On this day in 1953, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began work on Project MK-Ultra, a top-secret program to develop mind-control tactics and drugs. Fresh off of the Korean War – during which North Korean intelligence specialists allegedly brainwashed American soldiers into switching sides – CIA director Allen Dulles was anxious to formulate mind-control techniques to use against the enemy. Inspired by the work of Axis scientists in the concentration camps and within Unit 731 (a horrific experimentation unit that tortured countless Chinese POWs during WWII) the CIA set about continuing the work of some of history’s most notorious war criminals.
A 1955 CIA document, made public during the 1975 Rockefeller Commission, revealed that MK-Ultra had a wide range of goals, including the development of materials that…
- … cause temporary/permanent brain damage and loss of memory.
- … produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc.
- … promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.
- … cause the victim to age faster/slower in maturity.
- … lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts.
The aim of these materials was everything from producing American super-spies to destroying the minds of foreign leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
MK-Ultra soon began conducting trials with LSD, sensory deprivation, shock therapy, hypnosis, and a variety of other dangerous methods on unwitting participants. Under Operation Midnight Climax, a series of CIA-run brothels were opened in San Francisco where clients were forced to ingest LSD (and the results were filmed); unsuspecting mental health patients in hospitals across the continent (including at McGill university in Montreal) were subjected to months of psychological torture in the name of “medicine”; heroin addicts and war veterans were bribed with drugs to take part in trials. Even members of the hippie counterculture movement, like Beat generation author Ken Kesey, performed LSD tests with funding from the CIA. The effects of the studies ranged from psychological damage, to death – whether by drug overdose or suicide.
Although CIA chief Dulles was inspired by reports of Korean War brainwashing, other factors were at play. American analysts were increasingly paranoid about the existence of the Missile Gap, a perception – partially backed by reality – that the USSR’s nuclear weapons capability quickly was surpassing that of NATO in the 1960s. Additionally, Dulles and many others feared the existence of a mole (enemy agent) within the Agency. The “success” of MK-Ultra is impossible to verify, since most of the files relating to the studies were destroyed in the early 1970s – but, as a New York Times investigation and subsequent Senate hearings revealed, the vast majority of the project’s activities were illegal. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation about MK-Ultra is that, decades after the close of the project, it has been largely forgotten – and the Agency faced almost zero repercussions for its actions.