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The CIA and Acid

LSD was invented in Switzerland by Albert Hofmann, a researcher for Sandoz pharmaceuticals. The CIA was on to acid long before the flower children. It did not spontaneously appear among the youth of the Western world as a gift from the God of Getting’ High.

So, for that matter, were upstanding citizens like Time-Life magnate Henry Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who openly sang the praises of their magical mystery tours during the early sixties. Henry, a staunch conservative with close connections to the CIA, once dropped acid on the golf course and then claimed he had enjoyed a little chat with God.

While the cognoscenti had the benefit of tuned-in physicians, other psychedelic pioneers took their first trips as part of CIA-controlled research studies.

At least one person committed suicide after becoming an unwitting subject of a CIA LSD test, crashing through a high-story plate-glass window in a New York hotel as his Agency guardian watched. (Or perhaps the guardian did more than watch. In June 1994 the victim’s family had his thirty-year-old corpse exhumed to check for signs that he may have been thrown out that window.) Numerous others lost their grip on reality.

MK-ULTRA was the code name the CIA used for its program directed at gaining control over human behavior through “covert use of chemical and biological materials,” as proposed by Richard Helms. The name itself was a variation on ULTRA, the U.S. intelligence program behind Nazi lines in World War II, of which the CIA’s veteran spies were justly proud.

Helms later became the CIA director and gained a measure of notoriety for his Watergate “lying to Congress” conviction and a touch of immortality in Thomas Powers’s aptly named biography, The Man Who Kept the Secrets. Helms founded the MK-ULTRA program and justified its notable unethical aspects with the rationale, “We are not Boy Scouts.”

At the time, the spook scientists suspected that LSD had the potential to reprogram the human personality. In retrospect, they were probably right – Timothy Leary spoke in similar terms, though he saw unlimited potential for self-improvement in this “reprogramming.” The CIA and the military simply couldn’t figure out how to harness the drug’s power. Thank goodness. Their idea was not to open “the doors of perception” but to convert otherwise free human beings into automatons.

“We must remember to thank the CIA and the army for LSD,” spoke no less an authority figure on matters psychedelic than John Lennon. “They invented LSD to control people and what it did was give us freedom.”

Or did it? The acid-tripping intersection between the CIA and the counterculture is one of the areas where the on-the-record facts about MK-ULTRA meld into the foggy region of conspiracy theory. It has been suggested, even by prominent participants in the counterculture, that with LSD the CIA found the ultimate weapon against the youth movement.

Officially, the MK-ULTRA program ran from 1953 to 1964, at which time it was renamed MK-SEARCH and continued until 1973. However, U.S. intelligence and military operations with that same purpose had been ongoing at least since World War II and likely chugged ahead for many years after MK-ULTRA’s publicly stated conclusion. MK-ULTRA encompassed an undetermined number of bizarre and often grotesque experiments. In one, psychiatrist Ewen Cameron received CIA funding to test a procedure he called “depatterning.” This technique, Cameron explained when he applied for his CIA grant (through a front group called the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology), involved the “breaking down of ongoing patterns of the patient’s behavior by means of particularly intensive electroshocks,” in addition to LSD. Some of his subjects suffered brain damage and other debilitations. One sued the government and won an out-of-court settlement in 1988.

Then there was operation “Midnight Climax,” in which prostitutes lured unsuspecting johns to a CIA bordello in San Francisco. There they slipped their clients an LSD mickey while Agency researchers savored the “scientific” action from behind a two-way mirror, a pitcher of martinis at the ready.

Author John Marks, whose The Search for the Manchurian Candidate is on of the most thoroughgoing volumes yet assembled on U.S. government mind-control research, readily admits that all of his source material comprised but ten boxes of documents – but those took him a year to comprehend despite the aid of a research staff.

Marks writes that he sought access to records of a branch of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology, the Office of Research and Development (ORD), which took over behavioral (i.e., mind control) research after MK-ULTRA’s staff dispersed.

Marks was told that ORD’s files contained 130 boxed of documents relating to behavioral research. Even if they were all released, their sheer bulk is sufficient to fend off even the most dedicated – or obsessed – investigator. To generate such an intimidating volume of paper must have taken considerable time and effort. Yet curiously, the CIA has always claimed that its attempts to create real-life incarnations of Richard Condon’s unfortunate protagonist Raymond Shaw – the hypnotically programmed assassin of The Manchurian Candidate – were a complete bust.

If their demurrals are to be trusted, then this particular program constitutes one of the least cost-effective deployments of taxpayer dollars in the history of the U.S. government, which is rife with non-cost-effective dollar deployments.

The CIA’s most effective line of defense against exposure of their mind-control operations (or any of their operations, for that matter) has always been self-effacement. The agency portrays its agents as incompetent stooges, encouraging the public to laugh at their wacky attempts to formulate cancer potions and knock off foreign leaders.

Under this cover story, MK-ULTRA’s research team was nothing but a bunch of ineffectual eccentrics. “We are sufficiently ineffective so our findings can be published,” quipped one MK-ULTRA consultant.

Despite the findings of a Senate committee headed by Ted Kennedy that U.S. mind-control research was a big silly failure and even though Marks – whose approach is fairly conservative – acknowledges that he found no record to prove it, the project may have indeed succeeded.

“I cannot be positive that they never found a technique to control people,” Marks writes,” despite my definite bias in favor of the idea that the human spirit defeated the manipulators.”

A sunny view of human nature, that. And indeed a consoling one. But the human spirit, history sadly proves, is far from indomitable. The clandestine researchers explored every possible means of manipulating the human mind. The CIA’s experiments with LSD are the most famous MK-ULTRA undertakings, but acid was not even the most potent drug investigated by intelligence and military agencies. Nor did they limit their inquiries to drugs. Hypnosis, electronic brain implants, microwave transmissions and parapsychology also received intense scrutiny. Marks, Kennedy, and many others apparently believe that the U.S. government failed where all-too-many far less sophisticated operations – from the Moonies to Scientology to EST – have scored resounding triumphs. Brainwashing is commonplace among “cults,” but not with the multimillion-dollar resources of the United States government’s military and intelligence operations?

For that matter, the (supposed) impetus for the program was the reported success of communist countries in “brainwashing.” The word itself originally applied to several soldiers who’d fought in the Korean War who exhibited strange behavior and had large blank spots in their memories – particularly when it came to their travels through regions of Manchuria. Those incidents were the inspiration for Condon’s novel, in which a group of American soldiers are hypnotically brainwashed by the Korean and Chinese communists and one is programmed to kill a presidential candidate.

Interestingly, the belief that one’s psyche is being invaded by radio transmissions or electrical implants is considered a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. But there is no doubt that the CIA contemplated using those methods and carried out such experiments on animals, and the way these things go it would require the willful naivete of, say, a Senate subcommittee to maintain that they stopped there. Even Marks ,who exercises the journalistic wisdom to stick only to what he can back up with hard documentation, readily acknowledges that the clandestine researchers “probably” planted electrode experiments “went far beyond giving monkeys orgasms,” one of the researchers’ early achievements.

The ultimate goal of mind control would have been to produce a Manchurian Candidate assassin, an agent who didn’t know he (or she) was an agent – brainwashed and programmed to carry out that most sensitive of missions. Whether the program’s accomplishments reached that peak will probably never be public knowledge. So we are left to guess whether certain humans have been “programmed to kill.” In 1967, Luis Castillo, a Puerto Rican arrested in the Philippines for planning to bump off Ferdinand Marcos, claimed (while in a hypnotic trance) that he had been implanted with a posthypnotic suggestion to carry out the assassination. Sirhan Sirhan, convicted as the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy, showed unmistakable symptoms of hypnosis. A psychiatrist testifying in Sirhan’s defense said that the accused assassin was in a trance when he shot Kennedy, albeit a self-induced one. Author Robert Kaiser echoed that doctor’s conclusions in his book RFK Must Die! Others, of course, have offered darker conjectures regarding the origins of Sirhan’s symptoms.

James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, also had a known fascination with hypnosis, and, more recently, British lawyer Fenton Bressler has assembled has assembled circumstantial evidence to support a theory that Mark David Chapman, slayer of John Lennon, was subject to CIA mind control. Way back in 1967, a book titled Were We Controlled?, whose unknown author used the pseudonym Lincoln Lawrence, stated that both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby were under mind control of some kind. The book may have had at least a trace of validity: Something in the book convinced Oswald’s mother that the author was personally acquainted with her son.

Did MK-ULTRA spin off a wave of history-altering assassinations – did it whelp a brood of hypnoprogrammed killers? The definitive answer to that question will certainly never reach the public. We are left, with John Marks, to hope on faith alone that it did not, but always with the uneasy knowledge that it could have.

Perhaps not through assassinations, and perhaps not even intentionally, MK-ULTRA definitely altered a generation. John Lennon was far from the only sixties acid-hero to make the connection between the mood of the streets and the secret CIA labs. “A surprising number of counterculture veterans endorsed the notion that the CIA disseminated street acid en masse to deflate the political potency of the youth rebellion,” write Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain in Acid Dreams, their chronicle of both the clandestine and countercultural sides of the LSD revolution.

“By magnifying the impulse toward revolutionism out of context, acid sped up the process by which the Movement became unglued,” the authors continue. “The use of LSD among young people in the U.S. reached a peak in the late 1960s, shortly after the CIA initiated a series of covert operations designed to disrupt, discredit, and neutralize the New Left. Was this merely a historical coincidence, or did the Agency actually take steps to promote the illicit acid trade?”

The tale of Ronald Stark, told by lee and Shlain, may provide the connection between the CIA and the Left. Stark was a leading distributor of LSD in the late 1960s – the same time acid use was at its heaviest – and apparently a CIA operative. The Agency has never admitted this, but an Italian judge deciding in 1979 whether to try Stark for “armed banditry” in relation to Stark’s many contacts with terrorists (among other things, Stark accurately predicted the assassination of Aldo Moro) released the drug dealer after finding “an impressive series of scrupulously enumerated proofs” that Stark had worked for the CIA “from 1960 onward.”

“It could have been,” mused Tim Scully, the chief of Stark’s major LSD-brewing outfit (a group of idealistic radicals called the Brotherhood who grew to feel exploited by Stark), “that he was employed by an American intelligence agency that wanted to see more psychedelic drugs on the street.” But Lee and Shlain leave open the possibility that Stark may have been simply one of the world’s most ingenious con artists – a possibility acknowledged by most everyone to come in contact with Stark.

The CIA’s original “acid dream” was that LSD would open the mind to suggestion, but they found the drug too potent to manage. Sometime around 1971, right before MK-ULTRA founder and, by then, CIA director Richard Helms hung up his trenchcoat and stepped down from the CIA’s top post, he ordered the majority of secret MK-ULTRA documents destroyed due to “a burgeoning paper problem.” Among the eradicated material, Lee and Shlain report, were “all existing copies of a of a classified CIA manual titled LSD: Some Un-Psychedelic Implications.”

There exists today no on-paper evidence (that anyone has yet uncovered) that MK-ULTRA was the progenitor of either a conspiracy to unleash remote-controlled lethal human robots or to emasculate an entire generation by oversaturating it with a mind-frying drug. But MK-ULTRA was very real and the danger of a secret government program to control the thoughts of its citizens, even just a few of them at a time, needs no elaboration.