“The bottom line on this whole business has not yet been written.”Dr. Sidney Gottlieb
CIA Technical Services Staff director for the MK-ULTRA program
Eighteenth-century German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel long ago developed, among other things, what he called the principle of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis” to explain the process of deliberately enacted social disorder and change as a road to power. To achieve a desired result, one deliberately creates a situation (“thesis,”) devises a “solution,” to solve the “problems” created by that situation (“antithesis,”) with the final result being the ultimate goal of more power and control (“synthesis.”) It is unsurprising Karl Marx and his disciples like Lenin and Trotsky, as well as the US government in its so-called War On Drugs, made this process a keystone of their drive for total control of all individual actions that, in their views, were not, in Mussolini s terms, “inside the state” and thus controllable by the same.
In September 1942, OSS director and Army Maj. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan began his search for an effective “truth serum” to be used on POWs and captured spies. Beginning with a budget of $5,000 and the blessing of President Franklin Roosevelt, he enlisted the aid of a few prominent physicians and psychiatrists like George Estabrooks and Harry Murray as well as former Prohibition agent and notorious Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) director Harry Anslinger.
The OSS/FBN team first tested a potent marijuana extract, tetrahydrocannabinol acetate (THCA), a colorless, odorless substance, lacing cigarettes or food items with it, and administering them to volunteer US Army and OSS personnel, all who eventually acquired the nickname “Donovan’s Dreamers.” Testing was also conducted under the guise of treatment for shell shock.
Donovan’s team found that THCA, which they termed “TD,” for “truth drug,” induced “a great loquacity and hilarity,” and even, in cases where the subject didn’t feel physically threatened, some useable “reefer madness.” Peyote, morphine and scopolamine were judged too powerful to be used in effective interrogation. In light of all this, Donovan concluded, “The drug defies all but the most expert and search analysis, and for all practical purposes can be considered beyond analysis.” The OSS did not, however, end the program. By that time, faced with the terrifying ship losses the USA was suffering from German U-boats, Donovan pressed on, hoping to find some effective chemical means to help interrogate captured U-boat sailors.
In May 1943, George Hunter White, an Army captain, OSS officer and former FBN agent, gave standard cigarettes laced with THCA to an unwitting August “Augie Dallas” Del Grazio, an influential New York City gangster. Del Grazio, who had by then had done prison stretches for assault and murder, had been one of the Mafia’s most notorious enforcers and narcotics smugglers. He operated an opium alkaloid factory in Turkey and was a key participant in the long-running Istanbul/Marseilles/NYC heroin pipeline commonly known as the “French Connection.” Influenced by the THC, Del Grazio (who was also helping to smuggle spies and Mafiosi into German-occupied Italy) revealed volumes of vital information about underworld operations, including the names of several high-ranking city and state officials who took bribes from the Mob. Donovan was encouraged by the results of White’s tests when he wrote, “Cigarette experiments indicated that we had a mechanism offering promise in relaxing prisoners to be interrogated.”
Unsurprisingly, the extensive wartime German experiments with various hallucinogenic drugs at the Dachau concentration camp, directed by one Dr. Hubertus Strughold, later honored as “the father of aviation medicine,” aroused great interest in the USA especially after an October 1945 Navy technical mission to Dachau reported in detail on Strughold’s work. So great, in fact, that when the OSS and its successor, the CIA, imported 800 German scientists of various specialties under the auspices of the infamous “Project Paperclip” during 1945–55, it made sure to include Dr. Strughold.
Dr. Strughold’s barbaric “medical experiments,” for which his subordinates were tried and convicted as war criminals at Nuremburg, were nothing more than a series of bizarre and unspeakably brutal tortures. Even so, he learned a lot about human behavior and mescaline, a natural alkaloid present in the peyote cactus. Mescaline, long central to many Native American religious rituals and first chemically isolated in 1896, is a phenethylamine whose ergoline skeleton is also contained in lysergic acid (a tryptamine.)
Sandoz Labs chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann also discovered a lysergic acid derivative called ergonovine, a medication used to retard excessive postpartum uterine bleeding. Based on his work with ergonovine, Dr. Hofmann first derived d-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate-25 (LSD, a refined alkaloidal liquid byproduct of a rye fungus, ergot) in a series of experiments in Zurich in 1938. He used the naturally occurring lysergic acid radical, the common item in all ergot alkaloids, as the major component of the substance. Further experiments in this vein yielded psilocybin, derived from the Mexican Psilocybe cubensis mushroom, hydergine, essential today in the improvement of cerebral circulation in geriatric patients, and dihydroergotamine, an important ingredient in blood pressure medication.
The well-read and broadly educated Dr. Hofmann knew ergot had a long natural and cultural history as both medicine and poison. Ancient Greek midwives used to give an ergot-based, gruel-like drink, called kykeon, to their patients about to give birth. Kykeon was also consumed during the autumn Eleusinia, the ancient Greek agricultural festival celebrated in honor of the goddess of agriculture, Demeter. Across the Atlantic, sacramental Maya morning glories, beautifully depicted at the ancient Mayan temple-palace complex at Teotihuacán, Mexico, dating to about 1450, also contain ergot-based alkaloids.
However, the mindset the CIA had in its drug research work was far different from that of Dr. Hofmann’s. To our Cold War spymasters, ex-Nazis like Dr. Strughold were definitely evil, but they were definitely useful as well. This pervasive amoral pragmatism led, of course, to the extensive and notorious MK-ULTRA experiments in which, for nearly 25 years, thousands of everyday Americans, both military and civilian, were heavily dosed with numerous very potent artificial psychoactive drugs, often without their knowledge or consent.
This phenomenon of the obsessive “interests of national security” expediency combined with our celebrity-obsessed pop culture that gleefully raises and shamelessly promotes snake oil hustlers as well as the pharmaceutical industry’s pricey “pill for every ill” philosophy, was a form of incompetence and arrogance far more hazardous than any synthetic alkaloid ever developed and came as no surprise to those like Dr. Hofmann. LSD, invaluable in psychiatric treatment – actor Cary Grant was cured of alcoholism by carefully administered doses of the drug under close medical supervision – is thousands of times more potent than the traditional herbal mixtures. In fact, it is thousands of times more potent than the milder of the entheogenic alkaloids. It is effective at doses of as little as a ten-millionth of a gram, which makes it 5,000 times more potent than mescaline. It should not be taken without training or supervision.
The Navy tested mescaline as part of its 1947–53 Project CHATTER. MK-ULTRA was first organized in 1949 by Richard Helms under the direction of Allen Dulles as Project BLUEBIRD. Two years later, it was renamed ARTICHOKE (after one of Dulles’s favorite foods) then termed MK-ULTRA in 1953, finally becoming MK-SEARCH in 1965 until the program’s “official termination” eight years later. MK-ULTRA was directly responsible for the wide underground availability of LSD, phencyclidine (PCP – also called “angel dust”), dimethyltryptamine (DMT), 2,5-dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine (STP) and other powerful synthetic psychoactive drugs in the 1960s. In the early 1950s, the CIA and the Army had contacted Sandoz requesting several kilograms of LSD for use in the test program. Dr. Hofmann and Sandoz refused this request, so Director Dulles persuaded the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical luminary Eli Lilly (later the pioneers of and chief cheerleaders for the widely prescribed antidepressant Prozac) to synthesize the drug contrary to existing international patent accords – making the US government and Lilly the first illegal domestic manufacturers and distributors of LSD.
These were distributed via the agency’s sometime allies in organized crime and through the FBI’s counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) directed against various activist groups of the period. The actual definition of the term MK-ULTRA remains unclear but a former Army Special Forces captain, John McCarthy, who ran the CIA’s Saigon-based Operation Cherry which targeted the Cambodian ruler Prince Sihanouk for assassination, claimed that MK-ULTRA stood for “Manufacturing Killers Utilizing Lethal Tradecraft Requiring Assassination.”
On April 10, 1953, in a speech at Princeton University, CIA director Allen Dulles (further feeding the already widespread but misguided fear about the high effectiveness of the alleged Chinese “brainwashing” of US POWs in the Korean conflict) warned that the human mind was a “malleable tool,” and that the “brain perversion techniques” of the Reds were “so subtle and so abhorrent” that “the brain becomes a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius over which it has no control.”
Propaganda, in its simplest form, is condemning one’s opponent publicly for doing what one is already doing privately. Dulles, of course, was that very “outside genius.” Three days after warning assembled Princetonians of the disturbing ramifications of these techniques, he had directed MK-ULTRA researchers to perfect them. Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA’s expert on lethal poisons, (who reputedly was the inspiration for director Stanley Kubrick’s bizarre Dr. Strangelove character played by Peter Sellers in the 1964 film of the same title) headed up the operation as director of the Chemical Division of the Technical Services Staff and, via a front organization called “The Society For Human Ecology,” distributed $25 million in drug research grants to Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley and other institutions.
Meanwhile, George Hunter White, of THCA-laced “Lucky Strikes” fame, had returned to the FBN (now the DEA) at war’s end and continued to research behavior modifying drugs. In 1955, when MK-ULTRA was running full throttle, he was a high-ranking FBN administrator who helped the Agency develop and implement a similar operation called Midnight Climax. In this infamous scheme, “safehouses” staffed with prostitutes were established in San Francisco. The hookers lured men from local taverns back to these safehouses after their drinks had been previously spiked with LSD. White’s team secretly filmed the subsequent events in each house. The purpose of these so-called “national security brothels” was to enable the CIA to experiment with the use of sex and mind altering drugs to extract information from test subjects, and it was planned, from spies, POWs, defectors and saboteurs.
Midnight Climax was terminated after eight years when CIA Inspector General John Earman charged that “the concepts involved in manipulating human behavior are found by many people within and outside the Agency to be distasteful and unethical.” He stated that “the rights and interest of U.S. citizens were placed in jeopardy.” Earman further noted LSD “had been tested on individuals at all social levels, high and low, native American and foreign.” Richard Helms, MK-ULTRA’s bureaucratic godfather, summarily rebuffed Earman’s charges, claiming that “positive operational capacity to use drugs is diminishing owing to a lack of realistic testing. Tests,” Helms continued, “were necessary to keep up with the Soviets.” However, Helms reversed himself a year later when testifying before the Warren Commission investigating the JFK assassination, claiming that “Soviet research has consistently lagged five years behind Western research.”
Upon retirement from civil service in 1966, White wrote a startling farewell letter to Dr. Gottlieb. He reminisced about his Midnight Climax work. His comments were frightening:
“I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the all-highest?”
Where else indeed, but as a member of what would later become the hypocritical War on (Some) Drugs?
By the end of the 1950s the CIA was funding just about every qualified LSD researcher and psychologist it could find, through such contractors as the Society for the Study of Human Ecology, the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, and the Geschichter Fund for Medical Research. Author John Marks, in his 1975 book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, identified the CIA’s LSD research pioneers as:
- Dr. Robert Hyde at Boston Psychopathic Hospital
- Dr. Harold Abramson at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Columbia University in New York City
- Dr. Carl Pfeiffer at the University of Illinois Medical School, Champaign-Urbana
- Dr. Harris Isbell of the NIMH-sponsored Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Ky.
- Dr. Louis Jolyon West at the University of Oklahoma, Stillwater
- Dr. Harold Hodge at the University of Rochester (N.Y.)
However, there were prominent critics of the US government’s activities, the earliest among them being Aldous Huxley, the famed author of the chillingly prescient 1932 novel Brave New World (which described a totalitarian society whose population was completely controlled by forcible administration of a government-mandated “happiness drug” called “soma.”) While taking mescaline supplied by famed English surgeon Dr. Humphrey Osmond (who discovered the close similarities between the molecular structures of adrenaline and mescaline), Huxley completed another novel entitled The Doors of Perception in 1954. In that book, the novelist described his intensely personal vision of the world around him:
“I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing – but of a breathing without returns to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning. Words like ‘grace’ and ‘transfiguration’ came to my mind&Those idiots (MK-ULTRAns) want to be Pavlovians; Pavlov never saw an animal in its natural state, only under duress. The ‘scientific’ LSD boys do the same with their subjects. No wonder they report psychotics.”
Obviously, this isn’t a typical CIA spook writing, and, given Huxley’s incredible mind, creative vision and compassion, we’re not talking about a moron or a mental case either. Which means that giving someone mescaline while they’re being tortured or lobotomized or electrocuted at Dachau will only tell you a lot about torture, lobotomies and electrocution, not about mescaline.
As author Marks noted:
“It would become supreme irony that the CIA’s enormous search for weapons among drugs – fueled by the hope that spies could control life with genius and machines – would wind up helping to create the wandering, uncontrollable minds of the counterculture.”