The Frank Olson Legacy Project

Shutting off curiosity:

Notes on Evan Thomas’ book,
The Very Best Men—Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA



Diary entry
August 24, 2001


“This is a story
that no one wants to know.”

— Harry Huge, Esq., 1994

I was talking with a friend tonight about my father’s death. My friend said he saw an analogy between my father's murder and the order given to Francis Gary Powers to kill himself rather than allow himself to be captured by the enemy. The analogy my friend saw lay in the similarity between a national security murder on the one hand, and the order to kill oneself for security on the other hand--the only difference being in whether one's death comes at the hand of another or at one’s own.

I later realized that the analogy goes further, because the pill Powers was supposed to have taken was concocted by the ubiquitous Sidney Gottlieb, and also because the U2 plane Powers was piloting was the brain child of Richard Bissell who (according to Evan Thomas in The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA) gave considerable thought to the problem of how to murder someone for security reasons while doing so in a way that would seem to be a natural death and would not arouse undue curiosity.

Evan Thomas writes as follows:

Bissell, on the other hand, was “more open-minded,” said Gottlieb. He had, of course, worked closely with the Technical Services Staff developing the U-2. When he became DD/P [Deputy Director of Plans, i.e. covert operations] in 1959, “he was very interested in MKULTRA,” said Gottlieb. “He fancied himself a technological promoter and entrepreneur. He wanted to understand what the farthest reach could be. He wanted to know, could you assassinate someone without anyone every finding out about it?”

At first it was all “speculative,” recalled Bissell. But the concept interested him. If one of the obstacles to assassination was what agency officials called blowback, perhaps there was a technical solution. “I wanted to see if there was a way to make it look like a natural occurrence. This would be the best way to preserve security. You'd shut off curiosity." (paperback edition, p. 212)

The interesting thing, the amazing thing really about this quote is that it occurs on the very same page (p. 212) where—just eight lines earlier—Thomas tells the story of the death of Frank Olson, who, Thomas says, “worked with Gottlieb, also experimented with LSD and fell to his death from the window of a New York hotel in 1953.”

But Thomas never connects the two subjects. Talk about shutting off curiosity!!!

This example is so good it could be used in literary theory as a case of unconscious reflexivity: inadvertently performing the very thing one is explaining.

It all reminds me a bit of the collage work too. Sometimes a collage-maker will place two images in very close proximity and then, pointing first at one image and then at the other, insists that “This has nothing to do with that.”

Of course one can't contemplate Bissell’s recommendations for “shutting off curiosity” without being reminded of the CIA’s assassination manual of late 1953, where the device of the “contrived accident” is the recommended method for disguising a murder as a suicide:

For secret assassination, either simple or chase, the contrived accident is the most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement and is only casually investigated.

The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface...

If the assassin immediately sets up an outcry, playing the “horrified witness”, no alibi or surreptitious withdrawal is necessary.

And of course one can’t read these passages without thinking of this exchange from the Elmore Leonard novel, BE COOL:

“I know a way," Elliot said. "Throw him out a window and make it look like he committed suicide.”

Raji said, “Elliot” --like, are you stupid or something? --“the windows in the office don't open.”

Elliot said, “I don't mean in the office.”

Raji heard him, but Raji was the boss. Once he said Elliot was wrong or stupid Raji would keep going, have his say.

“Man’s gonna commit suicide. So what he does is run across the room and throw himself through [italics in the original] the window? Breaks the glass? Cuts himself all up?”

Elliot didn't mean that at all. What he had in mind, take the man to a hotel room like in the Roosevelt and pitch him out from the top floor. But Raji was still talking.

“Nicky leave a suicide note? ‘I can't take no more of this shit life is handing me, so I'm gonna throw myself through the fuckin window?’ You did it to the man in Haiwa-ya and you think, year, that's it, that's how to do it. Man, it's the dumbest idea I ever heard of.”

(Elmore Leonard,
BE COOL, Dell, 1999, p. 233)

The startling similarity of this quote to my father's story is very likely not entirely coincidental. I met Elmore Leonard in 1996 at a book signing at a bookshop called Killer Books in Washington, together with his friend James Grady who wrote "6 Days of the Condor" (changed to "3 Days of the Condor" for the movie). Grady was very familiar with the Olson story—he had interviewed my sister in 1975 for a Jack Anderson column. I don’t know whether Leonard had known the story before or not, but he followed the exchange between me and Grady with considerable interest.

The remarkable example of Evan Thomas’ failure to see what he himself placed in front of his own eyes on page 212 of The Very Best Men is not the only case where an author has blinked when faced with the Frank Olson story. In some ways an even more startling example is to be found in Ed Regis' history of Fort Detrick, The Biology of Doom. Regis scatters the Olson story through a number of chapters of his book, which enables him to make it almost a leit motif of his narrative while divesting him of the responsibility to confront the story head on. On page 157 (hardback edition) Regis describes the Tuesday morning when, for the second time after the Deep Creek drugging, Olson arrived at work:

Ruwet now decided that this was far more serious than he’d realized at first. Outside intervention was clearly advisable, not only for Frank Olson’s sake, but for the sake of Camp Detrick and the biological warfare program, and in particular for the overall security of the SO Division. Everyone’s worst nightmare had always been of someone’s flipping out and running amok, and spilling all the family secrets. (p 157-168)

So there it is: the elephant in the room finally named, even if its features remain entirely unexplored. What sorts of contingency plans did Detrick (or any other Cold War facility) have for a situation where a key scientist threatens to pose a security risk? And what if that scientist has been drugged — destabilized — by his own colleagues?

This is the only example of which I am aware where the obvious problem of security in the wake of some kind of psychological breakdown is stated clearly. This was obviously a huge problem in many areas of Cold War research and industry, one which in many cases would have posed horrendous dilemmas for a democracy which did not have the equivalent of a Gulag prison system in which to dispose of people. I know of no work in which any any historian has explored this issue. This makes Regis' next narrative move all the more interesting.

This is how Regis tells the story of Olson’s death in New York three days later:

Just in case Olson should try to leave the room and wander about the neighborhood as he’d done two nights earlier, Lashbrook took the bed next to the door.

Now, around midnight, they went to bed.

Only ten days previously, Frank Rudolph Olson, Ph.D., had been a branch chief in the Special Operations Division, a trusted employee of the U.S. Government’s secret germ warfare installation at Camp Detrick. Now he was hearing voices, having delusions, and on his way to the crazy house.

He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stay asleep.

At about 3 A.M., with Lashbrook asleep, Frank Olson crashed through the closed window of room 1018A and disappeared below the ledge. (p. 161)

“Disappeared below the ledge”…! The drugged guinea pig — out of control and “on his way to the crazy house” — now disappears below the ledge!

How should we read the word “disappeared”? Should the verb “disappeared” be taken to mean “jumped”? Or should we perhaps take the word “disappeared” in the meaning it has acquired in Latin America, where it is used as a past participle: i.e., the dissidents “were disappeared”?

Regis makes no mention of the fact that this extremely unlikely story derives only from the CIA’s uncorroborated version of events. (See my notes on the interview with Dr. Robert Gibson for one example on a contradictory story, and the new Afterword to Jonathan Moreno’s Undue Risk for a more general discussion.)

Most alarming of all, Regis does not mention that this “disappearance below the ledge“ was, at the very least, extremely convenient for Olson’s caretakers, charged as they were with the security of a high level scientist doing top secret work and now (according to the standard version of the story) completely out of control. What, in fact, would these “caretakers” have done if this scientist — privy to a whole network of secrets involving everything from terminal experiments on human subjects, assassination materials research, mind control experiments, the use of biological weapons in Korea — what would they have done, what could they have done, if Olson had not “disappeared below the ledge” on the very day when he was scheduled to be placed in an open psychiatric hospital with no provision for maintaining security, and with open access to family and friends?

But of course one does not ask questions that lead in the direction of issues that one does not wish to face. In the Agency’s terminology, the ideal tactic is to intercept a question before it has a chance to be stated, thereby “shutting off curiosity” before a direction of thought can be formulated, articulated, and acquire momentum.

This strategy has been remarkably effective. The whole issue of what one might call “Cold War homicides” or “national security murders” has (so far as I am aware) never been raised as a ‘problem of democracy,’ (as my high school civics teacher might has put it). (For an article that raises this issue empirically, though not philosophically, go to site index for link to “Mid-century deaths all linked to CIA? New evidence in Olson case suggests similarities with other incidents” by H.P. Albarelli Jr. and John Kelly.) The most candid discussion I have seen of this general problem with reference to the values of a democracy (though murder of a fellow citizen is not mentioned) occurs between two CIA officers in William Buckley’s novel Spytime:

Esterhazy was solemn in his reflection. “Lincoln asked himself a related question, I remember. Along the lines of, Does it further the aims of the Constitution to abide by it when doing so endangers, well, endangers the whole thing--”

“Here are his words exactly. You can understand why I have committed them to memory. Lincoln said, ‘Is there, in all republics, this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?’... Well, Hugo, there's a good case to be made for declining even to talk about quandaries like that. It's best left that although the truth may make you free, something less than the whole truth, in some situations, is necessary in order to keep the fire lit.”

(William F. Buckley, Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton (New York: Harcourt, 2000)

Perhaps the most disturbing example of what we might call the phenomenon of ‘the spatially proximate but discursively unconnected’ in the treatment of the death of Frank Olson occurs in Christopher Simpson’s impressive book, Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War. It is often more instructive to notice where the story of Frank Olson’s death is told than exactly what is said (the story is usually virtually identical); one frequently has the impression that in choosing the narrative context in which to insert this story an author is implicitly making connections that he has not yet explicitly formulated. To put this differently, an author may know more than he realizes he knows, or, in some cases, more than he wants to know, and, as in a collage, he may convey this knowledge implicitly in choices concerning spatial positioning.

Chapter Eleven of Simpson’s book, “Guerrillas for World War III,” deals with the recruitment of former Nazis to carry out American-ordered assassinations in Europe in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. On pages 149-150 of the paperback edition Simpson writes as follows:

Former Nazi collaborators made excellent executioners in such instances, because of both their wartime training and the fact that the U.S. government could plausibly deny any knowledge of their activities. Suspected double agents were the most common targets for execution. “In the international clandestine operations business, it was part of the code that the one and only remedy for the unfrocked double agent was to kill him” (emphasis added [by Simpson]), the CIA’s director of operations planning during the Truman administration testified before Congress in 1976, “and all double agents knew that. That was part of the occupational hazard of the job.” The former director, whom the government declines to identify, also claimed, however, that he didn’t recall any executions of double agents actually occurring during his tenure there. It is understandable that he might fail to remember any executions; for admitting a role in such killings could well lead to arrest and prosecution for conspiracy to commit murder in Europe, if not in the United States itself.*

The asterisk at the end of this paragraph directs us to a footnote at the bottom of the page — and here it comes: the Frank Olson story as a footnote to assassinations in Europe!

*Unfrocked double agents were also tortured — there is no other word for it — in so-called terminal medical experiments sponsored by the army, navy, and the CIA. These tests fed massive quantities of convulsant and psychedelic drugs to foreign prisoners in an attempt to make them talk, according to CIA records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by author John Marks. The CIA also explored use of psychosurgery and repeated electric shocks directly into the brain.

Then CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of all records of these “experiments” in the midst of Watergate and congressional investigations that threatened to bring to light the agency’s practices in this field. A cache of papers that he accidentally missed was found some years later, however, and the agency has since been forced to make public sanitized versions of some of those records. It is now known that similar agency tests with LSD led to the suicide of an army employee, Frank Olson, and are alleged to have permanently damaged a group of unsuspecting psychiatric patients at a Canadian clinic whose director was working under CIA contract. The agency unit that administered this program was the same Directorate of Scientific Research that developed the exotic poisons used in attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba.

So close, and yet so far. How differently the above account reads if one keeps in mind the following facts: (1) Frank Olson was not an army employee; according to the CIA’s own file (the one that Helms “accidentally missed” and therefore did not destroy, and also according to William Colby’s autobiography) Olson was not an army employee; he was, in fact, a “CIA employee;” (2) the Special Operations Division for which Olson worked was closely allied with the CIA, and with the CIA’s efforts to develop methods for “special interrogation;” (3) the CIA officer in charge of the “experiment” in which Olson was drugged (Sidney Gottlieb) was the same man who developed the “exotic poisons” for use in the attempted assassinations of Castro and Lumumba; (4) Gottlieb has testified that the poison for use in the attempted assassination of Lumumba came from the laboratory (Detrick) in which Frank Olson worked; (5) Frank Olson had made a trip to Europe and specifically to Germany on Special Operations business in the summer of 1953 before he was killed in November of that year.

I find it remarkable that the notion of a file being “accidentally missed” finds its way into this account, especially when one considers how many things about the death of Frank Olson the CIA has claimed were “accidents.” To wit: in 1953 the Olson family was told that the death of Frank Olson was an “accident;” when other materials were being shredded in 1973 the file on Frank Olson was “accidentally” not destroyed; when the Rockefeller Commission investigators were gathering materials at the CIA an Agency secretary “accidentally” gave them the Olson file, which was not supposed to be released (this explanation provided to the Olson family by Seymour Hersh); when the Rockefeller Commission came into possession of the Olson file in 1975 they “accidentally” forgot to notify the Olson family that the story of the death of their husband-father, kept secret for twenty-two years, was about to come to light; the CIA also “accidentally” failed to notify the Olson family when they came to know that the Olson story was about to be anonymously disseminated both in the Rockefeller Commission’s report and in the press; the story of Frank Olson’s death as it was described in the notoriously missing file which was “accidentally” not destroyed was that Olson had been “accidentally” kept on a high floor of a hotel during his stay in New York for psychiatric consultation because of an “accidental” failure of judgment in which the severity of his disturbance was underestimated; Sidney Gottlieb told the Olson family in 1984 that he had had no idea that LSD could cause the sort of effects it caused in Olson’s case, and that in that sense the drugging of Olson was a mistake and an “accident.”

What remains striking in Simpson’s account is the placement of the Olson “suicide” story in such close spatial proximity to the accounts of terminal experiments and assassinations in Europe. In this context the memo provided by Gordon Thomas takes on special significance.

The Agency has deflected the question of national security homicides in a double maneuver. On the one hand the CIA has admitted to unsuccessful (and ill-advised) attempts at assassinating foreign leaders, while, on the other hand, the notion of domestic involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been effectively marginalized as “conspiracy theory” (i.e., lunacy). The result is that the issue of the vast territory that falls between the poles of these extreme cases, what we might call ‘plain old everyday national security terminations,’ has been effectively omitted from the discourse of Cold War history (except of course in Stalin’s Russia where “the end justified the means.”) From the perspective of analyses like that of Michel Foucault one might ask not only about the occasional necessity for such acts, but also about the role such terminations would have played in “disciplining” a democratic population for fighting a Cold War in which covert operations and plausible deniability were the key weapons.

The Evan Thomas-Ed Regis examples are valuable, though, not only from the perspective of questions they raise for political theory but also for the quite complex psychological issues they embody. How do the mechanisms of perception enable the mind to posit a connection and yet avoid seeing it? In order not to see what one does not wish to see how does the mind first recognize a dangerous object precisely in order to intercept and block it? And what is the remedy? How is the mechanism of perception refreshed; how are the mechanisms of internal censorship and repression modified so that inconvenient objects can be perceived and held in mind, awkward questions can be raised?

A few thoughts on the many questions this raises:

The idea of placing one thing near another and then asserting (explicitly or implicitly) that “the one has nothing to do with the other” of course suggests Freud’s comments about negation, where, due to the fact that the unconscious cannot represent a negative relationship, denial always implies affirmation. Even if true, however, this approach conveys little about how the mechanism might actually work, and particularly how it works not only in verbal exchange but in the more primary register of perception.

The most useful line of thought on this problem comes, I think, from philosopher Susanne Langer who in her multivolume study Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling emphasizes that perception is a complex act which consists of many components or phases, not all of which are synchronized and integrated with each other. The early phases of the perceptual act often serve to register the emotional value of the stimulus precisely in order to steer subsequent perceptual phases away from the stimulus or from some aspects of it.

In her explanation of this phenomenon Langer emphasizes the idea that the early phases serve to adumbrate value. She writes:

[…in acts of recognition, motivation and feeling] value may be adumbrated before the perception of forms is complete.

(Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Vol. 1, 1967)

The phenomenon that Langer is seeking to account for here is the seemingly paradoxical fact that one can’t avoid something unless one first recognizes it: one can’t resist seeing something unless one has first seen it. This phenomenon is a familiar one in psychoanalytic experience. As one psychoanalyst (Roy Schafer) put it, the mystery of how the repressed makes its appearance in the psychoanalytic dialogue is that patient “refers to what he is passing over as he passes over it.” The reciprocal task of the psychoanalyst, therefore, becomes that of hearing the alienated voice of the other within the rhythms of the patient’s multivocal speech. This textual nature of this task is one reason why literary theory and psychoanalysis have had such a rich cross-fertilization in recent decades.

But what about the social manifestation of this mechanism in the form of learning to ignore that which (perhaps despite its strangeness) has been made to appear normal or usual? Habituation to that which was in fact quite bizarre was the common experience in my own family, where my father’s death acquired a pseudo-familiarity that served to remove it from the reach of curiosity and thought.

The phenomenon of the dulling of perception through habituation has received a great deal of attention in literary theory, particularly from the Russian formalists who thought that the artist’s challenge was then to regrasp the strangeness of the familiar: the process that has been called “making strange”:

“People living at the seashore,” wrote Shlovskij, “grow so accustomed to the murmur of waves that they never hear it. By the same token, we scarcely ever hear the words which we utter.… We look at each other, but we do not see each other any more. Our perception of the world has withered away, what has remained is mere recognition.”…

The poetic image makes strange the habitual and… its linguistic devices, to use the favorite Formalist expression, are “laid bare.”

(Victor Erlich,
Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine, 1981)


Brecht’s epic theater … is a theater that is in certain ways conscious of itself as signifying practice, and that draws attention to its own means of production, its own processes of representation. This quality of self-reflexivity largely derives from the devices of distanciation or alienation… [The] means of representation are foregrounded.… This foregrounding of devices, however, is not so much designed to produce a sense of aesthetic “play”… [as] to offer the audience a place from which it can develop its own criticism of and judgment upon the actions represented.…
…“the individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed.”…

This process of “noticing the knots” or of foregrounding the means of representation has been a familiar one in modernist theory and practice since the time of the cubists.

(Sylvia Harvey,
Quoting B. Brecht, in “Whose Brecht? Memories of the Eighties,” Screen, 1982)

This long trajectory through the notions of "shutting off curiosity,” motivated perceptual blindness, habituation, and “making strange” brings us, finally, to collage, and to the remarkable observations of German art theorist Franz Mon on the social relevance of this medium:

Collage offers an opportunity for accelerated insight into what happens to us in our reality. In the multiplicity of collage working techniques — ranging from tearing, to burning, cutting, crumpling, ripping, rubbing — one finds analogues to society’s socializing processes and events. In the renderings of collage is disclosed that which social ideology tends to pass over.

Using the material of a given reality collage brings forth, through transposition, ‘another’ reality, which reveals the inner essence of that which has become dulled through habituation. By relieving reality of its rules of the game, collage presents designs for experimentation — patterns which are new, unused, and possibly valid only for the moment.

(Franz Mon
Prinzip Collage, 1968)

Books referred to in this note:

Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA.
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995; paperback 1996).

Elmore Leonard, BE COOL.
(New York: Dell, 1999).

Ed Regis, The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project
(New York: Henry Holt, 1999; paperback 2000).

William Buckley, Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton.
(New York: Harcourt, 2000; paperback, 2001).

Susanne Langer. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (3 Vols.) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967-82).

Christopher Simpson, Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War (New York: Widenfeld& Nicolson, 1988).