Stephen Kinzer has written books about civil wars, terror attacks, and bloody coups, but his latest might be his most alarming. “I’m still in shock,” Kinzer says of what he learned about the appalling experiments conducted by a government scientist most Americans have never heard of. “I can’t believe that this happened.”
These aren’t the words of an author trying to fire up the hype machine. Though the events recounted in Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control took place a half-century ago, they’re scandalous in a way that transcends time.
For much of his 22-year CIA career, Gottlieb ran mind-control projects designed to help America defeat Communism. In the ’50s and ’60s, Kinzer writes, Gottlieb “directed the application of unknowable quantities and varieties of drugs into” countless people, searching for the narcotic recipe that might allow him to mold his human test subjects’ thoughts and actions.
Gottlieb and a network of medical professionals gave LSD and other drugs to prisoners, hospital patients, government employees, and others—many of whom had no idea they were being dosed. A CIA staffer died in highly suspicious fashion after Gottlieb had his drink spiked with LSD. Meanwhile, when his bosses considered killing a foreign leader, Gottlieb developed custom-made poisons. Numerous people were harmed by Gottlieb’s work, but because he destroyed his files on the eve of his 1973 retirement, it’s hard to quantify the carnage he wrought.
The broad outlines of Gottlieb’s story have been public for years. Major newspapers ran obituaries when he died in 1999. In 2017, he was portrayed by actor Tim Blake Nelson in Errol Morris’ Wormwood. But Kinzer’s book, the first proper Gottlieb biography, includes fascinating new facts about the end of his career and fresh details about disturbing episodes he orchestrated.
Poisoner in Chief describes Gottlieb’s little-known participation in torture sessions at U.S. military sites in foreign countries and reports that in at least one case a doctor who worked with Gottlieb gave LSD to children. Gottlieb was “the Josef Mengele of the United States,” Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter and the author of many books, told me in a recent interview.
How did Gottlieb, the Bronx-born son of Hungarian Jews, become a man who would earn comparisons to a ghoulish Nazi doctor?
After getting a doctorate in biochemistry from the California Institute of Technology, Gottlieb joined the CIA in 1951, a time of fear and uncertainty. Just six years after the end of World War II, American troops were fighting in Korea. Washington was increasingly worried about what many believed was the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union. Gottlieb was on the job for a few weeks, Kinzer writes, when he was tapped “to invigorate” what would be known as the Artichoke project.
Artichoke—the name was essentially meaningless; it might’ve been a CIA boss’ favorite vegetable—gave Gottlieb broad license to carry out mind control projects. Kinzer cites a CIA memo that describes the mission: “the investigation of drug effects on ego control and volitional activities, i.e., can willfully suppressed information be elicited through drugs affecting higher nervous systems? If so, which agents are better for this purpose?”
The CIA aimed to create truth serum to use on prisoners and other compounds that would help wipe away memories of events that would cause trouble for the agency. If all went as planned, intelligence officers would have the ability to program people to carry out missions like those later seen in Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate and the subsequent movie.
Artichoke projects often amounted to “medical torture,” Kinzer writes. Inspired in part by brutal experiments conducted by the Japanese military and the Nazis in the ’40s, Artichoke included the “dosing (of) unwilling patients with potent drugs, subjecting them to extremes of temperature and sound (and) strapping them to electroshock machines.” Artichoke squads worked with impunity at American military sites in Europe and Asia. Such projects were closely guarded secrets, but Poisoner in Chief contains details that will be new to most readers.
For instance, Kinzer notes that when “Artichoke scientists came up with a new drug or other technique they wished to test… they asked the CIA station in South Korea to supply a batch [of] ‘expendable’ subjects.” A related CIA memo said the subjects were needed for the testing of an unnamed but “important new technique,” adding, “Technique does not, not require disposal problems after application.” This is ambiguous language, but it suggests that the CIA knew that in some cases, human test subjects might be killed in the process.
Gottlieb oversaw a scientific unit at Maryland’s Camp Detrick (since renamed Fort Detrick), where chemists researched the effects of LSD, heroin, and other drugs, sometimes trying the substances themselves. But he was not just a creature of the lab. “We know that he participated in torture sessions in East Asia,” Kinzer says, speaking from his home in Massachusetts. “We know that he made repeated visits to Germany, which, like Japan, was under U.S. occupation, so he didn’t have to obey any laws. And he was also active in other parts of Europe.”
In time, Gottlieb became intimately familiar with LSD’s mind-altering effects. He admitted that he’d used the drug more than 200 times. “When I look at the variety of the projects that he was involved in,” Kinzer says, “from hypnotism to electroshock to parapsychology to handwriting analysis, I begin to think that maybe it was while he was on LSD that he was thinking, ‘I got another idea.’”
By 1953, Kinzer writes, “Artichoke had become one of the most violently abusive projects ever sponsored by an agency of the United States government.” That year, Allen Dulles, one of Gottlieb’s ardent backers, got the CIA’s top job. The new boss, Kinzer writes, was among Washington’s leading mind control proponents: “Dulles never recoiled from the most extreme implications of ‘brain warfare.’” Dulles wanted “to intensify and systematize” the work done under Artichoke, Kinzer adds, and he tapped Gottlieb to head a new program: MK-ULTRA, named for the “ultra-sensitive” activities it was expected to carry out.
With a generous budget and an “effectively unlimited supply” of LSD—the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly manufactured the hallucinogenic drug for the CIA—Gottlieb became perhaps “the most powerful unknown American of the 20th century,” Kinzer says.
A key MK-ULTRA initiative involved medical professionals who agreed to administer drugs to their patients—often without the patients’ knowledge or consent. For instance, when Gottlieb wanted to know how much LSD a body could withstand, he got in touch with Harris Isbell, a researcher at a Lexington, Kentucky addiction center who had made his curiosity about LSD known in a letter to the CIA.
Working with a group of men who “were not told what sort of drug they would be fed or what its effects might be,” Kinzer writes, Isbell administered large doses of LSD. He reported that the men experienced anxiety, hallucinations, and “choking.” As always with CIA projects of this kind, it’s tough to say how much damage was done. But Kinzer writes that at least one patient did speak out, saying that “for the rest of his life he suffered from delusions, paranoia, panic attacks, and suicidal impulses.”
Another keen CIA collaborator chaired the pharmacology department at Emory University. “As subjects,” Kinzer writes, Dr. Carl Pfeiffer “used inmates at the federal prison in Atlanta and at a juvenile detention center in Bordentown, New Jersey,” administering depressants and hallucinogens in volumes that resulted in seizures and hallucinations that lasted for days. One of Pfeiffer’s subjects was James “Whitey” Bulger, who later became a notorious Boston gangland killer. Bulger said that as a young inmate, he was given LSD daily for more than a year.
Another doctor—a New York allergist named Harold Abramson, who got an $85,000 MK-ULTRA stipend—“developed a special curiosity about the impact of mind-altering drugs on children,” Kinzer writes. “He closely monitored experiments, including one in which 12 ‘pre-puberty’ boys were fed psilocybin, and another in which 14 children between the ages of six and 11, diagnosed as schizophrenic, were given 100 micrograms of LSD each day for six weeks.”
In Manhattan, meanwhile, Gottlieb helped set up a CIA safe house, where, with the hands-on help of a local narcotics cop, “unsuspecting citizens would be lured and surreptitiously drugged,” their behavior monitored via surveillance equipment in an adjoining apartment.
It was around this time that Gottlieb attended a retreat with some other CIA men. The colleagues began drinking, and a few minutes later, Kinzer writes, “Gottlieb asked if anyone was feeling odd. Several said they were. Gottlieb then told them that their drinks had been spiked with LSD.” The incident triggered an emotional crisis in one of the men, a scientist named Frank Olson. Days later, Olson plunged to his death from the window of a Manhattan hotel. As seen in Morris’ film Wormwood, there’s compelling circumstantial evidence that Olson was murdered because the CIA feared he would divulge one of the secret projects he’d worked on.
One of Gottlieb’s most remarkable duties involved adversarial foreign heads of state. According to colleagues, he prepared “a pre-poisoned tube of toothpaste” meant for Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (it went unused) and ran a scientific team that considered a bizarre plot to disgrace Fidel Castro. Believing that the Cuban leader’s charisma was linked to his facial hair, Gottlieb wanted to have thallium salts sprinkled in his boots. “His beard would then fall out,” Kinzer writes, “leaving him open to ridicule and overthrow.” This, of course, never came to pass.
By 1963, MK-ULTRA’s final year, Gottlieb and his colleagues “were forced to face their cosmic failure,” Kinzer writes. “Their research had shown them that mind control is a myth—that seizing another person’s mind and reprogramming it is impossible.”
Nonetheless, Kinzer believes that Gottlieb left a deeply lamentable imprint on the modern CIA. He says there’s “a direct line between Sidney Gottlieb’s work and techniques that U.S. agents taught to Latin American security services in the 1960s and ’70s—these techniques were also used in Vietnam—and then later on to the techniques of torture and so-called extreme interrogation that were used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”
Though Gottlieb’s decision to destroy his files means that there’s much we’ll never know, Kinzer appears to be the first journalist to directly tie his departure from the CIA to the scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency. Gottlieb’s team, he reports, “prepared false identity papers for two of” the men who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate complex. The break-in set off a chain of events that result in the ouster of CIA Director Richard Helms. “Helms,” Kinzer explains, “was Gottlieb’s number one promoter and enabler and sponsor for 20 years.” Nixon fired Helms in February 1973. Gottlieb retired four months later.
After the CIA, Gottlieb took steps to reinvent himself. The long-married father of four joined an arts council in his Virginia town, acted in local holiday plays and worked with children who had speech problems. “It definitely seems from the recollections of people that knew him in his last 20 years that he was a very gentle soul, kind of an eco-hippy,” Kinzer says. “Nobody had any idea of what he had done in the past, but he was tormented by it.”
Gottlieb died in March 1999, and when a cause of death wasn’t announced, at least two observers came to believe that he killed himself to derail intensifying legal inquiries into his actions. Eric Olson—Frank’s son—and Sidney Bender, a lawyer for a man who says his life was ruined by a Gottlieb dosing, had both tried to hold Gottlieb to account while he was alive. Instead, Kinzer writes, “they drank a toast to the death of a man they considered a monster.”