December 8, 2021

Book Review: Poisoner-In-Chief

This is the kind of historical account that leaves the reader shaking their head in disbelief that the events could possibly have happened. It’s an excellent historical account of the MK-ULTRA mind control experiments and associated other CIA-run programs in the 1950s and 1960s and the human fallout. The author, Stephen Kinzer, strikes the appropriate tone of being aghast at the horrific violations of human rights and trying to put it in some kind of context, both in the spirit of the times (immediately after WWII through the cold war and the Watergate era and the more "enlightened" 1980s) and in an attempt to understand the men who ordered and in some cases performed these sadistic experiments. These men were husbands and fathers and neighbors - for the most part upstanding citizens. How were they able to justify assassination and poisoning and probably kidnapping and murder? Kinzer tries very hard and largely succeeds in staying neutral and he weaves a narrative based almost exclusively on testimony and documents rather than creating his own perspective of events. 

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was the intelligence agency of the US government during WWII and the forerunner of the CIA. For the spooks and spies and intelligence agents in the OSS, although the US war defeated Germany and Japan in 1945, the war didn’t end - the enemy just changed to the Soviet Union (our ally during the war) and communism.  German and Japanese scientists, military leaders and engineers were recruited and the OSS set up laboratories in safe houses in post-war Germany to conduct mind-control and brainwashing experiments on “expendables” and undesirables” without oversight or restraint of US laws. 

The CIA was created in 1948 from the ashes of the OSS but many of the original human assets remained in the new intelligence agency. The CIA and the US Army oversaw activities at the biological warfare center at Fort Detrick (near Frederick Maryland) and conducted experiments with anthrax, yellow fever and botulism. As the focus of counterintelligence efforts shifted from the battlefield to the espionage and covert sabotage, project Bluebird was created for  “investigating the possibility of control of an individual by application of Special Interrogation techniques” i.e. - mind control. The CIA was convinced the Soviets were already employing successful use of mind control techniques and they were desperate to catch up. They needed a brilliant chemist to take charge of the American efforts to develop mind control techniques. In 1951 they hired Sidney Gottlieb. 

Gottlieb was an unlikely monster - a nice Jewish kid from the Bronx, the son of Hungarian immigrants, clubfooted with a stutter. He excelled in science, graduating from City College, then earning  a masters in agricultural biology in Wisconsin and a doctorate at CalTech in 1943. He was rejected for military duty due to his musculoskeletal disability. He married a fellow CalTech and moved to northern Virginia where they lived on a farm with chickens and goats and raised four children. 

Gottlieb renamed Project Bluebird to Artichoke and redesigned efforts to “the investigation of drug effects on ego control and volitional activities.” Interrogations began in earnest in the safe houses in Europe but months of torture including electric shock, extreme temperatures and exposure to loud noises didn’t produce any results. Convinced the Soviets already could “brain wash” people, Artichoke accelerated their efforts, setting up experimental facilities in South Korea, Germany, France and Japan. In West Germany the Artichoke team used “Benzedrine and Pentathol-Natrium on Russian captives, under a research protocol specifying that ‘disposal of the body is not a problem.’”

Six months into the job, Gottlieb decided to try LSD on himself. He ordered experiments with massive doses of hallucinogens and “Each experiment failed. The ‘expendables’ were killed and their bodies burned.” With Eisenhower’s election victory in 1952, Gottlieb was free to pursue any sadistic imaginative avenue he wanted. Gottlieb proposed a more powerful, covert initiative and transformed Artichoke into MK-ULTRA. Gottlieb now could expand his focus exclusively on mind control but he also dove into the irresistible realm of developing poisons for assassinations.

The book gets crazier and crazier. Gottlieb set up safe houses in Greenwich Village, NYC and San Francisco where unsuspecting people were dosed with LSD. He hired very shady individuals to recruit prostitutes to lure unsuspecting civilians into the safe houses where they were heavily drugged and recorded with hidden cameras. Gottlieb thought LSD held the most promise for mind control but he also conducted experiments with other drugs, hypnosis and other techniques. He directed funds to the Federal Prison in Lexington Kentucky and other cities to use (mostly black) prisoners in high-dose LSD experiments and rewarded the subjects with heroin after their participation. Some prisoners were given enormous doses of LSD for up to 40 days in a row to “see if their minds would dissolve.” The infamous gangster Whitey Bulger was one of twenty inmates given LSD almost daily for fifteen months in an Atlanta prison. He was told they were trying to find a cure for schizophrenia. 

Gottlieb ultimately concluded that LSD was not useful as a mind control drug. His efforts at developing a reliable assassination poison was equally unsuccessful, however, the efforts of MK-ULTRA began seeping out into high society and the counterculture. Claire Boothe Luce, Sidney Lumet, Esther Williams, Cary Grant and others were rumoured to attend LSD parties in NYC and Los Angeles. Ken Kesey first took LSD as part of a CIA sponsored experiment at a VA hospital which led to him getting a job at the hospital and access to an unlimited supply of LSD turning his home into a nonstop party. Robert Hunter was provided his first dose of LSD courtesy of the CIA and subsequently went on to pen the lyrics for some of the Grateful Dead’s most popular songs.  Allen Ginsburg got his first dose of LSD in an MK-ULTRA experiment and Timothy Leary said “I wouldn’t be here now without the foresight of CIA scientists.”

The ultimate fate of Sidney Gottlieb and his cohorts are ignoble and trifling but the story of the CIA’s Poisoner-In-Chief is fascinating and absorbing and Stephen Kinzer tells the story very well.

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