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.
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.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Secrets of MKULTRA." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
30 Jul 2013. Web.
13 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4373>
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. Erowid.org, 1 Jun. 2007. Web. 25 Jul. 2013. <https://www.erowid.org/psychoactives/war/mkultra/mkultra_article1.shtml>
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.