MK-Ultra was the code name for a notorious government mind control program conducted in the 1950s and 1960s in which the CIA directed scientists to dose unsuspecting human guinea pigs with LSD and other drugs. The program was recently back in the news when a juror in the case of one of those guinea pigs — the late Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, whom the CIA had injected with LSD when he was a young prison inmate — said she wouldn’t have voted to convict him of 11 murders had she known what the U.S. government had done to him. Bulger, who was given LSD over 50 times, would go on to terrorize South Boston as the notoriously violent leader of the Winter Hill Gang.
In a new episode of “Buried Treasure,” a regular feature of the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman interview historian and journalist Stephen Kinzer, the author of the new book “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.” It’s a biography of the man behind MK-Ultra, a chemist named Sidney Gottlieb, who also devised poisons the agency used to try to assassinate foreign leaders such as Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Yahoo News: Let’s just start out by telling our listeners about Sidney Gottlieb. Who was he?
Stephen Kinzer: I’ve devoted a lot of my career to try to find out what happens behind the facade of public politics and public diplomacy that we can see. I’ve discovered a lot of things in the course of that research. ... This is the first time I’ve been shocked. I still can’t believe that this happened, that there was such a thing as MK-Ultra and that there was such a person as Sidney Gottlieb. He lived in total invisibility. So in a sense, my book is the biography of a man who wasn’t there.
You approached a former director of the CIA, who professed not to know who Sidney Gottlieb was.
Gottlieb has faded away almost entirely, and that was his desire. He was conducting the most extreme experiments on human beings that have ever been conducted by any agency or officer of the U.S. government. He had what was, in effect, a license to kill. ... Gottlieb was probably the most powerful unknown American of the 20th century.
Is it possible that one reason Sidney Gottlieb has escaped attention is because the CIA never confronted ... the awful things he was doing?
They ultimately have said, essentially, that Gottlieb was some kind of wacko. He was not supervised well, things got off the rails, the project got out of control, there were problems with supervision. ... It was all Sidney’s fault. This is a way of eliminating all institutional responsibility on the part of the CIA.
How did he fit in at the CIA?
Sidney Gottlieb joined the CIA in its early years, in 1951. ... Almost all of the senior officers of the CIA came from a particular social class. They were silver spoon products of the American aristocracy, who knew each other from prep school, and the same colleges, and investment banks, and law firms. Sidney Gottlieb was completely different ... from the rest of them. He was the son of Jewish immigrants. He grew up in the Bronx. He stuttered. He had a limp. So he was very much of an outsider. ... [Agency officials] knew that what he was doing was brutal, was bloody, and was causing an unknown number of deaths. They didn’t want to put somebody from their own social class in the position of having to oversee this project that they knew was very horrific.
What Sidney Gottlieb was running was a covert program aimed at mind control [and] experimenting with LSD on some of the most vulnerable Americans with no consent at all.
The idea behind MK-Ultra was to find a substance that would allow the CIA to control people’s minds and manipulate them and make them do things that they would never otherwise do. And then, if you were lucky, just forget that they had ever done them. … [Gottlieb] decided that before you could find a way to insert a new mind into somebody’s brain, you first had to find a way to blast away the mind that was in there.
... He used every kind of drug combination he could imagine, plus sensory deprivation, hypnosis, electroshock and all kinds of other techniques, all aimed at trying to find a way to destroy a human mind. ... Behind him, he left a trail of wounded and dead in numbers that nobody can even estimate because records were all destroyed as Gottlieb left the CIA.
So this was a Cold War program started in the early 1950s. And like much else from the Cold War era, it arose out of fears that the Soviets and international communism were doing something like this, and therefore we couldn’t have a mind control gap, as it were. What do we know about what the Soviets were up to and what U.S. intelligence thought the Soviets were up to?
Now those are two very different things: what the Soviets were doing and what we thought the Soviets were doing. So I asked myself the same question. ... What led the early directors of the CIA, and in particular, Allen Dulles, and then the person he hired to run this MK-Ultra project, Sidney Gottlieb, to believe that there was such a thing as mind control? In the end, after 10 years, Sidney Gottlieb finally concluded that there is no such thing as mind control. ... But what made them think that it was possible? ... I think it has to do with the cultural conditioning with which they were brought up. Think of all the books, and the stories, and the movies, about mind control. ... There are Edgar Allan Poe stories, and Sherlock Holmes stories, and movies like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Gaslight.” Those guys grew up watching those movies, and reading those stories, and I think they believed that since fiction could imagine it, there probably was an element of truth to it. That also fed their desire to plunge into this project.
There was “The Manchurian Candidate,” a novel and then a movie, that came out in the early 1960s, which was about Korean mind control programming an American to assassinate a presidential candidate. And ironically, it was the book “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate,” by John Marks, in the 1970s, that I believe first revealed the existence of MK-Ultra?
You’re right. When Sidney Gottlieb left the CIA in 1973, along with his longtime mentor, Richard Helms, who was at that time the director of the CIA, the two of them sat down and quickly decided that all the files from MK-Ultra should be destroyed. Gottlieb actually had to go out to the CIA records center in Wharton, Va., and oversee the destruction of seven crates of documents. ... A priceless archive was lost.
Later on, in the mid-1970s, this researcher, John Marks, decided to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA, asking if there were any other documents. ... This request landed at a time when the CIA was under orders from a new president, Jimmy Carter, to open up and be more honest. … [A] search turned up ... a set of records that listed expense accounts for many of the people involved in MK-Ultra. From those records, we have been able to develop an idea of what were these 149 sub-projects. ... “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate” is the foundation for later research that has deepened our understanding of this project.
The CIA and Sidney Gottlieb’s experiments using LSD on unsuspecting people, in a way, that seeped in and helped ... is it overstated to say helped create the counterculture in the 1960s, particularly in San Francisco? [Were] people like Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey ... experimenting and using LSD because of this program?
Sidney Gottlieb was fascinated by LSD. It was a newly discovered drug. It had only been discovered in the 1940s. It was colorless, odorless, and had amazing effects in very small quantities. Gottlieb himself used LSD, by his own estimate, at least 200 times.
He and the people around him began to feel that perhaps this drug could be what one of them called “the key that could unlock the universe.” In other words, it might be the answer to what’s the substance that can open up people’s minds to outside control? So in 1953, Gottlieb persuaded the CIA to buy the entire world supply of LSD. It was then being manufactured ... by one company in Switzerland, the Sandoz company. All of that LSD came to the United States, and came to the CIA. Gottlieb used it for two kinds of experiments. Some were horrifically brutal, carried out in prisons in the United States and in safe houses around Europe and East Asia. Many people were fed overdoses without being told what they were being given.
... One experiment at the federal prison in Lexington, Ky. ... Seven African-American inmates were given triple doses of LSD every day for 77 days while locked in a padded room. So if the object of that experiment was to find out whether such an overdose could destroy a human mind. The answer is obviously yes.
... [But] who were among the first people who signed up to take LSD in those benign LSD experiments? Well, one of them was Ken Kesey, who went on to write “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” that became a great bible of the counterculture. Another was the poet Allen Ginsberg, who listened to “Tristan and Isolde” on his headphones while taking LSD. Another was Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead. These guys all took LSD home with them. They turned on all their friends. This is how the Grateful Dead got its LSD.
It sounds like we have a lot to be thankful to Sidney Gottlieb for…
Later in life, all these people came to realize that their LSD had come from the CIA. I found an interview with John Lennon in which he was asked about LSD, and he said, “We must always remember to thank the CIA.” ... And of course, the irony is ... the drug that Gottlieb hoped would give the CIA the tool to control people’s minds actually wound up fueling a generational rebellion that was aimed at destroying everything the CIA believed in.
One of the most fascinating stories from your book is that of Whitey Bulger. Tell us how he became a subject of MK-Ultra.
Whitey Bulger fits very much into the category that I was just discussing. So under Gottlieb’s supervision, a number of federal prisons began experiments with LSD using inmates. And, of course, that’s an ideal population because those people are totally dependent on the prison doctor and the prison warden.
During the mid-1950s when MK-Ultra was at its peak, Whitey Bulger, the famous Boston gangster, was in prison as a truck hijacker in Atlanta, Ga. He was approached by the prison doctor, who told him that the prison was going to be participating in a major project aimed at finding a cure for schizophrenia. And if Bulger would agree to take a certain drug that they were investigating, he might have some considerations [such as] shorter time in prison and better conditions.
So he was given LSD for months, at least 50 times, without being told what it was. He later wrote what a nightmarish experience this was and how ... for his whole life, he never recovered from it. Years later, when he found out that this doctor was actually working on a CIA project and not trying to cure schizophrenia, he told other members of his gang, “I’m going back to Atlanta. I’m going to find that guy, and I’m going to kill him.”
He didn’t find that doctor, who died of apparently natural causes soon thereafter, but definitely Bulger is interesting because he’s one of the few MK-Ultra subjects who later came out and explained what had happened to him.
Gottlieb was involved in another very high priority operation of the CIA’s in the 1960s and that was the plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Tell us that story.
MK-Ultra didn’t have a firm ending, but it kind of petered out towards end of the late ’50s and into the early ’60s. Gottlieb, as I said earlier, had come to realize ... these drugs like LSD were too unreliable to be used as tools for mind control. ... But then Gottlieb went on to a completely new phase in his career. He was the CIA’s chief chemist. So when President Eisenhower ordered the assassination of Fidel Castro in the summer of 1960 and the CIA decided to use poison, it was quite logical that Sidney Gottlieb would get the assignment. He knew more about poisons than anyone in the CIA, anyone in the United States, and I’m going to guess more than anybody in the world. He was obsessed with finding all sorts of natural poisons, and he was getting the gallbladders of crocodiles from Africa and poison barks from Southeast Asia and shrubs from Central America. Anything that could be seen as poison he assembled.
So it was Gottlieb who concocted all the poisons that were intended to kill Fidel Castro. One that was supposed to make his beard fall out, and one that would make him seem disoriented in public, but also ones that were supposed to be fatal. It was Gottlieb who made the L-pills — I learned a whole new vocabulary while writing this book— that means lethal. Those other fatal pills, when you drop it into someone’s tea they die. Gottlieb made those, and they were delivered to Cuba for use in killing Castro. Gottlieb made a poison wet suit, which was tainted with a virus inside that would eat away Castro’s skin if he put it on. Gottlieb made a poison pen with a hypodermic needle that was superthin so that if it was stuck into Castro’s thigh from behind, he wouldn’t even feel it.
Is there any indication at all that Gottlieb was held accountable?
Towards the end of his life, Gottlieb was facing two different situations. One was internal, the people around him in his final years have all said that he was obviously haunted by something that he wouldn’t talk about. One person who visited him in that period said he was haunted by guilt. Uh, he was a destroyed man, if he had been Catholic, he would have gone to a monastery. So he was obviously deeply troubled, but he would never speak about it. Then another factor that added to his anxiety was that after many, many years, a couple of lawsuits seemed to be getting closer to him.
What were these lawsuits?
One involved a case that stemmed from the poisoning by LSD of a young American who had met a guy with a limp in a bar in Paris and whose life was destroyed thereafter. So evidently this guy had been poisoned by Gottlieb. It took 20 years for this case to begin working its way through the judicial system. And finally, a trial date was set for the beginning of 1999. ... Just as the case was about to come to trial, Gottlieb died. The cause of death was never announced. ... I did find a few people who truly suspect that he might have killed himself to avoid having to testify, that he basically fell on his sword rather than be put in a position where he’d have to betray secrets that he had sworn to keep. Nobody knows if that’s true, but it’s a very intriguing footnote to Gottlieb’s death in 1999.
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