Poisoner-in-Chief: Sidney Gottleib and the CIA Search for Mind Control, by Stephen Kinzer, Henry Holt & Co, 368 pp, $30, ISBN: 978-1250140432
When the guns fell silent at the end of World War II, the Nuremberg Doctors Trial began to do its work, investigating war crimes committed by Nazi medical scientists across Europe. Heinrich Himmler, the principal architect of the Holocaust, had committed suicide in his cell and Josef Mengele, who directed medical experiments at Auschwitz, had disappeared. The defendants in the dock were senior doctors who had supervised extreme experiments and mass killings at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. Among them, in November 1946, was Kurt Blome, deputy health minister of the Reich, who had directed the Nazi biological warfare programme and overseen experiments on prisoners.
The chief prosecutor presented his opening argument to a rapt audience. The doctors had all carried out “medical experiments without the subjects’ consent”, in the course of which the defendants committed “murders, brutalities, cruelties, tortures, atrocities and other inhuman acts”. The prosecutor laid out the excruciating details of the medical crimes, experiments in which prisoners were killed by freezing, application of mustard gas to wounds, surgical removal of bone or muscle, exposure to extreme air pressure and infection with malaria, typhus and tuberculosis. They were charged with hundreds of thousands of murders through “the systematic and secret execution of the aged, insane, incurably ill, deformed children … by gas, lethal injection and diverse other means”. The court reporter recording this litany in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice wrote later that she “was having a great deal of trouble remaining dispassionate emotionally and trying to keep my composure”.
The judges sentenced seven of the Nazi scientists to death, for violating what later became known as the Nuremberg code. Kurt Blome was not among those executed. Under the guise of a Central Cancer Institute in Occupied Poland, he had co-ordinated bio-weapons research in labs devoted to virology, radiology and bacteriology, “a tumour farm” where malignant viruses were cultivated. He had developed aerosol delivery systems for nerve gas, to be tested on inmates at Auschwitz, bred infected mosquitoes and lice to be tested on inmates at Dachau and Buchenwald and produced gas for killing 35,000 prisoners with TB held in Polish camps.
Blome kept in regular contact with his counterpart in Japan, Shiro Ishii, who co-ordinated medical research in Harbin, occupied China, from 1936 to 1942. The victims were captured Chinese soldiers, Koreans, anti-Japanese partisans, common criminals, mental patients and even some American prisoners of war. They were all destined for an excruciating death as part of the drive to learn everything possible about how the human body responds to different forms of extreme abuse. After the horrors of each experiment, Ishii’s microbiologists would meticulously dissect living bodies to remove tissue samples and mount them on slides for study. Ishii believed the best data could be collected at the point of death. After the defeat of Japan, his slides were sent to Camp Detrick, a top-secret research centre fifty miles outside Washington DC, focused on germ warfare and techniques of covert action. There scientists reported that the slides “greatly supplemented and amplified” American research into biological warfare.
By 1945, Nazi and Japanese medical scientists had accumulated a unique store of knowledge beyond the pale of what official ethical and legal standards would allow. They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals and which toxins kill most efficiently. They had also conducted experiments on camp inmates to find ways to control the human mind and shatter the psyche. This knowledge was unique because it could only come from experiments in which people are subjected to extreme suffering. Should this knowledge be buried forever as “evil”, or might it be useful against new enemies? Should a cry for justice be heard, favouring the punishment of men like Blome and Ishii and their collaborators? From inside the US army command came a very different answer: let’s hire these people. Blome, Ishii and many others would continue their research under American patronage.
The transfer of this dark knowledge from Germany and Japan to the US is explored by Stephen Kinzer in his fascinating new book, Poisoner-in-Chief: Sidney Gottleib and the CIA Search for Mind Control. Kinzer already has a good track record in researching hidden history in the US of the post-World War II era, the kind that is missing from mainstream textbooks, with previous publications on the American-led coup in Guatemala that brought a military junta to power and the coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran that delivered the reins of government to the Shah.
In the previous decade, the American military was already engaged in hundreds of secret scientific projects, producing industrial quantities of anthrax spores, breeding mosquitoes infected with yellow fever and bringing biological weapons into America’s arsenal. They had been working on an order of half a million bombs filled with anthrax spores, urgently requested by Winston Churchill when he feared there might be a last-ditch Nazi attack on Britain in May 1945, when the German army surrendered. But as the violence of war subsided, American scientists suspected that Germany and Japan were still far ahead in knowledge of bio-warfare and they were keen to harvest the priceless knowledge that was adrift in the postwar chaos.
A precedent was set for bringing Nazi scientists to the US when German intelligence officers were quietly forgiven and brought into American service. A special covert US army service set out to find scientists whose work had fuelled Germany’s military power, to keep them out of Soviet reach and arrange new jobs for them in the US. Harry Truman made a secret order to issue a thousand visas for German and Austrian scientists in the interest of “national security”. Under Project Paperclip, these scientists began to arrive in the US and join research teams, their past record “bleached” of any mention of abuse of slave labour, collaboration with the Gestapo or experimentation on human subjects. As one study of the period saw it, the scientific teams wore blinders. “Dazzled by German technology that was in some cases years ahead of our own, they simple ignored its evil foundation ‑ which sometimes meant stepping over and around piles of dead bodies ‑ and pursued Nazi scientific knowledge like forbidden fruit.” The US army insisted that if the US did not accept “tainted” scientists, many could end up working on war-related projects in Germany again or in the Soviet Union. As the Cold War accelerated, diplomats who objected to the project of “bleaching” were pilloried as “sinister figures” and “fellow travellers” whose moralising endangered American security.
By this time a new research agenda was emerging, based on one of the interests pursed by Kurt Blome during his Nazi years. Military planners concluded that since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons were no longer a priority for the US. The new field was to be coercive use of drugs in “unconventional interrogations”. CIA officers in Europe were looking for techniques that would allow them to draw captured Soviet agents away from their identities, induce them to reveal secrets and programme them to commit acts against their will, such as assassination. There was widespread fear in the CIA that Soviet scientists had already perfected mind-altering techniques, setting the stage for a wave of Cold War hysteria that pervaded American popular culture.
Fear of communism was beginning to peak in 1951 when Sidney Gottleib joined the agency. Tension in the divided city of Berlin was at breaking point. The Korean War had become an ugly stalemate and when Truman fired the popular hero General MacArthur for insubordination it set off calls for his impeachment. Senator Joe McCarthy was raising the alarm in Washington that communists had infiltrated the State Department. Against this backdrop, Allen Dulles in the CIA believed that the ability to manipulate the human psyche could be the decisive weapon to defend the role of the US in the new postwar international order. Dulles was convinced that the communists had already discovered mind control techniques and that this created a deadly threat to the rest of the world. CIA officers and the army’s Special Operations Division were already testing a number of drugs on prisoners in Germany, Japan and at a black site in the Panama Canal Zone, but without producing significant results. With Gottleib’s appointment, the CIA started to push human experimentation in an extreme direction. The top-secret programme enjoyed protection and support at the highest level of American power until its official suppression many years later.
CIA deputy director Richard Helms explained years later that “we felt it was our responsibility not to lag behind the Russians or 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 behaviour”. With the full backing of Dulles and Helms, Gottleib put together research teams in Europe and Asia to test different chemical compounds on unwitting subjects, often in tandem with inducing high fevers and delirium. Sometimes teams would be sent to help military or CIA interrogators who faced “particularly stubborn” prisoners and sometimes scientists sent out a call for “expendable” subjects to test new drugs, stating whether or not subjects would create “disposal problems after application”. Gottleib testified years later that there was an extensive amount of self-experimentation among his team of scientists as “we felt a firsthand knowledge of the subjective effects of LSD was important”.
The CIA was now in full research mode to discover if LSD or other psychotropic drugs could be applied via aerosol techniques to induce mass hysteria when released over populated areas. The US navy had already experimented with releasing a bacterium into the coastal mist around San Francisco Bay from a minesweeper and satisfied its own scientists that the spraying had reached all of San Francisco’s 800,000 residents. But experiments with expendables were easier to control and could be carried out in total secrecy. On one foreign tour, a team of CIA scientists led by Gottleib applied a regime of relentless questioning, aided by injections of depressants and stimulants, to four Japanese prisoners until they confessed to working for the Russians. They were then taken out into Tokyo Bay, shot and dumped overboard. The team flew on to Seoul and repeated their experiment on twenty-five North Korean prisoners of war. The torture failed to produce a denunciation of communism and the men were executed. Throughout the winter of 1952-53, Gottleib and his team set up a safe house in Munich where scores of expendables were fed a diet of drugs, this time aided by electro-convulsive shocks. Each experiment failed. The expendables were killed and their bodies burned. One of the luxuries enjoyed by Gottleib was the certainty that disposing of expendables who died during experiments would be no problem.
Could anything put a stop to the mad gallop of these CIA scientists? At the beginning of 1953 Eisenhower replaced Truman in the White House. If he had appointed a different director of the CIA, Gottleib’s mind control project might have been curtailed just as it was about to experiment on unwitting American subjects on US soil. Eisenhower however not only confirmed Allen Dulles as boss of the CIA, he made his older brother John Foster Dulles secretary of state, which meant for Gottleib that the black sites he used overseas would be given all the diplomatic cover they needed. In fact, the Eisenhower administration proved to be very supportive. Gottleib’s proposal to create a secret CIA lab inside an established Washington hospital was approved all the way up to the White House. Eisenhower himself was regularly briefed by the Dulles brothers about the details of the CIA’s most secret experiments in Gottleib’s new mind control project launched in 1953 under the cryptogram MK-ULTRA.
In 1956, when Senator Mike Mansfield proposed tighter controls on the CIA agenda and the Armed Services Committee moved to review not only the agency’s budget but also its range of covert actives, Eisenhower pressured a majority in the Senate to reject increased oversight of the agency because its role in national defence demanded absolute secrecy. In 1960, as Patrice Lumumba, the new president of the Congo, tried to create stability in the newly independent state, Eisenhower was advised by the CIA that a covert communist takeover was under way and he directed that Lumumba be assassinated. Gottleib’s lab went to work on a range of invisible, untraceable, biological agents to carry out the President’s order. A CIA assassin brought the poison to the Congo but failed to penetrate the security ring around Lumumba. The president was killed in the old-fashioned way a few weeks later, shot in a jungle clearing by a squad of Belgian and Congolese soldiers with CIA support.
Later in 1960, Eisenhower ordered the assassination of Fidel Castro. Gottleib went into creative mode again, working on a variety of secret weapons to bring down the Cuban president, including an aerosol laced with LSD. A Senate investigation conducted years later noted that other techniques included poison pills, deadly bacterial powders and other devices which strained the imagination. After Eisenhower left office, the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby, were even more determined to “eliminate” Castro. After both Kennedys were themselves assassinated, Lyndon Johnson finally put an end to the CIA’s murder plotting, noting “we had been operating a goddamn Murder Inc in the Caribbean”. Making poisons to kill foreign leaders would never again be part of Gottleib’s job.
The few people who knew about MK-ULTRA considered it crucial to America’s survival to find novel ways to fight communism. Adding to his black sites abroad, Gottleib opened safe houses in New York and San Francisco and was emboldened to find new kinds of expendable subjects closer to home: drug users, petty criminals, alcohol and drug addicts, poor African Americans from the margins of society, hospital patients, even his own colleagues. Most of these could be relied upon not to complain about what had happened to them. Later the list included unwitting patients who came to psychiatric clinics, secretly funded by the CIA, with moderate emotional problems such as anxiety, post partum depression and family troubles. Some of these people went on to suffer far greater physical and psychological pains than those they brought with them for cure.
The Addiction Research Centre in Lexington, Kentucky functioned like a prison and was run by the Bureau of Prisons. It provided Gottleib with a secure supply of expendables to test dangerous drugs on, human guinea pigs who were not told what kind of drug they would be fed or what its effects might be. Gottleib hoped he might find a point at which massive LSD doses delivered by injection for up to six weeks would induce psychotic states and finally dissolve the mind. Inmates in a federal prison in Atlanta and a juvenile detention centre in New Jersey were given heavy doses of depressive drugs to produce hallucinations and schizophrenia. LSD experimentation spread to the Massachusetts Mental Health Centre, where hundreds of students from Harvard and MIT unwittingly assisted the CIA’s research into mind control. Several had negative reactions and one hanged herself.
All this time Gottleib and his senior researchers were taking LSD themselves, one of them regularly organising parties in his Long Island home, “wild and crazy, along with all the sex and what have you”. This party enthusiast developed a special interest in the impact of mind-altering drugs on children, some as young as six, who were fed LSD and psilocybin for six-week periods. CIA officers spiked each other’s coffee and liquor and spread it on their food, in their offices and in safe houses in the countryside around Washington. These were part of a deeply secret fraternity, patriot scientists who routinely applied their research knowledge to the interrogation of prisoners in Asia as the Korean War dragged on, believing that the threat of communism justified what they did.
The bulk supply of LSD by Eli Lily allowed CIA research to be conducted under the cover of philanthropic foundations that were funding medical research in some thirty highly reputed institutions, including private and state universities and medical schools. These involved some of America’s leading behavioural psychologists. Many of the experiments required risking the health of participants, like the mentally handicapped children in Massachusetts who were fed cereal laced with uranium and radioactive calcium. In most cases, the judgement was made that normal ethical protocols about “witting” and “unwitting” subjects had to be ignored if good results were to be discovered. A CIA treatment run in the Allen Institute in Magill University, Quebec developed the technique of “psychic driving” in which patients were administered electroconvulsive shocks, thirty to forty times the usual strength, for several days, then moved to a solitary ward where food, water and oxygen were severely restricted during a constant dosage of LSD. Helmets with earphones were fitted on, which piped in streams of negative messages like “my mother hates me”. A review of the Magill work conducted years later concluded that it had no therapeutic validity whatsoever and was “comparable to Nazi medical atrocities”.
To all appearances, Gottleib maintained a happy domestic life, living simply in the country, practising his German folk-dancing steps with his wife, milking his goats and collecting eggs in the morning before heading into the lab. Because he wrote nothing substantial about his years of experiments in secret prisons around the world, and because he later destroyed as much evidence as he could of MK-ULTRA files, the best Kinzer can do to explain the contradictions in his life is to emphasise the patriotic pitch of the Cold War context and the fetishisation of national security. If we know little about how Gottleib lived with the extreme tensions in his life, we know little more about how official America resolved the tensions between its secret Nazi-like research programmes and the consistent American posture of criticism of other countries’ human rights failures.
In the 1960s psychedelic drugs jumped from agency labs into the general population, starting with elite society: New York professionals at private parties, the circle around Allen Dulles’s mistress, Claire Booth Luce, publisher and former ambassador to Italy, film director Sidney Lumet, Cary Grant and many other celebrities. Soon LSD was fuelling a new counterculture led by novelist Ken Kesey, (who first tried LSD as a volunteer in a covert MK-ULTRA project at a veterans’ hospital in California), musicians like the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary in Harvard and poet Allen Ginsberg, who fantasised aloud about turning on the world’s warmongering leaders.
The drug was banned in 1966, initiating Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, but it took several more years for the existence of MK-ULTRA to be revealed. In June 1972, a break-in at the Watergate Complex triggered a crisis for the Nixon presidency. CIA director Richard Helms refused to create a cover story that would shield the White House and Nixon fired him. Suddenly Gottleib’s protector was gone. But in his final hours, Helms ordered Gottleib to destroy all records of MK-ULTRA. Seven boxes of secret reports were recalled from the archives and destroyed. Gottleib retired from the CIA four months later and Nixon resigned the following year. Granted immunity from prosecution by the Church Committee, Gottleib lived out the remainder of his life mostly outside of the public gaze and died in 1999 of suspected suicide.
Kinzer’s book raises big questions about government oversight of its secret intelligence services. The extraordinary level of covert support for medical torture is difficult to understand from outside the US. And although Cold War historians now agree that the fear of Soviet attack was greatly exaggerated by vested interests, at the time it seemed vividly real. The perceived imminence of that threat justified for many in the political establishment the CIA’s excesses in building on the atrocities of Nazi medical torture instead of ending it all at Nuremberg. But the closing of sites for extreme human experiments did not pull the CIA out of the torture business.
Its key manual KUBARK Counter Intelligence Interrogation, declassified in 2014, codified everything the agency had learned about “coercive counterintelligence interrogation of resistant sources”. This became the essential text for CIA interrogators of Viet Cong prisoners in the Phoenix Programme in Vietnam and later in Green Beret Ttraining courses in Honduras, El Salvador and other military-dominated countries where torture was commonly practised. The manual’s flat bureaucratic tone is chilling: “drugs can be effective in overcoming resistance not dissolved by other techniques … The profound moral objection to applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage has been stated. Judging the validity of other ethical arguments about coercion exceeds the scope of this paper.”
After the 9/11 attacks of 2001, CIA interrogators were able to draw on a full store of experience, gleaned from Gottleib’s research and from its practical application in client states by police and military torturers. One CIA officer who trained Latin American interrogators as a young officer, went on in the Bush regime to assume a senior role in the CIA rendition group, kidnapping suspected Muslim terrorists and sending them for interrogation to secret prisons, some allegedly passing through Shannon Airport to their final destination. We have partial knowledge about post 9/11 torture from books like Tara McKelvey’s Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. We know a little more about the legal debates that preoccupied George Bush’s White House in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, many of them now in the public domain through books like Karen Geeenberg’s edited volume The Torture Debate in America. These culminated in finely crafted legal documentation on the acceptable outer limits of pain, the finer points of waterboarding and the legal advice underpinning George Bush’s Torture Memo, laying out in forty pages the decision that the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners did not apply to terrorists.
In much of the legal commentary on the Torture Memo there emerges a dominant narrative that the US became involved in extreme interrogation only in response to 9/11. In this framing, the need for national defence offers a legal justification for torture, despite the US being a party to the Torture Convention, which declares that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war, internal political stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture”. Government lawyers created a lawless world for the Middle East prisoners detained in Guantánamo Bay. Some still live there in 2020 outside the rule of law. It wasn’t a big jump from this legal mindset to providing cover for both Obama and Trump to draw up weekly “kill lists” for targeted assassination by drone strikes. A report by Drone Wars, a civil society group that lobbies for an international code of conduct covering use of armed drones, shows how with the help of military secrecy and uncritical press coverage, a culture of lethal targeting is normalised, eroding international law norms. Government propaganda routinely frames victims as beyond redemption, beyond the rule of law, in a realm where legal justification is not necessary.
The twenty-first century War on Terror depended on government lawyers placing their professional expertise in the service of barbarity, just like lawyers in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. These are the impersonal, detached and bureaucratic “desktop killers” highlighted by Dan Gretton in his new book I You We Them: Journeys Beyond Evil: the Desktop Killers in History and Today. He borrows the term from Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolf Eichmann, a mid-level functionary in the Nazi regime who managed the logistics of transporting millions of Jews to their deaths. Arendt’s well-known analysis of the “banality of evil” she saw all around her in Germany in the 1940s clearly has a contemporary resonance. But as Paul Mason and others have pointed out, the weakness in her moral world view lay precisely in where it was anchored, her firm belief that unlike Germany, the US was immune to totalitarian impulses. This is a certainty which is sadly undermined in present times for observers of contemporary American political trends.
Farrel Corcoran is professor emeritus at the School of Communication, Dublin City University. He is a former chairman of RTÉ.