MK Ultra: Inside the CIA's Mind Control Program

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Project MK-Ultra was a series of CIA-led experiments on mind control. The experiments began in 1953 and continued into the late 1960s. CIA researchers subjected thousands of U.S. and Canadian citizens to experimental tests, including electric shock therapy, brain surgery, and LSD dosing, in order to identify methods for controlling human behavior.

The CIA hoped that successful methods could be used as interrogation tactics for alleged criminals or prisoners of war. These experiments were conducted without full consent of the participants, and the federal government was sued and brought to trial multiple times over the resulting deaths and injuries.

Origins of Project MK-Ultra

In 1953, Allen Dulles, then-director of the CIA, initiated the MK-Ultra program. The reasoning was three-fold. First, U.S. intelligence had learned that Russia was testing a drug, bulbocapnine, which was said to affect willpower in order to extract information from a subject. Second, during the Korean War, North Korea had used LSD as an interrogation method of U.S. prisoners of war, and the U.S. sought to identify methods to counter such a tactic. Third, the U.S. no longer had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and therefore wanted new methods to influence leaders and extract information. 

Sidney Gottlieb, an American chemist who was known to take LSD himself, presided over the program as the chief of the CIA’s technical services. The experiments primarily took place at penitentiaries, hospitals, and universities, targeting “people who could not fight back.” Patients and inmates were given doses of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs or subjected to electric shocks without consent, then examined for changes in behavior. Additionally, the CIA hired sex workers to dose unsuspecting clients in brothels (known as Operation Midnight Climax) and even dosed their own agents during the period of experimentation.

The Experiments

The most famous MK-Ultra experiments involved LSD, but the program also tested the effectiveness of hypnosis, electroshock therapy, and brain surgeries. Because the CIA later destroyed documents relating to MK-Ultra, most of what we know about the experiments comes from testimonies provided by experiment subjects.

Farrell Kirk, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against the CIA, stated that the experiments with LSD caused him to experience extreme depression and drove him to attempt suicide. After his suicide attempts, he was questioned and studied again, then placed into solitary confinement.

James Knight, who had been incarcerated for liquor smuggling, explained that the experiments gave him violent tendencies and severe memory loss. Before the experiments, all of his arrests were for non-violent offenses, but afterwards, he was arrested multiple times for assault.

One particularly famous subject in the MK-Ultra experiments was Whitey Bulger, a Boston crime boss. Bulger alleges that, while incarcerated in an Atlanta penitentiary, he was a subject in experiments related to schizophrenia. Along with eight or nine other inmates, he was dosed with LSD and asked about crimes he may or may not have committed. Bulger described a rise in his own violent tendencies after the LSD experiments, as well as hallucinations and difficulty sleeping.

Ted Kaczynski—better known as "The Unabomber", who killed three and injured 23 with homemade bombs—was a subject of MK-Ultra tests while a student at Harvard University in 1958. Dr. Henry Murray tested his theories of behavioral modification and mind control on dozens of students like Kaczynski by subjecting them to extreme verbal abuse and then monitoring their reactions.

Associated Deaths

At least two deaths are directly associated with the MK-Ultra experiments: those of Frank Olson and Harold Blauer. Olson, bacteriologist for the CIA's Camp Detrick in Maryland, was unwittingly laced with LSD while at a CIA retreat. Due to his increased paranoia, he was sent to New York to be treated by a CIA psychologist. On November 28, 1953, he died after either falling or jumping out of a 13th-floor window.

Olson’s family was initially told of the suicide but not of the experiments. There is speculation that members of the CIA pushed Olson, but the initial cause of death was ruled a suicide, then changed to an accidental death. The Olson family brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government for the experimentation leading to Frank’s death, but they settled out of court.

Harold Blauer was a patient at New York State Psychiatric Institute who voluntarily admitted himself to be treated for depression. While in treatment, he was unknowingly dosed with mescaline derivatives, one of which turned out to be a fatal dose. The institute identified his cause of death as self-inflicted overdose. Blauer's family sued the hospital for neglecting to monitor his medications. After the MK-Ultra program came to light, the family was informed that Blauer’s death was a result of the experimentation.

Trials and Aftermath

Because the test subjects were either partly or entirely unaware of the experiments, and because the tests resulted in a number of deaths and injuries, the federal government was sued and brought to trial several times over MK-Ultra.

After the Watergate scandal led to greater overall scrutiny of government processes, the CIA destroyed many documents related to MK-Ultra. By the time of the trials a few years later, there was not much paper evidence of the illegal experimentation.

In 1974, The New York Times published an article about the CIA directing nonconsensual mind control experiments. The report led to the creation of the Church Committee to investigate the nation’s intelligence gathering program and hold Senate hearings. Victims of the experiments filed lawsuits against the federal government for human rights violations and neglect.

These efforts led President Ronald Reagan to sign Executive Order 12333, which stated that research with human subjects must require affirmative consent with documentation describing exactly what the subjects are consenting to. The CIA publicly announced that MK-Ultra experiments had been terminated.

The MK-Ultra project led to immense distrust of the federal government and is central to many conspiracy theories about politicians and intelligence agencies in the U.S.

Key Takeaways: Project MK-Ultra

  • Project MK-Ultra was a series of CIA-led experiments on mind control.
  • The most famous MK-Ultra experiments involved LSD, but the program also tested the effectiveness of hypnosis, electroshock therapy, and brain surgeries.
  • The experiments were conducted without the full consent of the subjects. Many subjects were in vulnerable positions like incarceration or psychiatric treatment.
  • The federal government was brought to trial several times as a result of the project.
  • Concerns about Project MK-Ultra led to an executive order stating that experiences with human subjects must require affirmative consent.

Sources

  • M. Hersh, Seymour. “HUGE C.I.A. OPERATION REPORTED IN U.S. AGAINST ANTIWAR FORCES, OTHER DISSIDENTS IN NIXON YEARS.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Dec. 1974, www.nytimes.com/1974/12/22/archives/huge-cia-operation-reported-in-u-s-against-antiwar-forces-other.html.
  • Anderson, Jack. “Lawsuit Forces CIA Confession on MK-ULTRA.” Washington Post, 28 Aug. 1982.