This blog has addressed the CIA's role in the spread of LSD and psychedelic culture in general before, in pieces such as this. But now I would like to get down to the real nitty-gritty of CIA acid. Personally, I think that the spread of LSD as well as other entheogens was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century and has had a vast and largely neglected effect on our culture stretching well beyond the drug scene. Through various arts and even some sciences, countless individuals have been exposed to the psychedelic experience and the world view that it produces without ever having tripped.
Proponents of LSD have often claimed that it frees the mind in a way that no other substance can, yet the public was initially exposed to it as a part of various mind control experiments being performed by CIA and other branches of the US intelligence community at the dawn of the Cold War. And make no mistake about it, the CIA is almost wholly responsible for the spread of LSD. Maverick historian Peter Levenda states:
"The LSD experience is an enormous obstacle in the way of understanding what the latter half of the twentieth century was all about; those who have not taken LSD (or the other hallucinogens available at the time, such as mescaline and psilocybin) cannot appreciate the effect these substances have on one's perception of reality. Those who have taken the drugs are often considered to be in no position to be objective about them! Yet, LSD and the other hallucinogens form a core of experience that has molded the lives and behavior of millions of people, both in the United States and abroad. This behavior is the result of an altered perception of reality and, hence, of social values. The shock to the system that results when coming down from such a drug and seeing the 'real world' once again is often transformed into a rejection of consensus reality, a rejection of human institutions based on what the acid-tripper sees as an imperfect understanding of the workings of the cosmos.
"Just as Communism was perceived by the West as a rejection of its values and the establishment of a 'counter culture' in which institutions such as the government, the church, the school, marriage and other forms of civilization were reinterpreted, redesigned or even rejected altogether to create what the Communists believed would be a paradise on earth, the acid-tripper similarly rejected all forms of Western 'establishment' culture in favor of something more ethereal but no less paradisaical; but the acid-tripper rejected Communism as well, and any government authority, and was thus a problem for establishments in the West and in the East...
"Ironically, it was a human authority who created the problem in the first place. As is well-known by now and referenced in many studies of the LSD problem, the United States' Central Intelligence Agency was the nation's first 'LSD connection,' providing the drug to researchers all over the country, including young professors such as Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Ralph Metzner, and others who would popularize use of the drug among their students and, by extension, among the rest of the nation's youth. The purpose behind this unprecedented largess was not altruistic: it was to further the research into what Richard Helms and others involved in scientific R & D at the Agency believed was a super-drug for behavior modification and mind control tasking. In other words, the Agency needed a much larger base of test subjects than was available to them from within the Agency's own personnel pool. They began by farming the drug out to hospitals --for instance, to Dr. Abramson at Mount Sinai in New York --and to prisons, such as Sr. Harris Isbell's program at the Addiction Research Center at Lexington, Kentucky. Isbell's operation was part of the Federal Penitentiary system and although his subjects were referred to as 'patients,' they were, in reality, inmates of the prison system."
(Sinister Forces Book I, pgs. 215-216)
While CIA's involvement in LSD has been publicly acknowledged now for almost 40 years the common view is that they only dabbled and that the various operations involving LSD were soon abandoned after the drug was deemed to be ineffective. But, as the Levenda quote from above implies, the CIA did a little more than dabble --they in fact conducted experiments involving LSD at various asylums, prisons, colleges, and even amongst military personnel across the entire country. Some experiments (as the reader shall soon learn) were even conducted on foreign soil. This was a vast operation that involved not just the CIA, but the Army and Navy, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and various other federal agencies; that spanned nearly a decade and involved hundreds (in reality, probably thousands) of test subjects.
This series of posts I'm calling The LSD Chronicles is meant as something of a greatest hits --it will try to cover many of the key personalities and events behind the CIA's role in LSD. Obviously, there is no way this can be a comprehensive piece --I just finished reading H.P. Albarelli's epic A Terrible Mistake, a 700+ page tome that is possibly the most in depth examination of the CIA and LSD ever published and I was still left with the impression of only scratching the surface.
The reality is that we, the American public, will never know the full scale of the CIA's involvement in LSD. All the major players are already dead and to many records have been destroyed for a clear picture to ever emerge. And the amount of material that has slipped out over the years is so vast that it boggles the mind with its endless connections and synchronicities to other conspiracies (i.e. the Kennedy assassination, UFOs, the Franklin scandal, etc). Thus, I'm only shooting for the 'greatest hits' in this series --the major figures and events, of which I shall try to address as many as possible. So, let us begin.
Surprisingly, when it comes to CIA and LSD, there is an obvious starting place. That starting place is the figure of the legendary Frank Olson, the US Army biological warfare expert that was unwittingly slipped a dose of LSD by the CIA and who later leapt from a ten story window to his death. Olson was subtly immortalized in The Good Shepherd, The Godfather of CIA films, where a suspected Russian spy is slipped some lysergic acid, then rambles on about Soviet power being a myth to further the US's military-industrial complex before rushing threw a window and plunging to his death. Yes, this scene may be the most profound in the entire movie. But back to Frank Olson.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Olson affair, here's a brief recap. Olson was a biological warfare expert who was employed by Fort Detrick. He first got into the biological warfare racket during the Second World War.
"Frank Olson is born in Wisconsin in the year 1910. He will receive his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1942, from the University of Wisconsin. In 1943 he is asked to join the staff at the newly-formed Camp Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. The war is on, and the Army has created Camp Detrick to be its center for CBW, or Chemical-Biological Warfare. The man in charge of the science at Camp Detrick is Frank Olson's mentor from the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Ira Baldwin.
"In 1948, Dr. Baldwin issues 'Special CBW Operations' for the War Department, in which he advices a new approach for chemical and biological weapons strategy, the use of CBW weapons as sabotage. By 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, the scientists and would-be saboteurs at Camp Detrick get serious. The Special Operations Division (SOD) of the Army is created under Dr. John Schwab, a group that runs parallel to CIA's Technical Services Staff (TSS) under Dr. Sidney Gottlieb."
(ibid, pg. 195)
For our purposes, there's a few points I need to make here. Frank Olson belonged to the Special Operations Division (SOD) on the Army, which will be referenced time and again in this piece. There was a lot of overlap between SOD and the CIA's TSS division, which was responsible for the notorious MK-ULTRA experiments overseen by the notorious TSS head, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb. SOD participated in several of these experiments. The dosing of Frank Olson was one such experiment, or so it was believed to be for years.
"...in November 1953, when a group of CIA and army technicians gathered for a three-day work retreat at a remote hunting lodge in the backwoods of Maryland. On the second day of the meeting Dr. Gottlieb spiked the after-dinner cocktails with LSD. As the drug began to take effect, Gottlieb told everyone that they had ingested a mind-altering chemical. By that time the group had become boisterous with laughter and unable to carry on a coherent conversation.
"One man was not amused by the unexpected turn of events. Dr. Frank Olson, an army scientist who specialized in biological warfare research, had never taken LSD before, and he slid into a deep depression. His mood did not lighten when the conference adjourned. Normally a gregarious family man, Olson returned home quiet and with withdrawn. When he went to work after the weekend, he asked his boss to fire him because he had 'messed up the experiment' during the retreat. Alarmed by his erratic behavior, Olson's superiors contacted the CIA, which sent him to New York to see Dr. Harold Abramson. A respected physician, Abramson taught at Columbia University. He was also one of the CIA's principal LSD researchers and a part-time consultant to the Army Chemical Corps. While these were impressive credentials, Abramson was not a trained psychiatrist, and it was this kind of counseling his patient desperately needed.
"For the next few weeks Olson confided his deepest fears to Abramson. He claimed the CIA was putting something in his coffee to make him stay awake at night. He said people were plotting against him and he heard voices at odd hours commanding him to throw away his wallet --which he did, even though it contained several uncashed checks. Dr. Abramson concluded that Olson was mired in 'a psychotic state... with delusions of persecution' that had been 'crystallized by the LSD experience.' Arrangements were made to move him to Chestnut Lodge, a sanatorium in Rockville, Maryland, staffed by CIA-cleared psychiatrists. (Apparently other CIA personnel who suffered from psychiatric disorders were enrolled in this institution.) On his last evening in New York, Olson checked into a room at the Statler Hilton along with a CIA agent assigned to watch him. And then, in the wee hours of the morning, the troubled scientist plunged headlong through a closed window to his death ten floors below."
(Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain, pgs. 30-31)
For years this was generally the accepted view of Olson's death: that he was unwittingly dosed with LSD by the CIA, he had a mental breakdown shortly thereafter, and despite the Agency's best efforts he eventually killed himself. As vile as the Agency's actions were, few dispute that they were accidental. This was generally how the Agency's role in LSD was portrayed for years afterwards: as bumbling idiots who had no idea what they were getting into with acid. It was only in the early 1990s that rumblings of a more sinister nature became to emerge concerning the Agency's role in Olson's death. But more on that later.
There's a few other points I'd like to make briefly about Olson before we begin examining his death. Biographer H.P. Albarelli notes that Olson joined a Masonic Lodge in Wisconsin during his college years. He provides no other details beyond that concerning Olson's Masonic activities, such whether or not he even continued to attend Lodge meetings beyond his college days. It is interesting, though.
For regular readers of this blog, it will be even more interesting to note some of the other individuals working on the Army's chemical warfare projects at the time. For instance, there was Dr. Laurence Layton Sr., who was named chief of the Army's entire Chemical Warfare Division in 1952. Dr. Layton was the father of Larry Layton Jr., the fanatical follower of Jim Jones who would assassinate Congressman Leo Ryan in Guyana shortly before the notorious Jonestown massacre. Jones has long been suspected of being a CIA asset, as I've chronicled before here and here.
Another curious fellow hanging out with the CBW folks at the time was our old friend, Dr. Andrija Puharich, who I've written on before here, here, and here. Puharich is truly one of the most curious and important figures of the later half of the twentieth century. While he is most well known for his work in various 'New Age' disciplines such as entheogens, UFOs, and telepathy, he also worked for the US intelligence community in the 1950s (some claim the association never ended) on various mind control projects, amongst other things. Puharich was most definitely on the Army's pay role at the same time as Olson and Layton.
"With Dr. Layton in Utah and Dr. Olson in Maryland, there was also Dr. Puharich, also in Maryland and also at Camp Detrick where Olson was stationed. All three men worked for the Army in chemical and biological weapons research, and all at the same time. The fact that the CIA was running its own operation in conjunction with the Army at Camp Detrick at the time Dr. Layton was chief of the Army's Chemical Warfare Division indicates that these men were all known to each other, if not on a personal basis then surely by name and function. Olson fell to his death in New York in November of 1953, and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that Dr. Layton decided to leave the Army's CWD soon thereafter to start work for the Navy in Indian Head, Maryland."
(Sinister Forces Book II, Peter Levenda, pg. 198)
Olson biographer H.P. Albarelli confirms that Olson and Puharich knew each other personally, but that their relationship was a rather rocky one.
"One scientist with whom Olson clashed was Dr. Henry Karl Puharich, later known as Andrija Puharich, the man who introduced the controversial Israeli psychic Uri Geller to the world. Puharich, who passed away in 1995 under circumstances never resolved --but not connected to Frank Olson --was an Army officer in the early 1950s. During that time, Puharich was in and out of Edgewood Arsenal and Camp Detrick, meeting with various high-ranking officers and officials, primarily from the Pentagon, CIA, and Naval Intelligence. The purpose of the meetings was Puharich's relentless attempt to convince the military and Intelligence agencies to take the potentials of parapsychology seriously...
"That Puharich favored and was quite open-minded toward matters esoteric was not disputed by anyone, much less Puharich himself. His claims in the early 1950s ranged from the existence of extraterrestrial entities on earth to man's ability to communicate with higher intelligences that dwarfed human intellectual capacities.
"Frank Olson scoffed at such claims, perhaps more out of fear of the unknown than from objective knowledge to the contrary. One day in mid-1952 he made a less than flattering remark to Puharich who was a guest at a Chemical Corps Biological Division briefing on hallucinogenic plants. Puharich, more than capable of countering any form of derision or skepticism, quickly challenged Olson to a debate. The ensuing conversation rapidly evolved into an embarrassing incident for Olson. Puharich called Olson a 'frightened schoolboy who had not yet manged to overcome his fear of the dark.' Olson's retorts were far less sophisticated and the argument would likely have degenerated into fistcuffs had not the Chemical Corps' medical doctor and Puharich's friend, Col. Norman Elton, intervened and put a stop to it.
"Here it is most interesting to note that during Frank Olson's last week in New York City with Richard Lashbrook and Vincent Ruwet, Lashbrook would take the time to hand-deliver a CIA travel check to renowned stage magician John Mulholland. The check was for Mulholland's trip that same week to Chicago to meet with Puharich and a close associate, an officer in the Army's Psychological Warfare Office. The meeting would cover a number of subjects, including hypnotism, in which Puharich was intensely interested. Just six months earlier, he had attended a demonstration of hypnosis and sleight-of-hand practices staged at the Statler Hotel for CIA and selected Federal Narcotics officials. Mulholland, the magician, had also attended the Statler event. Reportedly, Mulholland remained skeptical about hypnosis throughout his life and never incorporated hypnosis into his stage shows. It was revealed years later, in fact, that at the 1953 Chicago gathering magician Mulholland had become 'so frightened of something that Puharich did' that he abruptly left the meeting, aborted his Chicago stay and immediately flew back to New York."
(A Terrible Mistake, H.P. Albarelli, pgs. 53-55)
|John Mulholland, magician to the CIA|
There's a lot to take in here. I'll remind the reader that Lashbrook and Ruwet took Olson to see Mulholland shortly before Olson's death. This means that Mulholland was in contact with both Olson and Puharich, a man Olson had nearly gotten into a fist fight with, within a week time frame of Olson's death. Albarelli also notes that recently uncovered fragments of MK-ULTRA documents strongly indicate that Puharich was involved with testing the effects of the amanita muscaria mushroom, one of the psychedelic strands, on prisoners in New Jersey and Maryland, as well patients at Spring Grove Mental Hospital in Maryland.
If Puharich had experience using psychedelics on unknowing test subjects was he then possibly advising Lashbrook and Ruwet via Mulholland? Yes dear reader, yet another question to ponder about the mysterious Puharich, possibly one of the most influential and powerful men of the later half of the twentieth century whose contributions are still scarcely understood. But I digress, so let us return to the events following Olson's death.
I said that Frank Olson was an obvious place to start because he was the first publicly acknowledged victim of the CIA's LSD research. In fact, Olson was the only individual the CIA acknowledged as an unknowing test subject for its various LSD experiments for years and this was only due to the paper trail Olson left behind that was outside of the CIA's control. On June 6, 1975, the highly dubious Rockefeller Commission released a report concerning the domestic activities of the CIA. Tucked into this report was this little nugget:
"The Commission did learn, however, that one one occasion during the early phases of this program (in 1953), LSD was administered to an employee of the Department of the Army without his knowledge while he was attending a meeting with CIA personnel working on the drug project.Whether or not the Army Special Operations Division (SOD) scientists that were dosed with LSD that fateful night were given some kind of prior warning has been hotly debated since the Olson affair came to public light in the mid-1970s. In a footnote to his 1979 classic The Search for the 'Manchurian Candidate, researcher John Marks writes:
"Prior to receiving the LSD, the subject had participated in discussions where the testing of such substances on unsuspecting subjects was agreed to in principle. However, this individual was not made aware that he had been given LSD until 20 minutes after it had been administered. He developed serious side effects and was sent to New York with a CIA escort for psychiatric treatment. Several days after, he jumped from a tenth floor window of his room and died as a result.
"The General Counsel [CIA] ruled that the death resulted from 'circumstances arising out of an experiment undertaken in the course of his official duties for the United States Government,' thus ensuring his survivors of receiving certain death benefits. Reprimands were issued by the Director of Central Intelligence to two [sic] CIA employees responsible for the incident."
(A Terrible Mistake, H.P. Albarelli, pgs. 476-477)
"Gottlieb stated just after Olson's death, at a time when he was trying to minimize his own culpability, that he had talked to the SOD men about LSD and that they had agreed in general terms to the desirability of unwitting testing. Two of the SOD group in interviews and a third in congressional testimony flatly deny the Gottlieb version. Gottlieb and the SOD men all agree Gottlieb gave no advance warning that he was giving them a drug in their liqueur."
|the notorious Dr. Sidney Gottlieb|
Five days after the Rockefeller Commission report was issued the Washington Post broke the story without revealing Frank Olson's name. Still, the piece provided enough details for his remaining family to become convinced that Olson was the individual being referenced. Shortly after reading the Post article the Olson family contacted an old family friend, retired Army colonel Vincent L. Ruwet, who had been Frank's commanding officer at the time of his death. Ruwet, who had been dosed with LSD at the same time as Olson, reluctantly confirmed that Frank was the man being referenced in the Post article.
Not long afterwards the Olsons opted to sue the CIA and the United States government for their role in Olson's death. This made Olson's death nationwide news, which eventually pressured the CIA into an out-of-court settlement of $750,000 in late 1975. This would not, however, be the end of the Olson clans' investigation into Frank's death, however there would not be much movement until after Alice's death in the early 1990s. We shall examine more recent developments in the next installment.