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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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The agency did its best to convince the Olson family that its despondent breadwinner had committed suicide. Ruwet always kept in touch with the family, and the CIA saw to it that Mrs. Olson received her husband’s government pension. But she was unable to forget that in the months before he died, something connected with his work had troubled her husband profoundly, and she refused to believe he would intentionally abandon her or his three children. For a time, that was as far as the story went.

TWO DECADES LATER, after James Schlesinger was named head of the CIA in 1973, he issued orders that all CIA employees were to inform him of any “improper or illegal acts” the agency might have carried out. He must have had no idea how much damning information would pour in. While Nixon fought the Watergate scandal, Schlesinger fielded a spate of reports going back as far as the North Korean and Vietnam conflicts, including the very first schemes of Gottlieb and his loose-cannon squad. In the purge that followed Schlesinger fired at least 250 CIA employees before Nixon extricated him from the morass by appointing him Secretary of Defense. Gottlieb and Helms stayed on.

Schlesinger’s CIA successor, William Colby, was another former OSS man, well aware he had inherited a colossal nightmare. To his credit, he stuck to the job through an unprecedented public outcry until his mysterious death while boating on a Maryland river.

In December 1974, Seymour Hersh of the  New York Times brought the Olson family’s tragedy to public notice, implying that the CIA had run rampant for years. At that point President Ford named Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller head of a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the whole mess, including MK-Ultra. When the Rockefeller Commission brought  its full report back to Congress and the President, included were recommendations for future avoidance of such scandals. Among its findings, the Commission verified that 22 years previously an unnamed civilian unwittingly given LSD by the CIA had plunged from a New York hotel window to his death. The facts were too congruent for the Olsons to ignore. Pressed by Olson’s daughter, Ruwet finally admitted what had happened, or at least gave her the CIA’s doctored version of events.

Outraged, the Olson family went public and sued the U.S. government. They received a personal apology in 1976 from President Gerald Ford and a compensation award of $750,000 from Congress on condition that they never speak publicly of the matter again. By this time Director Colby had revealed enough agency secrets that Richard Helms was convicted of perjury and given a suspended jail term and a $2,000 fine, which his buddies paid because in CIA circles ratting on one’s colleagues “simply wasn’t done.” After Colby’s death George H. W. Bush replaced him to serve in the job for one year. Neither Gottlieb nor the CIA ever admitted any wrongdoing. But no matter how fervently the CIA spooks hoped they’d quashed their dirty little story, there was still more to come.

Forty years after Frank Olson’s death, Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, an international authority on human rights and former classmate of Olson’s son Eric, took up the Olson case and in a New York Times piece raised many troubling questions about the official version of events. As Ignatieff reported, many years after the tragedy Eric Olson had gone to New York and visited the hotel room from which his father was said to have thrown himself to his death. Already suspicious of the official account, young Olson discovered that the room was too small to allow anyone to run at the window, the window sill too high and too obstructed for anyone to go over it with enough force to crash through a closed blind and window. Still in search of a credible explanation, Eric Olson, his brother, and his mother called on both Gottlieb and Lashbrook but got nothing out of either of them.