Project MKUltra: An Investigation into the CIA's Mind Control Program, Part I
“We have had religious revolutions, we have had political, industrial, economic, and nationalistic revolutions. All of them, as our descendants will discover, were but ripples in an ocean of conservatism — trivial by comparison with the psychological revolution toward which we are so rapidly moving. That will really be a revolution. When it is over, the human race will give no further trouble.”
— Aldous Huxley
MKULTRA remains probably the most famous, and least understood element of conspiracy theory research: first of all muddied by a bewildering variety of codenames and project titles, and then submerged under expanding conspiritainment industry, four points of order are useful to clarify from the outset: 1) In what follows, “MKULTRA” will be used as an umbrella term covering the various mind control projects (MKULTRA, MKOFTEN, MKSEARCH, MKNAOMI, MKDELTA, Project BLUEBIRD, Project ARTICHOKE, etc.) associated with the CIA between 1950-1975. 2) The CIA did not discover hypnotic and/or pharmacological mind control but built on a longer history of tactical ensorcellment. 3) Almost everything we know about MKULTRA is derived from ten boxes of leftover financial documents: the vast bulk of direct evidence was deliberately destroyed by the CIA, leaving the true scope of the operation unknown and impossible to determine. 4) Nearly all of the early researchers who exposed or contributed to the narrative around MKULTRA-type programs themselves had deep ties to the intelligence community.
In short, although the reality of MKULTRA has been “disclosed”, our real knowledge of it remains both limited and limiting. As CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner put it before the 1977 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the evidence does “not tell the story; they tell pieces of it.” What is nonetheless clear beyond doubt is that MKULTRA was not a minor subprogram launched by rogue CIA agents and a few eccentric scientists, but took place in the context of major human experimentation and psycho-chemical research project involving every branch of the US military and intelligence community as well as at least 44 universities, 15 private research facilities, 12 hospitals or clinics, and 3 penal institutions. Every department of the US military-scientific complex participated in the MKULTRA “mind control” project, and there are reasons to think that involvement continues unabated today.
The mystification of MKULTRA research was present from the very beginning due to the nature of the project’s needs. The demand for suitable test subjects has accompanied medical science going back to the anatomists of the Ptolemaic era. But this demand was never an issue that required propaganda solutions in periods where orphans, asylum inmates, or enemy combatants could be easily captured, bought, or kidnapped without objections being raised. Nor was it previously necessary to secure so many at once. Finally, the risky nature of the experiments encouraged the experimenters to mystify them to themselves. As J.S. Earman put it, barely coherently, in the Report of Inspection of MKULTRA on July 26, 1963: “Unilateral operations are imperative which substantially complicates the delivery problem. The possibilities of unexpected or critical reactions in test subjects and of ensuring compromise of the activity make most senior command personnel unwilling to take the risks involved.”
The first step in the development of what eventually became MKULTRA was the establishment of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) in 1941. Designed to efficiently coordinate scientific research for military purposes, the OSRD was a direct outgrowth of the deficiencies of the National Defense Research Committee which had been created by President Franklin Roosevelt in June 1940 at the urging of Vannevar Bush to organize American technology for war. The NDRC had lacked sufficient bureaucratic grip strength to move ideas from the workshop to the battlefield. The new OSRD would have a direct line to the executive branch, the power to develop promising technologies and the oversight to direct research efforts to align them with military needs.
By the end of the war, the Office had entered into over 2,200 R&D contracts with industrial and academic contractors reaching a value of nearly $9 billion in current US dollars: an order of magnitude larger than any previous government research commitments. The institutional structure was equally novel. The OSRD’s primary role was the urgent development of the atom bomb, following Einstein and Leo Szilard’s famous 1939 letter to Roosevelt warning that the German government could potentially develop one first. This crisis policy framework informed the ethics and time horizons of the agency more generally. As Vannevar Bush remarks in his 1970 memoir:
“There were those who protested that the action […] was an end run, a grab by which a small company of scientists and engineers, acting outside established channels, got hold of the authority and money for the program of developing new weapons. That, in fact, is exactly what it was. Moreover, it was the only way in which a broad program could be launched rapidly and on an adequate scale. To operate through established channels would have involved delays – and the hazard that independence might have been lost, that independence which was the central feature of the organization’s success.”
This “state of exception” logic transformed scientific research in the US forever, setting a precedent that would eventually lead to the gain of function genetic therapy experiments associated with COVID-19.
Medical experiments within the OSRD was initially the responsibility of the Committee on Medical Research, or CMR, which distributed over $24 million (about half a billion in today’s dollars) to 137 institutions over the course of World War II. That funding went to research projects investigating chemical warfare agents and infectious diseases including malaria, influenza, dysentery, and sexually transmitted diseases. Human test subjects included children in orphanages, inmates of mental asylums, conscientious objectors and prisoners, together with soldiers. Most were experimented on without their consent.
Also nestled within OSRD was the secretive Division 19, run by Dr. H. Marshall Chadwell, later connected to “brainwashing” projects and the CIA’s role in UFOs. Most of the documents concerning the work of Division 19 are still classified and the full scope of its activities may never be known. But most of the special weapons developed for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, were developed by Division 19. These included the “Tree Spigot Gun,” “Firefly,” the “Panic Creator” which simulates the sound of falling bombs and explosions, the suppressed M3 “Grease Gun” and the ”Bushmaster” remote trigger mechanism which allowed the M3 submachine gun to be made into an autonomous booby trap, along with incendiary notebooks and briefcases, signet rings containing L-pill Zyankalium (“L” for lethal) and poison dart pens. It also dreamed up ideas such as the ill-fated ”Beano” baseball grenade, the surreal “bat bomb” project, “Aunt Jemima”, a special pancake batter which could be used either for baking or as an explosive, and Operation Skatole, an extreme stink-bomb used for demoralization.
Chadwell, the director of Division 19, became Assistant Director of the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) in February of 1950, and oversaw the start of Project BLUEBIRD along with Colonel James H. Drum, deputy chief of the Technical Services Staff, and the infamous MKULTRA director, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb. According to Gottlieb, Division 19 was the prototype for the Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick which provided the infrastructure, skills and personnel to develop MKULTRA research into practical applications, “The TCIA envisioned Detrick’s SO Division as a creation very much like the eliminated. Little to nothing was reduced to writing, except essential,” wrote H.P. Albarelli in 2010.
The US military’s interest in the use of drugs for interrogation and specifically the possibility of developing a truth serum reaches back to at least 1941, when US Army General George V. Strong asked the NDRC to devise a method for extracting information from captured German U‐boat officers. Research was initially authored by the innocuous-sounding Committee for National Morale (CNM), “a patriotic confederation of scientists” chaired by Arthur Upham Pope, also consisting of Margaret Mead, Harold Abramson, Henry Murray, Ruth Benedict, Lawrence Kubie and Gregory Bateson. All of were affiliates of the Macy Conference which helped develop post-war cybernetics. Part of a network of civil and military governmental agencies, universities and civil society groups, or what would today be called NGOs, the Committee was responsible for organized psychological warfare campaigns during WWII and served as the embryo for the decentralized global propaganda machine that continued to develop after 1945.
In 1941, scientists affiliated with the Committee met with researchers working for the Coordinator of Intelligence, or COI, the precursor to the OSS, who were interested in “truth drugs.” Committee members Henry Murray (the MKULTRA doctor that experimented on Ted Kaczynski), Lawrence Kubie (who helped develop truth drugs for the OSS and attended the Macy Conferences) and Harold Abramson (who would later play a significant role in MKULTRA and the shocking death of Frank Olson) had already conducted a detailed review of available literature on scopolamine. The COI accepted their proposal and the two groups of scientists combined to cooperate on testing a scopolamine-morphine mixture, leading to the horrific experiments on mental patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. and prisoners at the Maryland House of Corrections. Some of the test subjects fell into comas, or suffered hallucinations to the point of mental breakdown. When one subject died of a heart attack, the research was finally shut down. These experiments should be considered as the seed of MKULTRA.
Sidney Gottlieb (1977), head of CIA's mind control program MKUltra during the 1950s and 1960s
Research into psychological manipulation had been gathering pace in the USA and the UK since shortly after World War I, mainly in connection to victims of shellshock. The Tavistock Clinic in London was established in 1921 to research the effects of hypnotism on shell-shocked WWI soldiers; the institute later supplied personnel for psychological warfare initiatives during WWII and in recent years has been the driving force behind transgenderism. In the United States Walter Lippmann, himself later connected to the Committee for National Morale, based his books, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925) on his experiences as editor of a propaganda unit with the American Expeditionary Forces and as secretary of The Inquiry, a primordial U.S. intelligence agency. As early as 1936, prototype methods for “brainwashing” were being studied at Oxford’s Institute for Experimental Psychology under its director William Brown.
Use of pharmacological “alteration” agents then picked up steam during World War II. In the summer of 1940, William Sargant, a real-life mad scientist researching experimental methods of treatments including electroconvulsive therapy, psychosurgery and admixtures of barbiturates like Amytal sodium and Pentothal with amphetamines like Benzedrine or Methedrine, received a letter from the chief of the Tavistock Clinic and British intelligence agent Brigadier John Rees, telling him that his research should not be published, since to do so would risk aiding the enemy. It seems the “abreaction” and divulgence of information reported in some of Sargant’s findings overlapped with classified investigations being conducted at the Tavistock into a truth serum at the same time.
It is important to understand how “truth drugs” actually work: not because they make subjects more candid as such, but because of an acceleration of transference which they effectuate. As psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie put it, “under drugs, the relationship of patient and therapist may contain in overt forms everything which in a veiled form occurs in what is known in psychoanalysis as the transference relationship. A full understanding of the dynamics of transference made the therapeutic utilization of this phenomenon possible.” By using truth serums and hypnosis as a means to speed up “transference processes” and ”circumvent resistances” people become more open to interpretations and affected by emotions. New interpretations become more emotionally freighted and more rapidly incorporated “into the subject’s intellectual and emotional processes in order to use them in the resynthesis of the subject’s psychic functions.” Furthermore, specific interpretations can be guided by a skilled psychoanalyst in a condition in which victim has little defense. Fundamentally, the effect of a “truth serum” supplies the foundation of “brainwashing”, which is why it was ultimately rejected as a method of interrogation, and turned towards other tasks.
Among the central doctrines of the post-war moral economy is the contention that “they” committed medical atrocities, and “we” did not. The credibility of this myth is already thrown into question by the circumstances surrounding their foundational moment at the post-war Nuremberg Trials. Both US and UK intelligence were involved in extracting testimony. Both agencies were experimenting with truth serums at the time. Many of their doctors and scientists — such as William Sargant, an expert in planting false memories — would later be directly associated with MKULTRA research. The possibility that the authorities involved in creating the foundational mythos of the post-war global order used hypnosis, pharmaceutical torture and similarly illicit means of securing testimony in order to generate that mythos is too much to bear, even for the men involved. As Henry Dicks, consultant psychiatrist to MI19, attendant psychiatrist at the interrogation of Rudolf Hess, advisor to SHAEF on psychological warfare (1944-1945) and to the Control Commission for Germany on De-Nazification put it: “British psychiatrists learn with horror of the shameful re-arrest and mistreatment of Vladimir Borisov in your hospital […] Unless this ceases, your names will be linked in history with the Nazis, whose methods you have copied. Shame on you and your contemptible masters.”
Before and during the war, volunteering as a guinea pig was considered a patriotic duty or a brave act of self-sacrifice. It was also recognized that researchers often tested unknown drugs or procedures on mental patients, conscientious objectors, malingerers, political dissidents, minorities, children, or prisoners due to their vulnerable status. But public tolerance for human biomedical experimentation lessened dramatically after WWII. The spectre of human “medical torture” invoked at the Nuremberg “doctor trials” was presented as an expression of exceptional Nazi evil as opposed to representative practices typical of the medical profession for hundreds of years.
Nevertheless, the psychiatrists and government scientists who helped to create the Nuremberg spectacle, formulated the Nuremberg code and constructed the post-war moral order never had any intention of abiding by the standards they employed to damn their German colleagues. In reality, the standard of so-called “informed consent” which the Nuremberg trials established is not educated consent, and participants in experiments rarely fully understand the risks involved. Human test subjects are still drawn from uninformed, vulnerable and desperate populations. The abundance of risky and abusive behavior modification experiments on prisoners continues to this day. Despite all the lip service paid to it, at no point in the post-war era has the Nuremberg code been respected by Western government scientists: not in Cold War mind control experiments, not in the War on Terror’s “enhanced interrogation” studies, and not in the medical terrorism of the current COVID-19 era.
An additional myth consists of misunderstanding the real direction of pressure. When seminal MKULTRA researcher John Marks, former intelligence analyst and author of The Manchurian Candidate remarked that “the intelligence community […] changed the face of the scientific community during the 1950s and early 1960s,” he is obscuring the real structure and origin of MKULTRA research. Although it is true that the CIA’s seemingly infinite black budget made it possible to bring these projects to monstrous scale, the driving force behind this research were networks of scientists, not networks of spies. Marks tacitly reveals a clearer picture when he says “[n]early every scientist on the frontiers of brain research found men from the secret agencies looking over his shoulders [and] impinging on the research.” What he doesn’t say, is that these “frontiers” were already far beyond the moral boundaries of the general public.
For example, Robert Galbraith Heath’s research into “gay conversion therapy” was in reality concerned with the use of pleasure to control human behavior. Involving the use of electricity to overload the mind with pleasure, those experiments began in 1950; CIA funding did not materialize for another several years.
At the root of scientific abuse of human beings is the Faustian figure of the “mad scientist.” The archetype is a part of an “invisible college”, as they sometimes call themselves, of gnostic geeks: the transhumanist, the alchemist, the technocrat, and the cybernetician. After WWII, a “revenge of the nerds” ensued, first on the defeated Axis, and then on pathologized sections of the citizenry. This “scientific dictatorship” over society has resulted in the revolutionary use of “social engineering” to achieve what is considered, by the new managerial class, to be social goods.
As Brigadier General Dr. John Rawlings Rees outlined the vision in his 1940 speech to the National Council for Mental Hygiene “Strategic Planning for Mental Health”, psychiatrists and social scientists must “permeate every educational activity in our national life: primary, secondary, university and technical education […] Those who provide the education, the principles upon which they work, and the people upon whom they work, must all be objects of our interest […] Public life, politics and industry should all of them be within our sphere of influence.” One year later, Dr. Walter Langer, head of the “Psychoanalytic Field Unit” (PFU) within the OSS’s forerunner Coordinator of Intelligence wrote two memos indicating that about 100 of 204 members of the American Psychoanalytic Association were cooperating with his unit. One of the first missions of the Committee for National Morale (CNM) was to invite APsaA members to spy on their patients, looking for signs of “fascist” or “communist” personalities.
Langer and his colleague Henry Murray were responsible for the first psychoanalysis of Hitler, supplied to the OSS for behavioral profiling. These became seminal documents in the canon of pathologizing the political enemies of the United States. The work contains the now well-known lurid sexual details and a “prediction” of Hitler’s suicide, the accuracy of which has been recently cast into doubt. The CNM also produced German Psychological Warfare, a hysterical screed exposing an imaginary psychic war. Intended for popular consumption, the book was draped in scientistic embellishments but in reality seems to have consisted of projections — “Germany has mobilized and employed the resources of scientific psychology with an unprecedented audacity and thoroughness which, in our view, marks the latest advance in the art of war.”
In fact there was little evidence of such a “fifth column” in the United States. On the contrary, from the beginning of the war until the end, the most significant campaign of psychological warfare conducted against the United States population was the campaign conducted by the US government. Americans were radically isolationist at the time and the weight of the entire psychiatric establishment was brought to bear to change their minds. Isolationist sentiment was portrayed as a dangerous “fifth column”; the aviator Charles Lindbergh, leader of the America First isolationist movement, rejoined “the one-fifth who are for war call the four-fifths who are against war the ‘fifth column’. They know that the people of this country will not vote for war, and they therefore plan on involving us through subterfuge.”
From this perspective, America’s involvement in World War II was the result of a coup by intelligence agencies, psychiatrists and social scientists which succeeded in subverting the will of the American people. The public mind was now a battlefield whose front was everywhere and centered nowhere. The success of this coup is what characterized “the Golden Era of psychiatry” that followed the war, and the abuses of MKULTRA. Once the “fifth column” of militarized psychiatrists was mobilized, the war for hearts and minds never stopped. As Rees put it: “If we are to infiltrate the professional and social activities of other people I think we must imitate the Totalitarians and organize some kind of fifth column activity! If better ideas on mental health are to progress and spread we, as the salesmen, must lose our identity […] Let us all, therefore, very secretly be ‘fifth columnists.’”