BY: M. TOMOSKI
Illustration by: Ryan Garcia / The Plaid Zebra
In 1975, law enforcement agents, scientists and prostitutes gathered in Washington to talk drugs. They were brought to the Capitol to testify about a CIA project known as MK-ULTRA, which New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh had recently exposed. Their testimonies uncovered that the CIA had been experimenting with drugs since early in its history and proved that its most well-guarded secrets could put the wildest of storybook spies to shame.
According to The Search for the Manchurian Candidate by John Marks, Sid Gottlieb, the chemist in charge of the project, told Congress that MK-ULTRA’s purpose was “to investigate whether and how it was possible to modify an individual’s behavior by covert means.” In other words, in the early days of the Cold War, the newly-formed CIA believed itself to be in a race against the Reds to unlock the secrets to mind control.
After several unsatisfactory trials guided by the Agency’s top men believing marijuana as the ideal substance for the project, Gottlieb settled on LSD as the most likely candidate to put the mind into a malleable state.
At the time, LSD was believed to simulate the effects of psychosis (recent research shows that the opposite is true) while the small doses that were required to send a subject into a downward spiral made it the most efficient choice. As Marks points out, “A two-suiter suitcase could hold enough LSD to turn on every man, woman, and child in the United States.” But beyond that, not much else was known about the effects of LSD. So their next step was to dose hundreds of unwitting test subjects in the name of black magic and pseudoscience.
In April 1953, CIA Director Allen Dulles approved Gottlieb’s program with a heap of cash in order to begin testing. He also left a limited paper trail that proved its existence.
College students across the country would become Guinea pigs as campuses including Columbia University, the University of Illinois, the University of Rochester, and the University of Oklahoma became testing grounds for MK-ULTRA.
The full extent and purpose of the studies were even kept a secret from staff who worked on the project, and although some of the information collected was made public, knowledge of the Agency’s involvement was limited to the CIA scientists leading the research. “In effect, the scientists would write openly about how LSD affects a patient’s pulse rate,” writes Marks, “but they would tell only the CIA how the drug could be used to ruin that patient’s marriage or memory.”
Hospitals like New York’s Mt. Sinai were also used as testing grounds, while at Lexington Kentucky’s Addiction Research Center, Dr. Harris Isbell conducted his tests on captive participants. The Addiction Research Center effectively operated as a prison for addicts, many of whom were compensated with their drug of choice for volunteering to take part in the LSD experiments. In one horrifying case, Isbell kept seven men tripping for 77 days straight.
“The ethical codes were not so highly developed, and there was a great need to know in order to protect the public in assessing the potential use of narcotics,” he told the Senate subcommittee in 1975, “I personally think we did a very excellent job.”
The full extent of MK-ULTRA might remain unknown, however, because CIA Director Richard Helms had nearly every record of the project destroyed. But according to some testimonies, entire populations could have been one bad judgement call away from being drugged to a frenzy.
“We thought about the possibility of putting some in a city water supply and having the citizens wander around in a more or less happy state, not terribly interested in defending themselves,” a former member of the Agency’s Technical Services Staff (TSS) told Marks.
In the end, the Agency appears to have decided that it would be best if they just dosed themselves. At cabins in the middle of nowhere, dinner parties in their own homes, and even in the office, agents took part in a perverse game of acid roulette, a time when the potential to be drugged against your will became an occupational hazard. Even at Langley, after having his coffee spiked one seemingly ordinary morning, an agent fled the office and was found trembling under a fountain across town. In San Francisco, a US Marshall dosed at a bar went on a bourbon binge before trying to rob a bartender at gunpoint.
The tests revealed that everyone seemed to react differently and that not all subjects had a bad trip. One former agent told Marks, “I felt that everything was working right. I was like a locomotive going at top efficiency. Sure there was stress, but not in a debilitating way. It was like the stress of an engine pulling the longest train it’s ever pulled.”
“Hooked noses or crooked teeth would become beautiful for that person,” the agent said, “something had turned loose in me, and all I had done was shift my attitude. Reality hadn’t changed, but I had. That was all the difference in the world between seeing something ugly and seeing truth and beauty.”
Yet the most bizarre revelations to come from the project have to be the exploits of George Hunter White, a legendary figure at the Bureau of Narcotics who was put in charge of MK-ULTRA’s operations in the field. White had been a member of the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor to the CIA, and trained with future Director Helms at Camp X in northern Ontario, Canada—a place White called “the school for mayhem and murder.” His connection to drug smugglers, mafia bosses, and working girls made him the perfect candidate to run the operation on the ground. Most of what we know about the project today comes from the diary he left behind.
According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, White first rented an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, posing as an artist and luring unsuspecting victims to his apartment after slipping LSD into their drinks. This was the experimental phase of the project, with multiple entries in his journal referring to the women he dosed, placing White among the creepiest figures in CIA history.
The New York City operation was shut down after chemist Frank Olson, who was one of the only people the CIA would openly admit to drugging, was found dead after falling (or being pushed) from a window at the Pennsylvania Hotel in 1953.
With free reign over the project and a steady flow of cash and drugs, White was just getting started. According to SF Weekly, as 225 Chestnut on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill was undergoing renovations in 2012, construction crews pulled recording equipment out of the walls.
After Olson’s death, White moved the operation to San Francisco, calling his new project Operation Midnight Climax. The apartment on Telegraph Hill, which White referred to as “the pad,” operated as one of five brothels (three in the Bay Area and two in New York City). The walls were decorated with pictures of women in bondage and erotic works from artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to arouse locals and the potential foreign agents to be drugged and seduced.
“My purpose was to see that we got guys up there who we wanted to talk, and through other people, we got prostitutes to come speak to these guys. And these prostitutes would put something—which I found out later on was LSD—into their drink and make them talk,” Ike Feldman, former CIA agent, recalls.
According to Acid Dreams the girls were paid $100 a night and guaranteed immunity from prostitution charges. They were meant to seduce the men into revealing everything from state secrets to the hidden fetishes that could be used as blackmail. Meanwhile, on the other end of a two-way mirror, White sat on a portable toilet—with a martini in hand—calling it his “observational post.”
The Pad officially operated until 1965 and became the go-to place for the CIA’s most extreme drug tests. “If we were scared enough of a drug not to try it out on ourselves, we sent it to San Francisco,” the TSS told John Marks, though some believed that White had a tendency to take the tests too far.
In H.P. Albarelli Jr.’s book A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments, Liz Evans, one of the working girls on White’s roster, found herself on the roof of a building after falling victim to the CIA agent’s deranged compulsion to experiment in public.
“He gave it to me once, and I hated every minute of it. I told him if he ever did it again that would be the last time he did it to anyone,” Evans tells Albarelli, claiming that she wasn’t the only one dosed and remembering “a really pretty, blond-haired waitress at [San Francisco’s] Black Sheep bar…name[d]…Ruth [Kelly] and George wanted her to take part in things, but she had no interest, so he, or someone he told to, dosed her with LSD.”
In an odd historical quirk, George H. White may even be responsible for turning San Francisco into the birthplace of the acid-fueled hippie movement. Long before the Grateful Dead were truckin’ across the country on an endless trip, White admits to having drugged people around the city for an entire year just to see what would happen. As less people were falling victim to White and falling into a counterculture that asked the world to ‘drop out,’ the CIA put an end to the project, leaving White with no sign of remorse.
“[I]t was fun, fun, fun,” he once said to Sid Gottlieb. “Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanctions and blessing of the all highest?”