The Search for the Manchurian Candidate
Albert Hofmann's discovery of LSD in 1943 may have begun a new
age in the exploration of the human mind, but it took six years
for word to reach America. Even after Hofmann and his coworkers
in Switzerland published their work in a 1947 article, no one
in the United States seemed to notice. Then in 1949, a famous
Viennese doctor named Otto Kauders traveled to the United States
in search of research funds. He gave a conference at Boston Psychopathic
Hospital, a pioneering
mental-health institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School,
and he spoke about a new experimental drug called d-lysergic acid
diethylamide. Milton Greenblatt, the hospital's research director,
vividly recalls Kauders' description of how an infinitesimally
small dose had rendered Dr. Hofmann temporarily "crazy."
"We were very interested in anything that could make someone
schizophrenic," says Greenblatt. If the drug really did induce
psychosis for a short time, the Boston doctors reasoned, an antidotewhich
they hoped to findmight cure schizophrenia. It would take many
years of research to show that LSD did not, in fact, produce a
"model psychosis," but to the Boston doctors in 1949,
the drug showed incredible promise. Max Rinkel, a neuropsychiatrist
and refugee from Hitler's Germany, was so intrigued by Kauders'
presentation that he quickly contacted Sandoz, the huge Swiss
pharmaceutical firm where Albert Hofmann worked. Sandoz officials
arranged to ship some LSD across the Atlantic.
The first American trip followed. The subject was Robert Hyde,
a Vermont-born psychiatrist who was Boston Psychopathic's number-two
man. A bold, innovative sort, Hyde took it for granted that there
would be no testing program until he tried the drug. With Rinkel
and the hospital's senior physician, H. Jackson DeShon looking
on, Hyde drank a glass of water with 100 micrograms of LSD in
itless than half Hofmann's dose, but still a hefty jolt. DeShon
describes Hyde's reaction as "nothing very startling."
The perpetually active Hyde insisted on making his normal hospital
rounds while his colleagues tagged along. Rinkel later told a
scientific conference that Hyde became "quite paranoiac,
saying that we had not given him anything. He also berated us
and said the company had cheated us, given us plain water. That
was not Dr. Hyde's normal behavior; he is a very pleasant man."
Hyde's first experience was hardly as dramatic as Albert Hofmann's,
but then the Boston psychiatrist had not, like Hofmann, set off
on a voyage into the complete unknown. For better or worse, LSD
had come to America in 1949 and had embarked on a strange trip
of its own. Academic researchers would study it in search of knowledge
that would benefit all mankind. Intelligence agencies, particularly
the CIA, would subsidize and shape the form of much of this work
to learn how the drug could be used to break the will of enemy
agents, unlock secrets in the minds of trained spies, and otherwise
manipulate human behavior. These two strainsof helping people
and of controlling themwould coexist rather comfortably through
the 1950s. Then, in the 1960s, LSD would escape from the closed
world of scholar and spy, and it would play a major role in causing
a cultural upheaval that would have an impact both on global politics
and on intimate personal beliefs. The trip would wind upto
borrow some hyperbole from the musical Hair with "the
youth of America on LSD."
The counterculture generation was not yet out of the nursery,
however, when Bob Hyde went tripping: Hyde himself would not become
a secret CIA consultant for several years. The CIA and the military
intelligence agencies were just setting out on their quest for
drugs and other exotic methods to take possession of people's
minds. The ancient desire to control enemies through magical spells
and potions had come alive again, and several offices within the
CIA competed to become the head controllers. Men from the Office
of Security's ARTICHOKE program were strugglingas had OSS before
themto find a truth drug or hypnotic method that would aid
in interrogation. Concurrently, the Technical Services Staff (TSS)
was investigating in much greater depth the whole area of applying
chemical and biological warfare (CBW) to covert operations. TSS
was the lineal descendent of Stanley Lovell's Research and Development
unit in OSS, and its officials kept alive much of the excitement
and urgency of the World War II days when Lovell had tried to
bring out the Peck's Bad Boy in American scientists. Specialists
from TSS furnished backup equipment for secret operations: false
papers, bugs, taps, suicide pills, explosive seashells, transmitters
hidden in false teeth, cameras in tobacco pouches, invisible inks,
and the like. In later years, these gadget wizards from TSS would
become known for supplying some of history's more ludicrous landmarks,
such as Howard Hunt's ill-fitting red wig; but in the early days
of the CIA, they gave promise of transforming the spy world.
Within TSS, there existed a Chemical Division with functions that
few otherseven in TSSknew about. These had to do with using
chemicals (and germs) against specific people. From 1951 to 1956,
the years when the CIA's interest in LSD peaked, Sidney Gottlieb,
a native of the Bronx with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cal Tech,
headed this division. (And for most of the years until 1973, he
would oversee TSS's behavioral programs from one job or another.)
Only 33 years old when he took over the Chemical Division, Gottlieb
had managed to overcome a pronounced stammer and a clubfoot to
rise through Agency ranks. Described by several acquaintances
as a "compensator," Gottlieb prided himself on his ability,
despite his obvious handicaps, to pursue his cherished hobby,
folk dancing. On returning from secret missions overseas, he invariably
brought back a new step that he would dance with surprising grace.
He could call out instructions for the most complicated dances
without a break in his voice, infecting others with enthusiasm.
A man of unorthodox tastes, Gottlieb lived in a former slave cabin
that he had remodeled himselfwith his wife, the daughter of
Presbyterian missionaries in India, and his four children. Each
morning, he rose at 5:30 to milk the goats he kept on his 15 acres
outside Washington. The Gottliebs drank only goat's milk, and
they made their own cheese. They also raised Christmas trees which
they sold to the outside world. Greatly respected by his former
colleagues, Gottlieb, who refused to be interviewed for this book,
is described as a humanist, a man of intellectual humility and
strength, willing to carry out, as one ex-associate puts it, "the
tough things that had to be done." This associate fondly
recalls, "When you watched him, you gained more and more
respect because he was willing to work so hard to get an idea
across. He left himself totally exposed. It was more important
for us to get the idea than for him not to stutter." One
idea he got across was that the Agency should investigate the
potential use of the obscure new drug, LSD, as a spy weapon.
At the top ranks of the Clandestine Services (officially called
the Directorate of Operations but popularly known as the "dirty
tricks department"), Sid Gottlieb had a champion who appreciated
his qualities, Richard Helms. For two decades, Gottlieb would
move into progressively higher positions in the wake of Helms'
climb to the highest position in the Agency. Helms, the tall,
smooth "preppie," apparently liked the way the Jewish
chemist, who had started out at Manhattan's City College, could
thread his way through complicated technical problems and make
them understandable to nonscientists. Gottlieb was loyal and he
followed orders. Although many people lay in the chain of command
between the two men, Helms preferred to avoid bureaucratic niceties
by dealing directly with Gottlieb.
On April 3, 1953, Helms proposed to Director Allen Dulles that
the CIA set up a program under Gottlieb for "covert use of
biological and chemical materials." Helms made clear that
the Agency could use these methods in "present and future
clandestine operations" and then added, "Aside from
the offensive potential, the development of a comprehensive capability
in this field . . . gives us a thorough knowledge of the enemy's
theoretical potential, thus enabling us to defend ourselves against
a foe who might not be as restrained in the use of these techniques
as we are." Once again, as it would throughout the history
of the behavioral programs, defense justified offense. Ray Cline,
often a bureaucratic rival of Helms, notes the spirit in which
the future Director pushed this program: "Helms fancied himself
a pretty tough cookie. It was fashionable among that group to
fancy they were rather impersonal about dangers, risks, and human
life. Helms would think it sentimental and foolish to be against
something like this."
On April 13, 1953the same day that the Pentagon announced that
any U.S. prisoner refusing repatriation in Korea would be listed
as a deserter and shot if caughtAllen Dulles approved the program,
essentially as put forth by Helms. Dulles took note of the "ultra-sensitive
work" involved and agreed that the project would be called
MKULTRA. He approved
an initial budget of $300,000, exempted the program from normal
CIA financial controls, and allowed TSS to start up research projects
"without the signing of the usual contracts or other written
agreements." Dulles ordered the Agency's bookkeepers to pay
the costs blindly on the signatures of Sid Gottlieb and Willis
Gibbons, a former U.S. Rubber executive who headed TSS.
As is so often the case in government, the activity that Allen
Dulles approved with MKULTRA was already under way, even before
he gave it a bureaucratic structure. Under the code name MKDELTA,
the Clandestine Services had set up procedures the year before
to govern the use of CBW products. (MKDELTA now became the operational
side of MKULTRA.) Also in 1952, TSS had made an agreement with
the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the Army's biological
research center at Fort Detrick, Maryland whereby SOD would produce
germ weapons for the CIA's use (with the program called MKNAOMI).
Sid Gottlieb later testified that the purpose of these programs
was "to investigate whether and how it was possible to modify
an individual's behavior by covert means. The context in which
this investigation was started was that of the height of the Cold
War with the Korean War just winding down; with the CIA organizing
its resources to liberate Eastern Europe by paramilitary means;
and with the threat of Soviet aggression very real and tangible,
as exemplified by the recent Berlin airlift" (which occurred
In the early days of MKULTRA, the roughly six TSS professionals
who worked on the program spent a good deal of their time considering
the possibilities of LSD.
"The most fascinating thing about it," says one of them,
"was that such minute quantities had such a terrific effect."
Albert Hofmann had gone off into another world after swallowing
less than 1/100,000 of an ounce. Scientists had known about the
mind-altering qualities of drugs like mescaline since the late
nineteenth century, but LSD was several thousand times more potent.
Hashish had been around for millennia, but LSD was roughly a million
times stronger (by weight). A two-suiter suitcase could hold enough
LSD to turn on every man, woman, and child in the United States.
"We thought about the possibility of putting some in a city
water supply and having the citizens wander around in a more or
less happy state, not terribly interested in defending themselves,"
recalls the TSS man. But incapacitating such large numbers of
people fell to the Army Chemical Corps, which also tested LSD
and even stronger hallucinogens. The CIA was concentrating on
individuals. TSS officials understood that LSD distorted a person's
sense of reality, and they felt compelled to learn whether it
could alter someone's basic loyalties. Could the CIA make spies
out of tripping Russiansor vice versa? In the early 1950s,
when the Agency developed an almost desperate need to know more
about LSD, almost no outside information existed on the subject.
Sandoz had done some clinical studies, as had a few other places,
including Boston Psychopathic, but the work generally had not
moved much beyond the horse-and-buggy stage. The MKULTRA team
had literally hundreds of questions about LSD's physiological,
psychological, chemical, and social effects. Did it have any antidotes?
What happened if it were combined with other drugs? Did it affect
everyone the same way? What was the effect of doubling the dose?
And so on.
TSS first sought answers from academic researchers, who, on the
whole, gladly cooperated and let the Agency pick their brains.
But CIA officials realized that no one would undertake a quick
and systematic study of the drug unless the Agency itself paid
the bill. Almost no government or private money was then available
for what had been dubbed "experimental psychiatry."
Sandoz wanted the drug tested, for its own commercial reasons,
but beyond supplying it free to researchers, it would not assume
the costs. The National Institutes of Mental Health had an interest
in LSD's relationship to mental illness, but CIA officials wanted
to know how the drug affected normal people, not sick ones. Only
the military services, essentially for the same reasons as the
CIA, were willing to sink much money into LSD, and the Agency
men were not about to defer to them. They chose instead to take
the leadin effect to create a whole new field of research.
Suddenly there was a huge new market for grants in academia, as
Sid Gottlieb and his aides began to fund LSD projects at prestigious
institutions. The Agency's LSD pathfinders can be identified:
Bob Hyde's group at Boston Psychopathic, Harold Abramson at Mt.
Sinai Hospital and Columbia University in New York, Carl Pfeiffer
at the University of Illinois Medical School, Harris Isbell of
the NIMH-sponsored Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky,
Louis Jolyon West at the University of Oklahoma, and Harold Hodge's
group at the University of Rochester. The Agency disguised its
involvement by passing the money through two conduits: the Josiah
Macy, Jr. Foundation, a rich establishment institution which served
as a cutout (intermediary) only for a year or two, and the Geschickter
Fund for Medical Research, a Washington, D.C. family foundation,
whose head, Dr. Charles Geschickter, provided the Agency with
a variety of services for more than a decade. Reflexively, TSS
officials felt they had to keep the CIA connection secret. They
could only "assume," according to a 1955 study, that
Soviet scientists understood the drug's "strategic importance"
and were capable of making it themselves. They did not want to
spur the Russians into starting their own LSD program or into
The CIA's secrecy was also clearly aimed at the folks back home.
As a 1963 Inspector General's report stated, "Research in
the manipulation of human behavior is considered by many authorities
in medicine and related fields to be professionally unethical";
therefore, openness would put "in jeopardy" the reputations
of the outside researchers. Moreover, the CIA Inspector General
declared that disclosure of certain MKULTRA activities could result
in "serious adverse reaction" among the American public.
At Boston Psychopathic, there were various levels of concealment.
Only Bob Hyde and his boss, the hospital superintendent, knew
officially that the CIA was funding the hospital's LSD program
from 1952 on, to the tune of about $40,000 a year. Yet, according
to another member of the Hyde group, Dr. DeShon, all senior staff
understood where the money really came from. "We agreed not
to discuss it," says DeShon. "I don't see any objection
to this. We never gave it to anyone without his consent and without
explaining it in detail." Hospital officials told the volunteer
subjects something about the nature of the experiments but nothing
about their origins or purpose. None of the subjects had any idea
that the CIA was paying for the probing of their minds and would
use the results for its own purposes; most of the staff was similarly
Like Hyde, almost all the researchers tried LSD on themselves.
Indeed, many believed they gained real insight into what it felt
like to be mentally ill, useful knowledge for health professionals
who spent their lives treating people supposedly sick in the head.
Hyde set up a multidisciplinary programvirtually unheard of
at the timethat brought together psychiatrists, psychologists,
and physiologists. As subjects, they used each other, hospital
patients, and volunteersmostly studentsfrom the Boston area.
They worked through a long sequence of experiments that served
to isolate variable after variable. Palming themselves off as
foundation officials, the men from MKULTRA frequently visited
to observe and suggest areas of future research. One Agency man,
who himself tripped several times under Hyde's general supervision,
remembers that he and his colleagues would pass on a nugget that
another contractor like Harold Abramson had gleaned and ask Hyde
to perform a follow-up test that might answer a question of interest
to the Agency. Despite these tangents, the main body of research
proceeded in a planned and orderly fashion. The researchers learned
that while some subjects seemed to become schizophrenic, many
others did not. Surprisingly, true schizophrenics showed little
reaction at all to LSD, unless given massive doses. The Hyde group
found out that the quality of a person's reaction was determined
mainly by the person's basic personality structure (set) and the
environment (setting) in which he or she took the drug. The subject's
expectation of what would happen also played a major part. More
than anything else, LSD tended to intensify the subject's existing
characteristicsoften to extremes. A little suspicion could
grow into major paranoia, particularly in the company of people
perceived as threatening.
Unbeknownst to his fellow researchers, the energetic Dr. Hyde
also advised the CIA on using LSD in covert operations. A CIA
officer who worked with him recalls: "The idea would be to
give him the details of what had happened [with a case], and he
would speculate. As a sharp M.D. in the old-school sense, he would
look at things in ways that a lot of recent bright lights couldn't
get.... He had a good sense of make-do." The Agency paid
Hyde for his time as a consultant, and TSS officials eventually
set aside a special MKULTRA subproject as Hyde's private funding
mechanism. Hyde received funds from yet another MKULTRA subproject
that TSS men created for him in 1954, so he could serve as a cutout
for Agency purchases of rare chemicals. His first buy was to be
$32,000 worth of corynanthine, a possible antidote to LSD, that
would not be traced to the CIA.
Bob Hyde died in 1976 at the age of 66, widely hailed as a pacesetter
in mental health. His medical and intelligence colleagues speak
highly of him both personally and professionally. Like most of
his generation, he apparently considered helping the CIA a patriotic
duty. An Agency officer states that Hyde never raised doubts about
his covert work. "He wouldn't moralize. He had a lot of trust
in the people he was dealing with [from the CIA]. He had pretty
well reached the conclusion that if they decided to do something
[operationally], they had tried whatever else there was and were
willing to risk it."
Most of the CIA's academic researchers published articles on their
work in professional journals, but those long, scholarly reports
often gave an incomplete picture of the research. In effect, the
scientists would write openly about how LSD affects a patient's
pulse rate, but they would tell only the CIA how the drug could
be used to ruin that patient's marriage or memory. Those researchers
who were aware of the Agency's sponsorship seldom published anything
remotely connected to the instrumental and rather unpleasant questions
the MKULTRA men posed for investigation. That was true of Hyde
and of Harold Abramson, the New York allergist who became one
of the first Johnny Appleseeds of LSD by giving it to a number
of his distinguished colleagues. Abramson documented all sorts
of experiments on topics like the effects of LSD on Siamese fighting
fish and snails,
but he never wrote a word about one of his early LSD assignments
from the Agency. In a 1953 document, Sid Gottlieb listed subjects
he expected Abramson to investigate with the $85,000 the Agency
was furnishing him. Gottlieb wanted "operationally pertinent
materials along the following lines: a. Disturbance of Memory;
b. Discrediting by Aberrant Behavior; c. Alteration of Sex Patterns;
d. Eliciting of Information; e. Suggestibility; f. Creation of
Dr. Harris Isbell, whose work the CIA funded through Navy cover
with the approval of the Director of the National Institutes of
Health, published his principal findings, but he did not mention
how he obtained his subjects. As Director of the Addiction Research
Center at the huge Federal drug hospital in Lexington, Kentucky,
he had access to a literally captive population. Inmates heard
on the grapevine that if they volunteered for Isbell's program,
they would be rewarded either in the drug of their choice or in
time off from their sentences. Most of the addicts chose drugsusually
heroin or morphine of a purity seldom seen on the street. The
subjects signed an approval form, but they were not told the names
of the experimental drugs or the probable effects. This mattered
little, since the "volunteers" probably would have granted
their informed consent to virtually anything to get hard drugs.
Given Isbell's almost unlimited supply of subjects, TSS officials
used the Lexington facility as a place to make quick tests of
promising but untried drugs and to perform specialized experiments
they could not easily duplicate elsewhere. For instance, Isbell
did one study for which it would have been impossible to attract
student volunteers. He kept seven men on LSD for 77 straight days.
Such an experiment is as chilling as it is astonishingboth
to lovers and haters of LSD. Nearly 20 years after Dr. Isbell's
early work, counterculture journalist Hunter S. Thompson delighted
and frightened his readers with accounts of drug binges lasting
a few days, during which Thompson felt his brain boiling away
in the sun, his nerves wrapping around enormous barbed wire forts,
and his remaining faculties reduced to their reptilian antecedents.
Even Thompson would shudder at the thought of 77 days straight
on LSD, and it is doubtful he would joke about the idea. To Dr.
Isbell, it was just another experiment. "I have had seven
patients who have now been taking the drug for more than 42 days,"
he wrote in the middle of the test, which he called "the
most amazing demonstration of drug tolerance I have ever seen."
Isbell tried to "break through this tolerance" by giving
triple and quadruple doses of LSD to the inmates.
Filled with intense curiosity, Isbell tried out a wide variety
of unproven drugs on his subjects. Just as soon as a new batch
of scopolamine, rivea seeds, or bufotenine arrived from the CIA
or NIMH, he would start testing. His relish for the task occasionally
shone through the dull scientific reports. "I will write
you a letter as soon as I can get the stuff into a man or two,"
he informed his Agency contact.
No corresponding feeling shone through for the inmates, however.
In his few recorded personal comments, he complained that his
subjects tended to be afraid of the doctors and were not as open
in describing their experiences as the experimenters would have
wished. Although Isbell made an effort to "break through
the barriers" with the subjects, who were nearly all black
drug addicts, Isbell finally decided "in all probability,
this type of behavior is to be expected with patients of this
type." The subjects have long since scattered, and no one
apparently has measured the aftereffects of the more extreme experiments
One subject who could be found spent only a brief time with Dr.
Isbell. Eddie Flowers was 19 years old and had been in Lexington
for about a year when he signed up for Isbell's program. He lied
about his age to get in, claiming he was 21. All he cared about
was getting some drugs. He moved into the experimental wing of
the hospital where the food was better and he could listen to
music. He loved his heroin but knew nothing about drugs like LSD.
One day he took something in a graham cracker. No one ever told
him the name, but his description sounds like it made him tripbadly,
to be sure. "It was the worst shit I ever had," he says.
He hallucinated and suffered for 16 or 17 hours. "I was frightened.
I wouldn't take it again." Still, Flowers earned enough "points"
in the experiment to qualify for his "payoff in heroin. All
he had to do was knock on a little window down the hall. This
was the drug bank. The man in charge kept a list of the amount
of the hard drug each inmate had in his account. Flowers just
had to say how much he wanted to withdraw and note the method
of payment. "If you wanted it in the vein, you got it there,"
recalls Flowers who now works in a Washington, D.C. drug rehabilitation
Dr. Isbell refuses all request for interviews. He did tell a Senate
subcommittee in 1975 that he inherited the drug payoff system
when he came to Lexington and that "it was the custom in
those days.... The ethical codes were not so highly developed,
and there was a great need to know in order to protect the public
in assessing the potential use of narcotics.... I personally think
we did a very excellent job."
For every Isbell, Hyde, or Abramson who did TSS contract work,
there were dozens of others who simply served as casual CIA informants,
some witting and some not. Each TSS project officer had a skull
session with dozens of recognized experts several times a year.
"That was the only way a tiny staff like Sid Gottlieb's could
possibly keep on top of the burgeoning behavioral sciences,"
says an ex-CIA official. "There would be no way you could
do it by library research or the Ph.D. dissertation approach."
The TSS men always asked their contacts for the names of others
they could talk to, and the contacts would pass them on to other
In LSD research, TSS officers benefited from the energetic intelligence
gathering of their contractors, particularly Harold Abramson.
Abramson talked regularly to virtually everyone interested in
the drug, including the few early researchers not funded by the
Agency or the military, and he reported his findings to TSS. In
addition, he served as reporting secretary of two conference series
sponsored by the Agency's sometime conduit, the Macy Foundation.
These series each lasted over five year periods in the 1950s;
one dealt with "Problems of Consciousness" and the other
with "Neuropharmacology." Held once a year in the genteel
surroundings of the Princeton Inn, the Macy Foundation conferences
brought together TSS's (and the military's) leading contractors,
as part of a group of roughly 25 with the multidisciplinary background
that TSS officials so loved. The participants came from all over
the social sciences and included such luminaries as Margaret Mead
and Jean Piaget. The topics discussed usually mirrored TSS's interests
at the time, and the conferences served as a spawning ground for
ideas that allowed researchers to engage in some healthy cross-fertilization.
Beyond the academic world, TSS looked to the pharmaceutical companies
as another source on drugsand for a continuing supply of new
products to test. TSS's Ray Treichler handled the liaison function,
and this secretive little man built up close relationships with
many of the industry's key executives. He had a particular knack
for convincing them he would not reveal their trade secrets. Sometimes
claiming to be from the Army Chemical Corps and sometimes admitting
his CIA connection, Treichler would ask for samples of drugs that
were either highly poisonous, or, in the words of the onetime
director of research of a large company, "caused hypertension,
increased blood pressure, or led to other odd physiological activity."
Dealing with American drug companies posed no particular problems
for TSS. Most cooperated in any way they could. But relations
with Sandoz were more complicated. The giant Swiss firm had a
monopoly on the Western world's production of LSD until 1953.
Agency officials feared that Sandoz would somehow allow large
quantities to reach the Russians. Since information on LSD's chemical
structure and effects was publicly available from 1947 on, the
Russians could have produced it any time they felt it worthwhile.
Thus, the Agency's phobia about Sandoz seems rather irrational,
but it unquestionably did exist.
On two occasions early in the Cold War, the entire CIA hierarchy
went into a dither over reports that Sandoz might allow large
amounts of LSD to reach Communist countries. In 1951 reports came
in through military channels that the Russians had obtained some
50 million doses from Sandoz. Horrendous visions of what the Russians
might do with such a stockpile circulated in the CIA, where officials
did not find out the intelligence was false for several years.
There was an even greater uproar in 1953 when more reports came
in, again through military intelligence, that Sandoz wanted to
sell the astounding quantity of 10 kilos (22 pounds) of LSD enough
for about 100 million doseson the open market.
A top-level coordinating committee which included CIA and Pentagon
representatives unanimously recommended that the Agency put up
$240,000 to buy it all. Allen Dulles gave his approval, and off
went two CIA representatives to Switzerland, presumably with a
black bag full of cash. They met with the president of Sandoz
and other top executives. The Sandoz men stated that the company
had never made anything approaching 10 kilos of LSD and that,
in fact, since the discovery of the drug 10 years before, its
total production had been only 40 grams (about 11/2 ounces).
The manufacturing process moved quite slowly at that time because
Sandoz used real ergot, which could not be grown in large quantities.
Nevertheless, Sandoz executives, being good Swiss businessmen,
offered to supply the U.S. Government with 100 grams weekly for
an indefinite period, if the Americans would pay a fair price.
Twice the Sandoz president thanked the CIA men for being willing
to take the nonexistent 10 kilos off the market. While he said
the company now regretted it had ever discovered LSD in the first
place, he promised that Sandoz would not let the drug fall into
communist hands. The Sandoz president mentioned that various Americans
had in the past made "covert and sideways" approaches
to Sandoz to find out about LSD, and he agreed to keep the U.S.
Government informed of all future production and shipping of the
drug. He also agreed to pass on any intelligence about Eastern
European interest in LSD. The Sandoz executives asked only that
their arrangement with the CIA be kept "in the very strictest
All around the world, the CIA tried to stay on top of the LSD
supply. Back home in Indianapolis, Eli Lilly & Company was
even then working on a process to synthesize LSD. Agency officials
felt uncomfortable having to rely on a foreign company for their
supply, and in 1953 they asked Lilly executives to make them up
a batch, which the company subsequently donated to the government.
Then, in 1954, Lilly scored a major breakthrough when its researchers
worked out a complicated 12- to 15-step process to manufacture
first lysergic acid (the basic building block) and then LSD itself
from chemicals available on the open market. Given a relatively
sophisticated lab, a competent chemist could now make LSD without
a supply of the hard-to-grow ergot fungus. Lilly officers confidentially
informed the government of their triumph. They also held an unprecedented
press conference to trumpet their synthesis of lysergic acid,
but they did not publish for another five years their success
with the closely related LSD.
TSS officials soon sent a memo to Allen Dulles, explaining that
the Lilly discovery was important because the government henceforth
could buy LSD in "tonnage quantities," which made it
a potential chemical-warfare agent. The memo writer pointed out,
however, that from the MKULTRA point of view, the discovery made
no difference since TSS was working on ways to use the drug only
in small-scale covert operations, and the Agency had no trouble
getting the limited amounts it needed. But now the Army Chemical
Corps and the Air Force could get their collective hands on enough
LSD to turn on the world.
Sharing the drug with the Army here, setting up research programs
there, keeping track of it everywhere, the CIA generally presided
over the LSD scene during the 1950s. To be sure, the military
services played a part and funded their own research programs.
So did the National Institutes of Health, to a lesser extent.
Yet both the military services and the NIH allowed themselves
to be co-opted by the CIAas funding conduits and intelligence
sources. The Food and Drug Administration also supplied the Agency
with confidential information on drug testing. Of the Western
world's two LSD manufacturers, oneEli Lillygave its entire
(small) supply to the CIA and the military. The otherSandozinformed
Agency representatives every time it shipped the drug. If somehow
the CIA missed anything with all these sources, the Agency still
had its own network of scholar-spies, the most active of whom
was Harold Abramson who kept it informed of all new developments
in the LSD field. While the CIA may not have totally cornered
the LSD market in the 1950s, it certainly had a good measure of
controlthe very power it sought over human behavior.
Sid Gottlieb and his colleagues at MKULTRA soaked up pools of
information about LSD and other drugs from all outside sources,
but they saved for themselves the research they really cared about:
operational testing. Trained in both science and espionage, they
believed they could bridge the huge gap between experimenting
in the laboratory and using drugs to outsmart the enemy. Therefore
the leaders of MKULTRA initiated their own series of drug experiments
that paralleled and drew information from the external research.
As practical men of action, unlimited by restrictive academic
standards, they did not feel the need to keep their tests in strict
scientific sequence. They wanted results nownot next year.
If a drug showed promise, they felt no qualms about trying it
out operationally before all the test results came in. As early
as 1953, for instance, Sid Gottlieb went overseas with a supply
of a hallucinogenic drugalmost certainly LSD. With unknown
results, he arranged for it to be slipped to a speaker at a political
rally, presumably to see if it would make a fool of him.
These were freewheeling days within the CIAthen a young agency
whose bureaucratic arteries had not started to harden. The leaders
of MKULTRA had high hopes for LSD. It appeared to be an awesome
substance, whose advent, like the ancient discovery of fire, would
bring out primitive responses of fear and worship in people. Only
a speck of LSD could take a strongwilled man and turn his most
basic perceptions into willowy shadows. Time, space, right, wrong,
order, and the notion of what was possible all took on new faces.
LSD was a frightening weapon, and it took a swashbuckling boldness
for the leaders of MKULTRA to prepare for operational testing
the way they first did: by taking it themselves. They tripped
at the office. They tripped at safehouses, and sometimes they
traveled to Boston to trip under Bob Hyde's penetrating gaze.
Always they observed, questioned, and analyzed each other. LSD
seemed to remove inhibitions, and they thought they could use
it to find out what went on in the mind underneath all the outside
acts and pretensions. If they could get at the inner self, they
reasoned, they could better manipulate a personor keep him
from being manipulated.
The men from MKULTRA were trying LSD in the early 1950swhen
Stalin lived and Joe McCarthy raged. It was a foreboding time,
even for those not professionally responsible for doomsday poisons.
Not surprisingly, Sid Gottlieb and colleagues who tried LSD did
not think of the drug as something that might enhance creativity
or cause transcendental experiences. Those notions would not come
along for years. By and large, there was thought to be only one
prevailing and hardheaded version of reality, which was "normal,"
and everything else was "crazy." An LSD trip made people
temporarily crazy, which meant potentially vulnerable to the CIA
men (and mentally ill, to the doctors). The CIA experimenters
did not trip for the experience itself, or to get high, or to
sample new realities. They were testing a weapon; for their purposes,
they might as well have been in a ballistics lab.
Despite this prevailing attitude in the Agency, at least one MKULTRA
pioneer recalls that his first trip expanded his conception of
reality: "I was shaky at first, but then I just experienced
it and had a high. I felt that everything was working right. I
was like a locomotive going at top efficiency. Sure there was
stress, but not in a debilitating way. It was like the stress
of an engine pulling the longest train it's ever pulled."
This CIA veteran describes seeing all the colors of the rainbow
growing out of cracks in the sidewalk. He had always disliked
cracks as signs of imperfection, but suddenly the cracks became
natural stress lines that measured the vibrations of the universe.
He saw people with blemished faces, which he had previously found
slightly repulsive. "I had a change of values about faces,"
he says. "Hooked noses or crooked teeth would become beautiful
for that person. Something had turned loose in me, and all I had
done was shift my attitude. Reality hadn't changed, but I had.
That was all the difference in the world between seeing something
ugly and seeing truth and beauty."
At the end of this day of his first trip, the CIA man and his
colleagues had an alcohol party to help come down. "I had
a lump in my throat," he recalls wistfully. Although he had
never done such a thing before, he wept in front of his coworkers.
"I didn't want to leave it. I felt I would be going back
to a place where I wouldn't be able to hold on to this kind of
beauty. I felt very unhappy. The people who wrote the report on
me said I had experienced depression, but they didn't understand
why I felt so bad. They thought I had had a bad trip."
This CIA man says that others with his general personality tended
to enjoy themselves on LSD, but that the stereotypical CIA operator
(particularly the extreme counterintelligence type who mistrusts
everyone and everything) usually had negative reactions. The drug
simply exaggerated his paranoia. For these operators, the official
notes, "dark evil things would begin to lurk around,"
and they would decide the experimenters were plotting against
The TSS team understood it would be next to impossible to allay
the fears of this ever-vigilant, suspicious sort, although they
might use LSD to disorient or generally confuse such a person.
However, they toyed with the idea that LSD could be applied to
better advantage on more trusting types. Could a clever foe "re-educate"
such a person with a skillful application of LSD? Speculating
on this question, the CIA official states that while under the
influence of the drug, "you tend to have a more global view
of things. I found it awfully hard when stoned to maintain the
notion: I am a U.S. citizenmy country right or wrong.... You
tend to have these good higher feelings. You are more open to
the brotherhood-of-man idea and more susceptible to the seamy
sides of your own society.... I think this is exactly what happened
during the 1960s, but it didn't make people more communist. It
just made them less inclined to identify with the U.S. They took
a plague-on-both-your-houses position."
As to whether his former colleagues in TSS had the same perception
of the LSD experience, the man replies, "I think everybody
understood that if you had a good trip, you had a kind of above-it-all
look into reality. What we subsequently found was that when you
came down, you remembered the experience, but you didn't switch
identities. You really didn't have that kind of feeling. You weren't
as suspicious of people. You listened to them, but you also saw
through them more easily and clearly. We decided that this wasn't
the kind of thing that was going to make a guy into a turncoat
to his own country. The more we worked with it, the less we became
convinced this was what the communists were using for brainwashing."
The early LSD testsboth outside and inside the Agencyhad
gone well enough that the MKULTRA scientists moved forward to
the next stage on the road to "field" use: They tried
the drug out on people by surprise. This, after all, would be
the way an operator would giveor getthe drug. First they
decided to spring it on each other without warning. They agreed
among themselves that a coworker might slip it to them at any
time. (In what may be an apocryphal story, a TSS staff man says
that one of his former colleagues always brought his own bottle
of wine to office parties and carried it with him at all times.)
Unwitting doses became an occupational hazard.
MKULTRA men usually took these unplanned trips in stride, but
occasionally they turned nasty. Two TSS veterans tell the story
of a coworker who drank some LSD-laced coffee during his morning
break. Within an hour, states one veteran, "he sort of knew
he had it, but he couldn't pull himself together. Sometimes you
take it, and you start the process of maintaining your composure.
But this grabbed him before he was aware, and it got away from
him." Filled with fear, the CIA man fled the building that
then housed TSS, located on the edge of the Mall near Washington's
great monuments. Having lost sight of him, his colleagues searched
frantically, but he managed to escape. The hallucinating Agency
man worked his way across one of the Potomac bridges and apparently
cut his last links with rationality. "He reported afterwards
that every automobile that came by was a terrible monster with
fantastic eyes, out to get him personally," says the veteran.
"Each time a car passed, he would huddle down against the
parapet, terribly frightened. It was a real horror trip for him.
I mean, it was hours of agony. It was like a dream that never
stopswith someone chasing you."
After about an hour and a half, the victim's coworkers found him
on the Virginia side of the Potomac, crouched under a fountain,
trembling. "It was awfully hard to persuade him that his
friends were his friends at that point," recalls the colleague.
"He was alone in the world, and everyone was hostile. He'd
become a full-blown paranoid. If it had lasted for two weeks,
we'd have plunked him in a mental hospital." Fortunately
for him, the CIA man came down by the end of the day. This was
not the first, last, or most tragic bad trip in the Agency's testing
By late 1953, only six months after Allen Dulles had formally
created MKULTRA, TSS officials were already well into the last
stage of their research: systematic use of LSD on "outsiders"
who had no idea they had received the drug. These victims simply
felt their moorings slip away in the midst of an ordinary day,
for no apparent reason, and no one really knew how they would
Sid Gottlieb was ready for the operational experiments. He considered
LSD to be such a secret substance that he gave it a private code
name ("serunim") by which he and his colleagues often
referred to the drug, even behind the CIA's heavily guarded doors.
In retrospect, it seems more than bizarre that CIA officialsmen
responsible for the nation's intelligence and alertness when the
hot and cold wars against the communists were at their peakwould
be sneaking LSD into each other's coffee cups and thereby subjecting
themselves to the unknown frontiers of experimental drugs. But
these side trips did not seem to change the sense of reality of
Gottlieb or of high CIA officials, who took LSD on several occasions.
The drug did not transform Gottlieb out of the mind set of a master
scientist-spy, a protégé of Richard Helms in the
CIA's inner circle. He never stopped milking his goats at 5:30
The CIA leaders' early achievements with LSD were impressive.
They had not invented the drug, but they had gotten in on the
American ground floor and done nearly everything else. They were
years ahead of the scientific literaturelet alone the publicand
spies win by being ahead. They had monopolized the supply of LSD
and dominated the research by creating much of it themselves.
They had used money and other blandishments to build a network
of scientists and doctors whose work they could direct and turn
to their own use. All that remained between them and major espionage
successes was the performance of the drug in the field.
That, however, turned out to be a considerable stumbling block.
LSD had an incredibly powerful effect on people, but not in ways
the CIA could predict or control.
The description of Robert Hyde's first trip came from interviews
with Dr. Milton Greenblatt, Dr. J. Herbert DeShon, and a talk
by Max Rinkel at the 2nd Macy Conference on Neuropharmacology,
pp. 235-36, edited by Harold A. Abramson, 1955: Madison Printing
The descriptions of TSS and Sidney Gottlieb came from interviews
with Ray Cline, John Stockwell, about 10 other ex-CIA officers,
and other friends of Gottlieb.
Memos quoted on the early MKULTRA program include Memorandum from
ADDP Helms to DCI Dulles, 4/3/53, Tab A, pp. 1-2 (quoted in Church
Committee Report, Book I); APF A-1, April 13, 1953, Memorandum
for Deputy Director (Administration, Subject: Project MKULTRAExtremely
Sensitive Research and Development Program; #A/B,I,64/6, 6 February
1952, Memorandum for the Record, Subject: Contract with [deleted]
#A/B,I,64/29, undated, Memorandum for Technical Services Staff,
Subject: Alcohol Antagonists and Accelerators, Research and Development
Project. The Gottlieb quote is from Hearing before the Subcommittee
on Health and Scientific Research of the Senate Committee on Human
Resources, September 21, 1977, p. 206.
The background data on LSD came particularly from The Beyond
Within: The LSD Story by Sidney Cohen (New York: Atheneum,1972).
Other sources included Origins of Psychopharmacology: From
CPZ to LSD by Anne E. Caldwell (Springfield, III.: Charles
C. Thomas, 1970) and Document 352, "An OSI Study of the Strategic
Medical Importance of LSD-25," 30 August 1955.
TSS's use of outside researchers came from interviews with four
former TSSers. MKULTRA Subprojects 8, 10, 63, and 66 described
Robert Hyde's work. Subprojects 7, 27, and 40 concerned Harold
Abramson. Hodge's work was in subprojects 17 and 46. Carl Pfeiffer's
Agency connection, along with Hyde's, Abramson's, and Isbell's,
was laid out by Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, Memorandum for the Record,
1 December 1953, Subject: Conversation with Dr. Willis Gibbons
of TSS re Olson Case (found at p. 1030, Kennedy Subcommittee 1975
Biomedical and Behavioral Research Hearings). Isbell's testing
program was also described at those hearings, as it was in Document
# 14, 24 July, 1953, Memo For: Liaison & Security Officer/TSS,
Subject #71 An Account of the Chemical Division's Contacts in
the National Institute of Health; Document #37, 14 July 1954,
subject [deleted]; and Document # 41,31 August,1956, subject;
trip to Lexington, Ky.,21-23 August 1956. Isbell's program was
further described in a "Report on ADAMHA Involvement in LSD
Research," found at p. 993 of 1975 Kennedy subcommittee hearings.
The firsthand account of the actual testing came from an interview
with Edward M. Flowers, Washington, D.C.
The section on TSS's noncontract informants came from interviews
with TSS sources, reading the proceedings of the Macy Conferences
on "Problems of Consciousness" and "Neuropharmacology,"
and interviews with several participants including Sidney Cohen,
Humphrey Osmond, and Hudson Hoagland.
The material on CIA's relations with Sandoz and Eli Lilly came
from Document #24, 16 November, 1953, Subject: ARTICHOKE Conference;
Document #268, 23 October, 1953, Subject: Meeting in Director's
Office at 1100 hours on 23 October with Mr. Wisner and [deleted];
Document # 316,6 January,1954, Subject: Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
(LSD-25); and Document #338, 26 October 1954, Subject: Potential
Large Scale Availability of LSD through newly discovered synthesis
by [deleted]; interviews with Sandoz and Lilly former executives;
interviews with TSS sources; and Sidney Gottlieb's testimony before
Kennedy subcommittee, 1977, p. 203.
Henry Beecher's US government connections were detailed in his
private papers, in a report on the Swiss-LSD death to the CIA
at p. 396, Church Committee Report, Book I, and in interviews
with two of his former associates.
The description of TSS's internal testing progression comes from
interviews with former staff members. The short reference to Sid
Gottlieb's arranging for LSD to be given a speaker at a political
rally comes from Document #A/B, II, 26/8, 9 June 1954, Subject:
MKULTRA. Henry Beecher's report to the CIA on the Swiss suicide
is found at p. 396, Church Committee Report, Book I.
1. During the 1950s, Boston Psychopathic changed
its name to Massachusetts Mental Health Center, the name it bears
2. Pronounced M-K-ULTRA. The MK digraph simply
identified it as a TSS project. As for the ULTRA part, it may
have had its etymological roots in the most closely guarded Anglo-American
World War II intelligence secret, the ULTRA program, which handled
the cracking of German military codes. While good espionage tradecraft
called for cryptonyms to have no special meaning, wartime experiences
were still very much on the minds of men like Allen Dulles. (back)
3. By no means did TSS neglect other drugs.
It looked at hundreds of others from cocaine to nicotine, with
special emphasis on special-purpose substances. One 1952 memo
talked about the urgent operational need for a chemical "producing
general listlessness and lethargy." Another mentioned findingas
TSS later dida potion to accelerate the effects of liquor,
called an "alcohol extender." (back)
4. As happened to Albert Hofmann the first
time, Abramson once unknowingly ingested some LSD, probably by
swallowing water from his spiked snail tank. He started to feel
bad, but with his wife's help, he finally pinpointed the cause.
According to brain and dolphin expert John Lilly, who heard the
story from Mrs. Abramson, Harold was greatly relieved that his
discomfort was not grave. "Oh, it's nothing serious,"
he said. "It's just an LSD psychosis. I'll just go to bed
and sleep it off." (back)
5. Army researchers, as usual running about
five years behind the CIA, became interested in the sustained
use of LSD as an interrogation device during 1961 field tests
(called Operation THIRD CHANCE). The Army men tested the drug
in Europe on nine foreigners and one American, a black soldier
named James Thornwell, accused of stealing classified documents.
While Thornwell was reacting to the drug under extremely stressful
conditions, his captors threatened "to extend the state indefinitely,
even to a permanent condition of insanity," according to
an Army document. Thornwell is now suing the U.S. government for
In one of those twists that Washington insiders take for granted
and outsiders do not quite believe, Terry Lenzner, a partner of
the same law firm seeking this huge sum for Thornwell, is the
lawyer for Sid Gottlieb, the man who oversaw the 77-day trips
at Lexington and even more dangerous LSD testing. (back)
6. A 1975 CIA document clears up the mystery
of how the Agency's military sources could have made such a huge
error in estimating Sandoz's LSD supply (and probably also explains
the earlier inaccurate report that the Russians had bought 50,000,000
doses). What happened, according to the document, was that the
U.S. military attaché in Switzerland did not know the difference
between a milligram (1/1,000 of a gram) and a kilogram (1,000
grams). This mix-up threw all his calculations off by a factor
of 1,000,000. (back)
7. Military security agencies supported the
LSD work of such well-known researchers as Amedeo Marrazzi of
the University of Minnesota and Missouri Institute of Psychiatry,
Henry Beecher of Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, Charles
Savage while he was at the Naval Medical Research Institute, James
Dille of the University of Washington, Gerald Klee of the University
of Maryland Medical School, Neil Burch of Baylor University (who
performed later experiments for the CIA), and Paul Hoch and James
Cattell of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, whose forced
injections of a mescaline derivative led to the 1953 death of
New York tennis professional Harold Blauer. (Dr. Cattell later
told Army investigators, "We didn't know whether it was dog
piss or what it was we were giving him.") (back)
8. TSS officials had long known that LSD could
be quite dangerous. In 1952, Harvard Medical School's Henry Beecher
who regularly gave the Agency information on his talks with European
colleagues, reported that a Swiss doctor had suffered severe depression
after taking the drug and had killed herself three weeks later.
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