The Frank Olson Legacy Project
Shutting off curiosity:
is a story
The interesting thing, the amazing thing really about this quote is that it occurs on the very same page (p. 212) wherejust eight lines earlierThomas 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 Bissells recommendations for shutting off curiosity without being reminded of the CIAs assassination manual of late 1953, where the device of the contrived accident is the recommended method for disguising a murder as a suicide:
And of course one cant read these passages without thinking of this exchange from the Elmore Leonard novel, BE COOL:
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 storyhe had interviewed my sister in 1975 for a Jack Anderson column. I dont 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:
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 Olsons death in New York three days later:
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 CIAs 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 Morenos 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 Olsons 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 Agencys 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 Buckleys novel Spytime:
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 Simpsons impressive book, Blowback: Americas Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War. It is often more instructive to notice where the story of Frank Olsons 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 Simpsons book, Guerrillas for World War III, deals with the recruitment of former Nazis to carry out American-ordered assassinations in Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. On pages 149-150 of the paperback edition Simpson writes as follows:
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!
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 CIAs own file (the one that Helms accidentally missed and therefore did not destroy, and also according to William Colbys 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 CIAs 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 Commissions report and in the press; the story of Frank Olsons 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 Olsons case, and that in that sense the drugging of Olson was a mistake and an accident.
What remains striking in Simpsons 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 Stalins 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 Freuds 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:
The phenomenon that Langer is seeking to account for here is the seemingly paradoxical fact that one cant avoid something unless one first recognizes it: one cant 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 patients 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 fathers 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 artists challenge was then to regrasp the strangeness of the familiar: the process that has been called making strange:
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:
Susanne Langer. Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (3 Vols.) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967-82).
Christopher Simpson, Blowback: Americas Recruitment of Nazis and Its Effects on the Cold War (New York: Widenfeld& Nicolson, 1988).