Project MKUltra, also called the CIA mind control program, is the code name given to a program of experiments on human subjects that were designed and undertaken by the United States Central Intelligence Agency—and which were, at times, illegal. Experiments on humans were intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations in order to weaken the individual and force confessions through mind control. The project was organized through the Office of Scientific Intelligence of the CIA and coordinated with the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories.
The operation was officially sanctioned in 1953, was reduced in scope in 1964, further curtailed in 1967, and recorded to be halted in 1973. There remains controversy over whether this operation ever ended, or continues presently. The program engaged in many illegal activities, including the use of U.S. and Canadian citizens as its unwitting test subjects, which led to controversy regarding its legitimacy.(p74) MKUltra used numerous methods to manipulate people’s mental states and alter brain functions, including the surreptitious administration of drugs (especially LSD) and other chemicals, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse (including the sexual abuse of children), and other forms of torture.
The scope of Project MKUltra was broad with research undertaken at 80 institutions, including colleges and universities, hospitals, prisons, and pharmaceutical companies. The CIA operated through these institutions using front organizations, although sometimes top officials at these institutions were aware of the CIA’s involvement.
Project MKUltra was first brought to public attention in 1975 by the Church Committee of the United States Congress and Gerald Ford‘s United States President’s Commission on CIA activities within the United States. Investigative efforts were hampered by the fact that CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files to be destroyed in 1973; the Church Committee and Rockefeller Commission investigations relied on the sworn testimony of direct participants and on the relatively small number of documents that survived Helms’s destruction order. In 1977, a Freedom of Information Act request uncovered a cache of 20,000 documents relating to project MKUltra which led to Senate hearings later that year. Some surviving information regarding MKUltra was declassified in July 2001.
Sidney Gottlieb approved of an MKUltra sub-project on LSD in this June 9, 1953 letter.
The project’s intentionally obscure CIA cryptonym is made up of the digraph MK, meaning that the project was sponsored by the agency’s Technical Services Staff, followed by the word Ultra which had previously been used to designate the most secret classification of World War II intelligence. Other related cryptonyms include Project MKNAOMI and Project MKDELTA.
The project was headed by Sidney Gottlieb but began on the order of CIA director Allen Welsh Dulles on April 13, 1953. Its aim was to develop mind-controlling drugs for use against the Soviet bloc in response to alleged Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean use of mind control techniques on U.S. prisoners of war during the Korean War. The CIA wanted to use similar methods on their own captives, and they were interested in being able to manipulate foreign leaders with such techniques and invented several schemes to drug Fidel Castro. They often conducted experiments without the subjects’ knowledge or consent. In some cases, academic researchers were funded through grants from CIA front organizations but were unaware that the CIA was using their work for these purposes.
The project attempted to produce a perfect truth drug for interrogating suspected Soviet spies during the Cold War, and to explore other possibilities of mind control. Subproject 54 was another MKUltra effort and was the Navy’s top secret “Perfect Concussion” program, which was supposed to use sub-aural frequency blasts to erase memory. However, the program was never carried out.
Most MKUltra records were destroyed in 1973 by order of CIA director Richard Helms, so it has been difficult for investigators to gain a complete understanding of more than 150 funded research sub-projects sponsored by MKUltra and related CIA programs.
The project began during a period of what Rupert Cornwell described as “paranoia” at the CIA, when the U.S. had lost its nuclear monopoly and fear of Communism was at its height. CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton believed that a mole had penetrated the organization at the highest levels. The agency poured millions of dollars into studies examining methods of influencing and controlling the mind and of enhancing their ability to extract information from resistant subjects during interrogation. Some historians assert that one goal of MKUltra and related CIA projects was to create a “Manchurian Candidate” subject through mind control techniques.Alfred McCoy has claimed that the CIA attempted to focus media attention on these sorts of “ridiculous” programs so that the public would not look at the primary goal of the research, which was developing effective methods of interrogation.
One 1955 MKUltra document gives an indication of the size and range of the effort. It refers to the study of an assortment of mind-altering substances described as follows:
- Substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.
- Substances which increase the efficiency of mentation and perception.
- Materials which will cause the victim to age faster/slower in maturity.
- Materials which will promote the intoxicating effect of alcohol.
- Materials which will produce the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so they may be used for malingering, etc.
- Materials which will cause temporary/permanent brain damage and loss of memory.
- Substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture, and coercion during interrogation and so-called “brain-washing”.
- Materials and physical methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use.
- Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use.
- Substances which produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc.
- Substances which will produce a chemical that can cause blisters.
- Substances which alter personality structure in such a way the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced.
- A material which will cause mental confusion of such a type the individual under its influence will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning.
- Substances which will lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts.
- Substances which promote weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably without permanent effects.
- A knockout pill which can be surreptitiously administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol, etc., which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.
- A material which can be surreptitiously administered by the above routes and which in very small amounts will make it impossible for a person to perform physical activity.
The Church Committee report in 1976 found that, in the MKDELTA program, “Drugs were used primarily as an aid to interrogations, but MKULTRA/MKDELTA materials were also used for harassment, discrediting, or disabling purposes.”
In 1964, MKSEARCH was the name given to the continuation of the MKULTRA program. The MKSEARCH program was divided into two projects dubbed MKOFTEN/CHICKWIT. Funding for MKSEARCH commenced in 1965, and ended in 1971. The project was a joint project between The U.S. Army Chemical Corps and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Research and Development to find new offensive-use agents with a focus on incapacitating agents. The purpose of the project was to develop, test, and evaluate capabilities in the covert use of biological, chemical, and radioactive material systems and techniques for producing predictable human behavioral and/or physiological changes in support of highly sensitive operational requirements.
By March 1971 over 26,000 potential agents had been acquired for future screening. The CIA were interested in bird migration patterns for CBW research under MK/ULTRA where, a Subproject 139 designated “Bird Disease Studies” at Penn State.
MKOFTEN was to deal with testing and toxicological, transmissivity and behavioral effects of drugs in animals and, ultimately, humans.
MKCHICKWIT was concerned with acquiring information on new drug developments in Europe and the Orient, and with acquiring samples.
CIA documents suggest that they investigated “chemical, biological, and radiological” methods of mind control as part of MKUltra. They spent an estimated $10 million or more, roughly $87.5 million adjusted for inflation.
Early CIA efforts focused on LSD-25, which later came to dominate many of MKUltra’s programs. The CIA wanted to know if they could make Soviet spies defect against their will and whether the Soviets could do the same to the CIA’s own operatives.
Once Project MKUltra got underway in April 1953, experiments included administering LSD to mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts, and sex workers—”people who could not fight back,” as one agency officer put it. In one case, they administered LSD to a mental patient in Kentucky for 174 days. They also administered LSD to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, and members of the general public to study their reactions. LSD and other drugs were often administered without the subject’s knowledge or informed consent, a violation of the Nuremberg Code the U.S. had agreed to follow after World War II. The aim of this was to find drugs which would bring out deep confessions or wipe a subject’s mind clean and program him or her as “a robot agent.”
In Operation Midnight Climax, the CIA set up several brothels within agency safehouses in San Francisco, California, to obtain a selection of men who would be too embarrassed to talk about the events. The men were dosed with LSD, the brothels were equipped with one-way mirrors, and the sessions were filmed for later viewing and study. In other experiments where people were given LSD without their knowledge, they were interrogated under bright lights with doctors in the background taking notes. They told subjects they would extend their “trips” if they refused to reveal their secrets. The people under this interrogation were CIA employees, U.S. military personnel, and agents suspected of working for the other side in the Cold War. Long-term debilitation and several deaths resulted from this.Heroin addicts were bribed into taking LSD with offers of more heroin.
At the invitation of Stanford psychology graduate student Vik Lovell, an acquaintance of Richard Alpert and Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey volunteered to take part in what turned out to be a CIA-financed study under the aegis of MKULTRA, at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital where he worked as a night aide. The project studied the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, aMT, and DMT on people.
The Office of Security used LSD in interrogations but Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the chemist who directed MKUltra, had other ideas; he thought it could be used in covert operations. Since its effects were temporary, he believed one could give it to high-ranking officials and in this way affect the course of important meetings, speeches etc. Since he realized there was a difference in testing the drug in a laboratory and using it in clandestine operations, he initiated a series of experiments where LSD was given to people in “normal” settings without warning. At first, everyone in Technical Services tried it; a typical experiment involved two people in a room where they observed each other for hours and took notes. As the experimentation progressed, a point arrived where outsiders were drugged with no explanation whatsoever and surprise acid trips became something of an occupational hazard among CIA operatives. Adverse reactions often occurred, such as an operative who received the drug in his morning coffee, became psychotic and ran across Washington, seeing a monster in every car passing him. The experiments continued even after Dr. Frank Olson, an Army scientist who had not taken LSD before, went into deep depression after a surprise trip and later fell from a thirteenth story window.
Some subjects’ participation was consensual, and in these cases they appeared to be singled out for even more extreme experiments. In one case, seven volunteers in Kentucky were given LSD for seventy-seven consecutive days.
MKUltra’s researchers later dismissed LSD as too unpredictable in its results. They gave up on the notion LSD was “the secret that was going to unlock the universe,” but it still had a place in the cloak-and-dagger arsenal. However, by 1962 the CIA and the army developed a series of superhallucinogens such as the highly touted BZ, which was thought to hold greater promise as a mind control weapon. This resulted in the withdrawal of support by many academics and private researchers, and LSD research became less of a priority altogether.
Another technique investigated was the intravenous administration of a barbiturate into one arm and an amphetamine into the other. The barbiturates were released into the person first, and as soon as the person began to fall asleep, the amphetamines were released. The person would begin babbling incoherently, and it was sometimes possible to ask questions and get useful answers.
Other experiments involved heroin, morphine, temazepam (used under code name MKSEARCH), mescaline, psilocybin, scopolamine, cannabis, alcohol, and sodium pentothal.
Declassified MKUltra documents indicate they studied hypnosis in the early 1950s. Experimental goals included: the creation of “hypnotically induced anxieties,” “hypnotically increasing ability to learn and recall complex written matter,” studying hypnosis and polygraphexaminations, “hypnotically increasing ability to observe and recall complex arrangements of physical objects,” and studying “relationship of personality to susceptibility to hypnosis.” They conducted experiments with drug induced hypnosis and with anterograde and retrograde amnesia while under the influence of such drugs.
Donald Ewen Cameron c.1967
They exported experiments to Canada when the CIA recruited British psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, creator of the “psychic driving” concept, which the CIA found interesting. Cameron had been hoping to correct schizophrenia by erasing existing memories and reprogramming the psyche. He commuted from Albany, New York, to Montreal every week to work at the Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University and was paid $69,000 from 1957 to 1964 (which would be $603,580 in today’s currency, adjusting for inflation) to carry MKUltra experiments there, the Montreal experiments. These research funds were sent to Dr. Cameron by a CIA front organization, the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, and as shown in internal CIA documents, Cameron did not know the money came from the CIA. In addition to LSD, Cameron also experimented with various paralytic drugs as well as electroconvulsive therapy at thirty to forty times the normal power. His “driving” experiments consisted of putting subjects into drug-induced comas for weeks at a time (up to three months in one case) while playing tape loops of noise or simple repetitive statements. His experiments were often carried on patients who entered the institute for minor problems such as anxiety disorders and postpartum depression, many of whom suffered permanent effects from his actions. His treatments resulted in victims’ incontinence, amnesia, forgetting how to talk, forgetting their parents, and thinking their interrogators were their parents. Several of the children who Cameron experimented on were sexually abused, in at least one case by several men. One of the children claimed that she was filmed numerous times performing sexual acts with high-ranking federal government officials, in a scheme she said was set up by Cameron and other MKULTRA researchers, to blackmail the officials to ensure further funding for the experiments.
His work was inspired and paralleled by the British psychiatrist William Sargant at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, and Belmont Hospital, Surrey, who was also involved in the Intelligence Services and who experimented on his patients without their consent, causing similar long-term damage. In the 1980s, several of Cameron’s former patients sued the CIA for damages, which the Canadian news program The Fifth Estate documented. Their experiences and lawsuit was made into a 1998 television miniseries called The Sleep Room.
During this era, Cameron became known worldwide as the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association as well as president of the American and Canadian psychiatric associations. Cameron was also a member of the Nuremberg medical tribunal in 1946–47.
Naomi Klein argues in her book The Shock Doctrine Cameron’s research and his contribution to the MKUltra project was not about mind control and brainwashing, but about designing “a scientifically based system for extracting information from ‘resistant sources.’ In other words, torture.” Alfred W. McCoy writes “Stripped of its bizarre excesses, Dr. Cameron’s experiments, building upon Donald O. Hebb‘s earlier breakthrough, laid the scientific foundation for the CIA’s two-stage psychological torture method,” which refers to first creating a state of disorientation in the subject, and then second creating a situation of “self-inflicted” discomfort in which the disoriented subject can alleviate their pain by capitulating.
Frank Church headed the Church Committee, an investigation into the practices of the US intelligence agencies.
In 1973, amid a government-wide panic caused by Watergate, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files destroyed. Pursuant to this order, most CIA documents regarding the project were destroyed, making a full investigation of MKUltra impossible. A cache of some 20,000 documents survived Helms’ purge, as they had been incorrectly stored in a financial records building and were discovered following a FOIA request in 1977. These documents were fully investigated during the Senate Hearings of 1977.
In December 1974, The New York Times alleged that the CIA had conducted illegal domestic activities, including experiments on U.S. citizens, during the 1960s. That report prompted investigations by the U.S. Congress, in the form of the Church Committee, and by a commission known as the Rockefeller Commission that looked into the illegal domestic activities of the CIA, the FBI, and intelligence-related agencies of the military.
In the summer of 1975, congressional Church Committee reports and the presidential Rockefeller Commission report revealed to the public for the first time that the CIA and the Department of Defense had conducted experiments on both unwitting and cognizant human subjects as part of an extensive program to find out how to influence and control human behavior through the use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD and mescaline and other chemical, biological, and psychological means. They also revealed that at least one subject, Frank Olson had died after administration of LSD. Much of what the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission learned about MKUltra was contained in a report, prepared by the Inspector General’s office in 1963, that had survived the destruction of records ordered in 1973. However, it contained little detail. Sidney Gottlieb, who had retired from the CIA two years previously, was interviewed by the committee but claimed to have very little recollection of the activities of MKUltra.
The congressional committee investigating the CIA research, chaired by Senator Frank Church, concluded that “[p]rior consent was obviously not obtained from any of the subjects”. The committee noted that the “experiments sponsored by these researchers […] call into question the decision by the agencies not to fix guidelines for experiments.”
Following the recommendations of the Church Committee, President Gerald Ford in 1976 issued the first Executive Order on Intelligence Activities which, among other things, prohibited “experimentation with drugs on human subjects, except with the informed consent, in writing and witnessed by a disinterested party, of each such human subject” and in accordance with the guidelines issued by the National Commission. Subsequent orders by Presidents Carter and Reagan expanded the directive to apply to any human experimentation.
1977 United States Senate report on MKUltra
In 1977, during a hearing held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to look further into MKUltra, Admiral Stansfield Turner, then Director of Central Intelligence, revealed that the CIA had found a set of records, consisting of about 20,000 pages, that had survived the 1973 destruction orders because they had been incorrectly stored at a records center not usually used for such documents. These files dealt with the financing of MKUltra projects and contained few project details, but much more was learned from them than from the Inspector General’s 1963 report.
On the Senate floor in 1977, Senator Ted Kennedy said:
The Deputy Director of the CIA revealed that over thirty universities and institutions were involved in an “extensive testing and experimentation” program which included covert drug tests on unwitting citizens “at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign.” Several of these tests involved the administration of LSD to “unwitting subjects in social situations.
At least one death, the result of the defenestration of Dr. Frank Olson, was attributed to Olson’s being subjected, unaware, to such experimentation, nine days before his death. The CIA itself subsequently acknowledged that these tests had little scientific rationale. The agents conducting the monitoring were not qualified scientific observers.
In Canada, the issue took much longer to surface, becoming widely known in 1984 on a CBC news show, The Fifth Estate. It was learned that not only had the CIA funded Dr. Cameron‘s efforts, but also that the Canadian government was fully aware of this, and had later provided another $500,000 in funding to continue the experiments. This revelation largely derailed efforts by the victims to sue the CIA as their U.S. counterparts had, and the Canadian government eventually settled out of court for $100,000 to each of the 127 victims. Dr. Cameron died on September 8, 1967 after suffering a heart attack while he and his son were mountain climbing. None of Cameron’s personal records of his involvement with MKUltra survived, since his family destroyed them after his death.
1994 U.S. General Accounting Office report
The U.S. General Accounting Office issued a report on September 28, 1994, which stated that between 1940 and 1974, DOD and other national security agencies studied thousands of human subjects in tests and experiments involving hazardous substances.
The quote from the study:
Working with the CIA, the Department of Defense gave hallucinogenic drugs to thousands of “volunteer” soldiers in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to LSD, the Army also tested quinuclidinyl benzilate, a hallucinogen code-named BZ. (Note 37) Many of these tests were conducted under the so-called MKULTRA program, established to counter perceived Soviet and Chinese advances in brainwashing techniques. Between 1953 and 1964, the program consisted of 149 projects involving drug testing and other studies on unwitting human subjects
Given the CIA’s purposeful destruction of most records, its failure to follow informed consent protocols with thousands of participants, the uncontrolled nature of the experiments, and the lack of follow-up data, the full impact of MKUltra experiments, including deaths, may never be known.
Several known deaths have been associated with Project MKUltra, most notably that of Frank Olson. Olson, a United States Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher, was given LSD without his knowledge or consent in November, 1953, as part of a CIA experiment and committed suicide by jumping out of a window a week later. A CIA doctor assigned to monitor Olson claimed to have been asleep in another bed in a New York City hotel room when Olson exited the window and fell thirteen stories to his death. In 1953, Olson’s death was described as a suicide that had occurred during a severe psychotic episode. The CIA’s own internal investigation concluded that the head of MKUltra, CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb, had conducted the LSD experiment with Olson’s prior knowledge, although neither Olson nor the other men taking part in the experiment were informed as to the exact nature of the drug until some 20 minutes after its ingestion. The report further suggested that Gottlieb was nonetheless due a reprimand, as he had failed to take into account Olson’s already-diagnosed suicidal tendencies, which might have been exacerbated by the LSD.
The Olson family disputes the official version of events. They maintain that Frank Olson was murdered because, especially in the aftermath of his LSD experience, he had become a security risk who might divulge state secrets associated with highly classified CIA programs, about many of which he had direct personal knowledge. A few days before his death, Frank Olson quit his position as acting chief of the Special Operations Division at Detrick, Maryland (later Fort Detrick) because of a severe moral crisis concerning the nature of his biological weapons research. Among Olson’s concerns were the development of assassination materials used by the CIA, the CIA’s use of biological warfare materials in covert operations, experimentation with biological weapons in populated areas, collaboration with former Nazi scientists under Operation Paperclip, LSD mind-control research, and the use of psychoactive drugs during “terminal” interrogations under a program code-named Project ARTICHOKE. Later forensic evidence conflicted with the official version of events; when Olson’s body was exhumed in 1994, cranial injuries indicated that Olson had been knocked unconscious before he exited the window. The medical examiner termed Olson’s death a “homicide”. In 1975, Olson’s family received a $750,000 settlement from the U.S. government and formal apologies from President Gerald Ford and CIA Director William Colby, though their apologies were limited to informed consent issues concerning Olson’s ingestion of LSD. On 28 November 2012, the Olson family filed suit against the U.S. federal government for the wrongful death of Frank Olson.
A 2010 book by H. P. Albarelli Jr. alleged that the 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit mass poisoning was part of MKDELTA, that Olson was involved in that event, and that he was eventually murdered by the CIA. However, academic sources attribute the incident to ergot poisoning through a local bakery.
Legal issues involving informed consent
The revelations about the CIA and the Army prompted a number of subjects or their survivors to file lawsuits against the federal government for conducting experiments without informed consent. Although the government aggressively, and sometimes successfully, sought to avoid legal liability, several plaintiffs did receive compensation through court order, out-of-court settlement, or acts of Congress. Frank Olson’s family received $750,000 by a special act of Congress, and both President Ford and CIA director William Colby met with Olson’s family to apologize publicly.
Previously, the CIA and the Army had actively and successfully sought to withhold incriminating information, even as they secretly provided compensation to the families. One subject of Army drug experimentation, James Stanley, an Army sergeant, brought an important, albeit unsuccessful, suit. The government argued that Stanley was barred from suing under a legal doctrine—known as the Feres doctrine, after a 1950 Supreme Court case, Feres v. United States—that prohibits members of the Armed Forces from suing the government for any harms that were inflicted “incident to service.”
In 1987, the Supreme Court affirmed this defense in a 5–4 decision that dismissed Stanley’s case: United States v. Stanley. The majority argued that “a test for liability that depends on the extent to which particular suits would call into question military discipline and decision making would itself require judicial inquiry into, and hence intrusion upon, military matters.” In dissent, Justice William Brennan argued that the need to preserve military discipline should not protect the government from liability and punishment for serious violations of constitutional rights:
The medical trials at Nuremberg in 1947 deeply impressed upon the world that experimentation with unknowing human subjects is morally and legally unacceptable. The United States Military Tribunal established the Nuremberg Code as a standard against which to judge German scientists who experimented with human subjects… . [I]n defiance of this principle, military intelligence officials … began surreptitiously testing chemical and biological materials, including LSD.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing a separate dissent, stated:
No judicially crafted rule should insulate from liability the involuntary and unknowing human experimentation alleged to have occurred in this case. Indeed, as Justice Brennan observes, the United States played an instrumental role in the criminal prosecution of Nazi officials who experimented with human subjects during the Second World War, and the standards that the Nuremberg Military Tribunals developed to judge the behavior of the defendants stated that the ‘voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential … to satisfy moral, ethical, and legal concepts.’ If this principle is violated, the very least that society can do is to see that the victims are compensated, as best they can be, by the perpetrators.
In another lawsuit, Wayne Ritchie, a former United States Marshal, after hearing about the project’s existence in 1990, alleged the CIA laced his food or drink with LSD at a 1957 Christmas party which resulted in his attempting to commit a robbery at a bar and his subsequent arrest. While the government admitted it was, at that time, drugging people without their consent, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel found Ritchie could not prove he was one of the victims of MKUltra or that LSD caused his robbery attempt and dismissed the case in 2007.