Project MKUltra — it sounds like something out of a cheesy superhero film, a plan hatched by a villain to steal the moon, or something similar. Instead, Project MKUltra was the CIA’s mind control program, where they (sometimes legally, sometimes illegally) experimented on human subjects. The experiments were meant to assist in developing drugs that would be used for interrogations and torture. The program began in the 1950s, as part of the Cold War, and lasted through the early 1970s. Experiments took place across the country, at 80 institutions, including universities, hospitals and prisons.
The Start of MKUltra
MKUltra began in 1953, at the request of the CIA director at the time, Allen Welsh Dulles. The initial goal was to create some sort of mind-controlling drug that would be of good use during the Cold War. Many believe the development of the program was in direct response to the mind control torture that North Koreans used against U.S. prisoners of war during previous conflicts. With somewhat high hopes, the CIA also desired that they would eventually come up with some sort of drug that could help them control other world leaders, such as Fidel Castro.
The aim of the project changed over time, and in the 60s, it focused more on developing some kind of truth serum for use on captured Soviet spies. The CIA also paired with the Navy to come up with some way to erase memories. This, obviously, did not pan out.
Unfortunately, many records regarding MKUltra have been destroyed. What’s clear, though, is that millions of dollars were funneled into this project, at the height of Cold War paranoia. Still, some theorize that the public’s focus has been turned to the CIA’s “mind control” programs, when in reality the focus was never on mind control at all, but rather on developing better means of torture to use on prisoners.
Some of the very first testing that occurred under the MKUltra umbrella involved LSD. The CIA thought they may be able to use the drug to force Soviet spies to defect against their will. For testing purposes, LSD was given to patients at mental institutions, prisoners and prostitutes, as well as general CIA employees and other military personnel, in order to study individuals’ reactions to it. In most cases, the LSD was administered without the test subject being aware, so that the CIA could really see if it was capable of making someone confess their deepest secrets, or forget everything they previously knew.
In one LSD experiment, the CIA set up a few fake brothels in San Francisco. Men who visited the brothels were given LSD, and each room was outfitted with a one-way mirror, so that agents on the other side could study the men’s reactions. When unwitting CIA and military employees were tested, they would often be exposed to harsh lights and interrogated, told that they would continue to be given the drug until they confessed their personal secrets. Several individuals died due to this continuous administration of LSD, and others suffered from lifelong aftereffects. Anyone who did actually consent to the experiment was victim of even more extreme conditions, with one case including seven volunteers who were forced to be under the influence of LSD every day for more than two months. While LSD was the CIA drug of choice, it eventually lost popularity, as those conducting the experiments realized that it was very unpredictable and other super hallucinogens may perform better.
Other testing performed by the MKUltra program included studies in hypnosis, the effects of heroin, morphine, marijuana and others.
At one point, the experiments were moved to Canada, where the CIA teamed up with a Scottish psychiatrist who was trying to erase memories and reprogram the psyche in order to treat schizophrenia. The CIA paid the psychiatrist, Donald Ewen Cameron, to conduct experiments, though Cameron was kept very much so in the dark regarding the nature of these experiments. However, this did not stop Cameron from going along with the heinous crimes, keeping many of his test subjects in comas for weeks or months at a time, while being exposed to audio loops of certain sounds or statements. Most of his patients were unaware adults who had come to the institute where Cameron worked seeking simple treatments for things like anxiety and depression. After a time with Cameron, most of them suffered from severe side effects, such as incontinence, amnesia and the inability to speak. Since, several past patients have sued Cameron.
In the 1970s, around the same time that Watergate was occurring, the then-CIA director ordered all MKUltra files be destroyed. Only a few files were saved from the purge, as they had been incorrectly stored. Later, after a story came out in the New York Times saying that the CIA had conducted such atrocious experiments, Congress began an investigation into the accusations. The results of the investigation were released to the public in 1975. This prompted the issue of the Executive Order on Intelligence Activities by Gerald Ford, which prohibited any experimentation with drugs on humans without their consent.
It’s suspected that there are many more hidden deaths that occurred as the result of MKUltra, but the most well known is that of Frank Olson. Olson was a U.S. Army biochemist and biological weapons researcher. He was one of the many military employees given LSD without knowledge or consent. He died after experiencing a severe psychotic episode under the drug, and jumping from a 13-floor window. After Olson’s death, it was revealed that he already had suicidal tendencies, and that they must have been exacerbated by the LSD. Olson’s family, however, think that, instead, Olson was murdered so as not to reveal the CIA’s secrets regarding MKUltra.
While MKUltra under its given name has been abandoned, some feel it’s highly likely that the CIA is still conducting similar operations under a different name. The interest in MKUltra continues in pop culture to this day, with recent hit show Stranger Things revolving around similar government experiments, in which main character Eleven is discovered to be the child of an MKUltra test subject.