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Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed S.F. Citizens with LSD 

Wednesday, Mar 14 2012
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American chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the brains behind White's brawn. It was the height of McCarthyism in the early '50s, and government intelligence leaders, claiming fear of communist regimes, were using hallucinogens to induce confessions from prisoners of war held in Korea, and brainwash spies into changing allegiances. What better way to examine the effects of LSD than to dose unsuspecting citizens in New York City and San Francisco?

The mind-bending laboratory on Telegraph Hill was called "the pad" in White's leather-bound journals. White's widow donated 10 boxes of his personal effects to Foothill College in Los Altos Hills after he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1975. Now warehoused at Stanford, the journals, letters, and photographs provide a window into the mischievous life of a secret agent during the Cold War.

Before White joined the narcotics bureau, he worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a World War II-era intelligence agency that preceded the CIA. In a quest for truth serums, White and other OSS agents slipped concentrated tetrahydrocannabinol acetate (THCA) into the food and cigarettes of suspected communists, conscientious objectors, and mobsters in the 1940s. The experience wasn't a prerequisite for working in MK-ULTRA, but it helped.

Dr. James Hamilton, a Stanford Medical School psychiatrist, knew White from their OSS days. He was among the small group of researchers who had clearance to the pad. Gottlieb visited, too, but Operation Midnight Climax had no regular medical supervision.

And that became problematic. The first CIA brothel that White and Gottlieb ran in New York City had already gone awry. U.S. biological warfare specialist Frank Olson either jumped or was pushed from a 10th-floor hotel window in 1953, nine days after the CIA gave him LSD. When a CIA chemist, who was sharing the hotel room with Olson, met with police, they found White's initials and the address of a Greenwich Village safe house on a piece of paper in his pocket. The New York City operation was temporarily suspended when police investigated Olson's death, and restarted later.

White, a native Californian and former San Francisco newspaper reporter, yearned to return home. In 1955, Gottlieb let him.

Aside from Gottlieb's scattershot visits, White, now a "CIA consultant," had free rein over the S.F. safe houses. Ritchie says that White's right-hand man, Ike Feldman, ran around dressed like "a hot-shot drug dealer." Ritchie adds: "He tried to act like Al Capone." The pad quickly became something akin to a frat house for spies. "Eight-martini lunches" were enjoyed regularly, White noted in his journal. And on some occasions he watched the dubious research unfold while sitting on a portable toilet a friend donated to him. It was his "observational post."

What went on in the pad, apparently stayed in the pad.

Dr. John Erskine has lived next door to the location since 1954. "I had a feeling that things went on there that were none of my business. It wasn't overt. People weren't screaming out the windows," says Erskine, standing outside the acid house.

The property is undergoing renovation. Just a few months ago, a construction crew pulled microphones, wires, and recording instruments out of the walls.

Ruth Kelley was a singer at a San Francisco club called The Black Sheep. Her unexpected trip into another dimension happened to her onstage.

Young, attractive Kelley caught White's eye, though she rejected his advances. White or one of his men eventually dosed her with LSD just before she went onstage, according to a deposition of Frank Laubinger, a CIA official who led a program in the 1980s that made contact with victims of MK-ULTRA. "The LSD definitely took some effect during her act." Kelley reportedly went to the hospital, but was fine ... once the effects of the drug, that she didn't know she was on, wore off.

How test subjects were chosen by the agents varied. In the case of the Telegraph Hill safe house, working girls would pick up johns in North Beach bars and restaurants, then bring them back for experimentation and observation. Other times, White and his wife would host dinner parties where guests might get dosed with a hallucinogenic cocktail without their knowledge. And seemingly random San Franciscans like Kelley were victimized for no other reason than their paths crossed with White and his men at the wrong time. White wrote in his diary how he slipped acid to unsuspecting civilians at local beaches, and in city bars and restaurants.

There were two other Bay Area safe houses where the CIA researched LSD and other chemicals: Room 49 of the Plantation Inn at Lombard and Webster streets, and 261 Green St. in Mill Valley.

People from all walks of life were potential targets. From an internal CIA memo: "The effectiveness of the substances on individuals at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign is of great significance, and testing has been performed on a variety of individuals within these categories," wrote CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick in 1963.

But, as a 1976 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities noted, there was no medical pre-screening. "Paradoxically, greater care seemed to have been taken for the safety of foreign nations against whom LSD was used abroad. In several cases [overseas] medical examinations were performed prior to the use of LSD," the committee reported. "The [domestic] program ... demonstrates a failure of the CIA's leadership to pay adequate attention to the rights of individuals and to provide effective guidance to CIA employees. Though it was known that the testing was dangerous, the lives of subjects were placed in jeopardy and their rights were ignored during the 10 years of testing that followed Dr. Olson's death." Although it was clear that the laws of the United States were being violated, the testing continued.

CIA operatives also admitted to experimenting with LSD themselves. In a 1970 letter to UC Berkeley psychiatry professor Harvey Powelson, White wrote how he "served as a guinea pig from time to time. My personal observation was that the effect of all of these drugs was essentially the same, except for the degree or extent of the effect. THCA was more potent than marihuana [sic] and LSD more potent than THCA. So far as I was concerned, 'clear thinking' was non-existent while under the influence of any of these drugs. I did feel at times I was having a 'mind-expanding' experience but this vanished like a dream immediately after the session."

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Troy Hooper

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