Alex Constantine - October 18, 2015
The following is an excerpt from From Healing to Hell, a memoir in which oral surgeon and inventor W. Henry Wall, Jr. explores how a mind-control experiment destroyed his father, former Georgia senator and mental health advocate, Dr. W. Henry Wall, Sr. "Daddy" became addicted to the narcotic Demerol after a routine dental procedure. His dependency eventually landed him in prison, where he became a victim of the CIA's MK-Ultra experiment.
“We do not target American citizens . . . The nation must to a degree take it on faith that we who lead the CIA are honorable men, devoted to the nation’s service.” — Richard Helms, former CIA director
In March 1979 the revelation came. After Times Books published journalist John Marks’s nonfiction opus The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, a horrifying exposé of a Central Intelligence Agency program known as MK-Ultra that focused on attempts to find an effective mind-control or “truth” drug, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured a series of six articles detailing the book’s content. By the time I read the second page of the second installment I knew exactly what had happened to my dad. Stunned, I read it again slowly to be quite sure.
As Marks reported, the linchpin of the MK-Ultra program was the compound d-lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. I had heard plenty about this hallucinogen through the 1960s headline-grabbing antics of Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and other derangement devotees. Sought by some as a mind-expander, at times the LSD experience or “acid trip” plunged other users into terrifying sensations and led to ghastly flashbacks that might persist for years.
More to the point as far as Daddy was concerned, its bad effects were said to be even greater for a person given the drug in “circumstances not conducive to pleasant feelings”—as when you were given it by someone you despised, when colleagues had turned against you, when you were in prison, when you were struggling to overcome a narcotic habit on your own while everything you’d built up for years was being auctioned off on the courthouse square. And I already knew from my pharmacological studies how far-reaching could be the aftereffects of a bad LSD trip, unique to this particular drug.
At long last I had the logical explanation of the sudden onset of Daddy’s terror of being driven insane, of the mental derangement that persisted as paranoia and “episodes” for years after his release. All of the elements matched up.
And among the various names of scientists mentioned in the article one leapt off the page: “Dr. Harris Isbell, director of the addiction research Center at the huge federal drug hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.” A hospital they might call it, but it was a prison for narcotics offenders, with the nationally acclaimed Isbell heading the center’s program. The very man whom Daddy so despised for his cavalier attitude toward drug-dependent patients in his charge, the enthusiastic dispenser of potions who enticed prisoner-addicts to volunteer for his experiments.
Among Isbell’s reports of his chemical experiments, he boasted, according to Marks, of having kept seven men on LSD for 77 straight days. And in cases where the response was not all that he hoped for, he doubled, tripled, even quadrupled the dose, noting that some of the subjects seemed to fear the doctors. My god, who wouldn’t have feared them? Such torment hardly bears imagining.
To put it plainly, what Harris Isbell did to my father was to assault him with a poison that permanently damaged his brain. In this day of effective alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs, it’s unthinkable that America citizens’ taxes paid this man to destroy his hostages’ minds and lives.
Can you imagine yourself a respectable, middle-aged, recently prominent, heretofore sane, professional man, being told god knows what as the walls undulate around you, the drab hospital room glows with psychedelic light, the air hums with unearthly vibrations, and the faces of those around you constantly shift from human to animal to gargoyles and back to human again? It’s scarcely imaginable, but that was what happened to Daddy.
As he shuddered through these weird visual and auditory sensations, Daddy would often have felt nauseated, perspired profusely, and had “goose-bump” skin and a racing heart. His blood sugar would shoot up—bad news for a diabetic—and at times he would feel himself grow huge, then imagine he had shrunk to the size of his own thumb. No wonder he phoned Mother in a panic to report they were giving him something to make him lose his mind.
As the long days and nights dragged on, his fears and depression surely mounted. He told us little about it, but relatively normal periods probably alternated with acute panic reactions and repeated psychotic episodes—what we know today as “flashbacks.” Daddy had never heard of LSD and knew nothing about such experiences, let alone sought them.
Expecting to be paroled after four and a half months at most, he was kept in Lexington for eight, incarcerated a total of nine if you include his month in Georgia jails, with the final five of those months made nightmarish by LSD.
Further imagine, if you will, the insanity of making a man in the throes of such derangements responsible for another, more gravely ill person’s care. Surely the poor old black addict from Chicago with advanced TB deserved better. I don’t doubt for a minute that Daddy looked after him as best he could, but who could remain a balanced, thoroughly vigilant nurse in the grip of such mental torment?
It is a testament to the basically sound fabric of my father’s mind and constitution that he survived without taking his own life or that of any other.
The CIA’s ill-conceived covert Cold War scheme to find a mind-control drug for use on hostile leaders had caught my patriot father in its hateful web, as much a prisoner of war as if he were locked in a Communist prison. For 13 years afterward he would strive manfully to break free, but for all practical purposes his life was ruined. Once I grasped that much, I believed I understood why Daddy had been kept on in Lexington beyond the usual “cure” period referred to in his letters. The additional time was to allow Isbell to observe and record his behavior following the drug assault. Even when he was finally sent home, having received no treatment of any sort for his drug dependence, Isbell made no provision whatever for psychiatric or medical follow-up. I found it heinous beyond belief that this violated man, still prey to paranoid flashbacks, was simply turned loose to his bewildered family and whatever fate might overtake him.
On the one occasion when Isbell did invite Daddy to volunteer for his drug tests, Daddy refused outright. He never knew what persuaded his fellow inmates to sign up, but from Marks I learned the answer. Those who volunteered either got time off from their sentences or else were rewarded with the purest doses of their preferred drug—generally heroin or morphine. They were addicts, after all, and most chose their reward of choice. How much easier it was to get high in the safety of a clean hospital room where three meals a day were provided, as opposed to the dangerous daily struggle to cop a fix on the street. it’s not surprising that as word got out via the addicts’ grapevine, recidivism at Lexington approached 90 percent.
Once I learned of the reward system, it also seemed obvious that the politically astute Isbell would never have risked offering Daddy, a prominent narcotic-addicted physician sent there to break free of his drug, a reward in the form of that same narcotic. Had he presented Daddy with such an outrageous offer, Daddy would have done all in his power to blow the whistle on the man—fruitlessly, of course, in view of the CIA’s shield of secrecy. Isbell probably used that single offer to test the waters with Daddy, then backed off from further attempts at persuasion.
When Daddy turned him down, Isbell must then have ordered surreptitious dosing with the hallucinogen. How was it done? Daddy always thought it was in his food or something given him to drink. The easiest way might have been a tiny speck of LSD in the water pitcher beside Daddy’s bed. Odorless, colorless and tasteless, the chemical was undetectable other than by the mental derangement it caused.
God knows how many others at Lexington were also Isbell’s guinea pigs. To Daddy’s credit—and thanks to his resourcefulness—he caught on quickly enough to take himself out of the “experiment” by refusing all food and drink except for water and canned soup. But he still drank water, so though his dosage might have been reduced, he was probably still getting LSD.
And Isbell was only one of numerous scientists at prestigious institutions who accepted CIA grants to run LSD experiments on human subjects. Many students at various colleges and universities were paid to participate. The first medical centers to receive grants were Boston Psychopathic Hospital (later renamed Massachusetts Mental Health Center), New York’s Mt. Sinai and Columbia hospitals, the University of Illinois Medical School, Isbell’s own center at Lexington operating under the respectable cover of the Navy and national institutes of mental Health (NIMH), and the Universities of Oklahoma and Rochester.
While I knew I had found the answer to questions we had agonized over for so many years, I still found it hard to take in all that I had read. Could an agency of my own U.S. government truly have authorized and funded such reprehensible abuse of a loyal citizen and public servant, a sick man whose only crime was becoming dependent upon a painkiller his doctors had prescribed? Undoubtedly there was much more to be learned, but for the first installment this was more than enough.
I WENT BACK to read the first of the newspaper installments, pounced on the ones that followed day by day, and began to put all the known facts into place. Apparently the first U.S. concerns about behavior and mind control had arisen during the 1940s in the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) created for intelligence work, about the same time that germany’s SS and Gestapo doctors were experimenting on Dachau prisoners with mescaline, another hallucinogen. In the U.S. the OSS set up its own “truth drug” committee and tested mescaline, barbiturates and scopolamine before settling on a concentrated extract of marijuana as their best hope.
With an eye to persuading the Mafia to help protect New York’s harbor from enemy infiltrators and support the invasion of Sicily, an OSS captain named George White first used the doped cigarettes to loosen up a New York gangster. With that first modest success the U.S. government’s mind-control quest was underway.
By 1946, revelations about atrocities performed by Nazi doctors impelled the Nuremberg war-crimes judges to draw up an international standard for scientific research that became known as the Nuremberg Code. It stated that no persons could be experimented on without their full voluntary consent, that all experiments should add to the good of society, and that no experiments could risk death or serious injury unless the researchers themselves served as test subjects. The following year brought sufficiently great concerns about the aims of Communist regimes that the U.S. Congress passed the National Security Act. Under one of its provisions the wartime OSS was succeeded by a new organization, the CIA. At the time, former President Herbert Hoover expressed sentiments fairly typical of the national outlook:. . .
We are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed object is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable longstanding America concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered. We must . . . learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us.
Many of the CIA’s personnel were OSS holdovers, and while they could not quite sink to the chilling inhumanity of the nazi doctors, the CIA took up the mind-control work. Upright Mr. Hoover surely had no inkling of the lengths to which the embryo agency would go, once notions of fair play fell away. The CIA’s men would go on to experiment, as marks observed, “with dangerous and unknown techniques on people who had no idea what was happening . . . [They] systematically violated the free will and mental dignity of their subjects and . . . chose to victimize . . . groups of people whose existence they considered . . .less worthy than their own.”
The Nazis had abused Jews, gypsies and prisoners; the CIA experimenters would prey on “mental patients, prostitutes, foreigners, drug addicts, and prisoners, often from minority ethnic groups” (most of the Lexington subjects were black). Mentally defective persons by the very nature of their affliction could never have given fully informed consent, yet they too became subjects for some of the mind-control tests. In the end the CIA zanies would violate every precept of the Nuremberg Code.
THE FIRST WIDESPREAD public concerns about MK-Ultra had been raised by the 1975 Rockefeller Commission’s hearings, with more information coming to light through congressional hearings led by Senators Frank Church and edward Kennedy. Their findings prompted the New York Times to publish a front-page article headlined “Private institutions Used in C.I.A. Effort to Control Behavior.” Other national magazines—Time, for one—ran similar pieces, but if I ever saw any of those articles, they failed to stick in my mind. Not until I read the 1979 Atlanta series summarizing Marks’ book did I grasp the full horror of what had gone on.
In its early years the CIA was such a small, clubby, shadowy organization that few Americans even knew existed, but alarms about mind control—or brainwashing—arose within its close-knit ranks in response to the glassy-eyed 1949 confession of Józef Cardinal Mindszenty at his Budapest treason trial. Convinced with Hoover that the Communists were dead-set on world domination, the CIA honchos believed the Russians were using methods of mind-control to further that aim. Determined to be prepared to fight fire with fire, the agency accelerated its mind-control movement, with disastrous results for thousands of America citizens and ultimately, I believe, for America society as a whole.
In that same year of 1949 Dr. Robert Hyde of Boston became the first known America LSD tripper. It made him paranoid for a time, yet he went on to become a consultant to the CIA. After Dr. Hyde’s maiden hallucinogenic voyage, little was known about the mind-blowing drug when a rumor arose claiming that its sole manufacturer, the Swiss pharmaceutical concern Sandoz, had sold the Russians 50 million doses of LSD. Blind to the rumor’s absurdity and panicked at the thought of such a weapon in Communist hands, the CIA worked on its own plans for the chemical, as the U.S. Army was already doing.
By 1950, CIA teams were running secret chemical tests on North Korean prisoners of war hoping to achieve mind control, amnesia, or both. The year that followed was a crucial one for the mind- and behavior control impetus. Dulles, who had graduated from spying for the OSS to become the CIA’s director, vividly recalled a wartime meeting with Dr. Albert Hofmann, the Sandoz chemist who discovered LSD. Hofmann told Dulles that after inadvertently dosing himself with the drug he became so terrified that he “would have confessed to anything.” On the basis of that admission, Dulles authorized his CIA people to cooperate with U.S. military intelligence and British and Canadian teams in a behavior-control program first called Project Bluebird, later renamed Project Artichoke.
Responsibility for recruiting medical scientists for Artichoke went to the agency’s technical Services Staff (TSS), with instructions to enlist only those experimenters with no moral or ethical scruples about engaging in possibly lethal work. Around this same time the CIA also considered electroshock experiments and neurosurgical techniques for behavior control. Besides concentrated marijuana, drugs used in the CIA and army experiments included cocaine, heroin, PCP, amyl nitrate, psilocybin, hallucinogenic mushrooms, barbiturates, nitrous oxide, speed, alcohol, morphine, ether, benzedrine, mescaline, and a host of others. But LSD quickly became the favorite, as it had the most powerful effects.
Subjects who took it might become extremely anxious, lose contact with reality, and suffer severe mental confusion. They hallucinated and often became paranoid, experiencing acute distortions of time, place, and body image. The experimenters never knew what their subjects’ mood might be—anything from panic to bliss. The drug produced mental states similar to those known to occur in schizophrenia: intense color perceptions, depersonalization, psychic disorganization, and disintegration. The paramount effect was a breakdown in a subject’s character defenses for handling anxiety—bad stuff indeed, and just the kind of thing the CIA was looking for.
In April 1953, as Daddy’s modest Blakely enterprises collapsed, Allen Dulles and his former OSS colleague and now henchman Richard Helms put Helms’ protégé, a clubfooted Ph.D. chemist and former Young Socialist from Caltech named Sidney Gottlieb, in charge of Artichoke, rechristened MK-Ultra, with the specific aim of exploring “covert use of biological and chemical and radiological materials.” The initial MK-Ultra budget was $300,000, by no means small for the time. Eager to see for himself what LSD could do, Gottlieb focused on it, and to his victims’ eternal loss, MK-Ultra was off and running.
In spite of warnings that LSD was known to produce insanity that could last “for periods of 8 to 18 hours and possibly for longer,” the agency’s medical office issued a mind-boggling recommendation: all CIA personnel should be given LSD, across the board. Many agents took it, including the MK-Ultra gang. That fact alone should have raised red flags. How many of them were made crazy themselves? After who knows how many acid trips, would you or I trust ourselves to make wise decisions.
Elated with these beginnings in spite of a few observed “bad trips,” Gottlieb, who would eventually admit to 200 LSD trips of his own, then decided to test his favorite mind-bender on unsuspecting persons in other countries and made multiple trips abroad with a stash of LSD for the purpose. He knew his superiors approved the secret dosing of unwitting people, contending that if a subject knew what he would be given and when, it would affect his response and skew the test.
While Gottlieb and his gang continued their freelance chemical capers, they were beginning to want reputable scientific research to back up their theories. Scientists at NIMH were also interested in learning more about LSD. If any large-scale testing of the drug was to be done, however, money must be found to pay for it. Gottlieb quickly rose to the challenge. From their vast CIA treasure chest he and his MK-Ultra cohort arranged to channel enormous sums of agency money to select consultants at well-known medical or educational institutions, in the guise of grants from two foundations—the Geschickter Fund for medical research and the Josiah Macy Jr., Foundation. A third faked-up conduit, the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, would later come into play.
Although the CIA origins of the money were not made public, recipients were well aware of its true source, because Gottlieb and his underlings often visited the project sites, and the researchers reported directly to them. The agency cloaked the project in utmost secrecy, knowing very well what a hue and cry would erupt if the America public caught wind of such nefarious goings-on. Secrecy about CIA involvement was definitely preserved at Lexington. Hungry for status and acclaim, the power-drunk Dr. Isbell enhanced his own professional standing by publishing articles about his activities, though taking care never to state that his subjects were federal prisoners.
Irrefutable evidence that Gottlieb understood the need for secrecy was the early agreement he made with his mentor Helms to keep no records of MK-Ultra activities. Before these co-conspirators retired two decades later, they would make strenuous efforts to destroy what few incriminating files did exist. Had they not missed some 130 boxes, we would never know the havoc they wrought.
Just after Daddy was transported to Lexington, MK-Ultra suffered what should have been a fatal setback, barely concealed by the agency’s clumsy efforts at secrecy. A Ph.D. biochemist named Frank Olson was one of the scientists assigned to the army Chemical Corps’ Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, working on diseases and toxins that ranged from instantly lethal chemicals to bacteria capable of disabling without killing the targeted person. An anthrax specialist, Olson was actually on the CIA’s payroll, and he and his boss, lt. Col. Vincent Ruwet, were included in a three-day working SOD-CIA retreat at an isolated lodge in western Maryland.
Gottlieb was also present, and in the course of their stay undertook to try out his pet hallucinogen on the unsuspecting group. He laced a bottle of Cointreau with LSD and offered it to the others after the evening meal. When all but two of those present had swallowed their drinks, he told them what he had done—or so he would later claim.
Calamity was the result. While the other four Cointreau trippers became giggly and uninhibited, Olson went completely around the bend. Unable to make sense of what was going on, he couldn’t understand why the others were laughing and believed he was the butt of their jokes. Persistently agitated the next morning, he returned home in what his wife called a highly atypical state and told her he had been ridiculed by his colleagues for a dreadful mistake but refused to give details.
The following day, still deeply disturbed, he reported to work intent on resigning but was persuaded by Ruwet to wait. When his agitation continued and Ruwet called on the CIA for advice, the decision was made to get Olson to New York to see Dr. Harold Abramson, one of the MK-Ultra grant recipients who believed, eccentrically, in alcohol as a useful antidote for a bad acid trip. (Abramson had first come to Gottlieb’s attention when he proposed giving mentally sound patients LSD without their knowledge for “psychotherapeutic purposes.”)
In the role of Olson’s minders, Ruwet and Robert Lashbrook, another CIA man, went along. They made no objections when Dr. Abramson left Olson in the hotel room with a bottle of bourbon and a quantity of barbiturate pills—a combination which, taken in a large enough quantity, can be fatal. The night before Olson was to return to his family for Thanksgiving, he went out of the hotel in a delusional state to wander the streets. He threw away his wallet, tore up all his currency, believing it to be secret orders of some sort, and discarded his government identification. With daylight he, Ruwet and Lashbrook took a plane back to Washington, but once there Olson refused to see his family for fear he might turn violent. The situation was desperate. Ruwet left to allay the Olson family’s concerns, while Lashbrook returned to New York with their pitiably disturbed charge.
When Dr. Abramson saw the psychotic Olson and realized the problem was beyond his competence, he arranged for Olson to enter a Maryland sanitarium the next day, one that was considered secure by the CIA. After Lashbrook checked the two of them into a New York hotel room for the night, Olson phoned his wife to tell her he was better. Lashbrook would later report going to sleep only to awaken in the wee hours just in time to see Olson tear across their tenth-floor room at a run, then crash headlong through the drawn blinds and closed window. The tormented scientist plummeted to the sidewalk below and was found there by the hotel’s night manager, barely alive and mumbling incoherently. An ambulance was called, but he died before anyone could learn who he was or why he’d fallen.
After an in-house inquiry at the CIA, Lashbrook left the agency, while Gottlieb—who was taken to task only mildly—said that the drug had no serious side effects and that Olson’s death was just one of the risks of scientific experiments. He was allowed to continue his MK-Ultra activities for another 19 years.
The agency did its best to convince the Olson family that its despondent breadwinner had committed suicide. Ruwet always kept in touch with the family, and the CIA saw to it that Mrs. Olson received her husband’s government pension. But she was unable to forget that in the months before he died, something connected with his work had troubled her husband profoundly, and she refused to believe he would intentionally abandon her or his three children. For a time, that was as far as the story went.
TWO DECADES LATER, after James Schlesinger was named head of the CIA in 1973, he issued orders that all CIA employees were to inform him of any “improper or illegal acts” the agency might have carried out. He must have had no idea how much damning information would pour in. While Nixon fought the Watergate scandal, Schlesinger fielded a spate of reports going back as far as the North Korean and Vietnam conflicts, including the very first schemes of Gottlieb and his loose-cannon squad. In the purge that followed Schlesinger fired at least 250 CIA employees before Nixon extricated him from the morass by appointing him Secretary of Defense. Gottlieb and Helms stayed on.
Schlesinger’s CIA successor, William Colby, was another former OSS man, well aware he had inherited a colossal nightmare. To his credit, he stuck to the job through an unprecedented public outcry until his mysterious death while boating on a Maryland river.
In December 1974, Seymour Hersh of the New York Times brought the Olson family’s tragedy to public notice, implying that the CIA had run rampant for years. At that point President Ford named Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller head of a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the whole mess, including MK-Ultra. When the Rockefeller Commission brought its full report back to Congress and the President, included were recommendations for future avoidance of such scandals. Among its findings, the Commission verified that 22 years previously an unnamed civilian unwittingly given LSD by the CIA had plunged from a New York hotel window to his death. The facts were too congruent for the Olsons to ignore. Pressed by Olson’s daughter, Ruwet finally admitted what had happened, or at least gave her the CIA’s doctored version of events.
Outraged, the Olson family went public and sued the U.S. government. They received a personal apology in 1976 from President Gerald Ford and a compensation award of $750,000 from Congress on condition that they never speak publicly of the matter again. By this time Director Colby had revealed enough agency secrets that Richard Helms was convicted of perjury and given a suspended jail term and a $2,000 fine, which his buddies paid because in CIA circles ratting on one’s colleagues “simply wasn’t done.” After Colby’s death George H. W. Bush replaced him to serve in the job for one year. Neither Gottlieb nor the CIA ever admitted any wrongdoing. But no matter how fervently the CIA spooks hoped they’d quashed their dirty little story, there was still more to come.
Forty years after Frank Olson’s death, Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, an international authority on human rights and former classmate of Olson’s son Eric, took up the Olson case and in a New York Timespiece raised many troubling questions about the official version of events. As Ignatieff reported, many years after the tragedy Eric Olson had gone to New York and visited the hotel room from which his father was said to have thrown himself to his death. Already suspicious of the official account, young Olson discovered that the room was too small to allow anyone to run at the window, the window sill too high and too obstructed for anyone to go over it with enough force to crash through a closed blind and window. Still in search of a credible explanation, Eric Olson, his brother, and his mother called on both Gottlieb and Lashbrook but got nothing out of either of them.
Frank Olson’s passport indicated several trips to Europe in the summer of 1953, and according to Ignatieff's account, a British journalist with good reason to know told Eric how during that summer Olson had told a London psychiatrist he was deeply troubled by secret U.S.-British experiments he had witnessed in Germany. The journalist’s guess was that Olson had seen some truth-serum and interrogation experiments that ended in the death of one or more “captured Russian agents and ex-Nazis.” Furthermore, the CIA files turned over to the Olsons by Colby supported Mrs. Olson’s recollection of her husband’s disturbed state of mind that summer and fall, when agency personnel had raised official doubts about Frank Olson’s security clearance.
After Dr. Olson’s death his body had been embalmed, and the CIA told the family the casket must be closed because of the body’s brokenup condition and many facial lacerations caused by window glass. Yet in 1994 when Eric had his father’s body exhumed he found it almost perfectly preserved, with no facial lacerations. George Washington University forensic specialists who examined the remains found evidence of a fist-sized blow to the dead man’s left temple and concluded it could only have occurred before his fall.
On the basis of all he had learned, Eric Olson was convinced that rather than committing suicide, his father had been murdered by the CIA—rendered defenseless by a knockout punch, possibly with the aid of some drug, then thrown from that hotel window. After further investigations led him to believe that the CIA brought in contract killers to do the job, he saw the scenario as a cover-up to keep the troubled scientist from airing his deep anxieties about what the agency was doing. Definitive answers may never be known—suffice it to say that Gottlieb and MK-Ultra destroyed another useful life and forever wrecked another family’s peace.
Back in 1954, while the Olsons mourned their loss and Daddy was released from prison, Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis had succeeded in synthesizing “in tonnage amounts,” giving the CIA a more than ample supply for MK-Ultra and future grant recipients. The army and other military services continued their own mind-control experimentation, with cooperation from other U.S. government agencies including the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Narcotics.
After the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, President Kennedy and his brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy, had agreed that Allen Dulles must be replaced at the CIA. In 1961 John A. McCone was named to the position, while durable Richard Helms was put in charge of Clandestine Services and Gottlieb kept his job running MK-Ultra. Strong objections about the program were raised two years later when, after some substantial digging, the inspector general McCone appointed, John Earman, strongly recommended that MK-Ultra be shut down, declaring that many in the agency viewed its work as “distasteful and unethical.” When McCone put certain elements of the project on hold, Helms bombarded him with demands to continue the unwitting mindcontrol tests. Subsequent agency-funded tests sucked a young professor named Timothy Leary into its web, and the rest of the LSD story, as they say, is history.
By 1966, when Helms was finally promoted to director of the CIA, Gottlieb knew he could breathe easy and go on with the business, as Gordon Thomas would declare in his CIA exposé Journey Into Madness, of “devising new and better ways to disorient and discredit, to maim and kill.”
The world was already learning more than it wanted to know about LSD, as a cover story in Life reported: “a person can become permanently deranged through a single terrifying LSD experience.” Yet another senate subcommittee was convened to address the growing LSD problem among the young, but Robert Kennedy, now a U.S. senator, objected to suggestions that all LSD experimentation be curtailed...amid rumors that his wife Ethel had undergone LSD therapy, which could explain her husband’s resistance, he said, “. . . we have lost sight of the fact that [LSD] can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”
It might have seemed by this time that much of the world had gone mad. The poet Allen Ginsberg was urging every America over the age of 14 to drop LSD for “a mass emotional nervous breakdown.” In response to the public uproar, Sandoz called in all the LSD it had supplied to U.S. researchers. But the FDA would not back down from its involvement in LSD research. Instead, it moved to set up a joint FDA-NIMH body known as the Psychomimetic Advisory Committee and put at least one of the CIA’s grant-recipient foxes in charge of the henhouse when it named Harris Isbell to the new committee.
By 1968, possession of LSD had become a misdemeanor and sale of the drug a felony. Two years afterward it was listed as a Schedule I drug—a drug of abuse with no medical value. A Bureau of Narcotics pamphlet issued in 1969 stated as a matter of history that the CIA’s dissemination of LSD through the scientific and intellectual community was responsible for the alarming popularity of the drug. Even though people all over the country and especially disaffected young people were resorting to it, the CIA continued to deny any suggestion that it had promoted a market for the drug. But if not the CIA or the army, then who? The late John Lennon certainly gave credit to both.
Once other entrepreneurs learned how to produce LSD and moved it onto the black market beyond the CIA’s and FDA’s control, the psychedelic era was under way. As the Grateful Dead’s tripping followers were to declare, it would be a long, strange journey indeed.