The Frank Olson Legacy Project






By Tad Szulc

Psychology Today

November 1977




What was in the minds of the men who for two decades pursued the dream of a mind-control drug? And how did they see the practical and ethical issues?



Bad Trip
Sleight of hand


“LSD -25 is the most potent psychoagent available at the present time. Trace quantities of LSD-25 create serious mental confusion of the manic and schizophrenic type and render the mind temporarily susceptible to suggestion. ... But there are as yet insufficient data to confirm or deny its usefulness for eliciting true and accurate statements from subjects under its influence. Because LSD-25 is colorless, odorless and tasteless, it could possibly be used clandestinely for the contamination of food and water, although the data on its stability in solution are conflicting. Since the effect of the drug is temporary in contrast to the fatal nerve agents, there are important strategic advantages for its use in certain operations.... Of the other known psychogenic drugs, mescaline produces reactions that are the most similar to those of LSD-25.... Although no Soviet data are available on LSD-25, it must be assumed that the scientists of the USSR are thoroughly cognizant of the strategic importance of this powerful drug and are capable of producing it at any time.”

For a change, the Central Intelligence Agency was onto something before most of the rest of the world had discovered it. The year was 1955 and the analysis was from a report of the agency's Office of Scientific Intelligence titled “Strategic Medical Significance of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25).”

Some researchers had already begun to experiment with LSD on their own in those days, without any help from the CIA. But the drug cult of the 1960s was far in the future, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were only a couple of struggling young assistant professors. Supplies of the powerful hallucinogen were not even available on the U.S. market, and little was known about its effects on personality and behavior (see box, page 101). Indeed, it's not unreasonable to speculate that the CIA-sponsored research with LSD during the 1950s in private institutions and hospitals contributed in some modest way to the drug culture-by turning many people on to the drug. As described in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Ken Kesey first took the drug in 1959 as an experimental subject at the Stanford University Medical School-one of the institutions recently notified by the CIA that it was a site for research associated with the mind-control program.

America's intelligence chiefs were interested in some kind of “truth drug” as far back as 1943, when the wartime Office of Strategic Services ~OSS~ experimented with marijuana. But the CIA's interest in drugs and behavioral research was, during the 1950s, awakened by reports that the Soviet Union had made giant strides in developing chemical compounds for brainwashing. Government officials had been impressed by the “confessions” of Hungary's late Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty during his trial in 1949—CIA specialists were convinced he had been brainwashed with drugs—and with the apparent brainwashing of American prisoners of war in North Korea.


Bad trip: Artist's portrayal of the suicide of biochemist Frank Olson, who jumped from a New York hotel room at 2:30 A.M. on November 28, 1953, nine days after the CIA gave him LSD. Foreground, Dr. Robert Lashbrook, the CIA scientist who brought Olson to New York to seek treatment. (Illustrations by Haruo Miyauchi)


Under the circumstances, the agency was fearful that its own agents could be brainwashed, and in 1950, it embarked on “defensive” research to find ways of protecting them. What CIA scientists eagerly sought at the outset was a drug that might neutralize the suspected Russian compounds and prevent agents from revealing information. Taking shape as it did in the early 1950s, when the Cold War was the central concern of U.S. foreign policy, the “defensive” research was expanded almost overnight to encompass “offensive” work as well-the testing and development of drugs such as LSD that the CIA could use for its interrogations of enemy personnel.

During almost a quarter of a century, the CIA conducted or sponsored at least 419 secret drug- testing projects. The ex-periments were part of a broader pro-gram that also explored other means ofmind and behavior control, such as hyp-nosis and even implantation of electrodes in the brain. Although the agency tested compounds ranging from mes-caline to extracts from poisonous mushrooms, the key drug was LSD-25, a synthetic variation on a c ompound found in a fungus. The tests were con-ducted at a cost of at least $25 million at 86 United States and Canadian hospi-tals, prisons, universities, and military installations, as well as the agency's own "safe houses" in Washington, New York, and San Francisco.

The subjects of the test were, at first, largely CIA volunteers-and, indeed, some of the agency's top scientists took LSD to see how it aff ected their intellectual faculties. But eventually the agency found other subjects among narcotics addicts under treatment, federal prisoners, terminal-cancer patients in charity wards, college students, and fun-seeking “johns” entrapped at $100 a head by CIA-controlled prostitutes. just how much they were all told about LSD before they were given the drug remains unclear, but, by the agency's own admission, many were “unwitting” subjects. Although ethical standards for such experiments were considerably murkier then than they are now, the CIA launched its LSD research on unwitting subjects even though the U.S. was a party to an international understanding that, in effect, banned such activities. The understanding known as the Nuremberg Principles was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1946-with the U.S. voting in favor-as a formal condemnation of war crimes that included the medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors on human prisoners.


“War room”: In the years of projects BLUEBIRD and ARTICHOKE, the planners met in what was known as the war room. The program was the creation of gung-ho young operatives who later rose to top positions, among them Richard Helms (lower right), who became CIA director.


Before Richard Helms left his post as CIA director in 1973, a large portion of the agency's records of its mindcontrol program was ordered destroyed But a good deal of the story is detailed in Congressional testimony and thousands of pages of documents released in recent months under the Freedom of Information Act. While the general outlines of the program are by now generally known, the documents-which include descriptions of the tests themselves, memos from top CIA officials tracing the evolution of the projects, evaluations of the results-provide an interesting, close-up look at just what the CIA wanted to find out and to accomplish, andhow a defensive program turned into an offensive one that used many innocent citizens as guinea pigs.

Most important, the story raises ethical questions that are important today. One-fourth of the American scientists who were approached by the CIA agreed to work for it, according to one of the agency’s documents. While some were no doubt pursuing harmless research, others were working on projects that Could have been used for manipulative purposes, with top-secret security clearances and under the cover of “pure medical research.” What does their complicity tell us about the ethical standards of American scientists?

The Birth of BLUEBIRD
The man whom the CIA documents credit with inspiring the program is Dr. L. Wilson Greene of the Army Chemical Corps, who had long urged the United States to embark upon psychochemical warfare. The basic program, called BLUEBIRD,and soon renamed ARTICHOKE (the code names have no known significance), was the creation of a small group of young, gung-ho CIA operators, former members of the OSS, whom time rose to key positions in the, agency. One of these was Richard Helms, then special assistant for clandestine operations to CIA director Walter Bedell Smith. Another was James Angleton, then chief of the agency's “Staff A,” the forerunner of the Counterintelligence Staff that he ran until his forced retirement in 1974.
Among CIA officials with a scientific background present at the birth of BLUEBIRD were Dr. Marshall Chadwell, assistant director for scientific intelligence, Colonel James H. Drum, deputy chief of the Technical Services Staff, and Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a biochemist who was to become th e central figure in all the subsequent CIA mind- and-behavior-modifi cation endeavors.

Established by the CIA on April 2, 1951, Project BLUEBIRD Was supposed to invent techniques for what became known as “special interrogations.” By mid-year, however, BLUEBIRD had begun to spread its wings. A document issued on June 11 described the essential elements in the program as “physiological research leading to a better understanding of the constituent factors in human behavior” and “physiological and pharmacological research leading to a better understanding of the action or effectiveness of various agents used in connection with efforts to control human behavior.”

Soon a list of 37 “physiological agents” was drawn up for possible use in interrogations. It ranged from amphetamines and cocaine, to cannabis, mescaline, morphine, pentobarbital, and scopolamine. Although lysergic acid had been discovered in 1938, and the effects of LSD on the mind were first observed in 1943, the CIA seemed unaware of it in 1951: it did not make the BLUEBIRD list.

Shortly thereafter, however, BLUEBIRD acquired a new aim: a memo on the program's goals from Dr. Sidney Gottlieb spoke vaguely about the possibilities of “inducing a person to perform acts (short or long term) which he normally could not be expected to perform.” The CIA had begun to think seriously about behavior control,

BLUEBIRD became ARTICHOKE on August 20,1951, and a few months later an internal memo of the CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence suggested a more specific aim for the program. At this point, the agency seemed to be looking for a method of inducing amnesia in persons from whom information had been obtained under the effect of special drugs or hypnotism. The idea was that foreign agents should never remember that they had talked to CIA interrogators. “It remains the dream of the interested agencies,” the memo of January 25, 1952, said, “that a drug is forthcoming that can be given to a person orall , without his knowledge, that will result in his revealing anything the interested party would like to know, and the person would have complete amnesia for the event.”

In the same report, the agency expressed interest in hypnotism as a related tool, observing that “there is ample evidence that unethical actions can be accomplished through the use of hypnosis in our controlled situations.” It recommended the recruitment of a New York hypnotist who “tends toward unscrupulous use of this technique.” It declared that “it has been proven... that a hypnotized person can be made to lie to the polygraph through direct hypnotic control or through posthypnotic suggestion,” (Most professionals experienced in hypnotism would deny there is any evidence it has these powers.)

The report also complained that the CIA Security Office was being too strict with ARTICHOKE operators, denying, for example, the permission to use federal prisoners for their experiments on the grounds that “criticism of the government interest in such activities might, if discovered, result in irreparable political repercussions.”

In February, the new coordinator of ARTICHOKE, Dr. Marshall Chadwell, proposed the establishment of "an integrated CIA program for the development of special interrogations or other techniques for the purpose of controlling an individual without his knowledge." CIA director Smith accepted Dr. Chadwell's proposal, and a month later, the CIA set up a “small testing facility” at its downtown headquarters in Washington, D.C. Sometime in 1952, the agency began testing LSD on individuals, presumably CIA volunteers. But a new ARTICHOKE report was not promising as far as LSD was concerned. It noted that “while definite results have been achieved in producing confusion among subjects treated with minute quantities, these items have not yet shown usefulness for interrogation purposes.”

LSD was not yet ready for testing in interrogations, but the agency did report some success in causing amnesia after interrogations, through a combination of hypnosis and sodium pentathol. In June, ARTICHOKE dispatched a team to West Germany to test new interrogation methods on two Soviet intelligence agents suspected of “being doubled,” that is, pretending to defect while actually working for the KGB. The two agents, who claimed to be working for the West, were examined under a “psychiatric-medical cover” that is, they were given a trumped-up excuse for the interrogations.

With medication and hypnosis, one agent was put in a trance that he held for about One hour and 40 minutes; subsequently, the documents say, total amnesia was produced by posthypnotic suggestion. The second agent went into a deep hypnotic trance with only light medication and was interrogated for well over an hour. The ARTICHOKE report says only a partial amnesia was achieved. But in a second test on the agent, in which “the ARTICHOKE technique of using straight medication” was employed, the agency obtained highly successful results during a two-hour and-15-minute interrogation which included a “remarkable regression.” During this regression, the subject evidently relived certain events in his life, some dating back 15 years, while totally accepting the case officer and interpreter “as an old, trusted and beloved personal friend whom the subject had known in years past in Georgia, USSR.” The report goes on to say that total amnesia was apparently achieved for the second test. (It does not disclose whether the CIA ever learned if the two Russians were double agents or not.)

The drugs used in the interrogation were sodium pentathol alone, or sodium pentathol together with Desoxyn, a stimulant. The team reported that the tests “demonstrated conclusively the effectiveness of the combined chemical-hypnotic technique.” Now the way was opened for the use of LSD in interrogations.


MK-ULTRA-A Turning Point

Meanwhile, a CIA scientist, working under deep cover, had returned from a trip to Europe in July 1952 with a recommendation that the drug be employed in chemical warfare against entire populations. The scientist wrote that “our own current work contains the strong suggestion that LSD-25 will produce mass hysteria (unaccountable laughter, anxiety, eth.). While our studies so far have been carried out in isolated individuals, one at a time, it is well known that hysteria is compounded when several vulnerable individuals are together. The lysergic-acid derivative can produce a temporary state of severe imbalance, hysteria, insanity.... Conceivably, this might be an unusually merciful agent of warfare: temporarily nullifying the individual's effectiveness, but not permanently damaging him.”

With all this in mind, the CIA decided to broaden ARTICHOKE. A memorandum circulated in September 1952 announced that the scope of the project was “research and testing to arrive at, means of control rather than the more limited concept embodied in 'special interrogations.”' At a subsequent meeting of the ARTICHOKE steering committee, much time was taken up with discussions of LSD and on the possibility of concentrating on “certain facilities in the United States as testing grounds for new ideas, experiments, etc., particularly using criminals and the criminally insane.”

But the great turning point in the history of the CIA program came in April 1953 with the launching of the equally top-secret Project MK-ULTRA, which was apparently intended as a parallel funding mechanism for ARTICHOKE. In its subsequent attempts at reconstructing All these events, the agency was unable to explain why exactly MK-ULTRA was created; it became completely intertwined with ARTICHOKE, although it very quickly came up with some very extraordinary ideas of its own.

The guiding force behind MK-ULTRA was Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, who had just become chief of the Chemical Division of the CIA's Technical Services Staff. Remembered by his colleagues for his forcefulness as well as for his marked stuttering while excited, Gottlieb came closest to the image of the sinister scientist in the whole strange cast of agency characters. He played this role for 20 years, until his forced resignation and a two-year disappearance in Australia after CIA scandals began breaking out in 1973.

The bespectacled researcher was a passionate believer in psychochemical warfare and dedicated his time to LSD testing, highly sophisticated experiments in hypnosis, and the search for hallucinatory materials in exotic mushrooms and flowers. When the agency plotted the assassination of Congo leftist Patrice Lumumba in 1960, it was Gottlieb who personally carried the poison to the Congo and hand-delivered it to the agency's chief of station.

No sooner had MK-ULTRA been established than Gottlieb proceeded to organize 13 subprojects that called for the support of LSD research for the purposes of disturbance of memory, discrediting by aberrant behavior, altering sex patterns, eliciting information, enhancing suggestibility, and creating dependence. He ordered the preparation of an operational field manual on the uses of LSD. He personally handled contracts with outside institutions, approving every payment, no matter how small.

He even recruited a well-known New York magician, the late John Mulholland, to prepare a top-secret manual on techniques for surreptitiously slipping LSD and other drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting persons. The idea occurred to Gottlieb after his field agents reported difficulties in handling LSD without detection. He agreed to pay Mulholland $3,000 for his efforts, and was greatly pleased with his discovery of the magician. But while Mulholland prepared a detailed memo on what the manual would cover, there's no evidence in the CIA documents that he ever turned it in.


"A CIA scientist
in 1952 recommended
LSD-25 as a means
of producing 'mass hysteria.'
Conceivably, he said, 'this
might be an unusually
merciful agent of warfare.'"

Sleight of hand: When its field agents reported problems in handling LSD for secret tests, the CIA hired a New York magician, John Mulholland, for advice on how to I . improve their skills, He was to prepare a manual of tricks for slipping drugs into the drinks of unsuspecting test subjects.

“The Sphinx and the Spy: The Clandestine World of John Mulholland,” by Michael Edwards, Genii Magazine (April 2001)

Another Gottlieb subproject under MK-ULTRA conducted experiments with LAE, a lysergic-acid derivative, for the purpose of inducing depersonalization and a schizophrenia-like condition in test subjects. Gottlieb referred to the result in these cases as “reversible chemical lobotomy”—suggesting that the effects wear off. There were 429 tests of this type reported on normal and psychotic individuals in the first year of MK-ULTRA. (As in other such tests mentioned in the CIA documents, there was no indication of where the test subjects came from and whether they were “witting” or “unwitting.”) Still another MKULTRA subproject called for a psychological analysis of the effects of LSD on 220 college students who were tested in 1953.

Only one problem seemed to slow down Gottlieb's ambitious drug experiments: the agency couldn't get enough LSD. The drug was manufactured only by the Sandoz company in Switzerland. The CIA was able to secretly buy small amounts from Sandoz, but this was not considered sufficient. The agency kept worrying, moreover, that the Swiss were also exporting the drug to the Sovier Union.

Gottlieb therefore set up another subproject to search for new supplies of LSD and other rare drugs in theU.S. and abroad. A Gottlieb memo in 1953 stated that MK-ULTRA Subproject 6 “is designed to develop a reliable source of lysergic acid derivatives within the U.S., as opposed to our present complete depen upon [DELETED I sources, and in addition, it aims to extend the isolation and testing program of the hypnoti c nat- products from the Rivea species of plants obtained from [DELETED].”

Gottlieb failed to explain it in his memo, but seeds of the Rivea plant (its full name is Rivea corymbosa), when ingested in quantity, produce nausea, digestive upset, hallucinations, loss of motor control, and, finally, coma. He obviously knew, however, that lysergic acid monoethylamide can be isolated from Rivea seeds and turned into LSD.


CIA “Guinea Pigs”

While Gottlieb was looking for better sources of LSD, the CIA's ARTICHOKE committee developed concern that for-agency personnel might, Lill &I t h e influence of drugs, reveal top-secret information to outsiders. According to the minutes of a committee meeting held in July 1953, one of the participants stated that “some individuals in the Agency had to know tremendous amounts of information and if any way could be found to produce amnesias for this type of information-for instance, after the individual had left the Agency-it would be a remarkable thing.”

The speaker then stated that “the need for amnesias was particularly great in operations work.” He was assured by two of his colleagues that work was continually being done in an effort to produce controlled amnesias by various means.

One series of tests on CIA employees was designed to see whether LSD could i break the so-called “pentathol block.” During interrogations, captured agents were often given sodium pentathol-or “truth serum” sometimes combined with hypnosis, as in the case of the Soviet "double agents," in an effort to get them to disclose secrets. But intelligence services discovered that they could “condition” their agents against revealing information under the influence of the drug by giving them doses of it themselves.

A former CIA official reported in an interview that he was given LSD 21 times for this purpose at one of the agency's cover facilities in Washington. Tic was never given a psychiatri c examination, and after the last test, he suffered within 24 hours what he described as an LSD “relapse,” Driving his car i that day, he experienced a major “loss of coherence.” He lost all control and found himself in the wreckage of the vehicle after it turned over several times on a Washington parkway.

But the greatest shock in these LSD experiments came when the CIA learned that one of its subjects committed suicide nine days after ingesting the drug. The victim was Dr. Frank R. Olson, a 43-year-old civilian biochemist employed by the Army Medical Corps a tFort Detrick, Maryland. According to a report by Colonel Sheffield Edwards Olson had participated in an LSD-test' ing session on the evening of November 19, 1953. Also present were Gottlieb, 1 two CIA scientists-a man named Hughes and Dr. Robert V. Lashbrook and four members of the Army's Chemi cal Corps Special Operations team.

Gottlieb and Lashbrook took the drug thernselves. Colonel Edwards reported that the men had assembled at a twostory log cabin in the Deer Creek Lake area of Fort Detrick. He wrote that “on Thursday evening, it was decided to experiment with the drug LSD, and for the members present to administer the drug to themselves to ascertain the effect a clandestine application would have on a meeting or conference.” The report asserted that “Gottlieb stated a 'very small dose' of LSD was placed in a bottle of Cointreau,” and that afterward the group was “boisterous and laughing, and they could not continue the meeting or engage in sensible conversation.”

Olson was told that he had swallowed LSD about 20 minutes after drinking some Cointreau. He killed himself nine days later by jumping out the window of New York's Starlet Hotel at 2:30 A.M. on Saturday, November 28. He had been brought to New York by Lashbrook to be treated for an alleged psychiatric disturbance by the CIA's principal secret LSD consultant, Dr. Harold A. Abramson, a highly respected physician who was then head of the Allergy Clinic at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

It remains unclear why Olson was the only one to be seriously affected by the LSD dose. Subsequent CIA memos claimed that he had previously suffered from “suicidal tendencies” and that LSD had simply triggered his suicide. Colonel Edwards reported that “Gottlieb reiterated many times that outside of the boisterous effect and the inability to think properly, LSD has no harmful or permanently injurious effects.”


Outside Contractors

None of the men in the log cabin had undergone medical or psychiatric examinations before taking the drug, and Gottlieb was reprimanded by the new ClA director, Allen Dulles, for failure to take precautions. For a while, indeed, it looked as if the CIA flirtation with LSD was over. According to an official reI port, Gottlieb's immediate supervisor, Dr. Willis Gibbons, chief of the Technical Services Staff, had impounded all LSD material at CIA headquarters and locked it in a safe next to his own desk. The report added that “Dr. Gibbons stated that he is stopping any LSD tests which may have been instituted under CIA auspices.”

Although all outside contractors I were to be notified of Gibbons' ban, the testing nonetheless went on. This was particularly true at the Addiction Research Center at the U.S. Public Health Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, whose director, Dr. Harris Isbell, had been experimenting with LSD on federal prisoners and his patients, with secret CIA sponsorship, for nearly two years before Olson died.

Dr. Isbell was among the group of distinguished American scientists who had enthusiastically embarked on studies under CIA contracts. His principal responsibilities had been research to find a synthetic substitute for codeine (the government feared the U.S. might be cut off from all its usual sources of opium). But Dr. Isbell's report for the first quarter of 1954 noted that clinical studies at his center were also concerned with “intoxication with diethylamide of lysergic acid.” In his quarterly report to the CIA, he claimed new insights, including an evaluation of whether the drug's effects varied according to race, age, and social and economic status: “We have now studied the subjective changes induced by LSD-25 in more than 50 former narcotic addicts. The symptoms observed appear to be identical with those observed in groups of non-addicts or for different composition with respect to race, age, social and economic status, and personality types.... The effects of LSD-25 appear to be specific and are not related to any of the factors mentioned above. This is a matter of great interest, since the subjective effects induced by LSD-25 have been studied more intensively and more thoroughly in a greater diversity of populations than any other drug with which we are familiar, including morphine and alcohol.”

LSD, it appears from CIA documents, was also given at about the same time to cancer patients and diabetics at a Washington hospital under an agency contract. This was one of Gottlieb's MK-ULTRA subprojects and it was concerned with “toxic delirium, uremic coma and cerebral toxicity from poisoning.” Cancer and diabetic patients were given “chemical compounds” in order to “study the eff ect on mental function of large doses of the compound.” The document, which has heavy deletions, does not specifically mention LSD as the drug in these tests, but a former CIA official familiar with this particular program said privately that “it couldn't have been anything else.”

Of course, we do not know if LSD had adverse effects on these patients; indeed, some dying patients today take LSD voluntarily, to experience the powerful visions that it stimulates in their final days. No doubt, Isbell's prisoners and addicts were “volunteers,” but the documents do not tell us anything about what they were told before the experiments and whether they were given psychiatric examinations. Isbell has not made himself available for questioning on these and other points.


LSD Breakthrough

Whatever restraints on LSD tests had been imposed by the Olson death seem to have been abandoned when the agency received the electrifying news, in October 1954, that Eli Lilly & Company had succeeded in synthesizing the drug in its laboratories. This was the breakthrough the agency had been awaiting for three years; now it had access to all the LSD money could buy.

It was judged to be so important that a special memorandum on the subject was rushed to CIA director Dulles on October 26. The CIA clandestine services had immediately concluded that now LSD could be employed not only in testing but also in actual intelligence operations, for reasons given in the memo to Dulles: “Hitherto, LSD could not be considered seriously as a candidate Chemical Warfare agent for overt use. This was due to two factors: a) until recently only volatile liquids could be disseminated in a suitable fashion in bulk. LSD is a solid. LSD can now be produced in quantity and recent technical developments make it possible to disseminate solids in an effective manner.”

At this point, the matter was considered so important that the CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence prepared its bulky top-secret study, “Strategic Medical Significance of Lysergic Acid Diethylamidc (LSD-25),” which was circulated to only seven senior officials besides Dulles. The study offered the best rationale to date for tests on humans. The drug had important strategic advantages. It was assumed that Russian scientists were aware of it. National security might be at stake.

As far back as April 1953, for example, a special CIA committee running the secret drug program had requested a “large number of bodies" for testing mind-affecting compounds, expressing the belief that a great many American scientists would be willing and anxious to carry out the experiments. In 1955, the CIA concluded that tests in a controlled environment-at the agency and in hospitals and prisons-were no longer sufficient, and, to make sense, they had to be conducted in "normal social situations.”

All along, Gottlieb had been trying to persuade his CIA superiors that experiments on unwitting subjects were necessary. He explained it thus: “One of the difficulties of determining explicitly the effect of the drug itself is that the subject and the observer are both conscious of the fact that an experiment is being performed. It is hoped in the next year that subjects... who are essentially normal from a psychiatric point of view will be given unwitting doses of the drug.... In this way more valuable experiments will probably be carried out in spite of hospital conditions. Attempts are being made at present to set up projects with collaborating organizations on the effect of LSD-25 on brain metabolism, on the metabolic activities of nerves and on enzyme reactions.”

The CIA had learned a great deal about LSD during its first four years of experiments, but it was also aware of wide gaps in its knowledge. After reading the strategic study, therefore, CIA director Dulles said in a 1955 memo to the secretary of defense that “it would appear to be important that field trials be made to determine the effects on groups of people or on individuals engaged in group activities.” This was the official green light for the CIA's indiscriminate testing of LSD on unsuspecting Americans, and from 1955 onward, there’s evidence that more Such subjects were involved as the CIA kept expanding its quest for a dream drug without interference by agency directors or Presidents.

"In 1955 the CIA concluded that LSD tests in a
controlled environment
were no longer sufficient.
To make sense, they had to be conducted in 'normal social situations.'

Ethical Issues

The drug programs were phased out in 1967 during the Johnson administration, but some projects were continued until 1973, when the new director, James R. Schlesinger, canceled a large number of questionable operations. What, then, had the CIA accomplished?

A 1975 report by the CIA’s inspectorgeneral summed it up: “The program had explored avenues of control of human behavior involving such subjects as radiation, electroshock, psychology, psychiatry, sociology and anthropology, harassment substances, and paramilitary devices and materials. ... The TSD [Technical Services Division of the CIA] doctrine was described as being to the effect that testing of materials under accepted scientific procedures does not disclose the full pattern of reactions that may occur in operational situations, leading to TSD's initiating a program in 1955 of covert testing of materials on unwitting U.S. citizens .... In a number of instances the test subject became ill for hours or days, including hospitalization in at least one case. While evaluations indicated some operational value in the tests, it was noted that scientific controls were ab-in addition to the basic ethical problem.”

Here, then, is the CIA’s own admission of failure. In 25 years of research into controlling human behavior, the agency had found little of value to its operations. But the report is also a selfindictment on moral and ethical grounds. And, by extension, it is an indictment of those scientists and academic and medical institutions who joined in these experiments in the name of a strange perception of national security.

To be sure, men such as Dr. Isbell of the Addiction Research Center were perhaps looking only for funding f or their work and might have opposed its use for mind control. “From my reading of the documents, it sounds as if Isbell’s research could just as easily have been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health,” says Dr. Sidney Cohen of UCLA, a respected LSD researcher. “The only thing Isbell was 'guilty' of was getting money from the CIA.”

It is true that the climate of the times was different. “Before World War 11, few medical researchers seemed consciously concerned with ethical problems," says Dr. Richard Restak, a neurologist who writes about bioethical problems. "But with the postwar revelations of Nazi atrocities in the name of science, the need for formal ethical guidelines became painfully clear, The Nuremberg code was the most important document of this period. Still, the 1950s were a period of transition, and the Nuremberg Principles may have seemed to apply more directly to medical procedures than to behavioral research. It is only in the last decade or so that formal codes of ethics have become widely accepted in the psychiatric community.”

The number of scientists who de to participate in the CIA prograrn suggests the agency must have known from the start that its program would be viewed as shocking in many academic quarters. In fact, a former CIA staff psychiatrist, now in private practice in Arlington, Virginia, says that he had warned his agency colleagues at the inception of the LSD program that in his opinion, it was a “useless and dangerous pursuit.” He himself refused to be drawn into it.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a professor of psychiatry at Yale and an expert on brainwashing, takes the view that the CIA's mind-control experiments were “the product of a lurid imagination,” leading to “destructive processes in the name of science.” Dr. Lifton, whom the CIA tried unsuccessfully to recruit in the early 1960s to work on the psychological breakdown of captured enemy guerrillas, said that all these events showed “how our profession can be drawn into corruption.” Quite aside from the moral issues, Lifton believes that the CIA research was not a serious professional effort, for it lacked the nccessary scientific standards. Carried out as a secret operation, Lifton points out, this work was deprived of exposure and critical evaluation by others.

He also believes that it was a violation of the Nuremberg Principles. It remains unclear, however, whether in the strictest legal sense the CIA was guilty of violating international law by conducting its mind-control tests. But whether the Nuremberg Principles were binding or not on the U.S., many Americans would consider the research dangerous from both an ethical and political viewpoint. Most frightening is the prospect that unless such research is strictly controlled, a government with vast powers could one day use it to manipulate its own citizenry. Recent experience strongly suggests, moreover, that such top-secret work fosters ever more lurid schemes. As one former CIA doctor put it: “We lived in a nevernever land of 'eyes-only' memos and unceasing experimentation.”



The final report of Senator Frank Church's Select Committee on intelligence in 1976 summed it LIP this way: "The research and development program, and particularly the covert testing program, resulted in massive abridgements of the rights of American citizens, sometimes with tragic conscquences. The deaths of two Americans can be attributed to these programs; other participants in the testing program may still suffer from the residual effects."*

Most of the men who conceived and directed the CIA's rnind-control program are dead. The one scientist who probably knows the full history, Sidney Gottlieb, revealed little in an appearance before Senator Edward Kennedy's Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research in September. Gottlieb testified in a private session with the senators because of ill health (his voice was piped via loudspeakers to reporters in another room) and under a grant of immunity from prosecution.

Gottlieb said that the CIA in the 1950s knew of “well-documented instances of covert drug administration against Americans.” Only from 20 to 50 Americans were unknowing subjects of drug tests at CIA safe houses in New York and San Francisco; “Harsh as it may seem in retrospect,” he said, “such a procedure and such a risk” were believed reasonable in view of the threat to “national survival.” The whitehaired witness admitted he had destroyed the records of these experi en ts. Gottlieb's appearance, moreover, revealed little about the standards and procedures used in experiments by the CIAs private contractors.

We may never know the full truth about projects ARTICHOKE and MK-ULTRA, and, if we do, it probably won't come from Gottlieb. As he discovered himself-along with the CIA-it is not easy to unlock men's minds and wrest the secrets frrom them.

* Frank Olson’s suicide is one of the two deaths. The other was the suicide of Harold Blauer a tennis professional who was given synthetic mescaline in an experiment by the Army Chemical Corps that was associated with the CIA research.
  Tad Szulc is a Washington-based writer on national security matters. He is a former foreign correspondent of the New York Times and also covered the CIA in Washington for the Times. His books include one on E. Howard Hunt, Jr., Compulsive Spy (Viking), and a study of Nixon's foreign policy to appear in January, The Illusion of Peace (Viking)  


LSD-25 was the 25th in a series of compounds derived from the rye fungus ergot in routine research at Switzerland's Sandoz Pharmaceutical Laboratories. In 1943, five years after it was synthesized, Dr. Albert Hofmann, one of the codiscoverers, accidentally became aware of its odd effects on the human brain. In his account of history's first acid trip, Dr. Hofmann wrote, “My field of vision swayed before me like the reflections in an amusement-park mirror. Occasionally, I felt as if I were out of my body.”

When other-people who ingested the drug reported similar effects, the chemical became something of a pharmaceutical curiosity: a mysterious drug searching for something to cure. Because of the resemblance between an LSD trip and psychosis, much of the early research was focused on mental illness. Wholesale experimentation with the drug was launched in the early 1950s. Neurotics, psychotics, depressives, alcoholics, epileptics, and even terminal-cancer patients were given LSD.

LSD never did find a disease to cure. But, by 1965, about 2,000 studies of the drug had been published: Conservative estimates suggest that over 30,000 psychiatric patients and several thousand normal volunteers had been given LSD during this period.

Around 1954, Eli Lilly & Company published the details of a new process they had developed for synthesizing lysergic acid (the parent molecule of the ergot alkaloids) cheaply and in bulk. The immediate effect of this breakthrough was to keep down the price of ergot alkaloids, which tip to then had been distributed only by Sandoz. But there were other unanticipated results as well. Vast quantities of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, could now be produced with reasonable ease in any sophisticated chemistry laboratory.At about the same time, a subculture of researchers began to experiment on themselves. Some wanted to experience madness firsthand; others sought a mystical union with the beyond. Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were discovered by the media in 1962, and the craze was on. Only researchers had access to LSD through legitimate channels, but when publicity created a demand for LSD, hip chemists rushed to create a supply. An enterprising Californian called Owsley, for example, is said to have produced more than a million doses of LSD over the next few years. (At 25 micrograms per dose, a million doses of LSD would weigh only nine ounces.) Owsley acid became world famous for its high quality. But when Owsley's factory in Berkeley, California, was raided in February 1965, the case was thrown out of court since California law did not specifically regulate LSD.

This oversight was soon to be corrected. As the numbers of people using LSD multiplied, so did sensationalized accounts of its effects. Alarmed by these horror stories, federal and state authorities moved to ban the drug. California passed its anti-LSD laws in October 1966. By the end of the 1960s, LSD was illegal. But, by 1973, according to the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, almost 5 percent of adult Americans had tried LSD or a similar hallucinogen at least once.

It is now clear that, tinder controlled conditions, LSD is a relatively harmless drug. In 1960, UCLA psychiatrist Sidney Cohen reviewed studies of 5,000 persons who had taken LSD a total of 25,000 times. He reported that for every 1,000 persons taking LSD under medical supervision, there were 0.8 psychotic reactions lasting more than a day, and no attempted or com suicides. These figures compare quite favorably with Cohen's estimates for patients in psychotherapy: 1.8 psychotic episodes per thousand patients, and 1.2 attempted suicides and 0.4 completed suicides per thousand.

Thus, psychotic episodes, attempted suicide, and actual suicide were more common among psychotherapy patients than among persons taking LSD under medical supervision. This is particularly impressive since so many LSD recipients actually received the drug in psychotherapy.

A similar survey in 1969 by Dr. Nicholas Malleson of 4,303 British patients who had taken a total of more than 50,000 doses of LSD came to much the same conclusion. Interestingly, the Malleson study also noted that those physicians who had the greatest experience with LSD therapy were least likely to observe adverse reactions. That is, the patients of inexperienced LSD therapists were more likely to have bad trips. These data stress the point that LSD is safe only when it is taken under adequate medical supervision. The personality of the LSD user, his expectations for the experience, the setting in which the drug is consumed-all are factors in the complicated equation that determines LSD's effects.

According to the most recent surveys of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, LSD still has a following. As large a percentage of the population took the drug in 1976 as in 1972. Dr. loan Rittenhouse, supervisory research psychologist at the National Institute, believes that LSD's failure to achieve wider popularity stems from newspaper reports that the drug produces chromosome damage. Although the belief that LSD causes birth defects is quite controversial in scientific circles, it seems to be widely accepted by the public.

—James Hassett