quest for a mind-altering substance endowed with the potential for weaponization against adversaries.
Operational from the 1950s until the early 1960s, MK-ULTRA was the brainchild of the erudite chemist Sidney Gottlieb. Investigative journalist Stephen Kinzer, who devoted substantial years to scrutinizing this covert endeavor, aptly characterizes it as the “most protracted pursuit in recorded history for the methods of mental manipulation.”
Kinzer expounds that certain of Gottlieb’s experiments secured surreptitious funding within the confines of academic institutions and research hubs, while others unfolded within the precincts of American correctional facilities and detention centers scattered across Japan, Germany, and the Philippines.
A disconcerting facet of Kinzer’s investigative findings reveals that numerous unwitting subjects were subjected to psychological torment of a grievous nature, encompassing a spectrum from electroconvulsive therapy to the administration of substantial doses of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
“Gottlieb harbored the ambition to forge a means of wresting dominion over the human psyche,” Kinzer elucidates. “His conception of this endeavor rested upon a bifurcated approach: firstly, the obliteration of preexisting cognitive constructs; secondly, the insertion of a novel cognitive paradigm into the ensuing cognitive void.
“It is worth noting that while substantial headway was made in pursuit of the former objective, progress toward the latter was considerably more limited.”
What Was Project MK Ultra?
Project MK Ultra, alternatively called MK-Ultra, stands as a disconcerting chapter in history—an illicit venture meticulously orchestrated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Its clandestine mission revolved around developing and implementing techniques and identifying substances that could be wielded during interrogations to debilitate individuals and extract confessions through the sinister tools of brainwashing and psychological torment.
The nefarious genesis of MK Ultra commenced in 1953 and mercifully met its cessation in 1973.
MK Ultra employed a manifold array of tactics to manipulate its unwitting subjects’ cognitive and cerebral dimensions. These tactics encompassed covert administrations of substantial doses of psychoactive compounds, with a particular penchant for lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and other chemical agents, all administered without the subjects’ informed consent.
Additionally, the program resorted to electroconvulsive therapy, the sinister art of hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, and sundry other forms of excruciating torment.
Preceding the advent of MK Ultra was the ominous Project ARTICHOKE, an antecedent endeavor initiated under the aegis of the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence. The coordination of these covert experiments was, chillingly, undertaken in concert with the United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories.
Even more perturbing is the revelation that these illegal activities ensnared U.S. and Canadian citizens, who became unwitting test subjects in this macabre dance of manipulation.
The expansive scope of MK Ultra defies categorization, as its sinister tendrils extended beyond the military apparatus, infiltrating more than 80 institutions. These institutions included military facilities, hallowed halls of learning, hospitals, correctional facilities, and even pharmaceutical corporations.
Operating under the cloak of front organizations, the CIA masterminded these experiments. However, it is pertinent to note that select high-ranking officials within these institutions were cognizant of the CIA’s involvement.
The shadowy veil enshrouding MK Ultra was partially lifted in 1975 when the Church Committee of the United States Congress and President Gerald Ford’s United States President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States (the Rockefeller Commission) brought its malevolent machinations to light.
Investigative endeavors faced significant impediments, as CIA Director Richard Helms issued a directive in 1973, mandating the destruction of all MK Ultra documentation. Subsequently, the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission were compelled to rely on the sworn testimonies of direct participants and the scant remnants of documents that eluded Helms’s directive.
In 1977, a glimmer of truth emerged when a Freedom of Information Act request unveiled a trove of 20,000 documents related to MK Ultra. This revelation culminated in Senate hearings and the partial declassification of some information about the program in 2001.
The legacy of MK Ultra continues to serve as a haunting reminder of the lengths to which clandestine operations can descend in the name of national security.
Origins of Evil: Who Created MK Ultra?
The genesis of Project MK Ultra, as delineated by Stephen Kinzer, can be traced to the echoes of a dark past—namely, the grim experiments conducted within the confines of Japanese facilities during World War II and the abhorrent practices that unfolded within Nazi concentration camps, where the ambition to subdue and manipulate the human mind first took shape
Kinzer unveils a disconcerting narrative wherein MK Ultra’s utilization of mescaline on unwitting subjects found its sinister precursor in the experiments initiated by Nazi physicians within the harrowing walls of Auschwitz and Dachau.
Furthermore, Kinzer’s account provides substantiated evidence of a disquieting continuity of a Nazi agenda, as the CIA surreptitiously recruited Nazi tormentors and vivisectionists to perpetuate their malevolent experiments on many subjects.
This culminated in the relocation of Nazis to Fort Detrick, Maryland, where they instructed CIA personnel in the malevolent applications of sarin gas.
Sidney Gottlieb stood at the helm of this clandestine operation, although it was set into motion under the directive of CIA Director Allen Dulles on April 13, 1953. The overarching objective of MK Ultra was to devise mind-altering substances, initially prompted by reports of alleged Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean deployment of mind control techniques on U.S. prisoners of war during the Korean War.
The CIA sought to employ analogous methods on their captives and explored strategies for manipulating foreign leaders through these nefarious means. A disquieting hallmark of MK Ultra was its penchant for conducting experiments without its subjects’ informed consent or knowledge. Original files are available here.
Additionally, some academic researchers unwittingly found themselves recipients of CIA funding through front organizations, oblivious to the agency’s utilization of their work for such purposes.
The program harbored aspirations to forge a veritable “truth serum” for interrogating suspected Soviet spies during the height of the Cold War. Subproject 54, known as the Navy’s covert “Perfect Concussion” initiative, aimed to employ sub-aural frequency blasts to erase memory, though this project ultimately remained unrealized.
Regrettably, the annals of MK Ultra are shrouded in obscurity, as the majority of its records were systematically eradicated in 1973 by the directive of CIA Director Richard Helms. This deliberate act has stymied the efforts of investigators’ efforts to attain a comprehensive understanding of the more than 150 funded research subprojects under the aegis of MK Ultra and its associated CIA programs.
The genesis of MK Ultra unfolded during a tumultuous period characterized by what English journalist Rupert Cornwell aptly described as “paranoia” within the CIA. The U.S. had lost its nuclear monopoly, and the specter of communism loomed ominously. James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s counter-intelligence chief, harbored suspicions of a mole infiltrating the organization’s highest echelons.
Consequently, the agency poured copious funds into endeavors to influence and control the human mind, focusing on enhancing the extraction of information from recalcitrant subjects during interrogations. Some historians posit that one of MK Ultra’s objectives and related CIA projects was creating a subject akin to the Manchurian Candidate.
American historian Alfred W. McCoy has posited that the CIA strategically directed media attention toward seemingly “absurd” programs to divert public scrutiny from the research’s primary goal: developing effective interrogation methods.
The ramifications of MK Ultra were manifold, as articulated in the 1976 Church Committee report, which unveiled that the MKDELTA program employed drugs primarily as aids in interrogations but also extended their usage for harassment, discrediting, or disabling individuals.
Applications and Use of MK Ultra on US Citizens
The web of covert experiments and projects initiated by the CIA extended beyond MK Ultra, leading to the establishment of related endeavors aimed at furthering the agency’s clandestine objectives. Notably, in 1964, MKSEARCH emerged as a continuation of the MK ULTRA program.
MKSEARCH itself comprised two distinct projects, bearing the designations MKOFTEN and MKCHICKWIT. This initiative, financed from 1965 to 1971, represented a collaborative venture between the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and the CIA’s Office of Research and Development.
Its primary mission was the exploration of new offensive-use agents, with a pronounced emphasis on incapacitating agents. Its overarching goal was developing, testing, and evaluating capabilities for the covert application of biological, chemical, and radioactive materials and techniques capable of inducing predictable changes in human behavior and physiology.
These capabilities were intended to support highly sensitive operational requirements.
By March 1971, the program had amassed over 26,000 potential agents for subsequent screening and experimentation. Intriguingly, one facet of MKSEARCH delved into studying bird migration patterns under the guise of “Bird Disease Studies” at Penn State, ostensibly for chemical and biological warfare research.
MKOFTEN, on the other hand, was primarily concerned with testing drugs in animals and humans, focusing on toxicological transmissivity and behavioral effects.
MKCHICKWIT, the third component of MKSEARCH, was tasked with gathering information about new drug developments in Europe and Asia and procuring samples of such substances.
The revelations within CIA documents suggest that these initiatives under MKSEARCH encompassed exploring “chemical, biological, and radiological” methods of mind control, further extending the agency’s shadowy experiments.
These undertakings incurred a significant financial cost, with an estimated expenditure exceeding $10 million at the time, which would amount to approximately $87.5 million when adjusted for inflation.
Illegal Experimentation on Canadian Citizens
The expansion of the CIA’s mind control experiments extended beyond U.S. borders, with the recruitment of Scottish psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, who originated the “psychic driving” concept. This concept piqued the interest of the CIA. Cameron aimed to correct schizophrenia by erasing existing memories and reprogramming the psyche.
He commuted from Albany, New York, to Montreal weekly to work at the Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University.
Cameron received a substantial sum, totaling $69,000, from 1957 to 1964 (equivalent to approximately $579,480 in 2023 when adjusted for inflation) for conducting MK Ultra experiments in Canada. The funds for the Montreal experiments were funneled to Cameron through a CIA front organization known as the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. It’s noteworthy that Cameron remained unaware of the source of this funding, as internal CIA documents confirm.
In his experiments, Cameron delved into the use of not only LSD but also various paralytic drugs, coupled with electroconvulsive therapy administered at thirty to forty times the typical power. His “driving” experiments involved placing subjects into drug-induced comas for extended periods, sometimes lasting up to three months, while subjecting them to incessant loops of noise or repetitive statements.
Alarmingly, these experiments often targeted individuals who had initially sought treatment at the institute for common mental health issues like anxiety disorders and postpartum depression. Many of Cameron’s subjects endured enduring and devastating effects from these procedures, including urinary incontinence, amnesia, loss of speech, the inability to remember their parents, and the profound misperception that their interrogators were their parents.
During this period, Cameron gained worldwide recognition as the inaugural chairman of the World Psychiatric Association. He also held presidencies in both the American Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Psychiatric Association. Intriguingly, Cameron had previously served as a member of the Nuremberg medical tribunal from 1946 to 1947.
Cameron’s work parallels that of British psychiatrist William Sargant at St Thomas’ Hospital in London and Belmont Hospital in Sutton. Also associated with the Secret Intelligence Service, Sargent conducted experiments on his patients without their consent, causing similar long-term damage.
In the 1980s, several of Cameron’s former patients filed lawsuits against the CIA for damages, a story documented by the Canadian news program The Fifth Estate. Their experiences and the ensuing legal action were adapted into the 1998 television miniseries titled “The Sleep Room.”
Some interpretations of Cameron’s research, as highlighted by Naomi Klein in her book “The Shock Doctrine,” suggest that his work and contributions to MK Ultra were less about mind control and brainwashing and more about designing a “scientifically based system for extracting information from ‘resistant sources'”—in other words, a form of torture.
Alfred W. McCoy observes that, stripped of its more bizarre elements, Dr. Cameron’s experiments, building upon the earlier breakthroughs of Donald O. Hebb, laid the scientific foundation for the CIA’s two-stage psychological torture method.
This method involves first inducing a state of disorientation in the subject, followed by creating a situation of “self-inflicted” discomfort in which the disoriented subject can alleviate pain by capitulating.
Expanding these experiments into secret detention centers in areas under American control in Europe and East Asia during the early 1950s, including Japan, West Germany, and the Philippines, marked a disturbing turn. These detention centers allowed the U.S. to evade criminal prosecution, as they held individuals suspected of being enemy agents and those deemed “expendable” to undertake torture and human experimentation.
The prisoners in these facilities were subjected to interrogation while administered psychoactive drugs and electroshock therapy and exposed to extremes of temperature, sensory isolation, and other distressing conditions—all to gain a deeper understanding of how to manipulate and control the human mind.
Revelation of MK Ultra to the Public
In 1973, amid the turmoil and government-wide concerns triggered by the Watergate scandal, CIA Director Richard Helms issued a directive to destroy all MK Ultra files. This action effectively resulted in the destruction of most CIA documents related to the MK Ultra project, rendering a comprehensive investigation into MK Ultra impossible.
However, a fortunate twist of fate preserved a cache of approximately 20,000 documents that escaped Helms’s purge. These documents had been mistakenly stored in a financial records building and were later discovered following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 1977. Subsequently, these documents underwent thorough examination during the Senate Hearings of 1977.
In December 1974, The New York Times published an article alleging that the CIA had engaged in illicit domestic activities, including experiments on U.S. citizens, during the 1960s. This revelation prompted investigations by the United States Congress in the form of the Church Committee and by a commission known as the Rockefeller Commission.
Both bodies were tasked with probing the illegal domestic activities of the CIA, the FBI, and intelligence-related agencies within the military.
During the summer of 1975, the Church Committee’s congressional reports and the Rockefeller Commission’s findings were made public. For the first time, the American people learned that the CIA and the Department of Defense had conducted experiments on both unwitting and aware human subjects as part of an extensive program aimed at understanding how to manipulate and control human behavior through the use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD and mescaline, as well as other chemical, biological, and psychological methods.
These revelations also unveiled that at least one subject, Frank Olson, had died due to LSD administration. While much of what the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission discovered about MK Ultra was gleaned from a 1963 report prepared by the Inspector General’s office, which had miraculously survived the ordered destruction of records in 1973, this report contained limited details.
During his testimony before the congressional committee, Sidney Gottlieb, who had retired from the CIA two years prior and had overseen MK Ultra, claimed to have very little recollection of the program’s activities.
The committee investigating CIA research, chaired by Senator Frank Church, concluded that “prior consent was not obtained from any of the subjects.” The committee also underscored that the “experiments sponsored by these researchers[…] call into question the decision by the agencies not to fix guidelines for experiments.”
In response to the recommendations put forth by the Church Committee, President Gerald Ford issued the first Executive Order on Intelligence Activities in 1976. This executive order prohibited “experimentation with drugs on human subjects, except with the informed consent, in writing and witnessed by a disinterested party, of each such human subject,” in alignment with guidelines issued by the National Commission.
Subsequent presidential orders by Presidents Carter and Reagan expanded this directive to encompass any human experimentation.
The tragic death of Frank Olson, which was attributed to his involvement in MK Ultra experiments conducted without his knowledge, remains a poignant and unsettling chapter in the project’s history. Olson allegedly plunged to his death in a case of alleged defenestration just nine days after being subjected to these experiments.
Subsequently, the CIA acknowledged that these tests lacked sound scientific rationale and the individuals overseeing the monitoring were not qualified scientific observers.
In Canada, the revelations surrounding MK Ultra took considerably longer to come to light. It wasn’t until 1984, during a CBC news program called The Fifth Estate, that the full extent of the MK Ultra activities conducted in Canada became widely known.
It came to light that not only had the CIA provided funding for Donald Ewen Cameron’s experiments, but the Canadian government was also fully aware of this involvement and had even contributed an additional $500,000 to continue the experiments.
This revelation had significant implications for the victims who sought legal recourse similar to their U.S. counterparts. However, the disclosure of Canadian government involvement complicated their efforts. Ultimately, the Canadian government settled out of court, providing $100,000 to each of the 127 victims as compensation.
Donald Ewen Cameron passed away on September 8, 1967, after a heart attack while mountain climbing with his son. Unfortunately, none of Cameron’s records related to his involvement with MK Ultra survived, as his family chose to destroy them after his death, leaving some aspects of his activities shrouded in mystery and lost to history.
Impact of MK Ultra on the Society
The impact of MK Ultra experiments, including any associated deaths, remains a deeply troubling and partially obscured aspect of this dark chapter in history. Due to the CIA’s deliberate destruction of most records, failure to adhere to informed consent protocols with thousands of participants, uncontrolled nature of the experiments, and lack of follow-up data, the full extent of the consequences of MK Ultra may never be fully known.
One of the most well-known deaths associated with MK Ultra is that of Frank Olson, a United States Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher. Olson’s tragic demise occurred after he was administered LSD without his knowledge or consent in November 1953 as part of a CIA experiment.
Just a week later, Olson fell from a 13th-story window and died. At the time, his death was initially labeled a suicide during a severe psychotic episode. However, subsequent revelations shed light on a more complex narrative.
A CIA doctor assigned to monitor Olson during the experiment claimed to have been asleep in another bed in the New York City hotel room when Olson fell to his death. An internal CIA investigation concluded that the head of MK Ultra, CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb, had conducted the LSD experiment with Olson’s prior knowledge. However, neither Olson nor the other participants were informed about the exact nature of the drug until about 20 minutes after ingestion.
The report suggested that Gottlieb should receive a reprimand for failing to consider Olson’s already-diagnosed suicidal tendencies, which the LSD might have exacerbated.
However, the Olson family disputes this official version of events. They maintain that Frank Olson was murdered because he had become a security risk. This risk stemmed from his potential to divulge state secrets associated with highly classified CIA programs, many of which he had direct personal knowledge of.
In the days leading up to his death, Olson had resigned from his position as acting chief of the Special Operations Division at Detrick, Maryland (later Fort Detrick), due to a severe moral crisis related to his involvement in biological weapons research.
Among Olson’s concerns were the development of assassination materials used by the CIA, the use of biological warfare materials by the CIA in covert operations, experimentation with biological weapons in populated areas, collaboration with former Nazi scientists under Operation Paperclip, LSD mind control research, and the use of psychoactive drugs during “terminal” interrogations under a program called Project ARTICHOKE.
Later, forensic evidence contradicted the official account of events. When Olson’s body was exhumed in 1994, cranial injuries indicated that he had been knocked unconscious before exiting the window, leading the medical examiner to classify his death as a “homicide.”
In 1975, Olson’s family received a $750,000 settlement from the U.S. government and formal apologies from President Gerald Ford and CIA Director William Colby. However, these apologies were limited to informed consent issues regarding Olson’s ingestion of LSD. In 2012, the Olson family filed a lawsuit against the U.S. federal government for the wrongful death of Frank Olson.
Still, the case was dismissed in July 2013, partly due to the 1976 settlement between the family and the government. The dismissal noted that while the court must limit its analysis to the complaint’s contents, the public record supported some of the allegations in the family’s suit, despite how farfetched they may have sounded.
In 2010, a book by H. P. Albarelli Jr. alleged that the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit mass poisoning in France was part of MKDELTA, with Olson’s involvement, and claimed that the CIA subsequently murdered him. Earlier academic sources had attributed the Pont-Saint-Esprit incident to ergot poisoning from a local bakery.
Next, read about the story of Uruguayan Airlines 571, which crashed into the Andes Mountains, and then, if you like to read about something daring, try the story of Christopher McCandless, the man who tried to live differently but paid the ultimate price!
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