Family tragedy led me to write The Coldest Warrior.
My uncle Frank Olson died sometime around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, 1953 when he “jumped or fell” from his room on the 13th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York City. The New York Medical Examiner’s report contained that ambiguous description of how Frank came to land on the sidewalk early that morning. Frank Olson was a highly skilled Army scientist who worked at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, a top-secret U.S. Army facility that researched biological warfare agents. He had gone to New York to see a security-cleared psychiatrist in the company of a CIA escort.
Olson’s sealed casket was delivered to his wife, my aunt, two days later. She was discouraged from viewing the body because, she was told, he had suffered disfiguring facial injuries. Olson was buried the next day. She received an expedited pension shortly after that. That was all the family knew for 22 years.
Then, in June 1975, one bit of new information came to light. Buried inside a report by The Rockefeller Commission, which had been established by President Gerald Ford to investigate allegations of illegal CIA activity within the U.S., was a two-paragraph account of an army scientist who had been unwittingly given LSD and died in a fall from a hotel window in New York. The similarity of the case drew the family’s attention and, after consulting the CIA, the Army confirmed the scientists was Frank Olson. Headlines followed in The New York Times and The Washington Post. “Suicide Revealed.”
Within 10 days the family was sitting in the Oval Office receiving an unprecedented personal apology from the president of the United States for Olson’s wrongful death. Within a year, the family received a $750,000 monetary settlement for which they had to sign a broad release of claims against the U.S. government.
The case might have ended there, but Eric Olson, Frank’s eldest son, became increasingly uncomfortable with the official narrative. He had his father exhumed in 1994 by a respected forensic pathologist who found no disfiguring facial injuries. But he did find a suspicious hematoma on Olson’s left temple, which led him to conclude that Olson had been stunned by a blow to the head in the hotel room. To the conflicting theories that Frank Olson “jumped or fell” another possibility was added: He had been thrown out the window.
In the years that followed, information about the nature of Olson’s work came to light. As Acting Chief, Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, he was liaison to the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, the agency’s R&D unit, which gave him visibility into some of the CIA’s most sensitive operations. He was involved in, or aware of, the use of anthrax against North Korean civilian populations; top secret programs Artichoke and MKULTRA, which involved extreme interrogation techniques; cooperation with Japanese and Nazi war criminals to benefit from their banned medical research methods. Olson was a man who knew some of the CIA’s darkest secrets.
Slowly, over time, with a drip of information assembled by Eric, a new narrative emerged. Olson was a man who’d grown uncomfortable with the nature of his work, showed signs of being a security risk, and then was made unstable when drugged with LSD at an offsite business meeting intended to test his trustworthiness. He had become a man who knew too much.
This revised narrative shed new light on earlier events. Olson’s rushed burial and the expedited pension approval were meant to stop the family from asking questions. Later, the speedy presidential apology, the $750,000 payment, and their waiver of claims conspired to continue the cover-up.
Frank Olson’s death has come to embody our collective fascination with the Cold War’s darkest secrets, and it has shone a bright light on the dubious privileges men in the CIA gave themselves in the name of national security. The murkiness of the case, even at a distance of 66 years, still attracts great interest. Errol Morris explored the case in his 2018 Netflix mini-series, Wormwood, and award-winning former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer addressed the case in his 2019 bestselling Poisoner-In-Chief, a biography of Sidney Gottlieb, Olson’s CIA boss.
The Olson case continues to interest us for many of the same reasons that we are drawn to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post reporter and Saudi citizen executed in Turkey by agents of the Saudi government, and former FSB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006 on orders from the Kremlin. Extra-judicial executions have one thing in common: The killings are done by individuals acting under orders from government authorities without sanction of any legal process.
Olson’s death remains officially classified as “undetermined,” but all the evidence that has emerged over several decades points toward murder and none of it points away. Like a black hole, existence is proven by evidence that points to existence and not by direct observation. Among the things that have become known:
- Three months before his death Olson spent two weeks with his brother-in-law (my father) reroofing a family cabin in the Adirondacks. My father saw a man who was in a deep moral crisis. He wasn’t suicidal. He was a man who had begun reading the Bible to find answers to disturbing questions.
- On Feb. 23, 1954 (three months after Olson’s death), the CIA and the Department of Justice signed a Memorandum of Understanding that allowed the CIA to withhold information relating to criminal activity if disclosure compromised intelligence sources and methods. In 1975, Senator Bella Abzug questioned Lawrence Houston, CIA general counsel at the time of Olson’s death, and an author of the memo. She asked, with specific reference to Olson, “In other words, the Memorandum of Understanding, in your judgment, gave authority to the CIA to make decisions to give immunity to individuals who happened to work for the CIA for all kinds of crimes, including murder.” Houston answered, “Yes.”
- Mossad, which started using “targeted killings” in 1962, for decades included the death of Frank Olson in its assassination training program as an example of the perfect murder—“perfect” due to the skill with which it had been made to look like a suicide.
I caught up with Stephen Kinzer over lunch last fall after he became aware of my new novel, The Coldest Warrior, which is based on the Frank Olson case. The novel, unlike Kinzer’s chapter on the case, treats the death of the Olson character (renamed Wilson) as a murder. I tell the story from within the CIA—murder, cover-up, and a power struggle among CIA factions trying to deal with the repercussions of the case. The novel puts a human face on the Cold War by showing the psychological burdens of its characters. Honorable men who work in covert operations inevitably bring some of the darkness into themselves, suffering the moral hazards of a line of work that sanctions lying, deceit, and murder. Doubt and paranoia are bred in a culture of secrecy, as is a sophisticated amorality in men at the top of the intelligence bureaucracy.
Kinzer’s account of the Olson case stops at the precipice of knowledge—where every account has stopped because that is where the trail of evidence ends. The rules of journalism don’t reward speculation. Toward the end of our lunch, Kinzer agreed that the CIA was capable of murder in 1953; he agreed that the CIA believed the top-secret projects Olson knew of, if made public, would threaten national security and embarrass the agency; and he agreed that the CIA believed Olson was a security risk.
Kinzer paused at the end of our discussion. “In my gut, he was murdered.” Gut. The instinct for truth.
I wrote The Coldest Warrior with the freedom that fiction enjoys to imagine the world beyond the precipice of knowledge. Albert Camus said it well: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”