Operation Midnight Climax: A CIA Sex, Drugs and Surveillance Program

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
operation midnight climax
In a bizarre experiment, the CIA used prostitutes to lure unsuspecting men to apartments in New York and San Francisco to drug them with LSD in its effort to achieve mind control. George Peters/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Operation Midnight Climax was a CIA experiment in San Francisco from the 1950s to 1960s testing the effects of LSD and sex on men's behavior.
  • The experiment was part of the larger MKULTRA program aimed at developing mind-control capabilities.
  • The CIA used prostitutes to lure men to a wired bordello for surveillance, but the unethical program was terminated in 1967.

From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, men in San Francisco who patronized prostitutes ran the risk of becoming unwitting participants in a clandestine CIA experiment. It was designed to test whether the combination of sex and the hallucinogenic drug LSD might influence the men to reveal information that the government wanted. What information, nobody is really sure.

The experiment, known as Operation Midnight Climax inside the CIA, was part of a larger research program code-named MKULTRA. The agency launched MKULTRA out of worries that the Soviet Union had developed a mind-control drug.


CIA officials had observed the vacant gaze and trance-like behavior of Hungarian cleric Cardinal József Mindszenty at a show trial in Budapest in 1949. They were convinced that his confession had been extracted with chemicals, according to a 1977 New York Times article and decided that the U.S. needed to have similar capabilities.

The CIA and LSD

MKULTRA was led by a chemist named Sidney Gottlieb. In the early 1950s, Gottlieb arranged for the CIA to spend $240,000 to purchase the world's entire supply of LSD, which he brought back to the U.S. from Europe and doled out to a variety of research programs secretly sponsored by the CIA in hospitals, clinics and prisons.

According to the Rockefeller Commission Report from the mid-1970s, headed by then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller that investigated CIA activities, the initial plan for MKULTRA was to use CIA recruits as test subjects in experiments conducted under the watchful eye of a physician. But after some experiments involving voluntary participants, the agency decided to see what would happen when subjects were given LSD without their knowledge.


"Tests were begun on unsuspecting subjects in normal social situations," according to the report. "Testing originally was conducted on the West Coast. In 1961, a similar program was initiated on the East Coast."

Gottlieb sought the help of George Hunter White, a federal narcotics agent who during World War II had served in the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor of the CIA — and later worked as an investigator for Sen. Estes Kefauver's early 1950s probe of organized crime, as detailed in this 1977 Washington Post article based upon White's diary and other papers.

Sidney Gottlieb
Sidney Gottlieb, seen here Sept. 21, 1977, was a chemist for the CIA MKULTRA program, which involved dosing willing CIA agents with LSD.
Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)


Operation Midnight Climax Was Born

After getting approval from Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, White became a CIA consultant. It's unclear whether Anslinger knew that the consulting duties would involve setting up a CIA-financed bordello in an apartment in the Telegraph Hill section of San Francisco and a similar government-run brothel in New York City's Greenwich Village.

While intelligence agencies had often used female agents to seduce targets, "Gottlieb wanted to systematize the study of how sex, especially in combination with drugs, could loosen men's tongues," journalist Stephen Kinzer wrote in his 2019 book, "Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control."


In San Francisco, the CIA paid prostitutes $100 for each potential subject that they picked up at local bars and lured back to the bordello. It was located in an L-shaped apartment with a view of the San Francisco Bay, with pictures of French can-can dancers on the walls and red bedroom curtains, as well as a refrigerator that White kept filled with chilled martinis.

The men didn't know that the bordello was wired with what The Washington Post described in 1977 as elaborate electronic surveillance equipment, including four microphones disguised as wall outlets and connected to tape recorders monitored by agents in a secret observation post. The room also was equipped with two-way mirrors, which enabled agents to watch and to film what happened when the male customers went into the bedroom with the prostitutes.

"The original intention was to have a documented sound movie, you might say, so that we would know something about the behavior of people when they were administered these drugs," Gottlieb testified in a September 1977 Senate hearing.

North Beach district, San Francisco,
The CIA bordello in San Francisco was located in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood, which was (and still is) packed with bars, the ideal hunting grounds for unsuspecting Johns.
Alexander Spatari/Getty Images


The Ethics of Dosing Unwitting Men With LSD

Giving a powerful hallucinogen to unwitting subjects, of course, was a dangerously irresponsible thing to do, considering that LSD can cause effects resembling psychosis— what hippies in the 1960s referred to as a bad trip.

"At the most basic level, the lack of informed consent and the unwitting subject's lack of information on adverse effects and potential consequences is of great concern," Joseph Troiani, Ph.D., explains via email. Troiani is an associate professor of clinical psychology and founding director of the Military Psychology Program at Adler University and retired military intelligence officer, who is familiar with MKULTRA from reading open-source material that has become available.


"Mind control experiments like these, utilizing LSD (psychoactive drug), administered to individuals unbeknownst to them to see what effect it would have on them, violate all medical standards," Troiani says. "There is a parallel between the CIA's operation and the Tuskegee experiments where African Americans were lied to about being treated for syphilis. The Tuskegee experiment patients were not treated for syphilis; instead, they were given placebo treatment and monitored to see progression of illness. These actions are unethical and criminal in nature."

Operation Midnight Climax and the rest of MKULTRA ran into problems in 1963, when a staffer in the office of CIA's Inspector General John S. Earman discovered them while auditing the CIA's technical services division. The IG was alarmed by the impropriety of dosing unsuspecting people with a hallucinogen, according to the Rockefeller Commission report.

Worse yet, the IG's probe discovered that some test subjects had become ill for hours or days afterward, and that at least one had to be hospitalized.

"A final phase of the testing of MKULTRA products places the rights and interests of U.S. citizens in jeopardy," the IG's July 1963 report noted, adding that if the program was ever exposed it "could induce serious adverse reaction in U.S. public opinion."


The CIA's Operation Midnight Climax Is Terminated

As a result of the IG investigation, the CIA cut back on the drug-testing program, though between 1963 and 1967 it continued to test drugs on what the Rockefeller Commission Report described as "voluntary subjects," including prisoners at various correctional institutions. Finally, in 1967, "all projects involving behavior-influencing drugs were terminated," according to the Rockefeller Commission Report.

After Operation Midnight Climax and the rest of MKULTRA was exposed during the mid-1970s, then-CIA director Stansfield Turner described the psychedelic spy bordello as "abhorrent" and asked San Francisco for forgiveness, according to a transcript of the TV broadcast. Turner emphasized that the CIA no longer was conducting such experiments.


It's unclear what, if any, useful insights that the CIA gained from watching and listening to the drugged bordello customers. "I think the conclusion from all the activities [of MKULTRA] was that it was very difficult to predictably manipulate human behavior in this way," Gottlieb admitted in his 1977 Senate testimony.

Ford Whitehouse meeting with Olson family
President Gerald Ford is seen here meeting privately with the family of Dr. Frank Olson, who was secretly dosed with LSD by the CIA. A few days after being dosed, he fell to his death from a hotel window. Ford apologized on behalf of the U.S. Government. (Pictured from left) Nils Olson, Lisa Olson Hayward, Mrs. Frank Olson, President Gerald Ford, Eric Olson, and Gregory Hayward.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images


Frequently Asked Questions

What were the long-term effects on subjects of Operation Midnight Climax?
Many subjects experienced long-term psychological trauma, including paranoia and PTSD, due to the unethical experimentation.
How did the revelations of Operation Midnight Climax impact public trust in government?
The exposure of Operation Midnight Climax significantly eroded public trust in the CIA and government agencies, leading to calls for greater oversight and transparency.