The Secrets of MKULTRA

How true is it that the CIA conducted unethical mind control experiments on unwitting human subjects?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies, History & Pseudohistory

Skeptoid #373
July 30, 2013
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It's one of the most ominous terms in the history of modern governments and intelligence, nearly on a par with the names of Josef Mengele and Pol Pot. For 20 years from 1953 to 1973, the American Central Intelligence Agency funded and conducted tests on human subjects, both with and without their knowledge, in an effort to control minds and personalities for the purpose of espionage. Most notorious for administering the psychedelic drug LSD to people without their knowledge or consent, MKULTRA has since become a cornerstone of conspiracy theorists flaunting it almost gleefully as proof of the government's misdeeds against its own private citizens. And the scary part is that it's completely true.

The short version of the MKULTRA story is that the CIA spent a long time trying to control minds. After performing all kinds of dastardly and unethical testing, they found they couldn't reliably achieve their goals, and terminated the program. That's it. It's important to keep it in context, both what it was and what it wasn't. It's evidence that the government tried something that didn't work. It's also evidence that the government has been proven willing to bend the rules; and by "bending the rules" I mean breaking laws and violating both civil rights and ethics at every level. But with this said, MKULTRA does not constitute evidence that similar projects continue today. Maybe they do, but logically, MKULTRA is not that proof.

So let's look at how this all came about and what exactly happened. The cold war started basically as soon as the smoke cleared from World War II, and the Western bloc and the Communist bloc immediately became suspicious of one another. In 1949, the highest ranking Catholic archbishop in Communist Hungary, Cardinal József Mindszenty, was marched into court where he had been charged with treason for trying to undermine the Communist government. Mindszenty, who was innocent, mechanically confessed in court to a long list of crimes including stealing Hungary's crown jewels, planning to depose the government, start World War III, and then seize power himself. The CIA watched this, noted his strange behavior while making the confessions, and concluded that he must have been brainwashed. They saw American prisoners of war in North Korea make anti-Amerian statements on camera. Clearly, some response was needed to this apparent Communist ability. They contrived to develop mind control techniques.

One such project was called MKULTRA. MK meant the project was run by the CIA's Technical Services Staff, and Ultra was a reference to the highest level of security. But although MKULTRA is the poster child, there were other similar projects. It had spawned from project ARTICHOKE, founded in 1951 to study hypnosis and morphine addiction. There was also MKSEARCH, MKOFTEN, project BLUEBIRD, a whole raft of related programs. The US military, separate from the CIA, also conducted its own research. Project CHATTER, part of the US Navy, ran from 1947 to 1953, when MKULTRA took over.

At the time, both psychology and psychopharmacology were in their infancies. We didn't really know whether the CIA's goals were achievable or not; whether it was or was not possible to exert a finely tuned influence on people's minds. During the cold war's golden era of espionage, this was a major national security question. The CIA had to know whether this was something they could do; because if it was, it was something the KGB could do right back at them. While nuclear physicists on both sides were building bigger and bigger hydrogen bombs, psychologists and chemists were working to fight the cold war on a much subtler front.

The CIA is not a scientific research organization, and so it needed to contract out the vast majority of this work. The CIA set up front groups, such as the Society for the Investigation for Human Ecology, to fund projects at universities and hospitals in such a way that nobody realized the CIA was involved. Some 86 such institutions are known to have received funding as part of MKULTRA. The vast majority of researchers were unaware that their programs were funded by the CIA, and accordingly, did their work as they normally would according to ethical standards of the day. Some researched forms of hypnosis, some did trials on a variety of drugs intended to work as truth serums, some did various psychiatric or psychological studies trying to learn what made people tick and how that tick might be manipulable. In fact, just about every bizarre experiment you might have read about probably was tried to some degree by some MKULTRA funded researcher. Granted the ethical standards of the 1950s and 1960s were not what they are today, but still there was very little intentional harm done by nearly all MKULTRA funded programs. Nevertheless, the exceptions were exceptional indeed.

Research done at McGill University by Dr. Donald Cameron took patients who came in with minor psychiatric complaints and subjected them to outrageous treatments. Some were given electroshock therapy at many times the normal voltage, some were given LSD, some were given other experimental or illegal drugs, all under the license granted by MKULTRA. Many reports state that some patients left with lifelong disabilities.

The Addiction Research Center at the Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, KY was also secretly on the CIA's payroll. Dr. Harris Isbell took patients who came in to seek treatment for drug addiction and gave them massive doses of LSD, heroin, methamphetamine, and psychedelic mushrooms. In one experiment he put seven patients on LSD for 77 days straight.

I could fill a month of episodes giving such brief examples of the MKULTRA projects that are known. The main thing we know is that it didn't work.

Nothing that came out of MKULTRA panned out as very useful from an espionage perspective; in short, the CIA was never able to achieve the type of mind control that it wanted, and so the program was eventually terminated (other related programs from other agencies continued for some time with similar results). Because of the secrecy and ethical violations, the CIA destroyed all the documents, with the exception of a few that have turned up here and there over the years from misplaced archives. What remains has all been declassified, and can now be freely downloaded. From a purely scientific perspective, there's nothing there that isn't old hat to modern psychiatry and psychopharmacology; MKULTRA never learned anything that we don't know now. From an ethical perspective, documents of some cases exist, and some don't. It's probable that we don't know the worst of the ethical violations, and possible that we never will.

So as you can easily imagine, conspiracy theories surrounding MKULTRA are nearly endless. One of the most common pertains to a village in France which experienced an epidemic in 1951. Seven people died and a few hundred were sickened, scores of whom were committed to insane asylums. Some conspiracy theorists insist that it was a test of both aerial spraying of LSD and a foodborne toxin, however the scientific finding — published as early as that same year in the British Medical Journal — is that it was a case of ergot fungus contaminating the food supply. Ergot contamination of rye wheat causes convulsions, insomnia, pain, hallucination, and delirium. These symptoms might last hours or months. Considering that this happened two years before MKULTRA was funded, and that the effects were identical to those expected from the known ergot contamination, no introduction of a conspiracy theory is needed to explain the event.

The other most popular claim concerns Dr. Frank Olson, a microbiologist who worked in MKULTRA and its predecessor programs. He fell from a 13th floor hotel window and died in 1953 after expressing misgivings about MKULTRA, prompting claims that he was murdered by the CIA. In 1975 the CIA revealed that they had indeed spiked Dr. Olson's drink with LSD nine days before his death, then sent him to New York for psychiatric treatment. What happened in that hotel room remains a mystery to this day. The Olson family accepted a settlement offer in 1975, but tried to have the case reopened following a 1993 exhumation and autopsy that revealed blunt force trauma alleged to be consistent with by-the-book CIA assassination techniques. In 2012 the family sued the CIA seeking additional damages, but the court dismissed the suit in 2013 as the family had already settled.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Most of the rest of the MKULTRA conspiracy theories consist of vague assertions that similar unethical research continues and that the CIA still experiments on innocent subjects. At some level, they almost certainly do. But logic dictates that one cannot take a specific conspiracy claim — for example, that Denver International Airport is secretly set up to be an extermination camp for American citizens — and cite MKULTRA as evidence. It is not evidence of that. I'll also hear from 9/11 conspiracy theorists who cite MKULTRA as evidence that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. No, it's not evidence of that either. Such comparisons are logical non-sequiturs. Saying "MKULTRA happened, therefore Denver Airport is an extermination camp" is saying "A, therefore B," and this is logic that does not hold up. Real as MKULTRA was, and real as other still-unknown CIA projects might be, one does not prove the other.

It was 1948 when Communist Hungary banned the Church, and Cardinal Mindszenty — as an outspoken critic of Communism — feared that he was likely to be arrested. He wrote that he had not conspired against the government, and said that if he later made any confessions to the contrary, that they would be the result only of coercion. After his arrest and conviction, he spent about 8 years in prison until being freed as a result of the Hungarian Revolution, at which point he was finally able to reveal the details of how and why he had made his bogus confessions in court. His confessions were not the result of psychoactive drugs, hypnotism, or any other type of mind control. He'd simply been beaten with rubber truncheons until he agreed to confess.

The lesson learned from a skeptical study of MKULTRA is that this was experimental research done within the context of what we knew in the 1950s and 1960s. We have 50 years of knowledge built up since then, and we now know that just about everything they tried wouldn't have worked. The human brain is just a little too complex for the type of precise control the CIA had hoped for. The best type of mind control, as Cardinal Mindszenty discovered, is the good old rubber truncheon.

Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

CIA. Brainwashing from a Psychological Viewpoint. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1956. 45.

Gabbai, Lisbonne, Pourquier. "Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit." British Medical Journal. 15 Sep. 1951, Volume 2, Number 4732: 650-651.

Lux. "MKULTRA: Psychedelic Mind Control and Its Legacy." The Vaults of Erowid., 1 Jun. 2007. Web. 25 Jul. 2013. <>

Marks, J. The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. New York: Times Books, 1979. 203.

Select Committee on Intelligence, and Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources. Project MKULTRA: The CIA's Program of Research in Behavioral Modification. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1977.

Streatfeild, D. Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Secrets of MKULTRA." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 30 Jul 2013. Web. 30 Aug 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 153 comments


The appearance of conspiracy theories being treated individually on and by Skeptoid is only illusionary.

There are articles where the term "conspiracy theory" and conspiracy theorists themselves take up over half the contents of said articles, and the results are always pretty much the same i.e. the downcrying of any conspiracy theory to have been proven, and illogical observations of what conspiracy theorists and their assertions are supposed to be, by Skeptoid's own constructed rules.

An example of such a constructed rule is Skeptoid's assertion that it must be about some event in the future. This has already been proven erroneous in at least one case, as some conspiracy theories by their proponents were about events that lay in the past at the time the CT was doing the rounds.

In addition, Skeptoid's Rules 1 & 2 in 4416# are so tight that practically no conspiracy theory could ever be proven correct under such definitions. Not only are those definitions in fact out of order in the real world re #1, they are patently wrong in #2.

Because Skeptoid maintains this unassailable position re its own constructed definitions of what a conspiracy theory actually is, (despite being proven wrong on occasion), the result of Skeptoid's treatment of conspiracy theories is the virtual lumping together of all conspiracy theories into one basket, as I said.

Re Mark, I don't understand your comment. I'm sure you wouldn't be saying that if you were a victim of MKUlta.

Macky, Auckland
October 2, 2014 9:32pm

I saw a documentary that reported one of the hotel staff was listening on an extension and heard two CIA operatives confirming they'd dealt with Olsen. I'm not trying to imply that that's true, I'd just like to hear that particular myth get the Skeptoid treatment.

C.K. Nash, London
October 30, 2014 11:37am

Its amazing how ex-CIA operatives have publicly admitted to controlling the manufacture, importation, and distribution of heroin; murdering leaders of countries as well as corrupting world leaders; and working on MK/ULTRA in recent years yet you are saying that its all BS and the CIA doesn't do that kind of thing and they aren't capable. So who to believe, the one's admitting they are guilty of it or outsiders that say no it can't be?

Barney deDinosore, Remote Island
January 19, 2015 3:10am

The CIA are nothing but thugs. They do not answer to any democratic process, they indulge in criminal actions that would land any other thug in jail for a long time, or worse.

They are not there to protect the ordinary citizen from terrorism and other half-imagined enemies of "freedom and democracy".

They are there to engineer and manipulate and overthrow democratically elected countries who wanted to be self-governing, and the CIA helped to install vicious fascist-style dictatorships that were more friendly to American corporate interests.

Here's a list here of such activity

In addition, the CIA has preyed on its own citizens, and took off right where the Nazi's left off after WW2.

The CIA is nothing less than the enforcement wing of the Powers That Be, a gang of lawless thugs engaged in all the dirty tricks, torture, and criminal activity there is a name for.

They are a disgrace to any legitimate democratic process, and although they are certainly not alone in the world, the BS that America is a free and democratic country along with the other members of the five eyes group, NZ included, is nothing but a façade, and is used as an excuse for more war and pillaging of other countries worldwide, and of course the money that is generated by said wars for the benefit of as few.

Macky, Auckland
March 5, 2015 4:54pm

If you ever want to speak of a victim of this. I now believe what I thought was true to be an implanted memory or just plain crazy. It started back in the mid to late 90's in Chicago, Illinois. =-I'm not really scared anymore because when they decide to attempt another "look like suicide" death, they will be releasing me from the pain and suffering they've caused. I can give you detailed information on what they have been doing for a decade, how they planned and waited years to amp up the treatment, and that they made sure I was isolated in the end so there were no witnesses to my problems. If you are interested and want to take me seriously, please get a hold of me.

GS or SG, Illinois for a little while longer
March 11, 2015 8:41am

Kennedy wanted to get rid of the CIA, rightly so in my opinion.

He brought pressure for Allan Dulles, the head of the CIA, to resign.
Dulles turned up on the Warren Commission investigating Kennedy's assassination.

The CIA (the USA, in effect) under men like Dulles went straight ahead and quashed democracy and promoted fascist dictatorships all over the world from 1947 onwards. Drug and arms running, assassination, undermining of democratically elected country's leaders, torture, the widespread abuse of American citizens and those of other countries, unethical and sometimes fatal experiments on citizens of the home country, every dirty stinking trick in the book, the CIA is a disgrace to any right-thinking peaceful democratic citizen in the world.

MKUltra was just one of many outrages against helpless and unwitting citizens reminiscent of NAZI Germany, many of whose WW2 war criminals were gathered up under Operation Paperclip because the CIA found them useful to its agenda.

Macky, Auckland
April 4, 2015 4:15pm

as reported in the canadian press, the wfe of a member of the canadian parliament had been :treated" by dr david cameron. she had permanent problems with memory and concenyration afterwards. cameron died in a mountain climbing accident... although there is a corny movie based on the idea of murdering a spy with such an "accident", its implausible in real life... and cameron apparently never rebelled.

Daniel Gautreau, wainfleet ontario
June 30, 2015 11:30am

Our worldwide history is full of such torture and insidious manipulations. It is not just a CIA thing, but a human and Statist thing - it falls under the general category of what has been termed the Military-Industrial (Corporate) Complex (Matrix). As long as humans are what they are and do what they do, it will live on.

Steve Erdmann, St. Louis, Missouri 63111
June 30, 2015 5:11pm

The problem is much larger than the CIA but is part of insidious human nature that goes back through worldwide history. I am amazed that Skeptoid acknowledges this type of conspiracy, as they have fought against mentioning it in the past. It would appear to be all part of the Industrial/Military (Corporate) Complex (matrix).

Steve Erdmann, St. Louis, Missouri 63111
June 30, 2015 5:17pm

Skeptoid asserts :-

"After performing all kinds of dastardly and unethical testing, they found they couldn't reliably achieve their goals, and terminated the program."
"It's evidence that the government tried something that didn't work."
"The main thing we know is that it didn't work."

Statements by Skeptoid that are utterly and absolutely unsupportable by evidence, and any standard of critical analysis.

1) Only a part of MKUltra is known by the public. The rest was successfully destroyed on the orders of Richard Helms.

2) The complete range of MKUltra experiments re universities, front companies, institutes on the payroll of the CIA, individual criminal activities such as the spiking of drinks etc will never be known. Unless Skeptoid has access to every one of those "tests" results, there is no way that Skeptoid can assert that "nothing came of it".

3) Unless Skeptoid is in receipt of every test result, then how can there be any assertion that there is no successful test lurking in some backroom laboratory file somewhere.

4) While MKUltra does not provide proof that such despicable experiments are continuing, the sheer time span and range of MKUltra, and the fact that it was only one of such Gestapo-style abuses of citizens of the home country, should engender the greatest suspicion of the CIA and related "security" organizations.

After all, they may well have found some success in amongst it all, unknown to the public, and are continuing with it as we speak.

Macky, Auckland
June 30, 2015 8:48pm

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