Project MK-Ultra: The CIA Secret Quest for ‘Mind Control’ – 1953

LSD-Experiment-by US Government
LSD-Experiment-by US Government

Project MK-Ultra

Project MK-Ultra was the code name of the CIA’s covert mind control program. It was designed to identify techniques and drugs that might be used in interrogations to weaken subjects and compel confessions through psychological torture and brainwashing. It started in 1953, had its scope narrowed in 1964 and 1967, and ended in 1973. 

MK-Ultra employed various techniques to influence the minds and brains of its human subjects. The program included the covert administration of psychoactive substances (e.g., LSD) and other chemicals, hypnosis, electroshocks, isolation, sensory deprivation, sexual and verbal abuse, and other forms of torture.

Some of the victims suffered through the project's testing
Some of the victims suffered through the project’s testing

Sidney Gottlieb, a chemist, created and directed Project MK-Ultra. Project MK-Ultra was coordinated with the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories and organized by the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence. The program involved in criminal activity included the use of unwitting test participants who were US and Canadian citizens. From the 1950s to the 1970s, over 7,000 American prisoners participated in these tests without their consent; many later filed lawsuits. 

The scope of MK-Ultra was extensive, with operations carried out at more than 80 organizations besides the military, including colleges, hospitals, jails, and pharmaceutical firms, under the pretense of study.

Although some high executives in these groups were aware of the CIA’s involvement, the agency operated through front organizations.

Project MK Ultra has been the subject of an extensive investigation by journalist Stephen Kinzer, who has termed MK Ultra the “most sustained research in history for its methods of mind control.”

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control is a 2019 book by The New York Times journalist and historian  Stephen Kinzer.
Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control is a 2019 book by The New York Times journalist and historian Stephen Kinzer.

The CIA Secret Quest for Mind Control

The CIA’s Technical Services Division (TSD) launched Project MK-Ultra, a series of mind-control drug testing operations, in the early 1950s to find or produce a substance that would allow CIA researchers to manipulate or disable the human mind.

According to reports, American prisoners of the Korean war were being manipulated by their communist captors, which led to the creation of the original project, code-named MK-Ultra.

The hypothetical etymology “M.K.” may stand for “Mind Kontrolle.” The English term “control” is a straightforward translation of the German word “Kontrolle.”

From 1955, artist William Millarc takes part in an LSD experiment alleged to have been part of the MK-ULTRA program.
From 1955, artist William Millarc takes part in an LSD experiment alleged to have been part of the MK-ULTRA program.

Allen Welsh Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), gave the TSD the go-ahead to launch MK Ultra in April 1953. Years later, documentation showed MK-Ultra as a massive network of drug-based mind-control testing subprojects.

The Scope of the CIA Mind Control Program

The drugs being developed under the MK-Ultra project included substances that would:

  • Promote irrational reasoning and impulsivity so that the receiver would be discredited in public.
  • Improve mental and perceptual effectiveness. 
  • Prevent or reduce the alcohol’s intoxicating impact. 
  • Promote alcohol’s intoxicating impact. 
  • Develop the signs and symptoms of known diseases reversibly so that they may be utilized for compulsive lying, etc. 
  • Make hypnosis easier to detect or otherwise increase its usefulness.
  • Improve people’s capacity to endure deprivation, torture, and compulsion during an investigation and so-called “brainwashing.
  • Produce a forgetfulness of events occurring before and throughout their use. 
  • It can be used covertly and produces shock and bewilderment over long periods. 
  • Produce physical incapacitation, such as limb paralysis, severe anaemia, etc.
  • Produce “pure” exhilaration without any subsequent disillusionment. 
  • Alter personality structure in a manner that increases the recipient’s propensity to become dependent on another person.
  • Cause mental confusion such that the person affected will find it challenging to maintain a lie under interrogation.
  • When provided in undetectable amounts, it lower men’s aspirations and general productivity.
  • Promote deterioration or distortion of the hearing or vision faculties, preferably without long-term consequences.
LSD as used in Project MKUltra.
LSD as used in Project MKUltra. – LSD was not the only drug used during Project MKUltra. Many drugs were experimented with in the various tests, including but not limited to heroin, morphine, MDMA, mescaline, sodium pentothal, alcohol, and marijuana. Doctors also experimented with drug combinations, in one instance injecting a patient with barbiturates in one arm and amphetamines in another.

Project MK-Ultra lasted from 1953 to 1964. MKSEARCH, the successor of MK-Ultra, started in 1966 and ran until 1972. During executive and congressional investigations in the middle of the 1970s, the CIA’s mind-control drugs testing came to light.

Evolution of Project MK ULTRA and the Cold War

According to Stephen Kinzer, the CIA Project MK-Ultra was a continuation of the work on subduing and directing human brains started in Nazi concentration camps and Japanese facilities during World War II.

Nazi doctors had started using mescaline on unwitting patients in the camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, according to Kinzer. CIA recruited numerous German doctors, a crucial component in the creation of MK-Ultra, from the Nazi talent pool after World War II. It is abundantly clear that the multiple MK Ultra side projects and the experiments conducted in concentration camps are related.

The Soviet Union contributed greatly to the evolution of Project MK Ultra. The Soviet Union and the U.S. were embroiled in the Cold War in 1953. In addition to Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons, the arms race that characterized this era has also extended to behavioural modification or mind control.

Since the end of World War II, the United States had been gathering data on Soviet weapon testing, military capability, and armament, and tensions were rising. The government intelligence agencies were placed on high alert to decide who would win the weapons race. This resulted in the creation of many projects that the intelligence agencies used to improve military capability as fast as possible. 

In response to the Soviet Union’s “successes” with “truth drugs,” U.S. Navy launched Project CHATTER in 1947. The study concentrated on finding and testing these substances for use in questioning suspects and recruiting agents. In 1953, the project was formally abandoned.

LSD Experiments By U.S. Government - About 7000 Soldiers participated in the US Army's secret testing
LSD Experiments By U.S. Government – About 7000 Soldiers participated in the US Army’s secret testing

With the introduction of Project BLUEBIRD, authorized by Allen Dulles in 1950, the CIA decided to increase its efforts in behaviour modification.  

The objectives of Project BLUEBIRD were,

(1) To find a way to train workers to avoid unwanted information extraction from them using known methods.

(2) To investigate the possibilities of controlling someone by using specific interrogation methods

(3) To investigate memory improvement

(4) To develop protective measures to thwart hostile control of CIA staff

Project BLUEBIRD examined critical applications of investigative techniques, including drugs and hypnosis. Project BLUEBIRD was renamed Project ARTICHOKE in August 1951 and was terminated in 1956. 

In the 1950s and 1960s (the peak of the Cold War), the United States government was concerned that Chinese, Soviet, and North Korean agents were employing mind control techniques to brainwash American prisoners of war in Korea.

Project MK Ultra, the CIA’s deliberate use of drugs and psychotherapy on people to prepare against Soviet and Chinese mind control, was one of the Cold War era projects. 

Children were also experiment on with Mind Control Techniques from the CIA during Project MK-Ultra
Children were also experimented on with CIA Mind Control Techniques during Project MK-Ultra – “Unidentified white female between the age of 8 and 10 years old. Subject underwent 6 months of treatment using heavy doses of LSD, electroshock and sensory deprivation.”

Project MK Ultra was established on April 13, 1953, three years before Project ARTICHOKE was terminated. Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI) Richard Helms established this project to create a “special funding mechanism of extraordinary sensitivity.”

Richard Helms’ proposal to start Project MK-Ultra was made official by DCI Allen Dulles on April 13, 1953. The purpose of covert operations was to create methods for using drugs and other psychological tricks to manipulate people’s behaviour against Soviet bloc adversaries.

The initiative, which had a $300,000 starting budget, was designed to be exempt from standard financial controls and permit research projects to be carried out without formal contracts. Bypassing the moral guidelines previously established by the Hippocratic Oath, the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the Nuremberg Code, MK-Ultra sought behavioural modification through the use of mind-altering pharmaceuticals as well as other psychological techniques.

More than 150 human experiments, including paralytics, psychedelic substances, and electroshock therapy, were conducted as part of the program. Even when the hallucinogens began to work, there were instances when the test volunteers were unaware that they had been taking part in a trial.

CIA Mind Control on Children
CIA Mind Control on Children – Unknown Subject

Many experiments were carried out in Canadian and United States institutions, hospitals, and jails. The majority of these tests took place between 1953 and 1964. However, it’s unclear how many individuals participated in the trials because the CIA kept infamously poor records and obliterated most MK-Ultra documentation after the program was formally discontinued in 1973.

Sidney Gottlieb: The Mastermind behind Project MK-ULTRA

The visionary scientist Sidney Gottlieb was the CIA’s master magician and gentle-hearted tormentor. He supervised brutal tests at secret prisons on three continents as the mastermind behind the MK Ultra mind control project. He created lethal pills, powders, and potions, some of which were destined for Fidel Castro and other world leaders. He employed prostitutes to entice customers to CIA-run bordellos, where they were covertly drugged.

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.
Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977. – American chemist and spymaster who headed the Central Intelligence Agency’s 1950s and 1960s assassination attempts and mind-control program, known as Project MKUltra

Sidney Gottlieb, the director of MK Ultra, was the man who introduced LSD to the United States. He became a secret godfather of the counterculture of the 1960s when his experiments helped LSD spread throughout the country.

Gottlieb arranged for the CIA to spend $240,000 to purchase the full supply of LSD available on the market in the early 1950s. He brought LSD to the United States and started distributing it to hospitals, clinics, prisons, and other institutions. He asked them to conduct research projects to learn more about LSD, how people responded to it, and how it might be used as a tool for mind control through bogus foundations.

 He served as the main provider of spy equipment for many years to CIA agents worldwide. Many lives were wrecked by Gottlieb’s careless experiments on “expendable” human subjects, yet he believed in the depths of spirituality.

Newspaper Clipping - Cia Studied Kids Secretly
Newspaper Clipping – CIA Studied Kids Secretly

Gottlieb operated in the most profound secrecy throughout his twenty-two years with the CIA. Since his passing, it has only been feasible to piece together his remarkable career at the nexus of intense research and covert action.

Use of LSD within the CIA

Project MK-Ultra might not have come into existence if LSD was not discovered. LSD became a source of interest for the early MK-Ultra directors after CIA scientists learned of its existence as part of their search for substances that would allow humans to manipulate the human mind. Sidney Gottlieb, the director of MK Ultra, is now recognized as the person who introduced LSD to the United States. He unwittingly served as the LSD counterculture’s godfather.

LSD was one of the main drugs used for CIA Mind Control Experiments
LSD was one of the main drugs used for CIA Mind Control Experiments

While studying plant fungus in 1934, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann created and swallowed lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) for the first time. In 1943, Hofmann suddenly felt lightheaded after experimenting with the compounds in his lab and realized what he had developed. He rode his bicycle home while having his first acid trip, which included intense hallucinations. 

Ten years later, in 1953, the intelligence-driven effort of the CIA to covertly administer LSD to willing and unwilling American civilians was authorized. The most accurate results were supposed to come from unwitting civilians. As with people working in the field, they wouldn’t be familiar with behavioural modification studies conducted by the CIA.

Violation of the Nuremberg Code

Allies established The International Military Tribunal in 1945 following the end of WWII to investigate Nazi leaders and war criminals. A particular hearing was known informally as the “Doctors’ Trial” because it involved the prosecution of 23 Nazi doctors for their atrocities against detainees in concentration camps.

Only seven accused were found not guilty, nine doctors were given different jail terms, and seven received death sentences. The Doctors’ Trial thus created was known as the Nuremberg Code, named as the trial took place in Nuremberg, Germany. The Code established ten moral guidelines for future human subjects’ research and experimentation by 1945, long before MK Ultra or similar projects got off the ground.

Doctors' Trial - Courtroom at the trial, 12 December 1946
Doctors’ Trial – Courtroom at the trial, 12 December 1946

People who were a part of the MK Ultra program purposefully violated the Nuremberg Code. Operation Midnight Climax or Subproject 3 and Subproject 8, and the mysterious death of Dr Frank Olson (who fell from the top floor of a New York City hotel after receiving an LSD dose), are two specific MK Ultra events that highlight this violation of informed, voluntary consent. Both MK Ultra incidents violated several of the Nuremberg Code’s principles.

Voluntary assent was required per the Nuremberg Code, but it is evident that the MK Ultra men did not adhere to the same moral principles. 

To better understand the effects of LSD on persons who were not taking the drug voluntarily, Dr. Gottlieb decided in November 1953 to accompany some scientists from the U.S. Army Chemical Corps Special Operations Division (SOD) to Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. The SOD men were leaving for their yearly retreat to discuss spy techniques, but they had no idea that they would end up the subjects of behavioural modification research. The SOD men had been given liquor tainted with LSD, violating the first statement on voluntary consent in Nuremberg Code. 

Sidney Gottlieb approved of an MKUltra sub-project 8 on LSD in this June 9, 1953, letter.
Sidney Gottlieb approved of an MKUltra sub-project 8 on LSD in this June 9, 1953, letter.

Numerous provisions of the Nuremberg Code were violated by the multiple tests carried out by MK Ultra. 

Operation Midnight Climax

Operation Midnight Climax was a subset operation of the MK-Ultra Project, in which government-employed prostitutes to entice unsuspecting males into CIA “safe houses” where drug tests were conducted on them without their knowledge.

MK-Ultra Subproject 3 and Subproject 8 became the perfect opportunity to experiment with LSD on unwitting civilians. CIA recruited George White, a Federal Bureau of Narcotics employee eager to utilize his authority without any ethical or moral conflict. 

The men were given LSD doses by the CIA, who afterwards observed the effects of the drug on the men’s conduct while occasionally sipping cocktails behind a two-way mirror. In the prostitutes’ rooms, The CIA installed hidden recording equipment in the form of electrical outlets.

Newspaper article reads CIA Infiltrated 17 Area Groups, Gave Out LSD.
Newspaper article reads CIA Infiltrated 17 Area Groups, Gave Out LSD.

Most of Operation Midnight Climax trials were conducted in New York City, Marin County, and San Francisco, California. The CIA operatives involved in the program acknowledged that there was little control and that a party-like environment predominated.

The most crucial issue for Agency personnel was identifying participants who couldn’t be easily connected to the CIA experiments.

Prostitutes, drug users, and other criminals were the best test subjects due to their poor reputations and lack of trust. The San Francisco safehouse’s focus on prostitutes swiftly changed due to the CIA’s need to comprehend how sex could be used for espionage. As Sid Gottlieb had instructed, the Agency retained little to no records of these tests in typical MK Ultra form.

 Doctors were infrequently present, leaving CIA operatives with little to no training in science or medicine in charge of the safety of other people. Potential improvements in national security led to ethical and moral concerns being flagrantly ignored. The New York safehouse was open until 1966, while the San Francisco safehouse was operational until 1965.

In 1971, George White wrote a letter to Gottlieb, “Of course, I was a minor missionary, in fact, a heretic, but I toiled enthusiastically in the vineyards because it was fun, great, fun. Where else can a red-blooded American kid steal, swindle, rape, and pillage with the approval and sanction of the All-Highest?”

Newspaper Clipping - CIA Drug Program Stirs Controversy
Newspaper Clipping – CIA Drug Program Stirs Controversy

During the ten years spent in the safehouses, no significant data was gathered that could be applied outside the experimental phases. Gottlieb continued using LSD in other MK Ultra programs despite the lack of success. Around this time, the Medical Office of the CIA asserted that LSD posed a risk to unwary participants. Gottlieb, however, disagreed and fought to prevent physicians and other medical professionals from participating in his studies for fear that they would stop their studies.

Destroying Evidence

When President Richard Nixon dismissed Gottlieb’s benefactor, Richard Helms, the CIA director at the time, his career ended. Helms was essentially the only CIA employee who knew what Gottlieb had been up to, so after Helms was removed, it was a matter of time until Gottlieb followed suit. They consequently decided to destroy all evidence of Project MK-Ultra as they were leaving the CIA together. Gottlieb actually drove to the CIA records centre and gave the order to destroy all the boxes of documents pertaining to MK-Ultra.

Drug Experiment Horrors Disclosed
Drug Experiment Horrors Disclosed

It turns out, however, that certain documents were discovered in other locations; there was a depot for expenditure account records that had not been destroyed, and various other bits of paper still exist. There is enough information available to piece together some of what Gottlieb accomplished, but his attempt to disappear by erasing all of those records in the early 1970s was fairly successful.

Public Revelation of Project MK ULTRA: Rockefeller Commission and Church Committee

The Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee of the U.S. Congress investigations of CIA actions within the country initially brought Project MK-Ultra to the public’s attention in 1974.

Declassified MKUltra documents
Declassified MKUltra documents – This is a page from the declassified documents of MKULTRA. The documents were “provided by the Central Intelligence Agency under a subsequent Freedom of Information Act request in 1995.”

Journalist Seymour Hersh of the New York Times revealed in a 1974 article how the CIA had spied on American citizens without their consent and conducted illicit drug tests. His paper marked the beginning of the protracted process of exposing long-suppressed information regarding MK Ultra.

The United States President’s Commission on CIA Operations within the U.S. was established by President Ford the following year. This commission aimed to investigate illegal CIA activities, such as Project MK-Ultra and other experiments on unwitting citizens, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and amid growing mistrust of the American government. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller led this commission, sometimes known as the Rockefeller Commission.

A more thorough examination of the crimes of the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies during and after President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation was conducted by the Church Committee, led by Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church.

The early efforts of MKUltra involved the testing of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
The early efforts of MKUltra involved the testing of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)

The Church Committee investigated attempts to assassinate international leaders, such as Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Fidel Castro of Cuba. The Committee also discovered thousands of MK Ultra-related documents.

These public revelations resulted in Ford’s 1976 Executive Order on Intelligence Activities, which forbade “experimenting with drugs on human subjects except with the informed agreement.”

In 1977, a Freedom of Information Act petition resulted in the discovery of 20,000 MK Ultra-related documents, which prompted a Senate hearing. In July 2001, MK Ultra-related information that had survived was declassified.

The Demise of MK-ULTRA

LSD trials by the CIA continued until 1963 before reaching an unremarkable halt. In 1963, John Vance, a worker for the CIA Inspector General, discovered the CIA’s covert drug administration to human subjects. The Inspector General requested that the agency implement new research ethical codes and halt all studies using non-consenting participants, despite the MK-Ultra directors’ attempts to persuade the independent audit board of the CIA that the investigation should continue.

Senator Edward Kennedy presided over Congressional Investigations looking into the consequences of MK-Ultra in 1977. Congress called in a list of former CIA personnel for interrogation to find out who managed these projects, how subjects were identified, and whether any of these activities had been continued.

1977 United States Senate report on MKUltra - : Project MKULTRA, the CIA's Program of Research into Behavioral Modification. Joint Hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, United State Senate, Ninety-Fifth Congress, First Session
1977 United States Senate report on MKUltra -: Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s Program of Research into Behavioral Modification. Joint Hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, United State Senate, Ninety-Fifth Congress, First Session

The Hearings revealed several unsettling revelations, particularly regarding the ‘suicide’ of Dr. Frank Olson, an Army scientist, in 1953. Just a few years after President Nixon designated drug usage as the “public enemy,” the ironies of the United States’ problematic drug experimentation came into stark light amid escalating criminalization of drug users.

Congress, however, encountered obstacles throughout the hearings: CIA employees stated they “couldn’t remember” specifics about several of the human experimentation operations, including the number of participants.

The logical next step would be to consult the records, but there was a tiny issue with that: in 1973, as questions about MK-Ultra grew, the director advised staff that “it would be a good idea if the MK-Ultra records were destroyed.” The men who created MK-Ultra destroyed the paper record for one of the most blatantly criminal activities in the United States by citing nebulous worries about participant privacy and “embarrassment.”

A program created in secret would keep many of its secrets for all time.

If You Enjoyed This Content, Feel Free To Leave A Tip Or Visit One Of The Sponsor Adverts

Available Documents of Project MK-Ultra

Project MKU-Ultra: Joint Hearing before the Committee on Intelligence. – August 3, 1977

Operation MK-Ultra – CIA Electronic Reading Room, Archives

Operation Midnight Climax – CIA Electronic Reading Room, Archives

CIA MKULTRA / Mind Control Collection – Full compilation of files by John Greenwald, from The Black Vault