Project MKUltra: When the CIA Tested LSD on Unsuspecting Americans

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During the 1950s and '60s, the CIA actually administered LSD to an unknown number of Americans for "scientific" purposes. blackred/Getty Images

You, like any other sane person, perceive a concrete world, one that's generally calm and unmenacing. Everyday objects remain still and solid and don't tend to melt into their surroundings. There is no one out to get you; strangers aren't actually actors in an elaborate and nefarious ruse at which you are the uninformed center. There may or may not be a God; the secrets of the universe remain sequestered from you.

All of this changes with LSD. The potent hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide can temporarily occupy the psyche of a person who ingests it. Because of its potency and ability to unlock the "doors of perception," as author Alduous Huxley put it, LSD can be psychically violent. It can hijack the user's mind, gently revealing life's latent truths, or it can turn bully, reducing the user to a state of abject fear. Dr. Timothy Leary proposed that the latter, a bad trip, could be prevented by mindset and setting. The mindset of the user and the atmosphere where the trip takes place are of the utmost importance, in Leary's view. "LSD favors the prepared mind," agrees one psychiatrist [source: Stratton].


In other words, LSD is not to be taken flippantly. This makes dosing an unsuspecting person with it, especially one who isn't already experienced with LSD's properties, a particularly ghastly act. A person unacquainted with LSD and unaware he or she'd been given it could be brought to the edge of mental crumble. It's cruel to surreptitiously spike someone with the drug.

So one could consider the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cruel for administering LSD to an unknown number of unsuspecting Americans during the 1950s and '60s. The agency conducted clandestine experiments on college students, drug addicts, veterans, soldiers, sailors, johns, mental patients, at least one young mother and a jazz singer. For a time, the drug was so prevalent in the CIA, agents dosed one another for fun. And for a punch line, the heyday of 1960s counterculture -- including its subversion of the establishment -- was preceded and directly created by the CIA's acid tests.


Acid in the Hands of the CIA: MKULTRA

Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw, a former POW who's been brainwashed into an unwitting assassin in the 1962 thriller, "The Manchurian Candidate."
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1951, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) received word from a military envoy that the Swiss drug company Sandoz Pharmaceuticals had 100 million doses of LSD, available to anyone who cared to purchase them. This "anyone" included the Russians -- people who, in the minds of the U.S. military and intelligence communities, were "10-feet tall" shady, powerful and unscrupulous [source: Grittenger]. In the hands of the Soviet Union, entire U.S. cities could be driven mad or made to revolt against the U.S. government from a water supply spiked with LSD.

The Russians, the CIA knew, were engaged in tests to find ways of undermining the behavior and personalities of regular people. They wanted to create a truth serum or learn to program everyday individuals into unwitting and involuntary assassins. So, too, did the Americans.


When the Sandoz supply became known, the United States moved to take it off the market. It turned out Sandoz had manufactured only about 40,000 doses. The United States bought them anyway. And with the LSD in their possession, military researchers and the CIA began conducting their own experiments.

In 1975, Congress held inquiries into the clandestine operation known as MKULTRA, the code name for an umbrella operation covering 149 subprojects. Most of these were involved with exploring new methods of chemical and psychological warfare. The Church Committee, the Senate group that held the inquiry, learned little about the details of the operations. The CIA maintained its standard silence -- files had been destroyed, new directors had no knowledge of old projects.

Two years later, the skeleton that was MKULTRA in the CIA's closet emerged entirely. A Freedom of Information act request filed by a journalist turned up several boxes of materials that escaped destruction but were overlooked during the Church inquiry. A second Congressional inquiry was held into MKULTRA in 1977. Information on 149 MKULTRA subprojects was unearthed -- from learning to deliver poisons using magicians' sleight of hand to electroshock therapy as a means of making an unwilling subject talk [source: Turner].

With the release of the newfound documents, dates, locations and names of unwitting participants in the CIA's experiments came to light. The names of some of the people who conducted these experiments were also revealed.

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a clubfooted stuttering scientist with a penchant for dancing, ran the technical division for the CIA. George Hunter White, a former Army Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) officer who'd reputedly killed a Chinese spy with his bare hands in Calcutta, directly oversaw the undercover acid tests for Gottlieb. Ike Feldman, a narcotics agent who posed comfortably as a pimp and racketeer, did much of the leg work at White's direction. Separately, but especially together, these three men filled out every inch of the shady public image of CIA operatives. They were the spooks of pulp fiction realized.

Most of the MKULTRA experiments were conducted under the scientific method with informed, willing test subjects at universities, CIA labs and independent research facilities. Some of these tests fell outside of the bounds of acceptable protocol: One study lured heroin addicts to participate as test subjects by paying them in heroin. Another studied the effects of LSD on black inmates in a prison. The experiments carried out by White and Feldman at Gottlieb's behest were less scientific. These resembled torture or a party, depending on how the subject reacted to the acid.



CIA LSD Experiments

Shooting heroin, circa 1955.
Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images

George Hunter White was already a legend in the law enforcement community by the time he was recruited by the CIA to carry out Dr. Sidney Gottlieb's experiments. He'd made a name for himself by working undercover as a heroin trafficker and taking down a syndicate of Chinese opium dealers. White was a little too good at his job; he was excommunicated from New York after digging up political dirt on the governor. He was a swinger, whose sexual proclivities tended toward the kinky. By all accounts, White was crazy, reckless and the perfect man to get the job done when the job took nerve, heartlessness and a complete disregard of established laws and social norms.

At first it was White who carried out Gottlieb's tests. White and his ostensibly informed wife held parties at their New York apartment wherein White furnished his guests with LSD-laced martinis. As the drug took hold, he observed its effects on the unwitting participants, making notes on their reactions. In some instances, the effects included giddiness and euphoria; others were darker, with the subjects realizing something was terribly wrong and reacting badly. White noted this type of reaction as "the horrors" [source: Valentine].


Eventually, the experiments were moved from White's apartment in New York to a CIA-funded safe house in San Francisco dubbed "the pad" [source: Stratton]. It was here that White recruited Ike Feldman. In his guise as pimp, the cop collected prostitutes and paid them to bring back customers to the pad and surreptitiously administer LSD into their drinks. Throughout, George White sat quietly behind a two-way mirror, drinking martinis, watching the ignorant test subjects trip and taking notes on their reactions.

White also continued the same kind of direct involvement in the San Francisco MKULTRA LSD tests that he had in New York. Often on acid himself, he'd adopt the alter ego of a merchant sailor or an artist, delving headlong into San Francisco's seamy underbelly of hookers, drug addicts and sexual deviants. It was this population that the CIA had identified as fair game for the tests, since the agency figured they were degenerates [source: Stratton]. In his alternate personas, White rooted out test subjects.

Unlike the legitimate experiments held in research facilities, the covert experimenters failed to keep an appropriate and objective distance from their tests. Instead, the CIA higher-ups determined it would be best for their operatives to try LSD themselves, an effort to prepare them in the event they should be slipped the drug by Soviet agents. They would be better equipped to handle the bent version of reality.

This official decision either led to or justified a culture of acid users in the CIA in the 1950s; it's unclear which came first. Either way, in the middle of the 20th century, a significant number of CIA operatives knew what it meant to trip on acid. Coming down was a disappointment: "I felt like I would be going back to a place where I wouldn't be able to hold on to this kind of beauty," one reported [source: Stratton].

The "beauty" of LSD wasn't experienced by all involved in the clandestine tests, however. At least one person is believed to have died as an indirect result of what can only be described as a truly bad trip, and others' lives were ruined from the CIA's surreptitious dosing.



Effects of MKULTRA

Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, the Congressman who opened the first CIA inquiry that led to the revelation of MKULTRA.
Central Press/Getty Images

In the 1950s, a CIA operative generally knew better than to accept a drink from another operative if he didn't have a spare 12 hours to break from perceived reality. Dr. Stanley Olson, a "perfectly normal" Army scientist, worked outside this informed circle [source: Ruwet]. So it was with common trust that Dr. Olson accepted a spiked drink from an operative at a joint Army-Agency conference. Olson didn't take the drug well.

Very quickly, Olson developed a bad trip (which he loudly shared) and experienced acute paranoia long after the effects of the LSD should have discontinued. He missed Thanksgiving dinner with his family out of fear of seeing them [source: Ruwet]. Eight days later, Olson was dead. He'd apparently committed suicide, falling from a 10th-story window in a New York hotel. In the 1990s, evidence emerged that he may have been struck over the head with a blunt object before plummeting from the window [source: Baker].


Barbara Newsome had a similar experience. Newsome was an acquaintance of George White's, married to a member of the operative's swinging social circle in New York. She hadn't been indoctrinated like her husband, though: When she attended one of White's parties without her husband, she brought her 20-month old daughter. White dosed her with LSD anyway.

Like Olson, Newsome had a bad trip. As was standard procedure for a George White acid test, she was turned loose onto the street after just a couple of hours, at the peak of her LSD trip. Newsome was ostensibly changed by the dosing, committed on and off for 20 years to a mental hospital [source: Valentine]. She never mentioned the experience to her husband, who only came to suspect what had happened after MKULTRA came to light years later.

The tests may have appeared overseas as well. In France in 1952, a young American artist named Stanley Glickman wandered the streets of Paris terrified after having met a group of American strangers in a bar. Glickman had accepted a drink from a clubfooted man (Gottlieb). After he consumed the drink, he became delusional and frightened, especially when one of the men told him he could probably perform miracles at that point. Glickman sequestered himself in his Paris apartment for several months, afraid to eat for fear of being poisoned. He eventually transformed into a strange, quiet fixture of a small neighborhood in New York [source: Baker].

On the record, MKULTRA was disbanded in the early 1970s, just another agency secret. Once it emerged, it confirmed any "paranoid" or "delusional" fears of just what the U.S. government is capable of when it believes it's threatened. The men involved escaped punishment. George White retired in 1965, opting for a life of terrorizing his neighbors in Stinson Beach, Calif., by driving his Jeep across their front lawns. Ike Feldman retired later, forced out of a later job at the DEA [source: Stratton]. Dr. Gottlieb retired to spend his remaining days volunteering with dying AIDS and cancer patients, working, he said, "on the side of the angels instead of the devils" [source: Budansky, et al].

There was one last footnote to the MKULTRA LSD subproject, one unintended and unforeseen side effect. Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and arguably the founder of the hippie movement of the 1960s, was a willing participant in a separate, legitimate MKULTRA LSD experiment [source: Davenport-Hines]. Kesey brought his experience with acid to his friends, and by extension, whole generations of American youth were introduced to LSD.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Baker, Russell. "Acid, Americans and the agency." The Guardian. February 14, 1999.,4273,3821747,00.html
  • Budiansky, Stephen, Goode, Erica and Gest, Ted. "The Cold War experiements." U.S. News and World Report. January 24, 1994.
  • Davenport-Hines, Richard. "The Pursuit of Oblivion. W.W. Norton & Company. 2004.,M1
  • Stratton, Richard. "Altered states of America." SPIN Magazine. March 1994.
  • Turner, Admiral Stansfield. "Prepared statement of CIA Director Stansfield Turner." U.S. Senate. August 3, 1977.
  • Valentine, Douglas. "Sex, drugs and the CIA." CounterPunch. June 20, 2002.
  • "Inside mind control." The Science Channel.
  • "Project MKULTRA, the CIA's program of research into behavior modification." U.S. Senate. August 3, 1977.
  • "Testing and use of chemical and biological agents by the intelligence community." U.S. Senate. August 3, 1977.