MK Ultra: Mind Control, LSD, and CIA Secret Experiments

MK Ultra was a 2022 film starring Anson Mount and Jason Patric. In the movie, a psychiatrist by the name of Ford Strauss is sent to a Mississippi mental institution.

There, he becomes involved in a CIA experiment and conspiracy to test psychedelic drugs and other mind-controlling substances on his patients. While many aspects of this story were shocking, this psychological thriller was actually based on true events that transpired in America in the 1950s-1970s.

From 1955, artist William Millarc takes part in an LSD experiment alleged to have been part of the MK-ULTRA program.

Interrogation Experiments

During World War II in the early 1940s, Nazi scientists placed themselves in death camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau. There, they conducted interrogation experiments on their Jewish and Russian prisoners. 

The Nazis used hallucinogens and barbiturates to try and create a “truth serum.” They wanted to eliminate inhibitions. Their thinking was that this would allow information to surface that the individual would not offer otherwise. 

It is believed by many that these experiments were then extended into America. Many German scientists at that time had been hired by the United States government. America’s interest in drug-induced interrogation experiments began in 1943 when the Office of Strategic Services started investigating how to concoct some type of “truth drug.” 

By 1953, the Korean War was coming to an end. An intense fear of Communist ideals in America ran high. In April of that year, The New York Times ran a story claiming that American POWs were returning from war with minds that were brainwashed by Communism. 

The newly appointed director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, claimed that “brain warfare” was very real and that the minds of American men had become dangerous in the Soviets’ hands.  

Full-on paranoia took shape as Dulles detailed the ways drugs and chemical agents were likely used to brainwash Americans, as well as the Soviet’s own people. They thought this was a plausible explanation for the amount of people who supported Communism. 

MK Ultra

On April 13, 1953, Dulles approved the top-secret CIA project called “MK Ultra.” In the beginning, the goal was mainly to keep up with assumed Soviet advancements to study and perfect “mind control.” 

The project continued for over a decade. It was originally meant to study how chemicals could alter a human being’s words and actions. But it traveled down the road of illegal drug experimentation on thousands of Americans. 

The top-secret MK Ultra was in full effect from 1953 until around 1964. It was in 1973 that the program officially ended. 

It is hard to know exactly how many humans were used for experimentation as CIA records regarding the project were poorly kept. Those that existed were later destroyed. 

The hundreds of subjects that were known to the public could actually have been thousands. Most subjects used for the experiments had not given consent and had no idea they were being studied using electrotherapy, psychedelics, and paralytic drugs. 

Most of these experiments were conducted at universities, hospitals, or prisons in the U.S. and Canada. But there were also other means and locations of testing on unsuspecting subjects. 

Sidney Gottlieb 

CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb was head of the MK Ultra project. Son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Sidney was born in the Bronx. He attended both Arkansas Tech University and the California Institute of Technology. 

He was denied admittance to the military because of a club foot, so Gottlieb began looking for government work in Washington. He worked for the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. There, he created tests to seek out the presence of drugs in the human body. 

Between 1951, when he was hired by the CIA, and 1953, Gottlieb and the director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, worked closely together. They shared the belief that human mind control was the way to gain world power and benefits for the United States. 

During previous jobs, Gottlieb described work conducting observations of certain plants with hallucinogen properties. Now, under the CIA, Gottlieb was studying the effects of synthetic drugs such as THC, cocaine, and heroin. 

Gottlieb knew that LSD had not been formally tested by the CIA, so he began digging into the properties of that drug. After taking it himself, Gottlieb began accelerating his experimentation with the drug, testing on agents who agreed to the experiments. 

But by 1953, Gottlieb was less than satisfied with the success of his work in creating a ground-breaking “truth serum.” Per their shared ambitions for the experimentation into the world of “mind warfare,” Gottlieb knew CIA Director Dulles would allow him to pioneer any experiments he wished. 

Gottlieb believed that the ability to experiment on unsuspecting subjects would be the key to discoveries and breakthroughs. Testing without subject consent had not been done in past studies. 

It was in April 1953 that Dulles approved MK Ultra and the testing of non-consensual subjects. The CIA knew the taboo nature of this project. Therefore, many experiments were hidden under the label of something the Soviets were conducting and not the American CIA. 

Donald Ewen Cameron’s Psychic Driving 

Scottish-born psychiatrist Donald Ewen Cameron, who spent years studying psychiatric patients, caught the eye of the CIA. 

Cameron had recently been working on “psychic driving” to attempt to cure schizophrenia. Psychic driving was a procedure in which patients were subjected to continuously repeating audio messages over and over to alter their behavior. 

Throughout the treatment, patients would hear the same messages hundreds of thousands of times while paralytic drugs were used to subdue them physically. This procedure was meant to “erase” memories and reprogram the brain. 

It was this procedure that the CIA wanted Cameron to test more in-depth. Cameron was paid a hefty sum for his work. However, it is believed he was unaware that his paycheck was coming from the CIA. 

Death of Frank Olson

A team of men closest to the MK Ultra project met occasionally in a cabin deep in the woods of Maryland. These men included Special Operations Division members, psychiatrists, chemists, and CIA officials. 

On one such occasion in November of 1953, Frank Olson was in attendance at this retreat. Olson was a biological warfare expert, a CIA member, and a father of three. 

Olson held some of the biggest secrets in the country at that time. Many wonder if he knew too much – or possibly was not comfortable with the things he knew.  

During the secret cabin retreat, members in attendance were drugged to test a possible “truth serum” that was being worked on. The participants were actually being given LSD without their consent. And what was peculiar about Olson, was that he had a much more severe reaction than the other men who were allegedly drugged. 

A photograph of Frank Olson, 1950s

Olson returned home to his family a different man. He was extremely agitated, confused, and disoriented for the next few days. At one point he told his wife Alice “I made a terrible mistake.” What he meant by that Alice would never know. 

Eight days after leaving the retreat in Maryland, Olson plummeted to his death from a window at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. His death was ruled a suicide but strange circumstances surrounded the case. 

Olson had been sharing the hotel room with CIA agent Robert Lashbrook, who claimed to have heard a noise that night but had not witnessed anything. After Olson’s death many, including his family, wondered why such a prominent CIA expert would have been drugged by his fellow colleagues. 

Over the years, as more information slowly became available surrounding the true nature of the MK Ultra project, then President Gerald Ford made an apology to Olson’s family. His family also had a second autopsy performed years later on Olson’s body and tests pointed towards injuries that had been sustained before a fall from the window. 

Infamous Criminals and MK Ultra

Over the years, men who were incarcerated during the time the CIA was operating top-secret MK Ultra, claimed that they had been part of the CIA’s experiments. 

Notorious American organized crime boss, Whitey Bulger, committed murders, extortion, and drug trafficking during the 1970s into the 1990s. He then spent 16 years on the run after learning of the warrant to hunt him down. 

Before becoming one of America’s most infamous crime bosses, Bulger served time at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for armed robbery in 1956. Bulger claimed that during that incarceration, he was used as a human subject for experimentation with the CIA’s MK-Ultra program.  

It was decades later, after Bulger was convicted to two life sentences in 2013, that he began writing letters to one particular juror who convicted him. His letters were so detailed and compelling about his time as a “human lab rat” for the CIA, that the juror felt guilt for her part in sending him to prison for life. 

She argued that his most vicious crimes happened after his alleged drugging and wondered if the CIA had a part in making Bulger the murderer he became. Bulger claimed to many that after taking part in the LSD experimentation, he was consistently unable to sleep for more than a few hours a night. He claimed that he was constantly having nightmares and hallucinations. 

Another supposed test subject was the so-called Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. He terrorized the nation for nearly 20 years, sending homemade bombs to citizens. He killed three and injured many more before he was captured in 1996. 

But before Kaczynski became a homegrown terrorist, he attended Harvard University and studied under psychologist Henry A. Murray. Kaczynski took part in an experiment run by Murray that was backed by the CIA, which involved mock interrogations where participants were treated harshly. 

There is no known evidence that Kaczynski was given LSD or other substances while at Harvard. But Murray was believed to be part of the MK Ultra project. 

The End of MK Ultra and the Beginning of Questions 

In 1973, in the wake of the Watergate scandal which rocked the nation, President Gerald Ford began setting up task forces to investigate illegal CIA activities in the United States. One of these projects was MK Ultra.  

A Commission was led by Nelson Rockefeller. It was commonly referred to as the Rockefeller Commission. 

The Church Committee, led by Democratic Senator Frank Church, took a more widespread look into the abuse of power by the CIA during the presidency of Richard Nixon. The Church Committee looked to uncover assignation plots on foreign leaders. They discovered thousands of documents related to MK Ultra. 

It was after these revelations that in 1976, Ford enacted an Executive Order on CIA activities. In these, he 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.” 

Although the order ended such experimentation in the years to follow, many who took part or were aware of the secret details of the project have been long plagued by the activities. Record-keeping for MK Ultra was very vague. Many of the records that did exist were destroyed.

Therefore, the details have gone down in history as secrets only known to a select few who were intensely dedicated to perfecting “brain warfare” using any tactics necessary.    

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