Thomas A. Ban: The Ewen Cameron Story
Steven Kinzer: Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. New York: Henry Holt & Co; 2019
Reviewed by Barry Blackwell
This book, described by its reviewers as “Absolutely riveting” and “A great public service,” will be of consummate interest to members and users of the INHN website already familiar with the MK-ULTRA CIA scandal that embroiled some of the world’s leading psychopharmacologists and psychiatrists who accepted grants from the CIA, directly or indirectly, to participate in “mind control” experiments on human subjects.
The volume is 262 pages long, containing 16 chapters, copious end notes, a bibliography and index.
This story, kept secret, now told seven decades after the tragic events it describes, is as improbable as it sounds and perpetrated by most unlikely protagonists.
Its premise dictated that the human brain could be re-programmed so that existing thoughts, feelings and behaviors were obliterated and replaced by novel components as weapons of war. Historically, this idea gained credence after the exposure of Nazi crimes against humanity during World War 2, amplified by post-war fears and myths that Communism already had such weapons. The CIA recruited scientists and citizens to pursue this “brain washing” research goal in the MK-ULTRA program, often driven by perverse patriotism that warped and eroded ethical or moral norms with a belief that the end justified the means.
The end was failure, while the means destroyed the reputations of the perpetrators and the lives of its victims.
Sidney Gottlieb, “Poisoner in Chief” (1918-1999)
Sidney was the youngest of four children born to Fanny and Louis Gottlieb, Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Hungary who settled in the Bronx where Louis opened a successful sweat shop in the garment district.
Sid attended James Moore High School whose portals ironically framed the motto of England’s William Pitt: “When law ends tyranny begins.” He was an excellent student despite two hereditary handicaps; born with two club feet, three operations left him with a life-long limp while a severe stutter exposed him to teasing. “During high school he was ostracized, physically scarred and unable to walk or speak normally… but Sidney emerged resolute and determined.”
After graduating in 1936 he enrolled in New York College, the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” Educated free of charge he won high grades in math, physics and chemistry. He also took two courses in public speaking and folk dancing to minimize his handicaps.
Sidney chose agricultural biology as his career interest and after sustaining an A average for two years was accepted to the University of Wisconsin where he was mentored by Ira Baldwin (who later became head of the US Biological Warfare program during World War 2).
Sidney majored in Chemistry and in 1940 graduated, Magna cum Laude. Baldwin gave him a glowing recommendation: “Mr. Gottlieb is a very high type of Jewish boy… he has a brilliant mind, is thoroughly honest and reliable, modest and unassuming.”
This ensured admission to graduate school at the California Institute of Technology where three years later in 1943, he was awarded a doctorate in biochemistry.
He then met and married Margaret Moore, daughter of a Presbyterian missionary in India and a progressive teacher schooled in Montessori methods. Sidney and Margaret shared rejection of their parent’s Jewish and Protestant beliefs but “both yearned for an understanding of life beyond what traditional religion offers. They resolved to make that spiritual quest together.”
After graduating in 1943 Sidney was turned down for military service because of his physical handicap. Bitterly disappointed he resolved to find ways to serve his country in a series of government agencies. First in the Department of Agriculture, then the FDA, the National Research Council (in 1948) and finally as a research associate with his own lab at the University of Maryland.
Still committed to their joint spiritual search Margaret found 15 acres of virgin pine forest in Virginia, 15 miles from Washington DC, with a log cabin but no electricity or running water and an outside commode. They now had two “angelic little girls,” (aged one and four) and later added two boys. They also raised goats that Sid milked before dawn. “Despite this satisfying family life, Gottlieb felt frustrated. He had no clear path out of mid-level research on pharmaceutical and agricultural chemicals.”
A Changing World Scene
Events now emerging on the world scene shaped the future in a manner that would eventually offer Sidney an opportunity to serve his country in ways to gratify his stifled patriotism.
After the First World War the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned the use of biological weapons but in 1941, after war erupted again, the Japanese in conquering China, killed thousands by spreading anthrax in bombs and poisoning water supplies with cholera virus.
In 1942, Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, decided to pursue the possibility of biological warfare (encouraged by Winston Churchill). He recruited Ira Baldwin to take leave from the University of Wisconsin and become Head of the Chemical Warfare Service. In 1943 he set up his headquarters at the former National Guard air base at Detrick Field, 50 miles from Washington DC and close to Camp David.
Within a year Baldwin had recruited 1,500 scientists, many graduates from the University of Wisconsin. (Gottlieb, just graduated, was too young). All were trained at the Special Projects School in “the known technical facts and potentialities of germ warfare, passionate about their service and all required to sign a vow of secrecy that bound them for life and beyond.”
Events in America coincided with the end of the war in Germany and eventually the surrender of Japan. Scientists in both nations had been deeply involved in biological warfare, including experimentation on human subjects, widely condemned and leading to the Nuremberg Trials and its Code of Behavior for the future.
Despite this the American Chemical Warfare Service, re-named the Chemical Corps, developed covert plans to recruit and absolve leading German and Japanese scientists for its own programs. In September 1946 the State Department produced “Operation Paperclip” coupled with a process of “bleaching” these former war criminals, providing them with falsified biographies to work at Detrick Field and overseas in Asian detention centers.
By 1950, “All that had changed was the enemy.” In this new narrative “the Soviet Union and Red China formed a monolithic Communist Bloc, a demonic force that mortally threatened all humanity… no sacrifice in the fight against Communism, of money, morality or human life could be considered excessive.”
In 1945 Truman had optimistically abolished the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) but in 1947 he signed the National Security Act to replace it with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Its head, Allen Dulles, authorized the CIA to “carry our functions and duties related to intelligence, affecting national security and to use all appropriate methods.”
On February 3, 1949, an event took place that would refine the mandate and set a new tone for the CIA. The Roman Catholic Prelate in Hungary, Cardinal Mindszenty, was arrested and tried by Communists. He then confessed to extravagant crimes he had clearly not committed. Senior CIA officials focused on the bizarre behaviors he displayed and concluded he had been coerced by mind-altering chemicals. At this time the scientists at Detrick Field were threatened with loss of funding that might be diverted to nuclear programs.
Alarmed, the Chemical Corps developed the Special Operations Division (SOD) to devise and fund a program to conduct research into chemicals to be used “as weapons in covert action, designed to draw prisoners away from their normal identities, induce them to reveal secrets and perhaps even program them to commit acts against their wills.” The SOD staff produced a manual, “Psychochemical Warfare; A New Concept of War.” Its appeal was “to conquer an enemy without wholesale killing or mass destruction of property.” The CIA began to co-operate with the SOD to compile an inventory of toxic and mind altering drugs.
In 1950 a new program to study mind control technology was developed, code-named “Bluebird,” to make prisoners “sing like a bird.” Allen Dulles had concluded that “mind control could be a decisive weapon of the coming age. Any nation that developed ways to manipulate the human psyche could rule the world.”
So, Dulles hired Sidney Gottlieb to lead the CIA’s search for that grail; he had served energetically for a decade in government laboratories. His ineligibility to fight in World War 2 left him with “a store of pent up patriotic fervor.” His focused energy fit well with the compulsive activism and ethical elasticity that shaped the officers of the early CIA. Dulles also was born with a club foot and knew that dynamic well.
Hubris (OED: Excessive pride, self-confidence, God-like presumption.)
The CIA psychologist assigned to screen Sidney noted the search for inner meaning that shaped his early life. “He had a real problem to find a spiritual focus, having gone away from Jewishness.”
Gottlieb’s first assignment was a three"month course on intelligence tradecraft. Following this he did an inventory of CIA research on chemical mind control he found “promising but scattered.” Both Dulles and Helms (Chief of CIA operations) were impressed. They saw in Gottlieb precisely the combination of zeal and creative imagination they considered essential if “Bluebird” was to reach its full potential. They rewarded him with a new title, Chief of the Chemical Division of the Technical Services Staff (TSS). He was responsible for developing, testing and building the tools of espionage.
Dulles also changed “Blueblood’s” name to “Artichoke” with a mandate to expand, centralize and intensify its goals. These new directions indicated the program’s extreme nature. This included the development of fully equipped “safe houses,” many of which would be located off site, away from America and free of legal constraints. The goals were to “investigate drug effects on ego control and volitional activities… that can destroy integrity and can make indiscreet the most dependable individual.”
Dulles convinced himself Communists had discovered mind control techniques and this posed a mortal threat to the rest of the world; the CIA was losing a decisive race. This led not only to justifying extreme drug experiments but American security demanded them. “Artichoke” was the answer and brainwashing became the popular term by which it was known.
Each “Artichoke” team included a “research specialist,” a “medical officer” and a “security technician.” By early 1952 four teams were active in West Germany, France, Japan and South Korea. “Particularly stubborn” prisoners were included, many of whom were “expendable” and disposed of readily if they died. Strategies included electric shock, radiation, ultrasonic noise and temperature extremes.
These experiments with drugs, singly and in combination, were in search of a “truth serum” that would “loosen recalcitrant tongues, open the mind to programming, an amnesic that would wipe away memory.” THC, cocaine and heroin were included, also mescaline and LSD.
Gottlieb experimented on himself with LSD and his colleagues did likewise “hoping this was the secret that was going to unlock the universe.” Dulles and Helms gave Gottlieb authority to “launch any experiments he could conceive.” LSD was particularly suited to clandestine purposes; it was colorless, odorless, tasteless and “minute quantities had such a terrific effect.” Encouraged by these qualities Gottlieb “had gone on to feed drugs in such large quantities and under far more tortuous conditions to prisoners and other helpless ‘expendables’”.
As Gottlieb’s far flung research project was reaching new extremes politics intervened to guarantee its future. On November 4, 1952, American’s elected Dwight Eisenhower as President, ensuring Gottlieb would be free to do whatever he could imagine. Eisenhower appointed Allen Dulles head of the CIA and his brother John Foster Dulles Secretary of State, guaranteeing the CIA could be relied on to support whatever Gottlieb did abroad, giving “black sites all the cover needed.”
In less than six months, after consolidating power on April 13, 1953, Allen Dulles approved a new project Helms proposed that made Gottlieb America’s mind control czar. It was called MK-ULTRA, awarded a starting budget of $300,000, “not subject to financial controls, permitted to launch research and conduct experiments at will without signing contracts or other written agreements.”
MK-ULTRA (OED: To an extreme degree. From L ultra ‘beyond’).
“Artichoke had become one of the most abusive projects ever sponsored by an agency of the United States government. The time had come to intensify and systematize it. Allen Dulles had given Gottlieb an almost laughably daunting assignment; discover a wonder drug to defeat freedom’s enemies and save the world. It was a supreme challenge to the scientific imagination. Gottlieb was as ready as any American.”
McCarthyism in America was moving towards its peak of hysteria about Communism and its risk to a free America, accentuated by several specific events. Included was the fate of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in early 1953.
As the Korean War ended and American defectors came home the CIA imagined they had been converted by “brainwashing” techniques but there was no evidence. CIA operatives had been captured by the Chinese and were imagined having been tortured by exotic techniques. The imagined extremes of Communism confirmed the existential dread that led Dulles, Helms and Gottlieb to justify the extremes they planned for MK-ULTRA.
It was time to bring the strategies developed overseas back to the United States. This would involve including American citizens as experimental subjects, co-opting American scientists, hospitals and medical schools as investigators in the research.
Among the first steps Gottlieb took was to open a “safe house” in New York located in Greenwich Village. It would become Project 3 in MK-ULTRA. Gottlieb hired George White, a hard-charging narcotics detective who lived in the twilight world of crime and drugs. “He was accustomed to treating people poorly and relied upon to keep secrets.” Gottlieb's intimate involvement with the event, techniques and outcomes of Project 3 are well documented in detail.
During 1953 Gottlieb launched a dozen new projects as part of MK-ULTRA. Project 6 paid scientists at Eli Lilly to break the chemical code and patent protecting the Swiss production of LSD. Project 5 covered a series of hypnotic experiments on about 100 subjects at the University of Minnesota conducted by Alden Sears and the Chair of Psychiatry, both of whom were cleared through the TOP SECRET classification to conceal its real purpose.
Project 43 paid Jolyon West, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma, $20,800 to study drugs in a special chamber to control various hypnotic, pharmacologic and sensory-environmental variables. West also conducted experiments on drug induced “suggestibility” and ways to induce “dissociative states.” In 1962 he shot 300,00 micrograms of LSD into a 7,000 pound bull elephant that fell over dead five minutes later.
Project 4 recruited magician John Mulholland (a pupil of Houdini) to teach CIA officers how to distract a victim’s attention so drugs could be given without noticing. Mullholland’s findings were modified in Project 19 when the agent was a woman or if two or more agents worked in collaboration. In 2007 a copy of the manual Gottlieb produced, Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception, was found - the only MK-ULTRA document to have survived intact.
In 1953 Gottlieb visited the Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky, and co-opted the Director of Research, Harris Isbell, to collaborate on three Projects: Project 73 was to test whether mescaline or other drugs could facilitate hypnosis; Project 91 was to develop new psycho-chemicals; and Project 147 to study psychotomimetic drugs that produce delusions and delirium.
Inmates enrolled in the studies were denied full informed consent and were often bribed to volunteer by rewards of high grade heroin, to which they were addicted. Most were African-American males administered high doses of LSD who Gottlieb regarded as “expendables.” The most extreme experiment on seven prisoners involved massive doses daily for 77 days in an attempt to “dissolve the mind” in preparation for re-programming.
Another enthusiastic investigator was Carl Pfeiffer, Chair of Pharmacology at Emory University, who ran four MK-ULTRA studies, including Projects 28 and 47, for long term administration of antidepressants and hallucinogens in high doses. In one study 20 inmates were given LSD daily for up to 15 months, one of whom, a convicted murderer, described Pfeiffer as “a modern Mengele.” Another psychiatrist, James Hamilton at Stanford University, signed four MK-ULTRA contracts, Projects 8, 10, 63 and 66.
But Gottlieb’s “most important fruitful collaborator” was Harold Abrahamson, a New York allergist and LSD pioneer. Gottlieb gave him $85,000 for experiments on LSD and other hallucinogens to determine effects on memory, denial of aberrant behavior, sex patterns, information processing, suggestibility and creation of dependence. Abraham’s subjects included 12 pre-pubertal boys fed psilocybin and 14 children age 6-11 diagnosed schizophrenic and given 100 micrograms of LSD daily for six weeks. “It was done with great secrecy.”
Experiments on victims, volunteers and patients were supplemented by daring experiments with LSD by chemists of the TSS of the CIA. “They spiked each other’s coffee or liquor; they spread it on their food. They tripped out in their offices and safe houses in Washington and the Maryland countryside.”
Gottlieb integrated his home and personal life with his professional quest. He and Margaret wondered what lies beyond the physical reality of the human senses and engaged in self-experimentation with LSD, coincident with their shared pursuit of inner wisdom and spirituality.
Compared with “Bluebird” and “Artichoke,” MK-ULTRA was the most secret of all. The number of people who knew even its general outline was exceedingly small.
The Olsen Affair; the depths of depravity
As MK-ULTRA spread into ever darker reaches, the men involved had to consider the possibility of a leak or security breach. “For a time the risk was hypothetical, suddenly it erupted into terrifying reality.”
Frank Olsen, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, had also been recruited to join Fort Detrick by Baldwin as an expert in aerosol dispersion of toxins. Eventually he became head of SOD. In 1953 he visited the top-secret British Neurobiological Research Establishment at Porton Down where the British psychiatrist William Sargent helped direct research similar to and co-operative with the CIA. Olsen witnessed a volunteer dosed with Sarin die in agony and shortly afterwards he visited a CIA safe house in Stuttgart, Germany, where again he saw other men dying. “Deeply disturbed by what he had seen in CIA houses he displayed symptoms of not wanting to keep secret what he had witnessed,” Sargent reported this to his superiors understanding it would be forwarded to the CIA.
As Thanksgiving 1953 approached Olsen received an invitation to attend a joint meeting of CIA operatives and SOD. “Comrades in search of cosmic secrets it made sense for them to gather, discuss their projects and share ideas in a relaxed environment. As they gathered for dinner at Deep Creek in Maryland and settled back for a round of drinks Robert Lashbrook, Gottlieb’s deputy, produced a bottle of Cointreau and several, including Olsen, drank heartily. After twenty minutes Gottlieb asked if anyone was feeling odd and told them their drink had been spiked with LSD.”
Olsen became agitated, confused and unable to separate reality from fantasy or engage in sensible conversation. Returning home to join his family he became distant, unable to focus and refused to eat. “I’ve made a terrible mistake” he finally blurted but refused to elaborate. The next day he returned to Fort Detrick and “began pouring out his doubts and fears” to his boss. asking if he should be fired or quit.
MK-ULTRA had been underway for just seven months, one of the government’s deepest secrets, guarded by security that was “tighter than tight.” Barely two dozen men knew its true nature and nine of them had dined at Deep Creek. Olsen’s boss called Gottlieb to discuss his state who suggested he be taken to New York to see Harold Abrahamson, the physician working for the CIA who Gottlieb trusted.
The talk appeared to calm him but he left his hotel room in the middle of the night, wandered aimlessly around the city and threw away his wallet and identification cards. He refused to eat, believing he might be poisoned. Accompanied by his boss and Gottlieb’s deputy Lashbrook they flew back to Washington DC where he refused to return home saying, “Take me to the police, they’re looking for me anyway.” Olsen’s boss suggested he might like to talk to Abrahamson again and they returned to New York. It was evening so they checked into the Statler Hotel, sharing Room 1018A.
Just before dawn Frank Olsen’s body hit the sidewalk and he died within minutes. His wife was informed, it was ruled a suicide and the funeral was held with a closed casket. The cover up in the next few days “was a model of brisk efficacy.”
Despite the successful cover up, Olsen’s dearth was a near disaster for the CIA, but Gottlieb, Helms and Dulles proceeded as if it had never happened. “If MK-ULTRA could provide the key to victory in a future war something as minor as a single death would hardly be enough to derail it.”
The truth about Frank Olsen’s death would emerge 40 years later when, in June 1994, his son Eric had his father’s body exhumed and examined by a leading forensic pathologist at George Washington University. He found no glass shards on the victims head, arms or neck as might be expected if he had dived out of a window. Although he landed on his back the skull was fractured above the left orbit, consistent with a stunning blow to the head by some person or an instrument prior to exiting the window.
In 1997 a CIA manual written by Gottlieb in 1953 was declassified. Titled A Study of Assassination, it reads:
“The contrived accident is the most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement and is only casually investigated. The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface. It will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him. Care is required to ensure that no wound or condition not attributable to the fall is discernable after death. A rock or heavy stick will do, and nothing resembling a weapon need be procured, carried or subsequently disposed of. Blows should be directed to the temple.”
Enter Ewen Cameron
In 1954 the American Psychological Association convened at the Statler Hotel in New York where Frank Olsen spent the last night of his life the year before. One of Gottlieb’s officers reported on the papers presented and drew particular attention to one by James Hebb on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation on student volunteers at McGill University in Montreal.
As CIA scientists looked more deeply into this work they discovered one of Hebb’s colleagues was “pushing his experiments in the coercive direction they were especially interested in.” In 1956 this remarkable psychiatrist, Ewen Cameron, published an “adaptation of Hebb’s psychological isolation” in which he enclosed patients in small cells, placed them in a clinical coma using hypnosis and drugs, including LSD, and then subjected them to endless repetition of simple recorded phrases. He compared this to “the breakdown of the individual under continuous interrogation.”
When Gottlieb contacted Cameron he was President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association. The focus of his research, the peculiar nature of his experiments and the fact he worked outside the United States combined to make him an ideal MK-ULTRA contractor. Gottlieb sent Maitland Baldwin from NIMH to approach Cameron. Once he was assured he was the right person Baldwin suggested Cameron apply to the “Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology” for funding. Cameron did so and obtained $69,000 in CIA support for what became Project 68 in MK-ULTRA.
Another historian has since estimated that about 100 patients were treated at Allan Memorial Hospital under this protocol who became “unwilling subjects in an extreme form of behavioral experimentation” (McCoy 2006). The CIA officer who became Gottlieb’s liaison wrote in his diary: “Dr.G made clear my job was to ensure acceptable deniability operates at all times in Montreal.”
The essence of Cameron’s approach was based on finding alternative ways, other than psychotherapy, to shape human behavior because talk was too slow and unreliable. “If you can succeed in inventing means of changing attitudes and beliefs we shall find ourselves in possession of measures, which if wisely used, may be employed in freeing ourselves from those unsatisfactory attitudes and beliefs” (Weinstein 1980).
This approach may have been especially appealing to Gottlieb coming at a time when he was beginning to realize that drugs alone could not achieve the CIA’s goals. To cleanse unwanted thought from a patient’s mind Cameron invented “de-patterning” which employed ECT (up to 40 times the normal amount or duration), sensory deprivation (up to 35 days), LSD and restriction of food, oxygen and water.
According to Kinzer, “In professional papers and lab reports Cameron reported he had succeeded in destroying minds but had not found ways to replace them with new ones with prolonged attempts.”
In one article (Taylor 1992) Cameron describes a particular patient “with evident pride” as follows: “Shock treatment turned the then 19 year old honors student into a woman who sucked her thumb. Talked like a baby, demanded to be fed from a bottle, and urinated on the floor.” Other patients disappointed him: “Although the patient was prepared by both prolonged sensory isolation (35 days) and repeated de-patterning and although she received 101 days of positive driving, no favorable results were obtained.”
In addition to programs run by experts Gottlieb also set up non-professional safe houses in urban areas, first New York and then San Francisco, run by the same hard-driving drug detective (George White). Men and women, mostly prostitutes and their clients, were experimented on using LSD. One project was “Operation Midnight Climax.” Gottlieb himself took advantage of this “ready access to prostitutes.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum Gottlieb “wanted his own research hospital – a medical safe house in America where CIA scientists could conduct their research.” In 1955 Georgetown University announced plans to build a six story, 100-bed addition named “Gorman Annex.” Gottlieb proposed the CIA contribute $375,000 as part of the $3 million cost in return for one sixth of the space. CIA operatives would be able to conduct projects the university and hospital authorities were unaware of and would be completely deniable. This highly unusual request went from Dulles to Helms and then Eisenhower’s Committee for approval which it obtained.
“Little is known about the essence or anything experiments CIA scientists conducted which included terminally ill patients.” Pressed for details two decades later the CIA Director stated: “There is no factual evidence of what went on, it is just missing. It is not that it didn’t happen.”
In almost nine years of existence the CIA operated with no Congressional oversight. In 1956 Senator Mike Mansfield proposed a “Joint Congressional Committee for the purpose of making studies of activities of the Agency.” Even within the CIA MK-ULTRA was top secret and only Gottlieb and his deputy Lashbrook “knew precisely what it was doing.” But both Dulles and Eisenhower knew enough that the legislation would be passed “over their dead bodies and also persuaded the CIA needed absolute secrecy in order to defend the United States.” Mansfield’s proposal was defeated in the Senate 59-27.
Public interest in and fears of “brainwashing” in Communist hands supported secrecy as evidenced by popular sentiment and novels at the time that included AClockwork Orange, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Manchurian Candidate and The Ipcress File in which British diplomats, kidnapped by Soviet agents, were subjected to torture remarkably similar to the “psychic driving” that Ewen Cameron practiced as part of the MK-ULTRA experiments in Montreal. “Brainwashing, unfettered by science or anything else other than the limits of creative fantasy, had caught the American imagination.”
The Beginning of the End
The first sign Gottlieb was losing faith in MK-ULTRA appeared in 1960 in a memo, “Scientific and Technical Problems in Covert Action Operations.” It documented the failure to find the ideal pill: “No effective knockout pill, truth serum, aphrodisiac, or recruitment pill is known to exist.” MK-ULTRA operated on a greatly reduced scale and many projects ended. LSD was castigated along with electroshock and sensory deprivation. “With the use of enough powerful drugs and other extreme measures it is impossible to destroy the human mind. There was no way to embed a new personality or open the wiped away mind to an outsider.”
When, in 1961, the CIA had a new Director, John McCone, he was persuaded to protect MK-ULTRA from “prying eyes” by not moving it to the new directorate but leaving it under Helms’ friendly supervision. It had begun in 1953 and conceived 149 projects. McCone directed the CIA’s Inspector General to evaluate MK-ULTRA and the report reached four conclusions:
1. Manipulation of human behavior was considered by many authorities in medicine to be professionally unethical and the reputation of participants in MK-ULTRA were in jeopardy.
2. Some MK-ULTRA activities raised questions of legality.
3. The final phase of MK-ULTRA products places rights and interests of US citizens in jeopardy.
4. Public disclosure of MK-ULTRA activity could induce serious adverse reactions in US public opinion and stimulate offensive and defensive action on the part of foreign intelligence agencies.
The conclusion was that weighing the risks and benefits of MK-ULTRA led the Inspector General to recommend termination.
Sidney Gottlieb’s response, “in the true Buddhist fashion,” was to agree and “let the program fade away entirely.” He conceded that “these materials and procedures are too unpredictable to be operationally useful.” He added that “both ethical and moral considerations as well as the extreme sensitivity and security considerations effectively rule them out.” Over the final months of 1963 MK-ULTRA slowed toward dignified expiration. In 1964 the cryptogram MK-ULTRA was officially retired. In 1966 President Johnson named Helms head of the CIA. Gottlieb’s bureaucratic godfather had reached the top while he remained Chief of the Technical Services Division (COTS), master of the CIA tool shop and its subsidiaries around the world. Gottlieb remained Chief of COTS until his retirement.
In 1973 President Nixon fired Helms as head of CIA and in collaboration Gottlieb decided all MK-ULTRA records should be destroyed: “let this die with us.” At the same time Gottlieb ordered his secretary to open his office safe, remove files marked MK-ULTRA or “secret-sensitive” and destroy them. She did.
On June 30, 1973, when he retired from the CIA, Sidney Gottlieb was awarded the Agency’s highest honor, the “Distinguished Medal, CIA,” for “performance of outstanding service or achievement of a distinctly innovative nature.” The ceremony was private and, according to protocol, the medal was returned. The citation that accompanied it has not been de-classified.
When the new Director of the CIA, James Schlesinger, took over he issued a directive to all members inviting them to submit any concerns in writing about “activities outside the CIA charter.” These filled 693 closely typed pages including, “research into behavioral drugs in human volunteers.” One mentioned Gottlieb and the MK-ULTRA records he had destroyed, known metaphorically as “the family jewels.”
An investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, uncovered the story; President Ford appointed a Commission that did not mention MK-ULTRA but, deep inside the report, included the story of Frank Olsen and his untimely death. The story came to the attention of the Olsen family who announced their plan to sue the CIA. The investigation this instigated brought to light Sidney’s involvement in the affair. “These stories pierced Gottlieb’s shroud of anonymity; he was gone, but, to his eternal dismay, not forgotten.”
After retirement from the CIA Helms had helped Sidney find a job at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). After seven months he and his wife Margaret were deciding what to do with the rest of their lives. “Sidney was still youthful and vigorous in his mid-fifties, by nature an explorer, a seeker, a wanderer.”
Faced by what might become an embarrassing and dangerous look into his CIA past Sidney and Margaret, also thirsty for adventure booked themselves onto a freighter heading for Australia
The Search for Redemption
The couple’s trip took them by land, sea and air to Africa, India and Australia, “getting themselves volunteer jobs helping others wherever we were and spending as long as we wanted.” After working three months in a missionary hospital Margaret became sick and while she was convalescing, “suddenly the past came calling.” The Senate had formed a “Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities,” headed by Senator Frank Church from Idaho. On a spring day in 1975 Gottlieb received a “most disconcerting message”: The Church Committee wished to talk to him. His world travels were over.
Nemesis (OED: inescapable downfall; divine punishment; Gr; retribution)
Gottlieb’s former colleagues urged him to first find a lawyer. Terry Lenzer a “hard-charging Washington lawyer” had recently given a talk about the legal rights of CIA officers and he fit the bill. Lenzer planned to seek immunity from prosecution in return for testifying; concerned Sidney might well become “the fall guy for the whole investigation… they could very well pin Olsen’s death on you.” Reluctantly Gottlieb agreed. The committee, faced with Lenzer “like General Patton on steroids,” granted the request prior to what became 40 hours of testimony that, consistent with Senate rules, was sealed for 50 years. “Setting a pattern that would define all his post-retirement testimony he repeatedly pleaded bad memory. Protected by immunity he was able to confess to possible crimes. He even managed to keep his name out of the official record (he testified under a pseudonym).”
Once it was over, for the second time in as many years he resolved to drop out of sight and live the rest of his life in simplicity and service to others. Fate did not co-operate this time either. The family retired to northern California and meanwhile the Church Committee held 126 public hearings, interviewed 800 witnesses and reviewed more than 100,000 documents focused on domestic spying and assassination plots “without coming close to understanding MK-ULTRA or what Gottlieb had done.”
But in 1977 President Carter installed Stansfield Turner as the new Director of the CIA to “bring transparency to the CIA.” A Freedom of Information request came to light seeking any MK-ULTRA files that might have escaped destruction. An archivist found a collection of expense reports, among them reference to various “Projects.” More than 1,000 pages provided details of those super-secret projects.
Turner, only five months into his job, reported those findings to the Senate. Questioned by Edward Kennedy he agreed “MK-ULTRA had been totally beyond the pale.” Kennedy asked for the name of the Director of the CIA responsible and why he had not been interviewed. “One thing is sure Gottlieb knows.”
Once again Gottlieb consulted Lenzer and they submitted the same request, freedom from prosecution. Meanwhile a trove of documents about “Operation Midnight Climax” had come to light. Lenzer now required that the hearings be held in Executive session, protected from the public and press. The New York Times made Gottlieb their “Man in the Press” profile, but without a photograph.
Gottlieb made a skillful and carefully planned presentation in which he stressed the international climate of the times, that the threat and fear of Communism and its techniques “posed a threat of the magnitude of national survival.” After justifying the need for MK-ULTRA he explained the conclusion that all the CIA experiments revealed the futility of brainwashing and the destruction of the records was to remove his successor’s needs “to handle a burgeoning and distracting paper problem.”
The hearing went well; no one asked him what kind of experiments or whether he maintained interrogation centers outside the United States, or if any of the subjects died. He portrayed himself as a victim, not a perpetrator. He had always briefed his superiors, Dulles and Helms about the program. “Whenever approached about a delicate matter his memory failed; no investigator or senator came close to the heart of the program.”
The full account of MK-ULTRA finally appeared in a book published in 1979 by John Marks, a 34 year old Cornell graduate and former State Department Officer in Vietnam. He had filed a Freedom of Information request and uncovered more than 1,600 pages that produced the book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate; The CIA and Mind Control. He identified Gottlieb as the Director MK-ULTRA, including dozens of references to his life and work. Marks sent Gottlieb the galley proofs of his book for comment and Sidney sent them straight back; “I felt it was so inaccurate and outrageous.”
Mark’s book appeared just as Gottlieb was settling into what he hoped would be a new life. At age 60 he had enrolled in a master’s degree program at San Jose State University on speech therapy. He also took sailing lessons and settled into a tranquil domestic life with Margaret.
He maintained this gentle pace until 1980 when he obtained his degree and the couple decided to return to Virginia where they had a 5,000 square foot eco-home in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Here they raised goats and chickens, grew vegetables, fruit and herbs. Their home “became a kind of spiritual retreat and focal point for a growing community who found Sidney Gottlieb a charismatic soul mate… People had no idea Gottlieb ever worked for the CIA; his virtue was unquestioned, his counsel sought, his company prized.”
But however diligently he worked to bury the past it returned to haunt him. Eric Olsen and his family visited him, seeking more information about the death of his father but the meeting was tense and unsatisfactory. Eric commented, “I was dealing with a world-class shrewdness. You felt you were playing cat and mouse and he was way ahead of you. He had a charm that was extraordinary. You could almost fall in love with the guy. The thrust was to say, ‘that guy back then did things I’m ashamed of now, but I am not him now. I left the Agency, I went to India and I am now teaching children with learning disabilities and I am consciousness-raising. I am not that guy.’”
It was this meeting that led Eric to exhume the body of his father and obtain a more sophisticated forensic report that led the New York Police to change the verdict from suicide to “Cause unknown pending investigation.” But here the matter ended although Eric’s conviction it was murder was portrayed in a four hour movie, Wormwood, released in 2017.
By now features of MK-ULTRA were beginning to leak out leading to lawsuits brought by family members during which “Gottlieb was forced to sit for days of harsh questioning.” This began with a lawsuit by three inmates at the Atlanta Penitentiary, subjects in Carl Pfeiffer’s experiments. It was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
At almost the same time the relatives of a Canadian woman treated by Ewen Cameron for postpartum depression in 1957 filed suit. Gottlieb was subjected to three day-long sessions of aggressive cross examination to which he responded mainly with lack of memory or vague statements. The patient, wife of a Canadian politician, had been “subjected to horrific treatment that left her functioning at about 20% of capacity, unable to read, use a fork and knife or recognize relatives.” Asked if Gottlieb felt responsible for the torments Camron had inflicted in MK-ULTRA work he replied, “I find it very difficult to answer that question.” This case dragged on for five years and was finally settled out of court for $750,000 by the CIA but without admitting guilt or responsibility.
Another case filed in 1981 involved a victim poisoned by Gottlieb in France in 1952. CIA lawyers deferred the case until after the victim died of heart failure in 1992. His sister continued the case and in 1995 Gottlieb faced four full days of intensive examination. Once again he insisted he had forgotten most of his past and insisted the incident never occurred. In 1998 a judge decided the case against Gottlieb could continue but he won a postponement until early 1999.
As Sidney waited for the French trial to continue New York detectives began to push to re-open the Olsen case. Friends and family who knew Gottlieb in the last months of his life saw a man who was attempting to atone, seeking redemption or, as a rabbi who tried to help said, “he was on a path of expiation, whether consciously or unconsciously but his responses were so defended I gave up after a few minutes. It was a barrier; I wasn’t doing to get the truth.”
If Sidney Gottlieb had been found guilty in this last case it would have been the first time but he died beforehand, on March 7, 1999, at age 80. “Margaret did not announce the cause of death.”
When Eric Olsen and the lawyer who prosecuted one of the earlier cases met they drank a toast to the man they considered a monster and arrived at a joint conclusion, “Gottlieb had died by suicide.” Nobody was better equipped than Sidney Gottlieb, “Poisoner in Chief,” to know what substance would best secure a sudden and painless end to life.
The Author’s Synopsis
In the final chapter of Kinzer’s book, “You Never Know What He Was,” the author provides his summary assessments of the characters. He names Ewen Cameron as “the physician who conducted what were arguably the most horrific of all the MK-ULTRA experiments.” Cameron died in 1967 long before the program’s brutal faults became public. According to a Toronto Star reporter (Lewis 1990): “He was found under mysterious circumstances after falling off a cliff.” The same mode of death dealt to Gottlieb’s colleague Frank Olsen and described by Gottlieb as the ideal mode of assassination.
Kinzer’s conclusions about Gottlieb are enigmatic including, “History and morality loom like threatening clouds over any attempt to assess Sidney Gottlieb’s life and work. He can be fairly praised as a patriot, and just as fairly abhorred as demonic. Judging him requires a deep dive into the human mind and human soul.
“Gottlieb searched relentlessly for inner peace just as relentlessly laying waste to other people’s minds and bodies. He was a jumble of extraordinary archetypes; a creator and destroyer, an outlaw who served power, a gentle-hearted torturer. Above all he was an instrument of history. Understanding him is a deeply disturbing way of understanding ourselves.”
Reviewer’s Comments: Two Men United but Divided.
The MK-ULTRA era (1953-1963) and the tragic deaths of its victims is the post-World War 2 story of two men; Ewen Cameron, one of the world’s best known leading psychiatrists, and Sidney Gottlieb, a talented biochemist and senior official of the American government.
Extensive links joining the professional lives of Cameron, Gottlieb, Dulles and Helms have been explored in detail (Flavin 2009). Gottlieb and Cameron also shared a peculiarity - the stark contrast between their benign public persona viewed by the world at large and their sinister characterization in the MK-ULTRA story.
Kinzer’s book adequately portrays this dichotomy with Gottlieb in Poisoner in Chief; I began to explore this feature in Cameron’s persona in a recent essay on INHN stimulated by Tom Ban’s personal experience at Alan Memorial (Blackwell 2019).
The interests and roles of this odd couple were also dictated by the scientific and political Zeitgeists operative during the decade of MK-ULTRA (1953-1963).
Both Ewen and Sidney were the sons of devout parents; the Gottlieb’s Jewish and Presbyterian and the Camerons, both Presbyterians. As adults both Sidney and Ewen rejected their parent’s formal religious beliefs for a committed and shared sectarian humanism dedicated to the wellbeing of all mankind. Kinzer discusses this ideal in his book and Cleghorn, the psychoanalyst at the Alan Memorial who succeeded Cameron, discusses it in his recollection (Cleghorn 1990).
The 1953-1963 decade of MK-ULTRA was also a time of dramatic change in psychiatry and politics. Psychiatry was dealing with the influx of new drugs, challenging the hegemony of psychoanalysis in America and exposing the weaknesses of both medication and therapy; chlorpromazine emptied out the asylums but did not cure schizophrenia. Cameron knew this and his move to the Alan Memorial coincided with and empowered his brilliant mind to aggressively pursue an innovative approach to the treatment of mental illness which, if successful, might garner a Nobel Prize.
Government and Gottlieb were challenged by the postwar threat of Communism and potent fear that Russia and China had developed methods of mind control as a potential weapon of war. For Dulles and Gottlieb this mandated a government-led research program to develop an equivalent tool: MK-ULTRA. If this was successful it would re-establish America’s political dominance worldwide.
Although Gottlieb and Cameron worked in separate domains it is hardly surprising they arrived at the same solution. Dulles, Gottlieb and Cameron were all members of the OSS, (the government predecessor to the CIA), which, after the Second World War was part of dealing with the Nuremburg Trials; after, Helms became head of the CIA, Cameron was his wife’s therapist.
The MK-ULTRA solution acknowledged the failure of drugs alone, principally LSD, to achieve its goals in the “Bluebird” and “Artichoke” programs, and the need to implement a new method both Cameron and Gottlieb believed might solve their problem of mind control. This involved cleansing the mind of its usual patterns by creating a tabula rasa by de-patterning, using or combining ECT and social isolation, often for extended periods, followed by replacing them with new thoughts and behaviors (positive driving). Significant contributory factors in successful implementation of these rigorous procedures were secrecy and the need to ignore the kind of constraints on medical experimentation outlined in the Nuremburg Code.
When de-patterning and positive driving both failed so did MK-ULTRA and in 1963 Gottlieb ordered all the existing records destroyed, including those at Alan Memorial The threat of exposure had already made Gottlieb complicit in the death, possibly suicide or murder, of a colleague (The Olsen affair). Cameron moved to a VA hospital to continue a research program but died an early death in 1969 “under mysterious circumstances” while his reputation remained largely intact.
As some surviving records were recovered MK-ULTRA gradually became public and over the next three decades lawsuits against both Gottlieb and Cameron were filed, often dragging on for years before settlement. A vast literature developed, embellished with conspiracy theories as evidenced by a bibliography of 200 of which more than 25 deal with MK-ULTRA or its components.
Blackwell B. Comment. Thomas A. Ban: The Ewen Cameron Story. inhn.com.controversies. September 12, 2019.
Cleghorn RA. The McGill Experience of Robert A Cleghorn. Recollection of D. Ewen Cameron. Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 1990; 1(7):53-76.
Flavin RD. The Tragedy of Dr. D. Ewen Cameron. www.Flavinscorner>Cameron (updated 06.17.09).
Lewis J. Valorlikow, 73, Was victim of CIA Brainwashing Tests. Toronto Star, May 25, 1990.
Marks J. The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
McCoy AW. A Question of Torture, CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York, Henry Holt: Owl Books, 2006.
Taylor S. Brainwashing. A History of Secret CIA Mind Control Research. Nexus: April-May 1992. all.net / journal/deception/MK-ULTRA/profree4all.co.uk/skeleton_1 html.
Weinstein H. Father, Son and CIA, The Riveting Account of the Destruction of a Man’s Life by Secret Mind Control Experiments Funded by the CIA. Nexus Funded by the CIA. Halifax, Goodread, 1980.
March 19, 2020