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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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Just after Daddy was transported to Lexington, MK-Ultra suffered what should have been a fatal setback, barely concealed by the agency’s clumsy efforts at secrecy. A Ph.D. biochemist named Frank Olson was one of the scientists assigned to the army Chemical Corps’ Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, working on diseases and toxins that ranged from instantly lethal chemicals to bacteria capable of disabling without killing the targeted person. An anthrax specialist, Olson was actually on the CIA’s payroll, and he and his boss, lt. Col. Vincent Ruwet, were included in a three-day working SOD-CIA retreat at an isolated lodge in western Maryland.

Gottlieb was also present, and in the course of their stay undertook to try out his pet hallucinogen on the unsuspecting group. He laced a bottle of Cointreau with LSD and offered it to the others after the evening meal. When all but two of those present had swallowed their drinks, he told them what he had done—or so he would later claim.

Calamity was the result. While the other four Cointreau trippers became giggly and uninhibited, Olson went completely around the bend. Unable to make sense of what was going on, he couldn’t understand why the others were laughing and believed he was the butt of their jokes. Persistently agitated the next morning, he returned home in what his wife called a highly atypical state and told her he had been ridiculed by his colleagues for a dreadful mistake but refused to give details.

The following day, still deeply disturbed, he reported to work intent on resigning but was persuaded by Ruwet to wait. When his agitation continued and Ruwet called on the CIA for advice, the decision was made to get Olson to New York to see Dr. Harold Abramson, one of the MK-Ultra grant recipients who believed, eccentrically, in alcohol as a useful antidote for a bad acid trip. (Abramson had first come to Gottlieb’s attention when he proposed giving mentally sound patients LSD without their knowledge for “psychotherapeutic purposes.”)

In the role of Olson’s minders, Ruwet and Robert Lashbrook, another CIA man, went along. They made no objections when Dr. Abramson left Olson in the hotel room with a bottle of bourbon and a quantity of barbiturate pills—a combination which, taken in a large enough quantity, can be fatal. The night before Olson was to return to his family for Thanksgiving, he went out of the hotel in a delusional state to wander the streets. He threw away his wallet, tore up all his currency, believing it to be secret orders of some sort, and discarded his government identification. With daylight he, Ruwet and Lashbrook took a plane back to Washington, but once there Olson refused to see his family for fear he might turn violent. The situation was desperate. Ruwet left to allay the Olson family’s concerns, while Lashbrook returned to New York with their pitiably disturbed charge.

When Dr. Abramson saw the psychotic Olson and realized the problem was beyond his competence, he arranged for Olson to enter a Maryland sanitarium the next day, one that was considered secure by the CIA. After Lashbrook checked the two of them into a New York hotel room for the night, Olson phoned his wife to tell her he was better. Lashbrook would later report going to sleep only to awaken in the wee hours just in time to see Olson tear across their tenth-floor room at a run, then crash headlong through the drawn blinds and closed window. The tormented scientist plummeted to the sidewalk below and was found there by the hotel’s night manager, barely alive and mumbling incoherently. An ambulance was called, but he died before anyone could learn who he was or why he’d fallen.

After an in-house inquiry at the CIA, Lashbrook left the agency, while Gottlieb—who was taken to task only mildly—said that the drug had no serious side effects and that Olson’s death was just one of the risks of scientific experiments. He was allowed to continue his MK-Ultra activities for another 19 years.