Project MKUltra: The CIA’s secret, illegal mind-control program with tragic consequences

Tijana Radeska
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For over a decade, between 1953 and 1967, numerous universities, institutes, and research foundations participated in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Project MKUltra, which was in effect a mind-control program. Although 185 researchers and more than 80 institutions performed the research, most of them didn’t know that the ultimate beneficiary was the CIA.

The aim of the program was to develop drugs and procedures for interrogation and torture. It was motivated by presumed Soviet advances in mind-control technology. And the human subjects who served as lab mice didn’t have the slightest idea that they were being used as experiments.

In 1974, The New York Times asserted that illegal domestic activities such as experiments on American citizens took place during the 1960s, operated by the CIA. Hence, Congress established a committee known as the Church Committee, directed by Frank Church, to investigate the United States intelligence community about abuses.

Unfortunately, after the Watergate affair in 1973, in a collective panic that spread through government, CIA director Richard Helms had ordered that all files relating to the MKUltra program be destroyed. Therefore, nobody ever answered for the project. It turned out that 8,000 pages of mostly financial documents weren’t destroyed and were discovered by the Church Committee in 1977.

Seal of the CIA.

It turned out that it all started on April 13, 1953. The amen for the program was given by then CIA director Allen Dulles, the longest-serving director of the agency to date. Project MKUltra was directed by Sidney Gottlieb, an American chemist, and spymaster who introduced the drug LSD to the CIA. He was also involved in CIA 1950s and 1960s assassination attempts. Obsessed with the mind-control techniques used by the Soviets, Chinese, and the North Koreans, the Americans wanted to invent new and better ones, in their imaginations they were going to the level of manipulating foreign leaders by using the drugs.

Frank Church headed the Church Committee, an investigation into the practices of the US intelligence agencies.

The project was organized through the CIA’s Scientific Intelligence Division and coordinated with the Special Operations Division of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps. Due to the legal and ethical questions that would have been raised about the project, it was administered in absolute secrecy. And it worked as such for over 20 years during which many deaths might be associated with separate projects of the program. However, the majority of death and torture cases of Americans that are attributed to the CIA’s mind control program would remain speculative because there isn’t any proof to confirm them as facts.

Allen Dulles

The goal of the project was to create a “truth drug” and that required a lot of experimenting with psychoactive drugs such as LSD and mescaline. Believe it or not, one of the alleged victims of Project MKUltra was the author Ken Kesey who before participating in a testing of “a drug to help people with mental problems” at Stanford University, was an athlete who wasn’t known for consuming drugs or alcohol.

Sidney Gottlieb approved of an MKUltra subproject on LSD in this June 9, 1953 letter.

Although LSD became a symbol associated with Ken Kesey and for him a substance of enlightenment, he later stated that the testing “wasn’t being done to try to cure insane people, which is what we thought. It was being done to try to make people insane—to weaken people, and to be able to put them under the control of interrogators.” He also said that the government’s LSD was better than any other he ever tried.

But not all victims of MKUltra had such luck as Kesey. Harold Blauer, a professional tennis player, died of injections of mescaline in the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He was diagnosed as “pseudo-neurotic schizophrenic” and indirectly “treated” as one of the subjects of the MKUltra program just a month after he admitted himself to the hospital. Following an extensive cover-up, the government revealed the truth to Blauer’s family in 1975–that his death was caused by injections of a mescaline derivative. The family sued the government in 1987 and won a $700,000 judgment.

Declassified MKUltra documents

Blauer wasn’t the only unlucky victim of the CIA’s experiments. There were many others. Nobody signed for it, everyone got it. There were thousands of participants, and the full impact of MKUltra may never be known. The report of the Church Committee was presented to the public for the first time in 1975. Until then, many participants were unaware of their participation in drug testing.

Read another story from us: Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter while on the effects of LSD

A hearing was held in 1977 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to investigate the project, but due to the lack of evidence, nobody faced any consequences. Project MKUltra remains as a stain on the American government, and as one of the biggest offenses to human rights.