Project MKULTRA (also known as MK-ULTRA) was the code name for a CIA mind control research program lasting from the 1950s through the 1970s. It was first brought to wide public attention by the U.S. Congress (in the form of the Church Committee) and a presidential commission (known as the Rockefeller Commission) (see Revelation below). Starting from 1964, the project was renamed to MKSEARCH. The project's goal was to produce a perfect truth drug for use in interrogating suspected Soviet spies during the Cold War, and generally to explore any other possibilities of mind control. Experiments were often conducted without the subjects' knowledge or consent. The project was headed by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb.
MKULTRA was started on the order of CIA director Allen Dulles in April 1953, largely in response to alleged Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean uses of mind control techniques on US prisoners of war in Korea. In addition to wanting to use similar methods on their own captives, the CIA was also interested in being able to manipulate foreign leaders with such techniques, and would later invent several schemes to drug Fidel Castro.
Because most of the MKULTRA records were deliberately destroyed in 1972 by order of then-Director Richard Helms, it is impossible to have a complete understanding of the more than 150 individually funded research projects sponsored by MKULTRA and the related CIA programs.
Central Intelligence Agency documents suggest that the agency considered and explored uses of radiation for the purpose of mind control as part of MKULTRA. Other early efforts focused on LSD, which appears to have formed the majority of research as time went on. Experiments included dosing CIA employees, military personnel, other government agents, prostitutes, mental patients, and members of the general public with LSD to study their reactions, usually without the subject's knowledge.
The experiments often took a sadistic bent. Gottlieb was known to torture victims by locking them in sensory deprivation chambers while dosed on LSD, or to make recordings of psychiatric patients' therapy sessions, and then play a tape loop of the patient's most self-degrading statement over and over through headphones after the patient had been restrained in a straitjacket and dosed with LSD. Gottlieb himself took LSD frequently, locking himself in his office and taking copious notes.
Efforts to "recruit" subjects were often illegal without any drugs being administered. In Operation Midnight Climax, the CIA set up several brothels to obtain a selection of men who would be too embarrassed to talk about the events. The brothels were equipped with two-way mirrors and the "sessions" were taped for later interpretation.
Some subjects' participation was consensual, and in these cases, the subjects appeared to be singled out for even more horrific experiments. In one case, a selection of volunteers was given LSD for 77 days straight.
LSD was eventually dismissed by the researchers as too unpredictable in its effects. Although useful information was sometimes obtained through questioning subjects on LSD, not uncommonly the most marked effect would be the subject's absolute and utter certainty that they were able to withstand any form of interrogation attempt, even physical torture.
Another technique was connecting a barbiturate IV into one arm and an amphetamine IV into the other. The barbiturates were released into the subject first, and as soon as the subject began to fall asleep, the amphetamines were released. The subject would begin babbling incoherently at this point, and it was sometimes possible to ask questions and get useful answers. This treatment was discarded as it often resulted in the death of the patient from physical side effects of the drug combination, making further interrogation impossible. Other experiments involved heroin, mescaline, psilocybin, scopolamine, marijuana, alcohol, and sodium pentothal.
There is no evidence that the CIA (or anyone else) has actually succeeded in controlling a person's complex actions through "mind control" techniques, and the area is often plowed by conspiracists. Nonetheless, the secrecy of the government and the file destruction makes a full investigation of claims impossible.
Secretive arrangement granted a percentage of CIA budget. MKULTRA director was granted 6% of CIA operating budget in 1953, without oversight or accounting. CIA declassified documents (http://www.michael-robinett.com/declass/c043.htm)
The experiments were even exported to Canada, when the CIA recruited Albany, New York doctor Ewan Cameron, author of the psychic driving concept which the CIA found particularly interesting. In it he described his theory on correcting madness, which consisted of erasing existing memories and rebuilding the psyche completely. He commuted to Montreal every week to work at the Allan Memorial Institute, and was paid $69,000 from 1957 to 1964 to carry out MKULTRA experiments there. The CIA appears to have given him the potentially deadly experiments to carry out, as they would be tried on non-US citizens.
In addition to LSD, Cameron also experimented with various paralytic drugs, as well as electroshock "therapy" at 30 to 40 times the normal power. His "driving" experiments consisted of putting subjects into drug-induced coma for months on end (up to three in one case) while playing tape loops of noise or simple repetitive statements. His experiments were typically carried out on patients who had entered the institute for minor problems such as anxiety disorders and post-partum depression, many of whom suffered permanently from his actions.
It was during this era that Cameron became known worldwide, serving as the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association, as well as president of the American and Canadian psychiatric associations. Cameron had also been member of the Nuremberg medical tribunal only a decade earlier.
In December 1974, The New York Times reported that the CIA had conducted illegal domestic activities, including experiments on U.S. citizens, during the 1960s. That report prompted investigations by both U.S. Congress (in the form of the Church Committee) and a presidential commission (known as the Rockefeller Commission) into the domestic activities of the CIA, the FBI, and intelligence-related agencies of the military.
In the summer of 1975, congressional hearings and the Rockefeller Commission report revealed to the public for the first time that the CIA and the DOD had conducted experiments on both cognizant and unwitting human subjects as part of an extensive program 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 had died after administration of LSD.
Frank Olson, an Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher, was given LSD without his knowledge or consent in 1953 as part of a CIA experiment and apparently committed suicide a week later following a severe psychotic episode. A CIA doctor assigned to monitor Olson's recovery was supposedly asleep in another bed in a New York city hotel room when Olson jumped through the window to fall ten stories to his death.
Olson's son disputes this version of events, and maintains that his father was murdered due to his knowledge of the sometimes-lethal interrogation techniques employed by the CIA in Europe, used on cold war prisoners. Frank Olson's body was exhumed in 1994, and cranial injuries suggested Olson had been knocked unconscious before being thrown out of the window.
The CIA's own internal investigation, by contrast, claimed Gottlieb had conducted the experiment with Olson's prior knowledge, although neither Olson nor the other men taking part in the experiment were informed 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 suicidal tendencies Olson had been diagnosed as suffering from which might well have been exacerbated by the LSD.
Subsequent reports would show that another person, Harold Blauer, a professional tennis player in New York City, died as a result of a secret Army experiment involving mescaline.
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." (Documents show that the CIA participated in at least two of the DOD committees whose discussions, in 1952, led up to the issuance of the memorandum by Secretary of Defense Wilson which initiated the project.)
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.
Following on the heels of the revelations about CIA experiments were similar stories about the Army. In response, in 1975 the secretary of the Army instructed the Army inspector general to conduct an investigation. Among the findings of the inspector general was the existence of the then-still-classified 1953 Wilson memorandum.
In response to the inspector general's investigation, the Wilson memorandum was declassified in August 1975. The inspector general also found that the requirements of the 1953 memorandum had, at least in regard to Army drug testing, been essentially followed as written. The Army used only "volunteers" for its drug-testing program, with one or two exceptions. However, the inspector general concluded that the "volunteers were not fully informed, as required, prior to their participation; and the methods of procuring their services, in many cases, appeared not to have been in accord with the intent of Department of the Army policies governing use of volunteers in research." The inspector general also noted that "the evidence clearly reflected that every possible medical consideration was observed by the professional investigators at the Medical Research Laboratories." This conclusion, if accurate, is in striking contrast to what took place at the CIA.
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 perhaps even more shockingly, 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 US counterparts had, and the Canadian government eventually settled out-of-court for $100,000 to each of the 127 victims.
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 illegal experiments. 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 publicly apologize.
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. 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.
This is the only Supreme Court case to address the application of the Nuremberg Code to experimentation sponsored by the U.S. government. And while the suit was unsuccessful, dissenting opinions put the Army—and by association the entire government—on notice that use of individuals without their consent is unacceptable. The limited application of the Nuremberg Code in U.S. courts does not detract from the power of the principles it espouses, especially in light of stories of failure to follow these principles that appeared in the media and professional literature during the 1960s and 1970s and the policies eventually adopted in the mid-1970s.
In 2004, Chief U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that Wayne Ritchie could proceed to trial with a case that he was used as a test subject for LSD by the CIA in 1957.
- U.S. Congress, The Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Foreign and Military Intelligence (Church Committee report), report no. 94-755, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1976), 394.
- The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, by John Ranelagh, p208-210.
- Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, New York: Grove Press, 1985, ISBN 0802130623
- Storming Heaven: LSD and The American Dream, by Jay Stevens, New York: Grove Press, 1987, ISBN 0802135870
- Journey into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse, by Gordon Thomas, NY: Bantam, 1989, ISBN 0553284134
- Operation Mind Control: Our Secret Governments's War Against Its Own People, by W H Bowart, New York: Dell, 1978, ISBN 0440167558
- Acid: The Secret History of LSD, by David Black, London: Vision, 1998, ISBN 1901250113. Later edition exists.
- The Frank Olson Project (http://www.frankolsonproject.org/index.html) - a website created by Frank Olson's family to explore the issues surrounding his death.
- "The Coldest", by Ted Gup. The Washington Post, December 16, 2001, page W9.
- "CIA Official Sidney Gottlieb, 80, Dies", by Bart Barnes. The Washington Post, March 11, 1999, page B5.
- "Mk Ultra", by Mark Jenkins. The Washington Post, September 25, 1998, page N15.
- "New Study Yields Little on Death of Biochemist Drugged by CIA", by Brian Mooar. The Washington Post, November 29, 1994, page B3.
- "Tests Contradict U.S. Story of Man's Suicide; Family Suspects CIA Killed Researcher", by Brian Mooar. The Washington Post, July 12, 1994, page B1.
- "Canadians Sue U.S. Over CIA Tests Of Behavior Modification Methods", by Laura A. Kiernan. The Washington Post, December 12, 1980, page A44.
- "The CIA's Attempt At Mind Control: Bad Trips?", The Washington Post, February 15, 1979, page C2.
- "Book Disputes CIA Chief on Mind-Control Efforts", by Bill Richards. The Washington Post, January 29, 1979, page A2.
- "Government-linked 'suicide' probed" (http://wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=28859), H.P. Albarelli Jr. WorldNetDaily.com, 08 September 2002.
- In the Sleep Room: The Story of CIA Brainwashing Experiments in Canada, Anne Collins, Lester & Orpen Dennys (Toronto), 1988.
- U.S Department of Energy website: Supreme Court Dissents Invoke the Nuremberg Code: CIA and DOD Human Subjects Research Scandals (http://tis.eh.doe.gov/ohre/roadmap/achre/chap3_4.html)
- U.S Department of Energy website: The Records of Our Past (http://tis.eh.doe.gov/ohre/roadmap/achre/chap13_4.html)
- Mind Control and MKULTRA (http://www.angelfire.com/or/mctrl/gall.html) by Richard G. Gall
- Declassified MKULTRA Project Documents (http://www.michael-robinett.com/declass/c000.htm)
- MKULTRA Documents (http://www.parascope.com/ds/mkultradocs.htm)
- The Most Dangerous Game (http://www.archive.org/movies/details-db.php?collection=independent_news&collectionid=tmdg) Downloadable 8 minute documentary by independent filmmakers GNN
The band mk Ultra took their name from this project.