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

Wednesday, Mar 14 2012
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Lawmakers denounced the CIA's covert domestic activities, but ultimately no disciplinary action was taken. Gottlieb and the others behind the acid experiments were not prosecuted or punished.

But the innocent victims of these programs had to be notified, the Senate subcommittee concluded. Tracking down victims proved difficult, since so little of that data survived the CIA's paper-shredding.

A victim's taskforce was established, but despite estimates of hundreds, maybe thousands of people exposed to the CIA's mind-control program, records show only 14 of them were notified.

Dr. Olson's family sued the government, claiming the scientist's death was not actually connected to the LSD he took. They claimed a government operative pushed him out of the window so he wouldn't divulge information about a classified CIA interrogation program concerning the use of biological weapons in the Korean War. Olson's family ultimately accepted an out-of-court settlement from the U.S. government for $750,000. There have been other lawsuits, including a class-action from alleged victims of the CIA's programs in Canada, and other reparations have been paid.

The Vietnam Veterans of America filed suit in San Francisco federal court in 2009, claiming at least 7,800 soldiers were, without their knowledge, given as many as 400 types of drugs and chemicals, including sarin, amphetamines, barbiturates, mustard gas, and LSD by the Army and CIA. Just last month, the group filed a petition in San Francisco seeking class-action status. The suit does not ask for money but instead seeks to overturn a 1950 Supreme Court decision that effectively insulates the government from liability under the Federal Torts Claims Act. The vets also want to discover the substances and doses they received, and get care for any resulting health conditions.

In spring 1999, Ritchie opened a copy of the San Jose Mercury News and read Gottlieb's obituary. Then it hit him.

"I didn't know that name at all. I'd never heard of him," Ritchie said. "But what caught my eye were LSD and George White. George White was a supervising narcotics officer in 1957 in San Francisco and I knew him. When I read the article, it said he was working with the CIA testing mind-control drugs with the help of drug-addicted prostitutes. I put it together. He was drugging people without their knowledge. I thought, 'My God, how could he have done that to me?'"

Ritchie began his own research into the CIA's drugging activity, and grew convinced the CIA dosed him. Ritchie brought a lawsuit against the United States and its agents, claiming his attempted armed robbery at the bar was set in motion when agents slipped LSD into his drink at the Christmas party.

White's journal puts him in the same place as Ritchie the day the dosing and robbery occurred. An entry in White's leather-bound book for Dec. 20, 1957, reads: "Xmas party Fed bldg Press Room."

Ritchie's complaint leaned heavily on the deposition of Feldman, the former agent under White. Feldman's testimony was at times incriminating, contradictory, and combative. "I didn't do any follow-up, period, because it wasn't a very good thing to go and say 'How do you feel today?' You don't give them a tip. You just back away and let them worry, like this nitwit, Ritchie," Feldman said in a deposition.

A district court ruled in 2005 that Ritchie failed to prove that an LSD-induced psychotic disorder triggered his failed robbery attempt. The judge called it "a troubling case and that if indeed true [Ritchie] has paid a terrible price in the name of national security." Noting that federal agents in San Francisco were doing "things that were reprehensible," the judge concluded "it was not clear by a preponderance of the evidence that Mr. Ritchie was administered LSD. It may be what happened. But we don't operate on hunches." To this day, Ritchie says he is "absolutely shocked" he lost the case.

Now house-bound and suffering from emphysema and other ailments — all of which he attributes to old age — Ritchie isn't bitter about his long, strange trip. He simply chalks it up to the government doing the best it could during difficult times.

"They thought they were helping the country," Ritchie said.

Correction: Due to an editor's error, the image accompanying an earlier version of this story was of 255 Chestnut rather than 225. SF Weekly regrets the error.

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Troy Hooper

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