Inspiring hundreds of TV shows, movies, and conspiracy theories, the secret CIA project—codenamed MKUltra—is a story of government black ops, drugs, cover-ups, and murder.
Buried beneath divisions and sub-groups in the CIA, MKUltra began as early as 1950, but wasn’t official until 1953, technically falling under the US Army Chemical Corps. Motivated to combat the Soviet “truth serum,” its purpose was to develop techniques and drugs for mind control.
Utilizing a number of fronts, the project tapped into the resources of colleges, hospitals, prisons, mental health facilities, and even brothels.
Many of MKUltra’s activities were illegal, though the details of its operations are mostly unknown. Though the project was officially shut down in 1964, it’s outgoing director instructed the destruction of all of the project’s documents in 1973.
Even before the sabotage to future investigations, however, its members were instructed not to keep thorough records of their activities.
“Present practice is to maintain no records of the planning or approval of test programs.”—US Inspector General, 1963
They had good reason not to record their activities. They were found to not only experiment on people without consent or knowledge of the risks involved, but would also secretly drug people who would later suffer severe repercussions.
Prisoners, mental health patients, civilians, and soldiers were all unwittingly drugged or subject to other forms of “mind control” testing. LSD was their drug of choice, but they also attempted hypnosis, sleep deprivation, isolation, and verbal abuse. Though they never mastered “mind control,” they found many ways to put prisoners under extreme duress, with many of their techniques going on to be used as interrogation tactics in the Middle East.
Hoping to develop a technique to compromise and turn Soviet spies, they drugged unknowing soldiers, some of which were found to develop mental disorders in the face of seemingly unprompted hallucinations. With sparse records, few subjects were ever check up on afterward, and Senate committees would end up paying hundreds of thousands in recompensation to families.
Proving the Project Existed
While carrying out a Freedom of Information Act request, it was a budget office that stumbled across financial records of MKUltra in 1977. Used as evidence in a Senate investigation, it wasn’t until 2001 that some of the documents were declassified. They revealed surface-level information about some of the projects:
- Up to 26 Tests on unwilling participants
- 8 projects on hypnosis
- 4 “magician’s arts” projects
- 1 project on electro-shock, ESP, and aerosols
- 1-2 projects on controlling animals and organic energy
Operation Midnight Climax
With a true mission relegated to secret bosses and shadow fronts, one operation, directed by Bureau of Narcotics agent, George H. White, became especially questionable.
Essentially, he set up a brothel in which the US government paid for prostitutes to lure clients to a safe house, drug them, and then “watch what happened” through cameras and two-way mirrors in the rooms.
Recruiting a few prostitutes to establish a cover, it’s unclear how willing the sex workers were to drug unwilling participants for the government. White, however, cared little about a participant’s willingness. After his advances were denied by a local club singer, Ruth Kelly, he drugged her with LSD just before she went up to perform on stage to—once again—”see what happens.” She made it through her performance and escaped to a hospital before the agent could intercept her.
“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?”—George H. White
Murder and Cover-Up
Killed in 1953, Frank Olson’s family wouldn’t know the secret cause of his death for 22 years. Apparently falling from the 13th floor of a hotel in New York City, newspapers said he committed suicide from stress at his job with the Army.
The truth was Olson had been working for the CIA and was the casualty of a security risk test. Working on anthrax aerosols, they decided to drug him with LSD, and see if he would yield classified secrets. After the bout, he became confused, seeking help from less than scientific means. After facing a litany of “treatment” including hypnosis and alcohol he was found dead days later. According to the Washington Post, a scrap of paper was found in his pocket with the initials “G. W.” and the address of George White’s New York safe house.
It wasn’t until his body was exhumed in 1994 that forensics experts confirmed he had been struck on the head before being thrown from the window.
Though little is really known about the secret MKUltra project, what is known has been enough to inspire shows like Stranger Things and Wormwood, and to lead to the development of other military programs. Meanwhile, legions of conspiracy theorists and affected families continue to seek answers.