The Frank Olson Legacy Project

 

The Men Who Stare at Goats

 

 

By Jon Ronson

(Picador Books, Sept. 2004;
Simon and Schuster, April 2005.)
 

 
 


The 1953 House

There is a house in Frederick, Maryland that has barely been touched since 1953. It looks like an exhibit in a down-at-heel museum of the Cold War. All that brightly coloured Formica, and the kitschy kitchen ornaments — breezy symbols of 1950s American optimism — haven’t stood the test of time.

Eric Olson’s house – and Eric would be the first to admit this – could do with some re-decoration.

Eric was born here, but he never liked Frederick and he never liked this house. He got out as quickly as he could after high school and ended up in Ohio and India and New York and Massachusetts and Stockholm and California, but in 1993 he thought he would just crash out for a few months, and then ten years passed, during which time he hasn’t decorated for three reasons:

He hasn’t any money.

His mind is on other things.

And, really, his life ground to a shuddering halt on November 28th, 1953, and if your living environment is meant to reflect your inner life, Eric’s house does the job. It an inescapable reminder of the moment Eric’s life froze. Eric says that if he ever forgets ‘why I’m doing this’, he just needs to look around his house, and 1953 comes flooding back to him.

Eric says 1953 was probably the most significant year in modern history. He says we’re all stuck in 1953, in a sense, because the events of that year have a continual and overwhelming impact on our lives. He rattled through a list of key events that occurred in 1953. Everest was conquered. James Watson and Francis Crick published, in Nature magazine, their famous paper mapping the double helix structure of DNA. Elvis first visited a recording studio, and Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock gave the world rock and roll, and subsequently the teenager. President Truman announced that the United States had developed a hydrogen bomb. The polio vaccine was created, as was the colour TV. And Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, gave a talk to his Princeton alumni group in which he said ‘Mind warfare is the great battlefield of the Cold War, and we have to do whatever it takes to win this.’

On the night of November 28th 1953, Eric went to bed, as normal, a happy 9-year-old child. The family home had been built three years earlier, and his father Frank was still putting the finishing touches to it, but now he was in New York on business. Eric’s mother Alice was sleeping down the hall. His little brother Nils and his sister Lisa were in the next room.

And then, somewhere around dawn, Eric was woken up.

‘It was a very dim November pre-dawn,’ Eric said.

Eric was woken up by his mother and taken down the hall, still wearing his pyjamas, towards the living room – the same room where the two of us now sat, on the same sofas.

Eric turned the corner to see the family doctor sitting there.

‘And,’ Eric said, ‘also, there were these two…’

Eric searched for a moment for the right word to describe the others. He said, ‘There were these two …men… there also.’

The news that the men delivered was that Eric’s father was dead.

‘What are you talking about?’ Eric asked them, crossly.

‘He had an accident,’ said one of the men, ‘and the accident was that he fell or jumped out of a window.’

‘Excuse me?’ said Eric. ‘He did what?’

‘He fell or jumped out of a window in New York.’

‘What does that look like?’ asked Eric.

This question was greeted with silence. Eric looked over at his mother and saw that she was frozen and empty-eyed.

‘How do you fall out of a window?’ said Eric. ‘What does that mean? Why would he do that? What do you mean, fell or jumped?’

‘We don’t know if he fell,’ said one of the men. ‘He might have fallen. He might have jumped.’

‘Did he dive?’ asked Eric.

‘Anyhow,’ said one of the men. ‘It was an accident.’

‘Was he standing on a ledge and he jumped?’ asked Eric.

‘It was a work-related accident,’ said one of the men.

‘Excuse me?’ said Eric. ‘He fell out a window and that’s work related? What?’

Eric turned to his mother.

‘Um,’ he said. ‘What is his work again?’

Eric believed his father was a civilian scientist, working with chemicals at the nearby Fort Detrick military base.

Eric said to me, ‘It very quickly became an incredibly rancorous issue in the family because I was always the kid saying, “Excuse me, where did he go? Tell me this story again.” And my mother very quickly adopted the stance, “Look, I’ve told you this story a thousand times.” And I would say, “Yeah, but I didn’t get it.”

Eric’s mother had created – from the same scant facts offered to Eric – this scenario: Frank Olson was in New York. He was staying in the 10th floor of the Statler Hotel, now the Pennsylvania Hotel, across the road from Madison Square Gardens, in midtown Manhattan. He had a bad dream. He woke up, confused, and headed in the dark towards the bathroom. He became disorientated and fell out of the window.

It was 2 A.M.

Eric and his little brother Nils told their school friends that their father had died of a ‘fatal nervous breakdown’ although they had no idea what this meant. Fort Detrick was what glued the town together. All their friends’ fathers worked at the base. The Olsons would still get invited to neighbourhood picnics and other community events but there didn’t seem any reason for them to be there any more.

When Eric was 16, he and Nils, then 12, decided to cycle from the end of their driveway to San Francisco. Even at that young age, Eric saw the 2,415-mile journey as a metaphor. He wanted to immerse himself in unknown American terrain, the mysterious America that had, for some impenetrable reason, taken his father away from him. He and Nils would ‘reach the goal’ – San Francisco – ‘by small continuous increments of motion along a single strand.’ This was in Eric’s mind a test-run for another goal he would one day reach in an equally fastidious way: the solution to the mystery of what happened to his father in that hotel room in New York at 2am.

I spent a lot of time at Eric’s house, reading his documents and looking though his photos and watching his home movies. There were pictures of the teenage Eric and his younger brother Nils standing by their bikes. Eric had captioned the photograph ‘Happy Bikers.’ There were 8mm videos shot two decades earlier of Eric’s father, Frank, playing in the garden with the children. Then there were some films Frank Olson had shot himself during a trip to Europe a few months before he died. There was Big Ben and the Changing of the Guard. There was the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin. There was the Eiffel Tower. It looked like a family holiday, except the family weren’t with him. Sometimes, in these 8mm films, you catch a glimpse of Frank’s travelling companions, three men, wearing long dark coats and trilby hats, sitting in Parisian pavement cafés, watching the girls go by.

I watched them, and then I watched a home movie that a friend of Eric’s had shot on June 2nd 1994, the day Eric had his father’s body exhumed.

There was the digger breaking through the soil.

There was a local journalist asking Eric, as the coffin was hauled noisily into the back of a truck, ‘Are you having second thoughts about this, Eric?’

She had to yell over the sound of the digger.

‘Ha!’ Eric replied.

‘ I keep expecting you to change your mind,’ shouted the journalist.

Then there was Frank Olson himself, shrivelled and brown on a slab in a pathologist’s lab at Washington Georgetown University, his leg broken, a big hole in his skull.

And then, in this home video, Eric was back at home, exhilarated, talking on the phone to Nils: ‘I saw daddy today!’

After Eric put the phone down he told his friend with the video camera the story of the bicycle trip he and Nils took in 1961, from the bottom of their driveway all the way to San Francisco.

‘I’d seen an article in Boys Life about a 14-year-old kid who cycled from Connecticut to the West Coast,’ Eric said, ‘so I figured my brother was 12 and I was 16 so that averaged at 14, so we could do it. We got these terrible two-speed heavy twin bikes, and we started off right here. 40 West. We heard it went all the way! And we made it! We went all the way!’

‘No!’ said Eric’s friend.

‘Yeah,’ said Eric. ‘We cycled across the country.’

‘No way!’

‘It’s an incredible story,’ said Eric. ‘And we’ve never heard of a younger person than my brother who cycled across the United States. It’s doubtful there is one.

When you think about it, 12, and alone. It took us seven weeks, and we had unbelievable adventures all the way.’

‘Did you camp out?’

‘We camped out. Farmers would invite us to stay in their houses. In Kansas City the police picked us up, figuring we were runaways, and when they found out we weren’t they let us stay in their jail.’

‘And your mom let you do this?’

‘Yeah, that’s a kind of unbelievable mystery.’

(Eric’s mother Alice had died by 1994. She had been drinking on the quiet since the 1960s, and had begun locking herself in the bathroom and coming out mean and confused. Eric would never have exhumed his father’s remains while she was alive. His sister Lisa had died too, together with her husband and their 2-year-old son. They’d been flying to the Adirondacks, where they were going to invest money in a lumber mill. The plane crashed, and everyone on board was killed.)

‘Yeah,’ said Eric, ‘it’s an unbelievable mystery that my mother let us go, but we called home twice a week from different places, and the local paper, the Frederick paper, twice a week had these front-page articles: Olsons Reach St Louis! All across the country back then there were billboards advertising a place called Harolds Club, which was a big gambling casino in Reno. It used to be the biggest casino in the world. And their motif was HAROLDS CLUB OR BUST! Every day we’d see these billboards, HAROLDS CLUB OR BUST! It became a kind of slogan for our journey. When we got to Reno we realised we couldn’t get into Harolds Club because we were too young. So we decided to make a sign that said HAROLDS CLUB OR BUST! tie it to the back of our bikes, go over to Harolds Club and tell Harold, whoever he might be, that we’d had this across the whole United States and we were just crazy to see Harold’s Club.

So we went into a drugstore. We brought an old cardboard box and some crayons, and we started writing this sign. The woman who sold us the crayons said, “What are you guys doing?”

We said, “We’re going to make a sign, HAROLDS CLUB OR BUST! and tell Harold that we cycled all the way from…”

She said, “These people are very smart. They’re not going to fall for this.”

So we made this thing, took it out onto the streets, scuffed it up, tied it to the back of our bikes, went over to Harolds Club, got to this big entry-way - Harolds Club was this gigantic thing, literally the biggest gambling casino in the world - and there was a doorperson there.

He said, “What do you boys want?”

We said, “We want to meet Harold.”

He said, “Harold is not here.”

We said, “Well, who is here?”

He said, “Harold senior is not here but Harold junior is here.”

We said, “That’s fine, we’ll take Harold junior.”

He said, “Okay, I’ll go in and see.”

Pretty soon out strides this dude in a fancy cowboy suit. Handsome guy. So he comes out and looks at our bikes and he says, “What are you guys doing?”

We said, “Harold. We’ve been cycling across the United States and we’ve wanted to see Harolds Club the whole time. We’ve been sweating across the desert.”

And he said, “Well, come on in!”

We ended up staying for a week at Harolds Club. He took us up in a helicopter around Reno, put us up in a fancy hotel. And when we were leaving he said, “I guess you guys want to see Disneyland, right? Well let me call up my friend Walt!”

So he called up Walt Disney, and this is one of the great disappointments of my life, Walt wasn’t home.’


*


I have wondered why Eric spent the evening of the day he had his father’s body exhumed telling his friend the story of Harolds Club Or Bust. Maybe it’s because Eric had spent so much of his adult life failing to be offered the kindness of strangers, failing to benefit from anything approaching an American dream, but now Frank Olson was out there, lying on a slab in a pathologist’s lab, and perhaps things were about to turn around for Eric. Maybe some mysterious Harold junior would come along and kindly explain everything.

 


Happy Bikers.


*


In 1970, Eric enrolled at Harvard. He went home every Thanksgiving weekend, and because Frank Olson went out of the window during the Thanksgiving holiday of 1953, the family invariably ended up watching old home movies of Frank, and Eric inevitably said to his mother, ‘Tell me the story again.’

During Thanksgiving weekend 1974, Eric’s mother replied, ‘I’ve told you this story a hundred times, a thousand times.’

Eric said, ‘Just tell me it one more time.’

And so Eric’s mother sighed and she began.

Frank Olson had spent a weekend on an office retreat in a cabin called the Deep Creek Lodge in rural Maryland. When he came home, his mood was unusually anxious.

He told his wife, ‘I made a terrible mistake and I’ll tell you what it was when the children have gone to bed.’

But the conversation never got around to what the terrible mistake had been.

Frank remained agitated all weekend. He told Alice he wanted to quit his job and become a dentist. On the Sunday night Alice tried to calm him down by taking him to the cinema in Frederick to see whatever was on, which turned out to be a new film called Martin Luther.

It was the story of Luther’s crisis of conscience over the corruption of the Catholic Church in the 16th Century, when its theologians claimed it was impossible for the Church to do any wrong, because they defined the moral code. They were fighting the Devil, after all. The film climaxed with Luther declaring, ‘No. Here I stand, I can do no other.’ The moral of Martin Luther is that the individual cannot hide behind the institution.

(TV Guide’s movie review database gives Martin Luther 2/5 stars and says, ‘It is not “entertainment” in the usual sense of the word. One wishes there might have been some humour in the script, to make the man look more human. The film was made with such respect that the subject matter seems gloomy when it should be uplifting.’)

The trip to the cinema didn’t help Frank’s mood, and the next day it was suggested by some colleagues that he go to New York to visit a psychiatrist. Alice drove Frank to Washington DC and she dropped him off at the offices of the men who would accompany him to New York.

This was the last time she ever saw her husband.

On the spur of the moment, during that Thanksgiving weekend in 1974, Eric asked his mother a question he’d never thought to ask before:

‘Describe the offices where you dropped him off.’

So she did.

‘Jesus Christ,’ said Eric, ‘that sounds just like CIA headquarters.’

And then Eric’s mother became hysterical.

She screamed, ‘You will never find out what happened in that hotel room!’

Eric said, ‘As soon as I finish at Harvard I’m going to move back home and I’m not going to rest until I find out the truth.’


*


Eric didn’t have to wait long for a breakthrough. He received a telephone call from a family friend on the morning of June 11th 1975: ‘Have you seen the Washington Post? I think you’d better take a look.’

It was a front-page story, and the headline read:

SUICIDE REVEALED

‘A civilian employee of the Department of the Army unwittingly took LSD as part of a Central Intelligence Agency test, then jumped 10 floors to his death less than a week later, according to the Rockefeller commission report released yesterday.’

(The Rockefeller Commission had been created to investigate CIA misdeeds in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.)

‘The man was given the drug while attending a meeting with CIA personnel working on a test project that involved the administration of mind-bending drugs to unsuspecting Americans.

“This individual was not made aware he had been given LSD until about 20 minutes after it had been administered,” the commission said. “He developed serious side effects and was sent to New York with a CIA escort for psychiatric treatment. Several days later, he jumped from a tenth-floor window of his room and died as a result.”

The practice of giving drugs to unsuspecting people lasted from 1953 to 1963, when it was discovered by the CIA's inspector general and stopped, the commission said.’

‘Is this my father?’ thought Eric.

The headline was misleading. Not much was ‘revealed’ – not even the name of the victim.

‘Is this what happened at the Deep Creek Lodge?’ thought Eric. ‘They slipped him LSD? No, but it has to be my father. How many army scientists were jumping out of hotel windows in New York in 1953?’

On the whole, the American public reacted to the Frank Olson story in much the same way that they responded, 50 years later, to the news that Barney was being used to torture Iraqi detainees. Horror would be the wrong word. People were basically amused and fascinated. As in the case of Barney, this response was, I think, triggered by the disconcertingly surreal combination of dark intelligence secrets and familiar pop culture.

‘For America it was lurid,’ said Eric, ‘and exciting.’

The Olsons were invited to the White House so President Ford could personally apologise to them – ‘He was very, very sorry,’ said Eric - and the photographs from that day show the family beaming and entranced inside the Oval Office.

‘When you look at those photographs now,’ I asked Eric one day, ‘what do they say to you?’

‘They say that the power of that Oval Office for seduction is enormous,’ Eric replied, ‘as we now know from Clinton. You go into that sacred space - that oval - and you’re really in a special charmed circle and you can’t think straight. It works. It really works.’

Outside the White House, after their 17-minute meeting with President Ford, Alice Olson gave a statement to the press.

‘I think it should be noted,’ she said, ‘that an American family can receive communication from the President of the United States. I think that’s a tremendous tribute to our country.’

‘She felt very embraced by Gerald Ford,’ said Eric. ‘They laughed together, and so on.’

The Olsons in the Oval Office. Eric is second from the right.



The Olsons back at home.

 

The President promised the Olsons full disclosure, and the CIA provided the family, and America, with a flurry of details, each more unexpected than the last.

The CIA had slipped LSD into Frank Olson’s Cointreau at a camping retreat called the Deep Creek Lodge. The project was code-named MK-ULTRA, and they did it, they explained, because they wanted to watch how a scientist would cope with the effects of a mind-altering drug. Would he be unable to resist revealing secrets? Would the information be coherent? Could LSD be used as a truth serum for CIA interrogators?

And there was another motive. The CIA later admitted that they very much enjoyed paranoid thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and they wanted to know if they could create real life brainwashed assassins by pumping people with LSD. But Frank Olson had a bad trip, perhaps giving rise to the legend that if you take LSD you believe you can fly and you end up falling out of windows.

Social historians and political satirists immediately labelled these events ‘a great historical irony’, and Eric repeated these words to me through gritted teeth because he doesn’t appreciate the fact that his father’s death has become a fragment of an irony.

‘The great historical irony,’ Eric said, ‘being that “the CIA brought LSD to America thereby bringing a kind of enlightenment, thereby opening up a new level of political consciousness, thereby sowing the seeds of its own undoing because it created an enlightened public.” It made great copy, and you’ll find that this theme is the motif of a lot of books.’

The details kept coming, so thick and fast that Frank Olson was in danger of becoming lost, swept away like a twig in the tidal wave of this colourful story. Also in 1953, the CIA told the Olsons, they created an MK-ULTRA brothel in New York City, where they spiked the customers’ drinks with LSD. They placed an agent called George White behind a one-way mirror where he moulded, and passed up the chain of command, little models made out of pipe cleaners. The models represented the sexual positions considered, by the observant George White, to be the most effective in releasing a flow of information.

When George White left the CIA his letter of resignation read, in part, ‘I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun … Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the all-highest?’

George White addressed this letter to his boss, the very same CIA man who had spiked Frank Olson’s Cointreau: an ecology-obsessed Buddhist named Sidney Gottlieb.

Gottlieb had learnt the art of sleight-of-hand from a Broadway magician called John Mulholland. This magician is all but forgotten today but back then he was a big star, a David Copperfield, who mysteriously bowed out of the public eye in 1953, claiming ill health, when the truth was that he had been secretly employed by Sidney Gottlieb to teach agents how to spike people’s drinks with LSD.

Mulholland also taught Gottlieb how to slip bio-toxins into the toothbrushes and cigars of America’s enemies abroad. It was Gottlieb who travelled to Congo to assassinate the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba by putting toxins in his toothbrush (he failed: the story goes that someone else, a non-American, managed to assassinate Lumumba first).

It was Gottlieb who mailed a monogrammed handkerchief, doctored with brucellosis, to Iraqi colonel Abd a-Karim Qasim. Qasim survived.

And it was Gottlieb who travelled to Cuba to slip poisons into Fidel Castro’s cigars and his diving suit. Castro survived.

It was like a comedy routine, like the Marx Brothers Become Covert Assassins, and sometimes it seemed to Eric as if his family were the only people not laughing.

‘The image that was presented to us,’ Eric said, ‘was fraternity boys out of control. “We tried some crazy things, and we made errors of judgement. We put various poisons in Castro’s cigars but none of that worked. And then we decided that we weren’t really good at that sort of thing.”’

‘A clown assassin,’ I said.

‘A clown assassin,’ said Eric. ‘Ineptitude. We drug people and they jump out of windows. We try to assassinate people and we get there too late. And we never actually assassinated anybody.’

Eric paused.

‘And Gottlieb turns up everywhere!’ he said. ‘Is Gottlieb the only person in the shop? Does he have to do everything?’ Eric laughed. ‘And this is what my mother was seizing on when she talked to Gottlieb. She said, “How could you do such a harebrained scientific experiment? Where’s the medical supervision? Where’s the control group? You call this science?’ And Gottlieb basically replied, ‘Yeah, it was a bit casual. We’re sorry for that.”’

As I sat in Eric Olson’s house and listened to his story I remembered that I had heard Sidney Gottlieb’s name mentioned before, in some other faraway context. Then it came to me. Before General Stubblebine came along, the secret psychic spies had another administrator: Sidney Gottlieb.

It took me a while to remember this because it seemed so unlikely. What was someone like Sidney Gottlieb, a poisoner, an assassin (albeit a not particularly good one), the man indirectly responsible for the death of Frank Olson, doing in the middle of this other, funny, psychic story? It seemed remarkable to me that the organizational gap in the intelligence world between the light side (psychic supermen) and the dark side (covert assassinations) has been so narrow. But it wasn’t until Eric showed me a letter his mother received out of the blue on July 13th 1975 that I began to understand just how narrow it was. The letter was from The Diplomat Motor Hotel, in Ocean City, Maryland. It read:

Dear Mrs Olson,

After reading the newspaper accounts on the tragic death of your husband, I felt compelled to write to you.
At the time of your husband’s death, I was the assistant night manager at the Hotel Statler in New York and was at his side almost immediately after his fall. He attempted to speak but his words were unintelligible. A priest was summoned and he was given the last rites.

Having been in the hotel business for the last 36 years and witnessed innumerable unfortunate incidents, your husband’s death disturbed me greatly due to the most unusual circumstances of which you are now aware.

If I can be of any assistance to you, please do not hesitate to call upon me.

My heartfelt sympathy to you and your family.

Sincerely
Armond D. Pastore
General Manager.



The Olsons did phone Armond Pastore to thank him for his letter, and it was then that Pastore told them what happened in the moments after Frank had died in his arms on the street at 2am.

Pastore said he went back inside the hotel and he spoke to the telephone switchboard operator. He asked her if any calls had been made from Frank Olson’s room.

She said that there was just one call, and she had listened in to it. It was very short. It was made immediately after Frank Olson went out of the window.

The man in Frank Olson’s room said, ‘Well, he’s gone.’

The voice on the other end of the phone said, ‘That’s too bad.’

And then they both hung up.

 

The Men Who Stare at Goats.

 


Harolds Club Or Bust!


Eric Olson has a swimming pool in his back garden - one of the very few additions to the house made since 1953. On a hot day in August, Eric and his brother Nils and Eric’s son, who usually lives in Sweden, and Nils’s wife and their children, and some of Eric’s friends and I, were sunbathing by the pool, when a truck covered with pictures of party balloons – Capital Party Rentals - pulled up in his driveway to drop off 100 plastic seats.

‘Hey! Coloured chairs!’ yelled Eric.

‘You want the coloured chairs?’ said the driver.

‘Nah,’ said Eric. ‘Inappropriate.’

Eric had brought a ghetto blaster down to the poolside and he tuned it to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered because the legendary reporter Daniel Schorr was about to deliver a commentary about him. Daniel Schorr was the first man to interview Khrushchev, he won three Emmys for his coverage of Watergate, and now he was turning his attention to Eric.

His commentary began.

‘…Eric Olson is ready to charge in a news conference tomorrow that the story of a suicide plunge makes no sense…’

Eric leaned up against the wire fence that surrounded his swimming pool and he grinned at his friends and his family, who were listening intently to this broadcast.

‘…and that his father was killed to silence him about the lethal activities he’d been involved in, projects codenamed Artichoke and MK-ULTRA. Today a spokesman for the CIA said no congressional or executive branch probes of the Olson case have turned up any evidence of homicide. Eric Olson may not have the whole story. The thing is, the government’s lid on its secrets remains so tight, we may never know the whole story…’

Eric flinched.

‘Don’t go there, Dan,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Don’t go there.’

‘…This is Daniel Schorr…’

‘Don’t GO there, Dan,’ Eric said.

He turned to us all, sitting by the pool. We sat there and said nothing.

‘See?’ said Eric. ‘That’s what they want to do. ‘“We may never know the whole story.” And there’s so much comfort they take in that. Bullshit. Bullshit. “Oh, it could be this, it could be that, and everything in the CIA is a hall of mirrors, layers, you can never get to the bottom…” When people say that, what they’re really saying is, “We’re comfortable with this because we don’t want to know.” It’s like my mother always said, “You’re never going to know what happened in that hotel room.” Well, something DID happen in that room and it is knowable.’

Suddenly, Eric is 60 years old. Decades have gone by, and he has spent them investigating his father’s death. One day I asked him if he regretted this, and he replied, ‘I regret it all the time.’

Piecing together the facts has been hard enough for Eric, the facts being buried in classified documents, or declassified documents covered with thick black lines made with marker pens, or worse - Sidney Gottlieb admitted to Eric during one meeting that he had, on his retirement, destroyed the MK-ULTRA files. When Eric asked him why, Gottlieb explained that his ‘ecological sensitivity’ had made him aware of the dangers of ‘paper overflow’.

Gottlieb added that it didn’t really matter that the documents were ruined, because it was all a waste anyway. All the MK-ULTRA experiments were futile, he told Eric. They had all come to nothing. Eric left Gottlieb realising he’d been truly beaten by a first class mind.

‘What a brilliant cover story,’ he thought. ‘In a success-obsessed society like this one, what’s the best rock to hide something under? It’s the rock called failure.’

So most of the facts were retained only in the memories of men who did not want to talk. Nonetheless, Eric has constructed a narrative that is just as plausible, even more plausible, than the LSD suicide story.

Collecting the facts has been difficult enough, but there has been something even harder.

‘The old story is so much fun,’ Eric said, ‘why would anyone want to replace it with a story that’s not fun. You see? The person who puts the spin on the story controls it from the beginning. Its very hard for people to read against the grain of what you’ve been told the narrative is about.’

‘Your new story is not as much fun,’ I agreed.

‘This is no longer a happy, feelgood story,’ Eric said, ‘and I don’t like it better than anyone else does. It’s hard to accept that your father didn’t die because of suicide, nor did he die because of negligence after a drug experiment, he died because they killed him. That’s a different feeling.’

And, vexingly for Eric, on the rare occasions he’s convinced a journalist that the CIA murdered his father, the revelation has not been greeted with horror. One writer declined Eric’s invitation to attend tomorrow’s press conference by saying ‘We know the CIA kills people. That’s old news.’

In fact, Eric told me, tomorrow would be the first time anyone had ever publicly charged the CIA with murdering an American citizen.

‘People have been so brainwashed by fiction,’ said Eric as we drove to the local Kinko’s to pick up the press releases for the conference, ‘so brainwashed by the Tom Clancy thing, they think, “We know this stuff. We know the CIA does this.” Actually, we know nothing of this. There’s no case of this, and all this fictional stuff is like an immunisation against reality. It makes people think they know things that they don’t know and it enables them to have a kind of superficial quasi-sophistication and cynicism which is just a thin layer beyond which they’re not cynical at all.’

It isn’t that people aren’t interested: it’s that they’re interested in the wrong way. Recently a theatre director approached Eric for his permission to turn the Frank Olson story into ‘an opera about defenestration’, but Eric declined, explaining that this was a complex enough tale anyway even without having the facts sung at an audience. Tomorrow’s press conference was really Eric’s last chance to convince the world that his father was not an LSD suicide.


*


There were so many ways for Eric to recount his new version of the story at the press conference. It was impossible for him – for anyone - to know how to do it in the most coherent and still entertaining way. Eric’s new story is not only no longer fun, it is also exasperatingly intricate. There’s so much information to absorb that an audience could just glaze over.

Really, this story begins with the proclamation delivered by the CIA director Allen Dulles to his Princeton alumni group in 1953.

‘Mind warfare,’ he said, ‘is the great battlefield of the Cold War and we have to do whatever it takes to win this.’

Before Jim Channon and General Stubblebine and Colonel Alexander came along, there was Allen Dulles, the first great out-of-the-box thinker in US intelligence. He was a great friend of the Bushes, once the Bush family lawyer, a pipe-smoking patriarch who believed that the CIA should be like an ivy league university, taking inspiration not only from agents, but also from scientists, academics, and whoever else might come up with something new. It was Dulles who moved the CIA’s headquarters from central Washington DC to suburban Langley, Virginia (now renamed The George Bush Center For Intelligence) because he wanted to create a thoughtful, out-of-town campus milieu. It was Dulles who sent undercover CIA agents out into the American suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s to infiltrate séances in the hope of unearthing and recruiting America’s most talented clairvoyants to his mind-warfare battlefield, which is how the relationship between intelligence and the psychic world was born. But it was General Stubblebine who, inspired by the First Earth Battalion, proclaimed a generation later that anyone could be a great psychic, and so he opened the doors wide, and Major Ed Dames joined the program, and subsequently revealed the secrets of the unit on the Art Bell show, and then all hell broke loose and 39 people in San Diego killed themselves in an attempt to hitch a ride on Prudence and Courtney’s Hale Bopp companion.

Allen Dulles put Sidney Gottlieb in charge of the fledgling psychic program, and also MK-ULTRA, and then a third covert mind-warfare project known as Artichoke.

Artichoke is the program that is not fun.

Recently declassified documents reveal that Artichoke was all about inventing insane, brutal, violent, frequently fatal new ways of interrogating people.

Frank Olson was not just a civilian scientist working with chemicals at Fort Detrick. He was a CIA man too. He was working for Artichoke. This is why he was in Europe in the months before he died, sitting in pavement cafes with the other men wearing long coats and trilbies. They were there on Artichoke business. Eric’s father was – and there is no pleasant way of putting this – a pioneering torturer, or at the very least a pioneering torturer’s assistant. Artichoke was the First Earth Battalion of torture – a like-minded group of ground-breaking out-of-the-box thinkers, coming up with all manner of clever new ways of getting information out of people.

An example: according to a CIA document dated April 26th 1952, the Artichoke men ‘used heroin on a routine basis’, because they determined that heroin (and other substances) ‘can be useful in reverse because of the stresses produced when they are withdrawn from those who are addicted to their use.’

This is why, Eric has learnt, his father was recruited to Artichoke. He, alone among the interrogators, had a scientific knowledge of how to administer drugs and chemicals.

And now, in 2004, this Artichoke-created cold turkey method of interrogation is back in business. Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, interviewed a number of CIA interrogators for the October 2003 edition of Atlantic Monthly, and this is the scenario he constructed:

‘On what may or may not have been March 1 [2003] the notorious terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was roughly awakened by a raiding party of Pakistani and American commandos …Here was the biggest catch yet in the war on terror. Sheikh Mohammed is considered the architect of two attempts on the World Trade Center: the one that failed, in 1993, and the one that succeeded so catastrophically, eight years later …He was flown to an “undisclosed location” (a place the CIA calls “Hotel California”) — presumably a facility in another cooperative nation, or perhaps a specially designed prison aboard an aircraft carrier.

It doesn't much matter where, because the place would not have been familiar or identifiable to him. Place and time, the anchors of sanity, were about to come unmoored. He might as well have been entering a new dimension, a strange new world where his every word, move, and sensation would be monitored and measured; where things might be as they seemed but might not; where there would be no such thing as day or night, or normal patterns of eating and drinking, wakefulness and sleep; where hot and cold, wet and dry, clean and dirty, truth and lies, would all be tangled and distorted.

The space would be filled night and day with harsh light and noise. Questioning would be intense—sometimes loud and rough, sometimes quiet and friendly, with no apparent reason for either. The session might last for days, with interrogators taking turns, or it might last only a few minutes. On occasion he might be given a drug to elevate his mood prior to interrogation; marijuana, heroin, and sodium pentothal have been shown to overcome a reluctance to speak. These drugs could be administered surreptitiously with food or drink, and given the bleakness of his existence, they might even offer a brief period of relief and pleasure, thereby creating a whole new category of longing—and new leverage for his interrogators.’

See how in this scenario a slice of Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion (‘harsh light and noise’) and a slice of Frank Olson’s Artichoke (‘a whole new category of longing’) come together like two pieces of a jigsaw.

On the day before Eric’s press conference, Eric and I watched old 8mm home movies of his father playing in the garden with his children. On the screen, Frank was riding a wobbly old bicycle and Eric, then a toddler, was resting on the handlebars. Eric gazed, smiling, at the screen.

He said, ‘There’s my father. Right there! That’s him! In comparison with the other guys from the CIA, he has an open face. Um…’

Eric paused. ‘Basically,’ he said, ‘this is a story about a guy who had a simple moral code and a naïve view of the world. He wasn’t fundamentally a military guy. And he certainly wasn’t someone who would be involved in “terminal interrogations”. He went though a moral crisis, but he was in too deep and they couldn’t let him out.’

We continued watching the home video. Then Eric said, ‘Think of how much could have been different if he was alive to tell any of this. Ha! The whole history of a lot of things would be different. And you can see a lot of that just in his face. A lot of the other men have very tight, closed faces. He doesn’t…’

And then Eric trailed off.

At some point during his investigation, Eric hooked up with the British journalist Gordon Thomas, who has written numerous books on intelligence matters. Through Thomas, Eric learned that during a trip to London in the summer of 1953 his father had apparently confided in William Sargant, a consultant psychiatrist who advised British intelligence on brainwashing techniques.

According to Thomas, Frank Olson told Sargant that he had visited secret joint American-British research installations near Frankfurt, where the CIA was testing truth serums on “expendables,” captured Russian agents and ex-Nazis. Olson confessed to Sargant that he had witnessed something terrible, possibly “a terminal experiment” on one or more of the expendables. Sargant heard Olson out and then he reported to British intelligence that the young American scientist's misgivings were making him a security risk. He recommended that Olson be denied further access to Porton Down, the British chemical-weapons research establishment.

After Eric learnt this, he told his friend, the writer Michael Ignatieff, who published an article about Eric in the New York Times. A week later, Eric received the telephone call he’d been waiting for his whole life. It was a real Harold Junior, one of his father’s best friends from Detrick, a man who knew everything, and was willing to tell Eric the whole story.

His name was Norman Cournoyer.

Eric spent a weekend at Norman’s house in Connecticut. Revealing to Eric the secrets he’d been harbouring all these years was so stressful for Norman that he repeatedly excused himself so he could go to the toilet and vomit.

Norman told Eric that the Artichoke story was true. Frank told Norman that ‘they didn’t mind if people came out of this or not. They might survive, they might not. They might be put to death.’

Eric said, ‘Norman declined to go into detail about what this meant but he said it wasn’t nice. Extreme torture, extreme use of drugs, extreme stress.’

Norman told Eric that his father was in deep, and horrified at the way his life had turned. He watched people die in Europe, perhaps he even helped them die, and by the time he returned to America he was determined to reveal what he had seen. There was a 24-hour contingent of Quakers down at the Fort Detrick gates, peace protestors, and Frank would wander over to chat to them, much to the dismay of his colleagues. Frank asked Norman one day, ‘Do you know a good journalist I can talk to?’

And so, Eric said, slipping LSD into his father’s Cointreau at the Deep Creek Lodge was not an experiment that went wrong: it was designed to get him to talk while hallucinating. And Frank failed the test. He revealed his intentions to Gottlieb and the other MK-ULTRA men present. This was the ‘terrible mistake’ he had made. Seeing Martin Luther on the Sunday night had made him all the more determined to quit his job. Here I stand. I can do no other.

And on the Monday morning Frank did, indeed, tender his resignation, but his colleagues persuaded him to seek psychological counselling in New York.

Documents reveal that Frank never saw a psychiatrist in New York. He was taken instead, by Gottlieb’s deputy, to the office of the former Broadway magician John Mulholland, who probably hypnotised him, and Frank probably failed that test too.

Housing a possibly deranged and desperate man in a hotel room high above Seventh Avenue no longer seemed like a regrettable error of judgment. It seemed like the prelude to murder.

When Eric had his father’s body exhumed in 1994, the pathologist, Dr James Starrs, found a hole in Frank’s head that – he concluded – came from the butt of a gun and not a fall from a 10th floor window.

‘Well, he’s gone,’ said the voice of Sidney Gottlieb’s deputy, Robert Lashbrook.

‘That’s too bad,’ came the reply.
And they both hung up.

*


There were around 40 journalists at Eric’s press conference – crews from all the networks and many of the big newspapers. Eric had decided – for the purposes of clarity – to tell the story primarily through the narrative of his weekend with Norman Cournoyer. He repeatedly stressed that this was no longer a family story. This was now a story about what happened to America in the 1950s and how that informs what is happening today.

‘Where’s the proof?’ asked Julia Robb, the reporter from Eric’s local paper, the Frederick News Post, when he had finished. ‘Does all this rest on the word of one man, your father’s friend?’

Julia looked around her to make the point that this Norman Cournoyer wasn’t even in attendance.

‘No,’ said Eric. He looked exasperated. ‘As I’ve tried to tell you it conceptually rests on the idea that there are two vectors in this story and they only intersect in one place.’

There was a baffled silence.

‘Are you in any way motivated by ideology over this?’ the man from Fox News asked.

‘Just a desire to know the truth,’ sighed Eric.

Later, as the journalists milled around, eating from the buffet that was laid out on the picnic tables, the conversation among the Olsons and their friends turned to Julia Robb, the reporter from the Frederick News Post. Someone said he thought it was a shame that the most hostile journalist present represented Eric and Nils’s local paper.


‘Yeah it is,’ said Nils. ‘It’s painful to me. I’m a professional here in town. I have connections with local people as a dentist, and I see people on a daily basis who come in and read the local paper, and that affects me.’

Nils looked over at Eric, who was saying something to Julia, across the garden, but we couldn’t hear what.
Nils said, ‘At times you go through a phase of believing that maybe the story is a bunch of hooey, and that it was just a simple LSD suicide and that…’

Nils glanced at Julia.

‘…can trigger a kind of shame spiral. Its like the feelings you’ve had in the middle of the night, at 3am, when you’re trying to get to sleep and you start having some thought and the thought spins you into another negative thought and it kind of spins out of control and you have to shake yourself and maybe turn the light on and get grounded in reality again.’

Eric and Julia were arguing now. Julia said something to Eric and then she walked away, back to her car. (Later Eric said to me that Julia seemed ‘incensed, as if the entire story made her furious in some deep way that she was completely at a loss to articulate.’)

‘I mean,’ said Nils, ‘America fundamentally wants to think of itself as being good, and we’re fundamentally right in what we’re doing, and we have a very compelling responsibility for the free world. And looking at some of these issues is troubling, because if America does have a darker side it threatens your hold on your view of America and it’s kind of like, “Gee, if I pull out this one underpinning of the American consciousness, is this a house of cards? Does it really threaten the fundamental nature of America?”’

We drifted back down to the swimming pool, and an hour passed, and then Eric joined us. He’d been in the house on the telephone. He was laughing.

‘You hear the latest?’ he said.

‘Bring me up to date,’ said Nils. ‘I’m dying to hear.’

‘Julia,’ said Eric, ‘called Norman. I just called her and she said, “Eric, I’m glad you phoned. I just called Norman. He says he has no reason to believe that the CIA would murder Frank Olson.” I said, “Julia thanks for respecting my wishes about not calling Norman.” She said, “Eric, I’m a reporter. I have to do what’s necessary to get the story.”’

Eric laughed, although nobody else did.


*


And so I drove to Connecticut, to Norman Cournoyer’s house. I was slightly shaken by the news of the telephone call between Julia Robb and Norman. Had I got Eric wrong? Was he some kind of fantasist?

Norman lives in a large white bungalow in an upmarket suburban street. His wife answered the door and she led me into the living room where Norman was waiting for me. He pointed to the table and said, ‘I dug out some old photographs for you.’

They were of Norman and Frank Olson, arm in arm, somewhere in the middle of Fort Detrick, circa 1953.
‘Did you tell the reporter from the Fredrick News Post that you had no evidence to suggest that Frank was murdered by the CIA?’ I asked.

‘Yeah,’ said Norman.

‘Why did you do that?’ I asked.

‘Over the phone?’ said Norman. ‘I think a journalist is making a big mistake in trying to get somebody to talk over the phone.’

‘So you do think Frank was murdered?’ I said.

‘I’m sure of it,’ said Norman.

And then he told me something he hadn’t told Eric.

‘I saw Frank after he’d been given the LSD,’ he said. ‘We joked about it.’

‘What did he say?’ I asked.

‘He said, “They’re trying to find out what kind of guy I am. Whether I’m giving secrets away.”’

‘You were joking about it?’ I said.

‘We joked about it because he didn’t react to LSD.’

‘He wasn’t tripping at all?’ I said.

‘Nah,’ said Norman. ‘He was laughing about it. He said, “They’re getting very, very uptight now because of what they believe I am capable of.” He really thought they were picking on him because he was the man who might give away the secrets.’

‘Was he going to talk to a journalist?’ I asked.

‘He came so close it wasn’t even funny,’ said Norman.

‘Did he come back from Europe looking very upset?’ I asked.

‘Yeah,’ said Norman. ‘We talked about a week, ten days, after he came back. I said “What happened to you Frank? You seem awfully upset.” He said, “Oh, you know…” I must admit, in all honesty, it’s just coming back to me now. He said…’

Suddenly, Norman fell silent.

‘I don’t want to go on further than that,’ he said. ‘There are certain things that I don’t want to talk about.’

Norman looked out of the window.

‘It speaks for itself,’ he said.


*


Eric hoped his press conference would, at least, change the language of the reporting of the story. At best it would motivate some energetic journalist to take the challenge and find an unequivocal smoking gun that proved Frank Olson was pushed out of the window.

But in the days that followed the press conference it became clear that every journalist had decided to report the story in much the same way.

Eric had finally found ‘closure.’

He was on the way to being ‘healed’.

He had ‘laid his mystery to rest.’

He could ‘move on’ now.

Perhaps we will ‘never know’ what really happened to Frank Olson, but the important thing was that Eric had achieved ‘closure’.

The story was fun again.