Forty years later, the story still seems hard to credit: In the summer of 1977, Capitol Hill was gripped by revelations of the CIA’s top-secret MK-Ultra mind control research program, targeting unsuspecting American citizens, in some cases by luring them to brothels to be fed LSD-laced cocktails.
The blockbuster hearings that summer, chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and aided by a timely dump of intelligence documents, touched some of the country’s rawest nerves: the assassination of Kennedy’s brothers, the possibility of mind-controlled “Manchurian candidates” and the increasing prominence of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs across Western culture.
Although the CIA program officially ran from 1953 to 1964, its dark and fertile legacy stretches to today, living on in modern conspiracy theories about U.S. intelligence agencies’ ability and willingness to manipulate society through surveillance, disinformation, celebrity culture and strategic news leaks.
Security advocates argue that domestic intelligence-gathering is vital for the sake of homeland security. Critics counter that revelations that the CIA and the National Security Agency can hack into phones, computers and even televisions connected to the internet show their powers are still too great and threaten essential personal liberties and constitutional protections.
The 1977 MK-Ultra hearings first tilled similar suspicions and were considered a critical pivot in official and popular attitudes toward the nation’s intelligence community. Triggered in part by the shock of the Watergate scandal, they also revealed the U.S. government’s covert assassination programs and surveillance of American citizens brought to light by the Church Committee’s 1975 investigations of the FBI, CIA and NSA.
The August 1977 MK-Ultra hearings specifically explored what seemed like an outlandish idea straight out of science fiction: the possibility of government mind control.
Kennedy, whose reputation had been severely tainted by the Chappaquiddick scandal, also had a complex relationship with the CIA, given what the agency knew about the assassinations of his brothers Robert and John in the 1960s. To begin the inquiry, Kennedy told Stansfield Turner, President Carter’s pick to head the CIA in the wake of the Church Committee revelations, that he “hoped the hearings would close the book on this chapter of the CIA’s life.”
Cold war, high stakes
As America’s Cold War anti-communism sentiment reached its zenith, CIA Director Allen Dulles created MK-Ultra in 1953 to succeed interrogation-related projects code-named Artichoke and Bluebird.
The stakes were incredibly high, given the Cold War hostility and global competition with Russia, the world’s other major nuclear power.
American prisoners from the Korean War were returning home with horrific tales of brainwashing techniques used by their Soviet, Chinese and North Korean captors — techniques perfected in Stalin’s notorious gulag of prisons for political dissidents. Moscow had also recently ended Washington’s monopoly on nuclear weapons, and CIA counterintelligence head James Jesus Angleton was increasingly convinced that a mole had penetrated the highest level of the agency.
To counterpunch, the CIA launched research into mind control methods that came to be known as MK-Ultra.
First aimed at manipulating prisoners with the ultimate goal of influencing foreign leaders, MK-Ultra quickly ballooned into an umbrella project for approximately 150 subprojects. Researchers studied perception, behavioral analysis, religious cults, personality conditioning, microwaves, sensory deprivation and — most notoriously — hallucinogenic drugs.
Initial experiments employed volunteers. But because of MK-Ultra’s rapid growth, coupled with its clandestine nature, researchers increasingly turned to unsuspecting foreign nationals and Americans to test their theories and data.
Documents later declassified showed that covert CIA grants also funded research at some of the country’s leading universities and institutes. Many professors said they were stunned when they learned that they had been conducting mind control experiments to battle the Soviet threat.
During one exchange with Kennedy in the 1977 hearings, the CIA’s Mr. Turner said the shroud of “extreme secrecy” was needed to keep MK-Ultra operationally viable, but he acknowledged that it stemmed from fears that the public would be outraged if the program was ever exposed.
LSD and brothels
One MK-Ultra project involved CIA-run brothels in San Francisco and New York City, established specifically to study LSD’s effects on unsuspecting adults. The theory was that LSD might have use as a truth serum to force enemy agents to talk.
According to declassified documents and Senate testimony, Project Midnight Climax ran in San Francisco from 1955 to 1965 on Telegraph Hill, a short walk from North Beach’s rowdiest bars. There, CIA-employed prostitutes served acid-laced cocktails to men they lured.
The L-shaped building boasted erotic wall art by French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, sweeping waterfront views and recording devices disguised as electrical outlets. Bedrooms also featured two-way mirrors to allow observers, supervised by a Bureau of Narcotics agent who doubled as a CIA operative, to watch.
Regardless of the experiments’ legality, CIA analysts initially greeted the work enthusiastically. Operatives reported that it helped refine sexual blackmail tactics, surveillance technology, LSD’s use in interrogations and how to better use empathy as an investigation tactic.
But Project Midnight Climax soon grew beyond the control of its handlers, with brothel operatives later admitting that they had dosed unsuspecting subjects at nearby restaurants, bars and beaches. In one case, a U.S. marshal held up a San Francisco bar with his service revolver after an MK-Ultra agent slipped LSD into his bourbon and soda.
Other experiments had even more tragic results.
During a mid-1950s retreat in rural Maryland, CIA operative and biological warfare specialist Frank Olson had his Cointreau laced with LSD by his supervisor. Nine days later, Olson plunged to his death from the window of a New York City hotel room.
By 1963, CIA Inspector General John Earman recommended closing down the program. Concurrently, CIA activity was shifting focus to Vietnam.
By the time the agency stopped the work in 1965, thousands had unwittingly tripped on LSD.
The politics of exposure
As the 1960s came to an end, Washington lawmakers declared LSD illegal and the CIA quietly shut down the covert MK-Ultra program.
In the early 1970s, CIA Director Richard Helms, who ran the agency from 1966 to 1973, along with one of MK-Ultra’s architects, Sidney Gottlieb, ordered all the relevant paperwork destroyed.
Across Washington, as Watergate revelations shook the country, paranoia shifted from Moscow to the U.S. government.
When James R. Schlesinger succeeded Helms as CIA director, he ordered agency employees to shed light on past illegal activities.
Details of Project Midnight Climax, in addition to questions about Olson’s fatal plunge in New York, had begun circulating. In 1974, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh connected the dots in a major article that exposed MK-Ultra.
When President Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford took over the White House and two of his lead staffers, Donald H. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, wanted to prosecute Mr. Hersh for revealing government secrets. Instead, Ford appointed a committee to investigate America’s intelligence community, which led to the Church Commission and to Kennedy’s MK-Ultra hearings.
Gottlieb, MK-Ultra’s primary architect, declined to testify until the committee subpoenaed him. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, he said CIA agents experimented with LSD on themselves “extensively” before giving it to the public.
Concluding the hearings, Kennedy said, “There are perhaps any number of Americans who are walking around today on the East Coast or West Coast who were given drugs, with all the kinds of physical and psychological damage that can be caused.”
CIA historians say MK-Ultra’s legacy ranks among the most double-edged of the country’s major government programs.
Beyond the wide condemnation of secret experiments to drug thousands of unsuspecting American civilians and military personnel, there were fears that the experiments of the 1950s led to LSD’s quick escape from the laboratory environment into the mainstream to fuel much of the 1960s anti-government counterculture.
Those who went through MK-Ultra programs were numerous. They included “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey and Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who partook in LSD trials while serving time at Alcatraz. Decades later, Bulger manipulated the FBI as an informant and was brought to justice after decades on the run.
The program became part of the larger American culture it once tried to shape. Scores of films and TV programs explored MK-Ultra and its offshoots, including “The Manchurian Candidate,” books by Stephen King and Robert Ludlum, whose “Jason Bourne” books became popular films starring Matt Damon. The massively popular video game “Call of Duty” also shows clear and direct influences from MK-Ultra.
But the program’s lasting legacy is its contribution to popular conspiracy theories and cynicism about the government and other mainstream institutions, once again in vogue on both ends of the political spectrum as America’s partisan divides widen.
The conspiracy fears have taken on fresh fuel with the rise of Silicon Valley, and suspicions that the intelligence services have established deep and covert ties with the companies that dominate the internet. It’s a direct line from MK-Ultra to charges of secret spying and behavior control through Google, Facebook and iPhones, controlling the minds of America, especially the youth. Exotic computer algorithms, these theories argue, make the population search not for what they seek, but for what the government wants us to find.
And it’s not hard to find links, if that’s what you’re searching for.
As Apple founder Steve Jobs once observed, “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.”