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

Wednesday, Mar 14 2012
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By all accounts, White enjoyed the undercover work he was doing. Perhaps a little too much. He would write in a 1971 letter to Gottlieb, "Of course I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill and cheat, steal, deceive, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest? Pretty Good Stuff, Brudder!"

Few inside the CIA even knew about MK-ULTRA and its sub-projects. The domestic experiments escaped scrutiny for a decade, until President John F. Kennedy, smarting from the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, forced CIA director Allen Dulles, who first signed off on MK-ULTRA, to resign. The agency's activities in San Francisco were so secret that not even the CIA's new director, John McCone, was informed of them when he took over in 1963. But incoming CIA Inspector General John Earman didn't sugarcoat what he learned. "The concepts involved in manipulating human behavior are found by many people both within and outside the Agency to be distasteful and unethical," he wrote, questioning whether the clandestine activities were even legal. "Public disclosure of some aspects of MKULTRA activity could induce serious adverse reaction in U.S. public opinion, as well as stimulate offensive and defensive action in this field on the part of foreign intelligence services."

Earman noted numerous civilians grew ill from the effects of the psychoactive drugs they were secretly slipped, and it would be embarrassing if doctors were to discover what the government had been doing. He recommended closing the safe houses. Yet high-ranking intelligence officers called for the continuance of Midnight Climax. "While I share your uneasiness and distaste for any program which tends to intrude upon an individual's private and legal prerogatives, I believe it is necessary that the Agency maintain a central role in this activity," wrote Richard Helms, then the CIA's deputy director of plans.

Testing of unwitting individuals was suspended in 1964, at least officially. Still, the CIA safe houses in San Francisco and New York City continued to operate for a year and a half longer. Scrutiny of the program intensified at CIA headquarters in Virginia, and subsequently the Bay Area safe houses shut down in 1965. New York City's operation stopped in 1966. Intelligence officers conceded that the drug-testing exposed the agency to a serious "moral problem."

The fun was over. White retired from law enforcement in 1965 and became the fire marshal at Stinson Beach. He wrote a swashbuckling autobiography titled A Diet of Danger that crowed about his Bureau of Narcotics adventures. It conspicuously left out Operation Midnight Climax. Publishers rejected the book in 1971.

Lawmakers were incredulous when they learned of the CIA's secret plots. But specifics at the time were scant.

Helms, one of MK-ULTRA's original architects, succeeded McCone as CIA director in 1966. Before Helms and Gottlieb resigned in the early 1970s, they ordered all of the project's paperwork destroyed. A massive paper purge occurred in 1973, just as Washington found itself in the throes of the Watergate scandal. In an attempt to clean house, that same year new CIA Director James Schlesinger ordered agency employees to inform him of illegal government activities. That's when he learned of Olson's fatal plunge in New York City, and the acid tests.

It didn't take long before details leaked to Hersh. The investigative journalist's groundbreaking article in the New York Times exposed the CIA's vast illegal domestic surveillance programs. The government had been screening U.S. mail, wiretapping journalists' phones, and plotting assassinations. And, oh yeah, it had also been dosing hundreds of civilians with LSD, as well as significant military populations, in the name of defense. Americans demanded answers.

Donald Rumsfeld, then chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, and Rumsfeld's deputy, Dick Cheney, wanted Hersh prosecuted for revealing government secrets. But Ford didn't heed their advice. He appointed a committee chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to investigate the intelligence improprieties. U.S. Sen. Frank Church also headed a congressional investigation of CIA malfeasance in 1974, and Sen. Edward Kennedy held hearings on MK-ULTRA in the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research.

While most of the CIA's records detailing the top-secret programs were destroyed, bureaucratic bumbling spared a cache of 20,000 documents from the shredder. In 1977, Marks, author of The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which provided him with many redacted versions of the surviving MK-ULTRA records.

Then, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, Gottlieb answered questions before the Senate. To gain "firsthand knowledge," he said, agents "extensively" experimented with LSD on themselves before giving it to the public.

Kennedy tried to put it in perspective. "There is a light side to it, but there is also an enormously serious side," he said. "There are perhaps any number of Americans who are walking around today on the East Coast or West Coast who were given drugs, with all the kinds of physical and psychological damage that can be caused."

CIA Director Adm. Stansfield Turner testified that 44 colleges and universities, 15 research foundations and pharmaceutical companies, 12 hospitals and clinics, and three penal institutions across the country were used for MK-ULTRA research that included LSD, painkillers, and other drugs.

Using a front organization, Gottlieb distributed millions of dollars in drug research grants to Stanford, UC Berkeley, and other institutions, which only later learned the money's source. Stanford acknowledged its faculty received close to $40,000 over eight years from the CIA's secret program. It had hosted several studies on the effects of drugs on interrogations, and also spent money developing miniature lie detectors and other spy equipment.

About The Author

Troy Hooper

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