When the C.I.A. Was Into Mind Control

Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
By Stephen Kinzer

In 1955, R. Gordon Wasson set off for southern Mexico to experience a sacred Indian ceremony rumored to provide a “pathway to the divine.” Wasson later extolled the mystical effects of what he called the “magic mushroom,” the Mexican plant used in the ceremony, in a 1957 photo-essay for Life magazine.

Wasson’s article, read by millions, helped set the stage for an eventual cultural revolution that peaked with Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor who proselytized for LSD and called on Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The seminal role Wasson’s trip played in promoting mind-bending drugs and the accompanying cultural revolution has been described before, including in Michael Pollan’s recent book, “How to Change Your Mind,” but a new biography by Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, adds a key detail to this fascinating history.

“Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” describes how, unbeknown to Wasson, the spy agency was funding his travel. In fact, Wasson’s trip “would electrify mind control experimenters in Washington whose ambitions were vastly different from his own.” Kinzer’s book traces the life and career of Gottlieb, the man standing in the shadows of this trip. Gottlieb was also the brains behind the eventual C.I.A. program it helped spawn, MK-ULTRA, the notorious research endeavor that employed mind-altering drugs, including LSD.

The broad outlines of MK-ULTRA are fairly well established even if many of the details are lost to the C.I.A.’s document destruction. Beginning in 1950, the agency, fearful of reported Communist brainwashing, began a top-secret project initially known as Bluebird, to explore ways to influence the human psyche. The program expanded dramatically with the entry of Gottlieb, a chemist with a deep-seated interest in mysticism. Kinzer describes him as “the first person the United States government ever hired to find ways to control human minds.”

Like other troubling figures of C.I.A. history, for instance the paranoid mole hunter James Jesus Angleton, Gottlieb played a seminal role in shaping the agency in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also an outlier. Gottlieb, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bronx, didn’t fit into the Georgetown set that dominated the C.I.A. in those years. But he was valued and protected, particularly by Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence, who believed deeply in mind-control experiments. Gottlieb was someone who could do the agency’s dirty work. And dirty it was.

In 1952, Gottlieb led a team of scientists to a safehouse in Munich — one of the agency’s “black sites” — where prisoners of war were pumped full of drugs, interrogated and then allowed to die. These were ideal operating conditions. “One of the luxuries that Gottlieb’s interrogators enjoyed was the knowledge that if any ‘expendables’ died during their experiment, disposing of their bodies would be ‘no problem.’” The experiments failed to control any minds, except perhaps for Gottlieb’s, since he was convinced his research would yield results. “Gottlieb and his chemical warriors believed they could transform a persistent legend into reality,” Kinzer writes.

The unit eventually expanded its research, changed its name to MK-ULTRA and shifted to the United States, where Gottlieb worked with a sadistic narcotics officer in opening a “national security whorehouse” to dose unwitting victims being serviced by prostitutes on the C.I.A. payroll. (Proving that even spies have a sense of humor, the brothel “research” was informally called Operation Midnight Climax.) Drugging johns was easy, but when Gottlieb started dosing unwitting government colleagues the research hit turbulence. In what would give the program its lasting black eye, Frank Olson, an Army scientist working with MK-ULTRA who had been given LSD without his knowledge, jumped, or was possibly pushed, out of a hotel room window in New York in 1953.

Kinzer’s retelling of the MK-ULTRA story is unsparing in its gruesome details, but not overwrought. Those looking for entirely new revelations, however, won’t find them here — in part, because information from the surviving records has already come to light, first through the investigations of the Senate committee headed by Frank Church of Idaho in the mid-1970s, and then a few years later, in 1978, thanks to John Marks’s book “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate.” (Kinzer draws liberally from Marks and other secondary accounts, and occasionally one wishes he had cited more original source material.)

Gottlieb has previously been treated as a historical footnote, but Kinzer elevates him to his proper place as one of the C.I.A.’s most influential and despicable characters. Along with mind control, he was involved in a series of schemes to poison Fidel Castro. Kinzer also goes far beyond the story of Frank Olson, which is well-worn territory, covered most recently in Errol Morris’s docudrama “Wormwood.” Whether murdered or driven to suicide, Olson was a reluctant soldier in Gottlieb’s mind-control army. Yet his death has overshadowed the “expendables.” We just don’t know most of their names since Gottlieb destroyed the records.

Some of the details in the book, like the coercion of African-American prisoners to participate in C.I.A. experiments, are astounding. But it wasn’t that long ago that agency personnel were performing “rectal hydration” on a suspected terrorist. Rather than LSD, Gottlieb’s successors turned to techniques like waterboarding. And like Gottlieb, those involved sought to shred the evidence and move on with their lives, while the people in charge allowed them to do so because they believed these loyal spies were protecting the country from a greater evil.

Today, MK-ULTRA has a permanent place in American culture, though it’s often synonymous with conspiracy theory or a punch line for jokes about tinfoil hats. But the program should be remembered for what it was: a vehicle for abominable experiments that often targeted the most vulnerable — drug users, prisoners and psychiatric patients, who were deprived of meaningful informed consent, if there was any consent at all.

Kinzer’s book is also a good reminder that there is rarely legal accountability for the C.I.A.’s misdeeds. In Gottlieb’s case, the only repercussions came during his retirement, when he was hounded by lawsuits and congressional investigations, and compelled to give testimony in which he provided precious few details.

The C.I.A., for its part, never condemned Gottlieb, even if it didn’t enthusiastically support him. “Ah, poor Sid Gottlieb,” Richard Helms, a former director, later lamented, suggesting that the problem was not MK-ULTRA but how Americans responded to news of it. “The nation just saw something they didn’t like and blasted it, and he took the blame for it,” Helms said.

Did Gottlieb, a devoted father and generous colleague, struggle with the human damage he left behind? Was he a villain, a mad scientist or just an unsung patriot doing what he believed necessary to protect the country? It’s hard to know, since Gottlieb, forever the loyal company man, avoided committing his thoughts to paper, let alone providing truthful testimony. But one thing seems certain: Even if his colleagues thought he was brilliant, he was a lousy scientist. His work with experimental drugs never seemed to involve anything as banal as protocols or controls.

Given that this is a biography, it’s worth noting there is one Gottlieb endeavor omitted from an otherwise comprehensive book, the poisoner in chief’s role in another equally questionable, though less harmful, endeavor: parapsychology. Near the end of his C.I.A. career, Gottlieb awarded a contract to the Stanford Research Institute to see whether “psychics” could be used to help spy on American enemies.

They couldn’t, but that didn’t stop American spies from pouring millions into psychic research for more than a decade, long after Gottlieb left the C.I.A. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about what may have been Gottlieb’s final contribution to secret science is that at least, in the end, no one died.

Sharon Weinberger, the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News, is the author of “Imagineers Of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World.”

Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
By Stephen Kinzer
Illustrated. 354 pp. Henry Holt & Co. $30.

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