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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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Frank Olson’s passport indicated several trips to Europe in the summer of 1953, and according to Ignatieff's account, a British journalist  with good reason to know told Eric how during that summer Olson had told a London psychiatrist he was deeply troubled by secret U.S.-British experiments he had witnessed in Germany. The journalist’s guess was that Olson had seen some truth-serum and interrogation experiments that ended in the death of one or more “captured Russian agents and ex-Nazis.” Furthermore, the CIA files turned over to the Olsons by Colby supported Mrs. Olson’s recollection of her husband’s disturbed state of mind that summer and fall, when agency personnel had raised official doubts about Frank Olson’s security clearance.

After Dr. Olson’s death his body had been embalmed, and the CIA told the family the casket must be closed because of the body’s brokenup condition and many facial lacerations caused by window glass. Yet in 1994 when Eric had his father’s body exhumed he found it almost perfectly preserved, with no facial lacerations. George Washington University forensic specialists who examined the remains found evidence of a fist-sized blow to the dead man’s left temple and concluded it could only have occurred before his fall.

On the basis of all he had learned, Eric Olson was convinced that rather than committing suicide, his father had been murdered by the CIA—rendered defenseless by a knockout punch, possibly with the aid of some drug, then thrown from that hotel window. After further investigations led him to believe that the CIA brought in contract killers to do the job, he saw the scenario as a cover-up to keep the troubled scientist from airing his deep anxieties about what the agency was doing. Definitive answers may never be known—suffice it to say that Gottlieb and MK-Ultra destroyed another useful life and forever wrecked another family’s peace.

Back in 1954, while the Olsons mourned their loss and Daddy was released from prison, Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis had succeeded in synthesizing “in tonnage amounts,” giving the CIA a more than ample supply for MK-Ultra and future grant recipients. The army and other military services continued their own mind-control experimentation, with cooperation from other U.S. government agencies including the Food and Drug Administration and the Bureau of Narcotics.

After the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, President Kennedy and his brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy, had agreed that Allen Dulles must be replaced at the CIA. In 1961 John A. McCone was named to the position, while durable Richard Helms was put in charge of Clandestine Services and Gottlieb kept his job running MK-Ultra. Strong objections about the program were raised two years later when, after some substantial digging, the inspector general McCone appointed, John Earman, strongly recommended that MK-Ultra be shut down, declaring that many in the agency viewed its work as “distasteful and unethical.” When McCone put certain elements of the project on hold, Helms bombarded him with demands to continue the unwitting mindcontrol tests. Subsequent agency-funded tests sucked a young professor named Timothy Leary into its web, and the rest of the LSD story, as they say, is history.

By 1966, when Helms was finally promoted to director of the CIA, Gottlieb knew he could breathe easy and go on with the business, as Gordon Thomas would declare in his CIA exposé  Journey Into Madness, of “devising new and better ways to disorient and discredit, to maim and kill.” 

The world was already learning more than it wanted to know about LSD, as a cover story in  Life reported: “a person can become permanently deranged through a single terrifying LSD experience.” Yet another senate subcommittee was convened to address the growing LSD problem among the young, but Robert Kennedy, now a U.S. senator, objected to suggestions that all LSD experimentation be curtailed...amid rumors that his wife Ethel had undergone LSD therapy, which could explain her husband’s resistance, he said, “. . . we have lost sight of the fact that [LSD] can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”