For 20 years, the CIA tried to establish control over the human mind with torture and drugs. It crippled thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of lives. Hereʼs more about the secret experiments of the MKUltra project

Serhii Pyvovarov
Kateryna Kobernyk

On August 3, 1977, the US Senate held a special hearing on the illegal activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They related to the secret MKUltra program to find methods to control human consciousness and behavior. It all started back in 1953 against the background of hysteria in the US about the communist threat. The heads of the CIA seriously believed that the Soviet and Chinese special services had developed effective methods and drugs for "brainwashing". In order to keep up with competitors, the American secret service launched its own large-scale secret project. Over the next twenty years, the CIA conducted human experiments, often without their consent. Various forms of torture, hypnosis and, of course, drugs were used. The organizers of the project had high hopes for LSD. But it wasnʼt possible to achieve the desired results. Many test subjects were left with a crippled psyche, some died. The exact number of victims is still unknown, as almost all documents related to the project were destroyed. "Babel" recalls one of the largest, most brutal and most secret operations of the CIA.

On April 10, 1953, Allen Dulles, who shortly before became director of the CIA, spoke at the Princeton University alumni meeting. During the speech, he also touched on international politics. In particular, he stated that the battle of ideologies with the countries of the socialist block has literally turned into a "war for brains".

Although the event where Dulles spoke was ordinary, the topic was very relevant. At that time, American society was experiencing another peak of the "Red Scare". Communist spies were searched for everywhere, in state establishments it turned into a real witch hunt. Stories about "brainwashing" by the special services of the USSR, China, and North Korea added fuel to the fire. Newspapers spread stories about American prisoners of war who returned home after the Korean War and repeated the theses of communist propaganda. And some refused to return to the US at all.

American prisoners of war in a North Korean concentration camp, 1953.

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Sensational articles with headlines like "Brainwashing vs. Western Psychiatry" talked about new mind control methods and technologies that could convert anyone to communist ideology. This paranoia was also reflected in the culture. For example, the popular 1959 novel "The Manchurian Candidate" told the story of an American soldier who was brainwashed in North Korea and turned into a sleeper agent.

During his speech at Princeton, CIA Director Dulles described Soviet mind control methods as "disgusting and despicable," but effective. "We in the West have somewhat limited possibilities for brain warfare. Such experiments without consent, even on enemies, contradict not only American, but also universal human values," he concluded.

But three days after the speech, on April 13, 1953, Dulles launched a secret CIA project codenamed MKUltra. The program consisted of various "mind control" experiments: manipulating peopleʼs mental states, changing brain functions, modeling behavior, etc. Electroconvulsive therapy, hypnosis, polygraph, radiation, drugs, toxins and other chemicals were used. And also the most diverse types of torture: isolation, sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual violence.

The project was led by chemist and CIA poison expert Sidney Gottlieb. Expectations from the program were huge — from the creation of a universal "truth serum" for the interrogation of enemy agents to the methods of covert control of world political leaders.

Testing of "truth serum", 1945.

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Early experiments were conducted on those who, as the CIA stated, could not fight back — people with mental disorders, drug addicts, and prisoners. One of them was the boss of the American mafia, James "Whitey" Bulger. He was serving his sentence in a prison in Atlanta. James was offered to participate in the testing of new drugs in exchange for improved conditions. Bulger agreed, something he later regretted for the rest of his life: “There were eight of us in the cell, and all of us in a state of panic and paranoia. There was complete loss of appetite, hallucinations. I saw blood pouring from the walls, and the boys turning into skeletons right before my eyes, and the camera later turned into a dogʼs head. I felt like I was going crazy."

Prison photo of James Bulger, 1959.

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Bulger became one of the many experimental subjects on whom the psychedelic novelty — LSD — was tested. Mood-altering properties were described by its inventor, the Swiss chemist Alfred Hoffman, back in 1943. However, in the early 1950s, LSD was not yet widely known. But the CIA was interested in this thing. Gottlieb placed great hopes on her in the search for methods of mind control. Therefore, he spent about a quarter of a million dollars to buy almost the entire world supply of LSD — 10 kilograms, which was enough for 100 million doses. Last but not least, this was done in order to prevent the drug from reaching competitors from the social camp.

At first, Gottlieb distributed LSD to clinics, mental hospitals, and prisons for controlled experiments. But later he decided that for the purity of the experiment it was necessary to test the psychedelic on people secretly, without their consent. And then see how they will behave in their usual conditions.

Scientists Harry Williams (left) and Carl Pfeiffer conduct a controlled experiment with LSD, 1955.

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LSD began to be given to soldiers, doctors, civil servants, famous public figures and even CIA employees. Unforeseen side effects often occurred. One of the operatives, who had once been given LSD in his morning coffee, ran through the streets of Washington, trying to escape from the machines, which turned into monsters for him. Another employee, Frank Olson, not understanding what was happening to him, threw himself out of the window of the thirteenth floor and died.

Gottlieb didnʼt stop there either. He arranged more and more complex experiments. One of the most famous covert operations was codenamed "Midnight Climax". The CIA bought several houses and apartments, spied on them with video cameras and microphones. They also arranged secret rooms that were separated from the rest of the room by special transparent mirrors. Selected and instructed prostitutes would bring random men here and secretly pump them with LSD. And the agents behind the mirrors watched what was happening and recorded audio and video.

Of course, there were also volunteers who agreed to experiments with LSD. Such well-known people were among them: the author of the novel "One Flew Over the Cuckooʼs Nest" Ken Kesey, one of the ideologues of the beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg, the author of the lyrics of the "Grateful Dead" rock group Robert Gunter. Subsequently, they became a kind of ambassadors of LSD in American and world culture. However, at the time, few people knew that the CIA was actually behind all this.

Ken Kesey, 1969.

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As part of MKUltra project, the CIA secretly funded nearly a hundred studies at colleges, universities, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies. One of the most famous examples is the story of the American psychologist Donald Cameron. From 1957 to 1964, he worked at the Montreal Institute in Canada to refine his concept of "psychological management." It was she who interested the CIA. So the agency funded the research through a shell organization called the Society for Research in Human Ecology.

Cameron tried to cure various mental disorders by erasing memories and reprogramming the psyche. For this, subjects were put into a drug-induced coma for several weeks or even months. At this time, they were played recordings of various sounds or voice commands, which were constantly repeated. Experiments were conducted even on those who applied to the institute with such problems as neurosis, anxiety or postpartum depression. Many of Cameronʼs patients only got worse from such therapy, and for some of them it all ended with amnesia.

Donald Cameron (right), 1953.

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Gottlieb conducted the most brutal experiments in foreign secret prisons of the CIA, mainly in Germany, Japan and the Philippines. Prisoners were considered expendable. And the experiments were carried out by captive "specialists" who practiced similar "research" in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps. Subjects were subjected to various types of torture. In addition to LSD, they experimented with heroin, morphine, cocaine, mescaline, psilocybin and other things. They studied how a person would react to "chemical cocktails": barbiturate was injected into one arm, amphetamine into the other.

After ten years of various experiments, it was not possible to achieve the desired results and learn to control human consciousness. The MKUltra program was gradually scaled back, first in 1964 and then in 1967. In 1973, it was decided to terminate it urgently. Then the CIA got caught up in the Watergate scandal, which was connected with the illegal wiretapping of political opponents of President Richard Nixon. The chief at the time Richard Helms feared that during the investigation, information about MKUltra would emerge. So he ordered to destroy all documents related to the project.

CIA Director Richard Helms (right) greets US President Richard Nixon, 1969. Nixon became one of the main figures in the Watergate scandal and in 1974 he resigned early from the presidency.

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He worried for a reason. As early as 1974, articles about illegal CIA experiments on citizens of the United States and other countries began to appear in American newspapers. In 1975, a congressional committee began investigating the agencyʼs MKUltra program. In particular, they became interested in the death of CIA employee Frank Olson, who was secretly injected with LSD as part of an experiment. In 1977, part of the MKUltra documents were accidentally found in a financial archive, where they got into due to bureaucratic confusion.

To study these documents, on August 3, 1977, the Senate held a special hearing. By the way, one of the participants in these hearings was a young senator from the state of Delaware Joseph Biden. Now he is the current head of the White House. However, they learned not so much then. Unless they established that about a quarter of a billion dollars were spent on the program. However, it was not possible to establish the exact number of victims and dead participants of the experiments. Everything was limited by the decree of then-President Gerald Ford forbidding the CIA to conduct experiments on people without their consent.

President Gerald Ford (center) apologizes to the family of Frank Olson, who will receive $750 000 in compensation, July 21, 1975.

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The documents contained the names of operatives associated with the MKUltra program. But at the hearings, they stated that they did not remember the details. Former project manager Sidney Gottlieb also complained about memory problems. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who investigated the experiments of the MKUltra program, said of Gottlieb: “He wanted to gain control over peopleʼs minds and realized that this was a two-step process. The existing mind had to be destroyed first and then replaced with something else. The second stage did not work out, but in the first Gottlieb achieved considerable success.”

Translated from Ukrainian by Ruslana Stoltz.

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Stephen Kinzer. Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. Henry Holt and Co., 2019.

Anne Collins. In the Sleep Room: The Story of the CIA Brainwashing Experiments in Canada. Key Porter Books, 1998.

Gordon Thomas. Journey Into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse. Bantam, 1989.

US Senate: Joint Hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, 95th Cong., 1st Sess. August 3, 1977.

Serhii Pyvovarov
Kateryna Kobernyk

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