“The problem of every intelligence operation is how do you remove the human element?”—anonymous CIA psychologist, page 53
John Marks’s outstanding book The Search for the Manchurian Candidate documents an important chapter in the history of psychoactive drugs in the twentieth century. Marks explores the CIA’s covert experiments in mind control technology, including their extensive research into LSD and other psychoactive drugs.
For readers unfamiliar with the events described in Marks’s book, its revelations may sound like the stuff of spy novels or conspiracy theory. Sadly, the facts are a matter of public record (see Senate Committee Joint Hearing proceedings at www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/history/e1950/mkultra/index.htm). The CIA formally began investigating mind control in 1950 with Project BLUEBIRD, which evolved into projects ARTICHOKE and MKULTRA. During these operations, CIA operatives routinely committed serious crimes including covertly administering LSD to thousands of unwitting civilians in New York City, San Francisco, and Marin County, California, in an eleven-year operation that began in 1953. MKULTRA is associated with numerous serious human rights violations and is known to be directly involved in at least one death.
Two senate investigations in 1974 and 1975 brought much of this disgraceful material to light, but the full revelation came later. Journalist John Marks filed a Freedom of Information Act suit against the CIA and received seven boxes of documents pertaining to MKULTRA. The destruction of these records had been ordered by CIA head Richard Helms and MKULTRA director Sidney Gottlieb in 1972, but they were spared through a clerical error. Marks reviewed the heavily-redacted material and supplemented his research with extensive interviews of numerous key figures. The results of his investigation are documented in this book.
CIA interest in mind control was based on their desire for three things: 1) a reliable “truth serum” for use in interrogation, 2) techniques for inducing amnesia, and 3) brainwashing techniques to force people to carry out complex instructions against their will. In pursuit of these goals, several avenues of mind control were pursued by the US military and intelligence during the Cold War. These included torture, blackmail, sleep deprivation, extreme heat and cold, electroshock treatment, and drug research.
The CIA considered operational uses for LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, cannabinoids, amphetamines, alcohol, bufotenine, heroin, scopolamine, and barbituates. Perhaps awed by the incredible potency of LSD, with mere millionths of a gram able to produce powerful and long-acting effects, the CIA focused most of their attention on this drug for decades. Research ranged from funding academic research through cover foundations to dosing American citizens. At a time when little attention was being paid to LSD, the CIA sponsored dozens of experiments with it through figures like Robert Hyde, a noteworthy early researcher into LSD’s effects.
The more one looks into the history of the US Intelligence Community’s involvement with psychoactive drug research in the 50s and 60s, the more one sees it everywhere. Millions of dollars flowed through CIA conduits when research funds were scarce. Mere months after Gordon Wasson’s mushroom velada with Maria Sabina, long before he wrote his famous Life Magazine article, the CIA knew of his discovery. Wasson was contacted by a man named James Moore, who offered to underwrite a second expedition to Oaxaca with a grant from the Geschickter Foundation on the condition that he be allowed to accompany the expedition. Unbeknownst to Wasson, the man was a CIA operative, and the Geschickter Foundation was a CIA front. Moore returned the following summer with a bag of psilocybin mushrooms, but CIA analysts were unable to isolate the active agents before Albert Hofmann succeeded in identifying psilocybin in 1959.
CIA personnel working on mind control made it their business to know everyone in psychology and psychiatry. Dr. Harold Wolff ran the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, funded with CIA dollars, as a venue where leading researchers could meet and work. Not everyone knew where the money was coming from, but the CIA directly benefited from the expertise of figures such as B. F. Skinner, Margaret Mead, and Carl Rogers, and applied what they learned toward their mind control experiments. It was part of the milieu of psychology research in the 50s and 60s. The CIA was interested in the human mind and social engineering, and had a lot of money. The use of psychology research by the military and intelligence became so conspicuous that John Lilly resigned from the NIH in 1958, citing ethical concerns.
The most disturbing aspect of MKULTRA was the frequent administration of drugs to civilians without their knowledge or consent. This took many awful forms. For example, Dr. Harry Isbell, Director of the Addiction Research Center, used his semi-captive patient population as a subject pool. These patients had been remanded to his facility for addiction treatment, but Isbell offered them heroin and morphine in exchange for “volunteering” for his research studies – studies funded by the CIA. Subjects were injected with sundry compounds including LSD, psilocybin, and DMT, sometimes in massive doses. In one series of experiments, Isbell gave progressively-higher daily doses of LSD to subjects for 77 consecutive days.
Isbell would later tell the Senate in 1975 that “The ethical codes were not so highly developed [when I worked for the CIA], and there was a great need to know in order to protect the public in assessing the potential uses of narcotics … I personally think we did a very excellent job.” (page 69).
Dr. Ewan Cameron, president of the American Psychiatric Association in 1953, later received CIA funds to perform experiments in “depatterning”. Patients who came to his facility seeking treatment for maladies as mild as depression found themselves subjects of Cameron’s “sleep therapy”, designed to induce lasting amnesia. Patients were heavily sedated for weeks at a time, woken only for a daily regiment of high-voltage shock therapy and to swallow a cocktail of barbiturates. After this process induced lasting amnesia in his patients, they would be “depatterned” through a process called “psychic driving”. In some psychic driving sessions, patients were administered large doses of LSD and bound to their beds while tape-recorded suggestions were played in loops over and over, for as much as 18 hours a day. The CIA closely monitored Cameron’s experiments to see if such techniques could be used to reconstruct a person’s identity for operational use.
Perhaps the most depraved operation in this whole sordid affair was the use of CIA-run brothels in San Francisco, Marin County, and New York to dose unsuspecting clients with LSD. Their responses would then be monitored with experimental surveillance technology set up in the rooms. From 1953 to 1964, US tax dollars funded such brothels in San Francisco and New York, until they were uncovered by an internal audit. The director of this operation, narcotics officer and CIA operative George White, fondly recalls that he “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?” (page 109). Where else, indeed?
MKULTRA director Sidney Gottlieb personally dosed Army officer Frank Olson at a weekend CIA/Army joint retreat. Olson responded by plunging into a deep depression and died a few weeks later in an apparent suicide. For decades, the CIA denied any role in his death, until the surreptitious dosing was revealed during Senate hearings. The Olson family only learned about it when they heard it on the news. They subsequently had Frank Olson’s body exhumed and examined by a forensic pathologist, who uncovered “chilling evidence” that he was stunned by head trauma before being thrown out the window.
The CIA was successful in discovering techniques for inducing amnesia (often involving electric shocks and drugs), but their goals of brainwashing and discovering a truth serum apparently went unrealized. It may be in part that their investigations were unsuccessful because, as MKULTRA critic James Ketchum points out, their operations were unscientific, arbitrary, and cruel. The CIA reluctantly concluded that the mind is not amenable to the kind of control they were after, and several MKULTRA experiments were discontinued in 1964. The remaining projects were transferred to MKULTRA’s successor MKSEARCH, which carried on under new management. Presumably, experiments of this kind continue to this day under still-classified operations.
The story of MKULTRA first came to light in 1974 when investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote an article for the New York Times based on leaked government documents. These documents revealed that the CIA had conducted clandestine operations on US soil in violation of their mandate. In the course of these operations, CIA operatives committed acts of malfeasance including intercepting and opening US mail, another federal crime. This news was received with outrage by a nation still in the throes of Watergate, and the resultant outcry led to Senate investigations exploring other abuses of power by the CIA. (I note with sadness that recent reports of comparable abuses of power by US intelligence operatives have been greeted with silence.)
In 1974 Senator Frank Church led a senate committee investigation into MKULTRA. His investigation is widely regarded as a damage control operation. It was followed by public hearings chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy. Marks argues that if the Church committee was covering, the Kennedy investigation was showboating. Although Kennedy made a show of outrage at the disclosures aired in his hearings, he pursued none of the numerous, obvious perjuries, and in the end very little was done. MKULTRA director Sidney Gottlieb was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying, and no charges have ever been filed.
Marks’s book is outstanding by every metric. It is lucid, readable, fascinating, and well-documented. The story of the abuses of power that occurred during those years is important and needs to be told, and Marks does an excellent job of telling it. His exposition is light and brisk, leading the reader quickly and cogently through events. He shapes the details so effectively that one comes away with a good sense of who these people were and what they did.
Some Erowid readers will be familiar with these events from Lee and Shlain’s Acid Dreams, but Marks’s book is a superior telling of this story. While Lee and Shlain are self-professed muckrakers, Marks is a journalist. His account is much more detailed, balanced, and effective. Ironically, while Lee and Shlain frequently offer moral commentary on the events they describe, Marks’s restrained tone is much more effective in communicating the gravity of the events he describes. It is a serious business, and it is best handled seriously.
It is no coincidence that the gravest abuses that have come to light in the CIA operations occurred when the usual mechanisms of oversight were circumvented. The natural antidotes to crimes of this kind are oversight, transparency, and accountability. This book constitutes one of the best possible antidotes to the abuses it describes—abuses that flourish in the dark.
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