Sidney Gottlieb, 80, Dies; Took LSD to C.I.A.
By TIM WEINER, New York Times, March 10, 1999
Sidney Gottlieb, who presided over the Central Intelligence Agency's cold-war efforts to control the human mind and provided the agency poisons to kill Fidel Castro, died on Sunday in Washington, Va. He was 80 and had spent his later years caring for dying patients, trying to run a commune, folk dancing, consciousness-raising and fighting lawsuits from survivors of his secret tests.
Friends and enemies alike say Mr. Gottlieb was a kind of genius, striving to explore the frontiers of the human mind for his country, while searching for religious and spiritual meaning in his life. But he will always be remembered as the Government chemist who dosed Americans with psychedelics in the name of national security, the man who brought LSD to the C.I.A.
In the 1950's and early 1960's, the agency gave mind-altering drugs to hundreds of unsuspecting Americans in an effort to explore the possibilities of controlling human consciousness. Many of the human guinea pigs were mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts and prostitutes -- ''people who could not fight back,'' as one agency officer put it. In one case, a mental patient in Kentucky was dosed with LSD continuously for 174 days.
Other experiments involved agency employees, military officers and college students, who had varying degrees of knowledge about the tests. In all, the agency conducted 149 separate mind-control experiments, and as many as 25 involved unwitting subjects. First-hand testimony, fragmentary Government documents and court records show that at least one participant died, others went mad, and still others suffered psychological damage after participating in the project, known as MK Ultra. The experiments were useless, Mr. Gottlieb concluded in 1972, shortly before he retired.
The C.I.A. awarded Mr. Gottlieb the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and deliberately destroyed most of the MKUltra records in 1973.
John Gittinger, a C.I.A. psychologist who vetted Mr. Gottlieb -- ''one of the most brilliant men I've ever known'' -- and worked with him for 22 years, said the agency began the tests because it was gripped by ''a great fear'' in the cold war. It was afraid that the Soviet Union would corner the market on LSD and use it as a chemical weapon or that China would perfect the black art of brainwashing, Mr. Gittinger said.
The agency and Mr. Gottlieb believed the United States had to fight by any means necessary.
''We were in a World War II mode,'' Mr. Gittinger said. ''The war never really ended for us.''
John Marks, author of the definitive book on the experiments, ''The Search for the 'Manchurian Candidate' '' (Times Books, 1979) said Mr. Gottlieb was ''unquestionably a patriot, a man of great ingenuity.''
''Gottlieb never did what he did for inhumane reasons,'' Mr. Marks said. ''He thought he was doing exactly what was needed. And in the context of the time, who would argue? But with his experiments on unwitting subjects, he clearly violated the Nuremburg standards -- the standards under which, after World War II, we executed Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity.''
Sidney Gottlieb was born in New York City on Aug. 3, 1918, the son of immigrants from Hungary. His parents were orthodox Jews, but he did not embrace the faith. Mr. Gottlieb ''had had a real problem to find a spiritual focus, having gone away from Jewishness,'' Mr. Gittinger said, and he experimented with everything from agnosticism to Zen Buddhism all his life.
He left the City College of New York, first for the Arkansas Polytechnic Institute, then for the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated, magna cum laude, with a chemistry degree in 1940. He earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the California Institute of Technology, where in 1942 he married Margaret Moore, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who served in India, where she was born. A clubfoot kept him from military service in World War II, and he was always bitter that he missed the war, Mr. Gittinger said.
Mr. Gottlieb joined the C.I.A. in 1951, although not before telling Mr. Gittinger, his interviewer, that he had been a socialist in his youth.
Two years later, the agency established MKUltra and Mr. Gottlieb was running it. As chief of the agency's technical services division, he served two decades as the senior scientist presiding over some of the C.I.A.'s darkest secrets.
The first of these were the LSD experiments. Mr. Gottlieb was fascinated by the drug, and, a family friend said, he took it hundreds of times.
''He was the most curious man I ever knew,'' Mr. Gittinger said. ''He was willing to try anything to discover something.''
Mr. Gottlieb was also involved in the C.I.A.'s assassination plots. In the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations, Mr. Gottlieb, always under orders from the Director of Central Intelligence or his chief spymaster, developed a poison handkerchief to kill an Iraqi colonel, an array of toxic gifts to be delivered to Fidel Castro, and a poison dart to kill a leftist leader in the Congo. None of the plans succeeded.
After he left the C.I.A., Mr. Gottlieb and his wife went to India, where he ran a leper hospital for 18 months. A lifelong stutterer, he pursued a master's degree in speech therapy. He bought land with an old log cabin outside a small Virginia town, Boston, where he practiced two of his lifelong hobbies, folk dancing and herding goats.
''He bought that old house and the land with the idea of setting up a communal home, with several families living together,'' said Mr. Gittinger, a lifelong friend. At least one other couple stayed for years.
Mr. Gottlieb spent his last years in Washington, Va., a pretty village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, working in a hospice, tending to the dying.
He is survived by his wife and four children, Penny Gottlieb Chesluk, Rachel Gottlieb Samoff, Peter Gottlieb and Steven Gottlieb. Cleaving to old habits of secrecy, his wife declined to disclose the cause of Mr. Gottlieb's death.