MKULTRA: Psychedelic Mind Control and Its Legacy
Citation: Lux. "MKULTRA: Psychedelic Mind Control and Its Legacy". Erowid Extracts. Jun 2007;12:4-7.
It's a sunny afternoon in a beautiful residential neighborhood on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, just below Coit Tower. Succulent gardens frame a stunning view of Alcatraz and the bay. It was in an apartment building on this street that the CIA dosed unsuspecting civilians on LSD over the course of a decade.
As I walk beside the high-end condos crowding the block, I try to imagine what it must have been like. I picture myself stumbling through the streets, all the rich reds and blues of the flowering trees kaleidoscoping around me in fractured patterns. Blood pounding in panic, I wouldn't know what was happening—only that I was apparently losing my mind.
The more I learn about the use of psychoactive drugs by the U.S. Intelligence Community and military, the more I feel driven to try to make sense of it on a human level. Two themes consistently emerging in my research are: 1) uncertainty combined with urgency often distorts human conduct, and 2) genuine accountability is vital to constrain the darker impulses of exercising power.
The Cold War ContextThe CIA's interest in mind control began in the final days of World War II. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the fear of mutually-assured destruction prohibited military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Future struggles would instead rely heavily on covert operations, intelligence gathering, and propaganda.
In 1945 a U.S. intelligence officer warned that:
[W]e must expect a very marked increase in the importance of "peaceful" methods [in combating the Soviet Union]. Our enemies will be even freer than [ever] to propagandize, subvert, sabotage, and exert pressures upon us, and we ourselves shall be more willing to bear these affronts and ourselves to indulge in such methods—in our eagerness to avoid at all costs the tragedy of open war.1Frances Saunders, author of The Cultural Cold War, comments that this "offers a definition of the Cold War as a psychological contest, of the manufacturing of consent by 'peaceful' methods, and of the use of propaganda to erode positions."1 Just two years later, in 1947, the CIA was created, and the U.S. infrastructure for prosecuting this new conflict was established.
According to most accounts, the CIA's interest in mind control began with the Hungarian show trial of Cardinal Josef Mindszenty. One of the highest-ranking members of the Catholic clergy in Europe, Mindszenty was arrested by Hungarian police and tried for treason in 1949. Before stunned global television audiences, he confessed to crimes he had not committed, while staring off into space and showing other signs of aberrant behavior. The CIA feared that he had been brainwashed.
"All warfare is based on deception."
-- Sun Tzu
Pseudo-RealitiesA CIA behavior control psychologist once said, "The problem of every intelligence operation is how do you remove the human element?"3 This statement embodies the mentality driving the CIA's interest in mind control techniques: the desire to eliminate complex human variables in order to achieve certainty and control. But how can someone control another's mind?
When MKULTRA operative Morse Allen studied hypnosis, he found that he could not persuade people to do things against their will. Subjects in a trance would refuse to shoot their friends. However, Allen found that he could circumvent resistance by convincing people that the friend was actually a deadly enemy. He had to change their perception of reality—create what he called a "pseudo-reality"—and then let them act naturally. If he could create the right reality, he could manipulate people into doing almost anything.2
Controlling perception facilitates control of actions, and the CIA developed projects designed to control perception on many scales. Projects ranged from dosing individuals with LSD to influencing entire societies through planting false news stories or covertly shaping art and culture.1 The perception-altering properties of LSD and other psychoactive drugs fit well with the CIA's agenda.
The CIA focused on three potential applications for psychoactive drugs: "truth serums" that could be used during interrogation, drugs that could induce amnesia, and brainwashing techniques that could create what is often described as a "Manchurian Candidate" (after the popular 1959 novel). In fiction, a "Manchurian Candidate" is someone who has been brainwashed to carry out covert actions such as assassinations or sabotage against their will, without having the awareness that anything is amiss.
In pursuit of these goals, MKULTRA scientists investigated dozens of psychoactive agents, including psilocybin, bufotenin, scopolamine, DMT, amphetamines, barbiturates, cannabis, and cocaine. They particularly focused on LSD, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars through covert channels into LSD studies at clinics and hospitals. Much of the basic research into LSD's pharmacology conducted in the 1950s was funded by either the military or the CIA. By 1952 Boston Psychopathic Hospital alone was receiving $40,000 a year for such studies, overseen by LSD researcher Dr. Robert Hyde.
A Saucerful of SecretsMKULTRA operatives routinely violated ethical and legal guidelines. For at least a decade, the CIA gave many U.S. citizens LSD without their knowledge, with the most infamous case involving Army officer Frank Olson. After being dosed with LSD on the orders of MKULTRA director Sidney Gottlieb at a joint CIA/Army retreat in 1953, Olson plunged into a deep depression and, according to the official story, committed suicide. Yet in 1994 a forensic pathologist examined Olson's body and found compelling evidence that Olson was murdered.4
Dr. Harris Isbell, director of the Addiction Research Center at the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, was paid by MKULTRA to perform basic research on psychoactive drugs, including several psychedelics. He drew test subjects from his captive patient population of opiate addicts, offering them heroin in exchange for "volunteering" for his experiments. Subjects were administered LSD, DMT, mescaline, methamphetamine, psilocybin and other drugs, sometimes in very large doses.5 In one experiment, Isbell administered LSD to seven men for 77 consecutive days.
Dr. Ewen Cameron of McGill University in Montreal developed experimental techniques to rebuild personalities in his clinic. Cameron became interested in altering the structure of personality as a possible treatment for psychological disorders such as schizophrenia. He believed that he could cure mental illness by replacing schizophrenic personalities with newly created ones. The CIA had no interest in treating schizophrenia, but it was very interested in the possibility of rebuilding personality; MKULTRA began covertly funding Cameron's experiments in 1957.
Cameron's "depatterning" process consisted of two stages. In the first stage, amnesia was induced through an extreme form of "sleep therapy", where subjects were heavily sedated and given daily electroshock treatments over a period of several weeks. Cameron would next attempt to construct a new personality through "psychic driving" during which subjects were forced to listen to repeating tape loops, designed to restructure their psyches, for as long as sixteen hours a day for another several weeks. They were sometimes restrained in beds, and frequently given doses of LSD.
At least 86 universities or institutions were involved in MKULTRA projects in varying capacities.
MKULTRA covertly funded the Society for the Investigation for Human Ecology, a think tank that issued grants to leading figures like Carl Rogers, Margaret Mead, and Jean Piaget in exchange for their opinions on key subjects.7 CIA official David Rhodes recalls, "If we picked up a Newsweek one morning and discovered so-and-so was doing something exciting in such-and-such field, I would get on the phone ... and say 'I'm a rep of the Human Ecology Fund, and I'm excited about what you're doing. Can I come by and have lunch with you?'—which at the time was a lot easier than saying 'I'm from the CIA...'"2
R. Gordon Wasson's trip to participate in a second mushroom velada (ceremony) with María Sabina was underwritten by MKULTRA. Wasson was contacted "out of the blue" by James Moore, who had heard of Wasson's discovery of psychoactive mushrooms and asked to accompany him on his next expedition. Wasson accepted without knowing that Moore was a CIA agent, who would collect mushroom specimens for government analysis.
While not part of MKULTRA, related psychedelic research was funded by the U.S. Army in its investigation of chemical weapons. George Aghajanian, a respected professor of Psychiatry at Yale, worked with LSD in the 1960s at the Edgewood Arsenal, where the Army looked into the use of LSD as an incapacitating agent. Aghajanian was involved with research investigating aerosolized administration of LSD, a technique previously explored by MUKLTRA.8 Current LSD research still prominently cites his work. Psychiatrist Sidney Cohen, author of important early papers on LSD's effects, also worked at Edgewood.9
It is difficult to find researchers of psychedelics in the 1950s and 1960s who were not funded by or involved with Cold War agendas in some capacity, either wittingly or unwittingly. This leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: the history of psychedelic drugs in the United States in the twentieth century is saturated with influence from the intelligence community and military.
Mixed ResultsOf the CIA's three primary objectives for working with psychoactive drugs, the Agency was only successful in finding techniques to induce amnesia through the combination of barbiturates and electroshock therapy. Attempts to develop truth serums and selective brainwashing techniques were largely unsuccessful.
"The best safeguard against abuses in the future is a complete public accounting of the abuses of the past."
-- Senator Edward Kennedy
The CIA investigated dozens of drugs searching for a truth serum, but they were mostly unsuccessful. Their primary candidates, sodium pentothal, LSD, and THC, all worked in roughly the same way—subjects became bewildered and forgot who they were talking to and what they were saying. This technique was successful in getting subjects to lower their guard, but it introduced new problems.
Interrogators found that subjects, having lost the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, would sometimes confess to things that they clearly had not done. Two truth drug psychiatrists wrote, "In some respects the demands on [the psychiatrist's] skill will be increased by the baffling mixture of truth and fantasy in drug-induced output."2
Despite early fears of communist brainwashing, several studies concluded that the use of psychoactive drugs behind the Iron Curtain was negligible. In one prominent 1953 MKULTRA study, psychiatrists Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff concluded that China and the Soviet Union relied on brutality and re-education to change behavior. A 1956 CIA report found that the most reliable technique for converting subjects to new ideologies was a combination of sleep deprivation, repeated interrogation, and isolation. "The prisoner invariably feels that something must be done to find a way out. [...] Ultimately, he finds himself faced with the choice of continuing interminably under the intolerable pressures of his captors or accepting the way out which the interrogator offers."10 While brute force achieved impressive results, the surgical precision sought by the Agency was not available through this method.
Aftermath and LegacyMKULTRA was discontinued in 1964, and many of its sub-projects—including the San Francisco LSD project—were incorporated into its successor MKSEARCH. Sidney Gottlieb remained in charge. When CIA Director Richard Helms left office in 1972, he and Gottlieb ordered all records of the operation destroyed.
MKULTRA came to light in 1974 following a New York Times article written by Seymour Hersh. The article revealed that the CIA had conducted clandestine operations inside the U.S. in violation of its mandate, including the commission of crimes such as opening citizens' mail. Still in the throes of Watergate, the nation was outraged, and the Senate responded by investigating abuses of power by the U.S. Intelligence Community. Committees led by Edward Kennedy6 and Frank Church11 issued extensive reports documenting MKULTRA and other illegal operations such as the notorious FBI program COINTELPRO. Frank Olson's death (described at the time as a suicide) became public knowledge, prompting President Gerald Ford to apologize to the Olson family.
Coming to terms with MKULTRA helps illuminate the shadow of psychedelic history, and serves as a valuable reminder that where some people see tools of liberation and insight, others see weapons.
In response to public outcry, Presidents Ford and Reagan signed executive orders (11905 and 12333) forbidding tests on humans by the intelligence community without informed consent. However, MKULTRA already violated existing policies and laws, which raises troubling questions. Does covert testing on humans continue today? There is certainly no indication that the CIA experienced a change of heart. In 1954 the Agency found Gottlieb responsible for violations of Agency policy and law that led to the death of Frank Olson, yet Gottlieb remained in charge of MKULTRA and MKSEARCH until 1972. The CIA's sole response to Olson's death was an internal memo noting that Gottlieb had shown "poor judgment". In 1977 Gottlieb was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for providing testimony at the Senate hearings. No employee of the CIA was ever terminated for dosing subjects with LSD without their knowledge,6 and despite the strident tones of the Senate hearings, no criminal charges have ever been filed related to MKULTRA.
There is considerable evidence that the U.S. intelligence community continues to tolerate or even encourage a similar culture of human rights violations in its execution of the "War on Terror".12 Former CIA Director George Tenet has publicly defended "enhanced interrogation techniques" (e.g. waterboarding, stress positions) in the wake of 9/11. Former CIA and FBI Director William Webster advocated the use of truth drugs on captives held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002.13
The lawyer for Jose Padilla, the detained American accused of planning to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb", has repeatedly insisted that Padilla was given "LSD or some other truth drug" during interrogation.14 There is no clear way to confirm or deny this claim.
Ultimately, MKULTRA was a small and not-terribly-successful project at the CIA's massive Directorate of Science and Technology. While Gottlieb and Morse were experimenting with LSD and hypnosis, agents down the hall were designing the world's first spy satellites and managing a fleet of U-2 spy planes.15 But despite its small scope, MKULTRA is central to the history of psychedelics because the project touched so many key figures involved with the early psychedelic movement. Coming to terms with MKULTRA helps illuminate the shadow of psychedelic history, and serves as a valuable reminder that where some people see tools of liberation and insight, others see weapons.