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How the CIA's LSD Mind-Control Experiments Destroyed My Healthy, High-Functioning Father's Brilliant Mind

Excerpt from Wall's new book "Healing to Hell": A Cold War scheme to find a mind-control drug for use on hostile leaders destroyed many lives.

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Subjects who took it might become extremely anxious, lose contact with reality, and suffer severe mental confusion. They hallucinated and often became paranoid, experiencing acute distortions of time, place, and body image. The experimenters never knew what their subjects’ mood might be—anything from panic to bliss. The drug produced mental states similar to those known to occur in schizophrenia: intense color perceptions, depersonalization, psychic disorganization, and disintegration. The paramount effect was a breakdown in a subject’s character defenses for handling anxiety—bad stuff indeed, and just the kind of thing the CIA was looking for.

In April 1953, as Daddy’s modest Blakely enterprises collapsed, Allen Dulles and his former OSS colleague and now henchman Richard Helms put Helms’ protégé, a clubfooted Ph.D. chemist and former Young Socialist from Caltech named Sidney Gottlieb, in charge of Artichoke, rechristened MK-Ultra, with the specific aim of exploring “covert use of biological and chemical and radiological materials.” The initial MK-Ultra budget was $300,000, by no means small for the time. Eager to see for himself what LSD could do, Gottlieb focused on it, and to his victims’ eternal loss, MK-Ultra was off and running.

In spite of warnings that LSD was known to produce insanity that could last “for periods of 8 to 18 hours and possibly for longer,” the agency’s medical office issued a mind-boggling recommendation: all CIA personnel should be given LSD, across the board. Many agents took it, including the MK-Ultra gang. That fact alone should have raised red flags. How many of them were made crazy themselves? After who knows how many acid trips, would you or I trust ourselves to make wise decisions.

Elated with these beginnings in spite of a few observed “bad trips,” Gottlieb, who would eventually admit to 200 LSD trips of his own, then decided to test his favorite mind-bender on unsuspecting persons in other countries and made multiple trips abroad with a stash of LSD for the purpose. He knew his superiors approved the secret dosing of unwitting people, contending that if a subject knew what he would be given and when, it would affect his response and skew the test.

While Gottlieb and his gang continued their freelance chemical capers, they were beginning to want reputable scientific research to back up their theories. Scientists at NIMH were also interested in learning more about LSD. If any large-scale testing of the drug was to be done, however, money must be found to pay for it. Gottlieb quickly rose to the challenge. From their vast CIA treasure chest he and his MK-Ultra cohort arranged to channel enormous sums of agency money to select consultants at well-known medical or educational institutions, in the guise of grants from two foundations—the Geschickter Fund for medical research and the Josiah Macy Jr., Foundation. A third faked-up conduit, the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, would later come into play.

Although the CIA origins of the money were not made public, recipients were well aware of its true source, because Gottlieb and his  underlings often visited the project sites, and the researchers reported directly to them. The agency cloaked the project in utmost secrecy, knowing very well what a hue and cry would erupt if the America public caught wind of such nefarious goings-on. Secrecy about CIA involvement was definitely preserved at Lexington. Hungry for status and acclaim, the power-drunk Dr. Isbell enhanced his own professional standing by publishing articles about his activities, though taking care never to state that his subjects were federal prisoners.

Irrefutable evidence that Gottlieb understood the need for secrecy was the early agreement he made with his mentor Helms to keep no records of MK-Ultra activities. Before these co-conspirators retired two decades later, they would make strenuous efforts to destroy what few incriminating files did exist. Had they not missed some 130 boxes, we would never know the havoc they wrought.