Tales from the CIA’s MKULTRA Monster Lab: Excerpt from Annie Jacobsen’s “Operation Paperclip,” Published this Week
It was 1946 and World War II had ended less than one year before. In Top Secret memos being circulated in the elite ‘E’ ring of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were preparing for ‘total war’ with the Soviets—to include atomic, chemical, and biological warfare. They even set an estimated start date of 1952. The Joint Chiefs believed that the U.S. could win this future war, but not for reasons that the general public knew about. Since war’s end, across the ruins of the Third Reich, U.S. military officers had been capturing and then hiring Hitler’s weapons makers, in a Top Secret program that would become known as Operation Paperclip. Soon, more than 1,600 of these men and their families would be living the American dream, right here in the United States. From these Nazi scientists, U.S. military and intelligence organizations culled knowledge of Hitler’s most menacing weapons including sarin gas and weaponized bubonic plague.
As the Cold War progressed, the program expanded and got stranger still. In 1948, Operation Paperclip’s Brigadier General Charles E. Loucks, Chief of U.S. Chemical Warfare Plans in Europe, was working with Hitler’s former chemists when one of the scientists, Nobel Prize winner Richard Kuhn, shared with General Loucks information about a drug with military potential being developed by Swiss chemists. This drug, a hallucinogen, had astounding potential properties if successfully weaponized. In documents recently discovered at the U.S. Army Heritage Center in Pennsylvania, Loucks quickly became enamored with the idea that this drug could be used on the battlefield to “incapacitate not kill.” The drug was Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
It did not take long for the CIA to become interested and involved. Perhaps LSD could also be used for off-the-battlefield purposes, a means through which human behavior could be manipulated and controlled. In an offshoot of Operation Paperclip, the CIA teamed up with Army, Air Force and Naval Intelligence to run one of the most nefarious, classified, enhanced interrogation programs of the Cold War. The work took place inside a clandestine facility in the American zone of occupied Germany, called Camp King. The facility’s chief medical doctor was Operation Paperclip’s Dr. Walter Schreiber, the former Surgeon General of the Third Reich. When Dr. Schreiber was secretly brought to America—to work for the U.S. Air Force in Texas—his position was filled with another Paperclip asset, Dr. Kurt Blome, the former Deputy Surgeon General of the Third Reich and the man in charge of the Nazi’s program to weaponize bubonic plague. The activities that went on at Camp King between 1946 and the late 1950s have never been fully accounted for by either the Department of Defense or the CIA.
Camp King was strategically located in the village of Oberursel, eleven miles northwest of the United States European Command (EUCOM) headquarters in Frankfurt. Officially the facility had three names: the U.S. Military Intelligence Service Center at Oberursel, the 7707th European Command Intelligence Center, and Camp King. In 1945, the place housed captured Nazis but by 1948 most of its prisoners were Soviet bloc spies. For more than a decade Camp King would function as a Cold War black site long before black sites were known as such—an ideal facility to develop enhanced interrogation techniques in part because it was “off-site” but mainly because of its access to Soviet prisoners.
It was an international crisis in June of 1948 that gave Operation Paperclip momentum at Camp King. Early on the morning of June 24, the Soviets cut off all land and rail access to the American zone in Berlin, an action that would become known as the Berlin Blockade. “The Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 clearly indicated that the wartime alliance [between the Soviets and the United States] had dissolved,” explained CIA deputy director for operations Jack Downing. “Germany then became a new battlefield between east and west.”
“In our conversation of 9 February 1951, I outlined to you the possibilities of augmenting the usual interrogation methods by the use of drugs, hypnosis, shock, etc., and emphasized the defensive aspects as well as the offensive opportunities in this field of applied medical science,” wrote Dulles.
At this time, the CIA believed the Soviets were pursing mind control programs—supposedly a means of getting captured spies to talk—and the Agency wanted to know what it would be up against if the Russians got hold of its American spies. Since the end of the war, the various U.S. military branches had developed advanced air, land and sea rescue programs, based in part by research conducted by Nazi doctors during the war. But the Soviets had also made great advances in rescue programs and this presented a serious, new concern for the Pentagon and the CIA. If a downed U.S. pilot or soldier was rescued and captured by the Russians, that person would almost certainly be subjected to unconventional Soviet interrogation techniques. In an attempt to determine what kinds of Soviet techniques might be used, a research program was set up at Camp King. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that the U.S. developed its post-war enhanced interrogation techniques here at Camp King, under the CIA code name Operation Bluebird.
Initially, Bluebird was to be a so-called “defensive” program. Officers were instructed “to apply special methods of interrogation for the purpose of evaluation of Russian practices,” only. In other words, to merely mimic Soviet techniques. But it did not take long for the CIA to decide that the best defense is offense, and the Agency began developing enhanced interrogation techniques of its own. FOIA documents reveal that the CIA saw LSD as a potential, “truth serum.” What if its officers could drug captured Soviet spies, interrogate them using LSD, and somehow make them forget that they’d talked? Inside Camp King, the LSD program was expanded and given a new code name.
“Bluebird was rechristened Artichoke,” writes John Marks, a former State Department official and authority on the CIA’s mind control programs. The goal of the Artichoke interrogation program, Marks explains, was “modifying behavior through covert means.” According to the program’s administrator, Richard Helms—the future director of the CIA—using drugs like LSD were a means to that end. “We felt that it was our responsibility not to lag behind the Russians or the Chinese in this field, and the only way to find out what the risks were was to test things such as LSD and other drugs that could be used to control human behavior,” Helms later told journalist David Frost, in an interview, in 1978. Soon, other U.S. intelligence agencies were brought on board to help conduct these controversial interrogation experiments at Camp King. As declassified dossiers reveal, with them they brought Nazi scientists from Operation Paperclip.
Back in the United States, the CIA teamed up with the Army Chemical Corps at Camp Detrick, in Maryland, to conduct further research and development on the chemistry of mind-altering drugs. Scientists and field agents were culled from a pool of senior Army bacteriologists and chemists, then assigned to a unit called the Special Operations Division, a division of the CIA. The men worked inside a classified facility, designated Building No. 439, a one-story concrete-block building set among similar-looking buildings at Camp Detrick so as to blend in. Almost no one outside the Special Operations Division knew about the Top Secret work going on inside. One of these field agents was Dr. Harold Batchelor, the Army scientist in charge of consultations with Nazi doctor and former Deputy Surgeon General of the Third Reich, Dr. Kurt Blome. Another Special Operations Division agent was Dr. Frank Olson, a former army officer and bacteriologist turned agency operative whose sudden demise—by covert LSD poisoning—in 1953 would nearly bring down the CIA. Batchelor and Olson were assigned to the program at Camp King, where Dr. Blome was chief physician. Their assignment, according to documents obtained through the FOIA and interviews with Olson’s former partner, Norman Cournoyer, was to use unconventional interrogation techniques on Soviet prisoners, including dosing them with LSD.
In April 1950, Frank Olson was issued a diplomatic passport. Olson was not a diplomat; the passport allowed him to carry items in a diplomatic pouch that would not be subject to searches by customs officials. Frank Olson began taking trips to Germany, flying to Frankfurt and making the short drive out to Camp King. In one of the rare, surviving official documents from the program, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles sent a secret memo to Richard Helms and CIA Deputy Director for Plans Frank Wisner regarding the specific kinds of interrogation techniques that would be used. “In our conversation of 9 February 1951, I outlined to you the possibilities of augmenting the usual interrogation methods by the use of drugs, hypnosis, shock, etc., and emphasized the defensive aspects as well as the offensive opportunities in this field of applied medical science,” wrote Dulles. “The enclosed folder, ‘Interrogation Techniques,’ was prepared in my Medical Division to provide you with a suitable background.” Camp King was the perfect location to conduct these radical trials. Overseas locations were preferred for Artichoke interrogations, explained Dulles, since foreign governments “permitted certain activities which were not permitted by the United States government (i.e. anthrax etc.).”
The next trip on record made by Frank Olson occurred on June 12, 1952. Frank Olson arrived at Frankfurt from the Hendon military airport in England and made the short drive west into Oberursel. There, Artichoke interrogation experiments were taking place at a safe house called Haus Waldorf. “Between 4 June 1952 and 18 June 1952, an IS&O [CIA Inspection and Security Office] team… applied Artichoke techniques to two operational cases in a safe house,” explains an Artichoke memorandum, written for CIA Director Dulles, and one of the few action memos on record not destroyed by Richard Helms when he was CIA director. The two individuals being interrogated at the Camp King safe house “could be classed as experienced, professional type agents and suspected of working for Soviet Intelligence.” These were Soviet spies captured by the Nazi spy ring, the Gehlen Organization, now being run by the CIA. “In the first case, light dosages of drugs coupled with hypnosis were used to induce a complete hypnotic trance,” the memo reveals. “This trance was held for approximately one hour and forty minutes of interrogation with a subsequent total amnesia produced.” The plan for the enhanced interrogation program was meant to be straightforward: drug the spies, interrogate the spies, and give them amnesia to make them forget. Instead, the program produced questionable results and evolved into one of the most notorious CIA programs of the Cold War, MKULTRA.
LSD, the drug that induces paranoia and unpredictability and makes people see things that are really not there, would become its own strange allegory for the Cold War. Its potential use as a truth serum would also become a cautionary tale. One CIA report, declassified and shared with Congress decades later, in 1977, expressed Agency fears about Soviets plans to use LSD against Americans during the Cold War: “the Soviets purchased a large quantity of LSD-25 from the Sandoz [Pharmaceutical] Company [the only supplier of LSD at the time]… reputed to be sufficient for 50 million doses,” the report read. The CIA believed the Soviets might drug millions of Americans with LSD, through the U.S. water system, in a covert, psy-ops attack.
Or so the CIA thought. A later analysis of the information revealed that the CIA analyst working on the report made a decimal point error while performing dosage calculations. The Soviets had in fact purchased enough LSD from Sandoz for a few thousand tests—a far cry from 50 million.
It was a bizarre plan, in a foreign place, during a strange time. The Cold War had become a battlefield marked by doublespeak. Disguise, distortion, and deception were accepted as reality. Truth was promised in a serum. And Operation Paperclip, born of the ashes of World War II, was the inciting incident in this hall of mirrors. As it grew, it created monsters of its own.