MKULTRA is one of the
most disturbing instances
of intelligence community
abuse on record.

MKULTRA: CIA Mind Control

by Jon Elliston
Dossier Editor

For many Americans, the 1950s were a docile decade. In U.S. history books, the period is mostly portrayed as a mellow, orderly one, especially in light of the social upheavals that followed in the 1960s. But for the CIA, the "I Like Ike" years were packed with adventure and action, much of it conducted outside of the public's view. Few programs were sheltered with more secrecy than the Agency's mind control experiments, identified together with the code-name MKULTRA.

Concerned about rumors of communist brainwashing of POWs during the Korean war, in April 1953 CIA Director Allen Dulles authorized the MKULTRA program, which would later become notorious for the unusual and sometimes inhumane tests that the CIA financed. Reviewing the experiments five years later, one secrecy-conscious CIA auditor wrote: "Precautions must be taken not only to protect operations from exposure to enemy forces but also to conceal these activities from the American public in general. The knowledge that the agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions in political and diplomatic circles."

Though many of the documents related to MKULTRA were destroyed by the CIA in 1972, some records relating to the program have made it into the public domain, and the work of historians, investigative reporters, and various congressional committees has resulted in the release of enough information to make MKULTRA one of the most disturbing instances of intelligence community abuse on record. As writer Mark Zepezauer puts it, "the surviving history is nasty enough."

The most notorious MKULTRA experiments were the CIA's pioneering studies of the drug that would years later feed the heads of millions: lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. The CIA was intrigued by the drug, and harbored hopes that acid or a similar drug could be used to clandestinely disorient and manipulate target foreign leaders. (The Agency would consider several such schemes in its pursuit of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who they wanted to send into a drug-induced stupor or tirade during a public or live radio speech.) LSD was also viewed as a way to loosen tongues in CIA interrogations.

In his thorough book on MKULTRA and similar projects, The Search for the "Manchurian Candidate," John Marks reports that most of the CIA researchers tried LSD themselves. In fact, an early phase of the experiments was probably the setting for the first acid trip in the United States -- experienced by a courageous CIA man no less!

The fact that these experiments took place is remarkable in and of itself, but the story of the CIA's LSD trips approaches the unbelievably bizarre when the cast of characters is considered. In his recent history of the early exploits of the CIA, The Very Best Men, Evan Thomas describes Sidney Gottlieb, the Stranglovian scientist who ran the MKULTRA project: "Born with a clubfoot and a stutter, he compensated by becoming an expert folk dancer and obtaining a Ph.D. from Cal Tech. A pleasant man who lived on a farm with his wife, Gottlieb drank only goat's milk and grew Christmas trees, which he sold at a roadside stand." When he wasn't busy on the farm, Dr. Gottlieb was dosing subjects with LSD-laced drinks, scrutinizing their reactions, and searching for qualities of the drug that would benefit CIA covert actions.

The CIA's LSD experiments were conducted on many unwitting subjects, most often prisoners or patrons of brothels set up and run by the Agency, which had installed two-way mirrors in the establishments to allow for observation of the drug's effects (these studies were referred to as "Operation Midnight Climax"). Some of the MKULTRA subjects who were informed faced even more inhumane treatment: during one experiment in Kentucky, seven volunteers were given LSD for 77 days straight.

One of the experiments probably proved fatal. On November 19, 1953, an Army scientist and germ warfare specialist named Frank Olson, who was working on an MKULTRA project, was slipped a solid dose of LSD in his drink. Then, after spending eight days stumbling about in what many observers described as a paranoid, depressed state, Olson jumped through his hotel window in New York and fell ten stories to his death.

The Agency covered up its role in Olson's demise, and twenty-two years would pass before his family would learn of the events leading up to his death. When the CIA's acid exploits were made public in the mid-1970s, the Agency found itself facing heavy criticism. One Senate committee put it this way in 1975:

"From its beginning in the early 1950s until its termination in 1963, the program of surreptitious administration of LSD to unwitting non-volunteer human subjects demonstrates a failure of the CIA's leadership to pay adequate attention to the rights of individuals and to provide effective guidance to CIA employees. Though it was known that the testing was dangerous, the lives of subjects were placed in jeopardy and were ignored.... Although it was clear that the laws of the United States were being violated, the testing continued."

Though the most prominently discussed aspect of MKULTRA is the CIA's LSD work, the program included many other unusual investigations relating to the science of mind control. CIA researchers probed the potential of numerous parapsychological phenomena, including hypnosis, telepathy, precognition, photokinesis and "remote viewing."

These studies weren't conducted merely to satisfy the CIA's scientific curiosity -- the Agency was looking for weapons that would give the United States the upper hand in the mind wars. Toward that objective, the Agency poured millions of dollars into studies probing literally dozens of methods of influencing and controlling the mind. One 1955 MKULTRA document gives an indication of the size and range of the effort; the memo refers to the study of an assortment of mind-altering substances which would:

  • "promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public"

  • "increase the efficiency of mentation and perception"

  • "prevent or counteract the intoxicating effect of alcohol"

  • "promote the intoxicating effect of alcohol"

  • "produce the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so that they may be used for malingering, etc."

  • "render the indication of hypnosis easier or otherwise enhance its usefulness"

  • "enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion during interrogation and so-called 'brainwashing'"

  • "produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use"

  • "produc[e] shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use"

  • "produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc."

  • "produce 'pure' euphoria with no subsequent let-down"

  • "alter personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced"

  • "cause mental confusion of such a type that the individual under its influence will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning"

  • "lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts"

  • "promote weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably without permanent effects"
Few of MKULTRA's objectives were realized, but the very conduct of these experiments caused many critics of the CIA to argue that successful or not, CIA scientists shouldn't pry at the doors of perception.

View MKULTRA Documents


Gross, Peter, Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles (Houghton Mifflin, 1994).

Thomas, Evan, The Very Best Men (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

Marks, John, The Search for the "Manchurian Candidate": The CIA and Mind Control (Times Books, 1979).

Mark Zepezauer, The CIA's Greatest Hits (Odionan, 1994).

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