MKULTRA and the CIA’s War on the Human Mind
[Review of Stephen Kinzer, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019)]
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a fearsome reputation. The author and executor of countless coups and political assassinations, the CIA is notorious for waterboarding, “extraordinary rendition,” regime change, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, financing of guerrilla wars, and many other unsavory activities around the world, including against Americans, even inside the United States.
But “fearsome” does not mean “flawless.” The CIA has failed at least as often as it has succeeded, and sometimes the failures are so flagrant—such as sending thousands of anticommunist guerrilla fighters behind enemy lines in Korea, Eastern Europe, China, and Southeast Asia during the Cold War, where nearly all of them died—that CIA insiders wryly refer to their organization as “Clowns In Action.”
Which is it? Is the CIA a dastardly menace or a hotbed of horrible mistakes? If Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner in Chief, is any indication, the answer is both.
A veteran reporter on foreign conflicts such as those in Rwanda, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Iran, Kinzer is a former New York Times correspondent and, most famously, the author of the 2006 bestseller Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. In his latest effort he brings his analytical skills to bear on perhaps the most disturbing CIA project of them all: MKULTRA, the top-secret, long-running effort to find a method for controlling the human mind.
“History’s most systematic search for techniques of mind control,” Kinzer writes, was a by-product of World War II. At the end of 1942, a University of Wisconsin bacteriologist named Ira Baldwin—“America’s first bio-warrior” and a part-time Quaker preacher—was loaned to Washington (with the blessing of the University of Wisconsin president) in order to set up and run a bioweapons program for the United States military (p. 16). Based out of Camp Detrick in Maryland, the Baldwin lab cranked out bioweapons for possible use against Allied enemies. In one of Baldwin’s bigger projects, shipment of tons of anthrax spores, ordered by Winston Churchill for potential use against the Nazis, was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and almost ready for delivery when the Germans surrendered on May 7, 1945 (p. 19).
For many, even for Quaker preachers, World War II cleared away the last of the psychological hurdles against unleashing bioweapons against an enemy. Kinzer’s book tells the tale of how the targeting of unsuspecting populations was later justified by the bigger war, the Cold War, which followed the demise of the Third Reich.
The ruined Third Reich provided much of the original brainpower for MKULTRA. Immediately after World War II, the CIA—formed out of the Office of War Information in 1945—was faced with a choice. The Germans and the Japanese had been conducting advanced experiments on germ warfare and other forms of biological weaponry. Should the Allies prosecute as war criminals the scientists involved with such projects, or hire them as expert advisors? With the Cold War starting and the Soviets looming as an unpredictable enemy, the CIA, with the tacit approval of the few members of the United States Congress who were allowed to know even the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency, decided to make use of the bioweapon expertise of erstwhile foes in order to counter the new adversary in Moscow.
For example, Kurt Blome, the Nazis’ director of biowarfare research and development whose work had been championed by Heinrich Himmler, was acquitted, by American political fiat, at the Doctors’ Trial in Nuremberg in 1947 and sent to work—as part of Operation Paperclip designed mainly to bring German rocket scientists to the US—at Camp Detrick (pp. 20–24).
It was at Camp Detrick that Blome encountered a rising star in the CIA, Sidney Gottlieb. Gottlieb, a bacteriological specialist who had been a star student of Ira Baldwin’s at Wisconsin, is the main figure in Kinzer’s book. His career is virtually synonymous with MKULTRA. Under the direction of Gottlieb, the CIA’s laboratories at Camp Detrick transitioned from R&D on bioweapons—often using unwitting American subjects, such as in 1950 when a US Navy minesweeper “specially equipped with large aerosol hoses” spent six days spraying the Serratia marcescens bacterium into the San Francisco fog, infecting some eight hundred thousand people (pp. 37–38)—to drugs which could be used for mind control. (MKNAOMI, MKULTRA’s sister CIA project, was also tasked with finding poisons and biotoxins which the CIA and the US government could use in various operations.) Gottlieb provided the big ideas into which to fit Blome’s nefarious knowledge of mass murder by bacillus. Gottlieb became, virtually overnight and with the help of former Nazi doctors, America’s “poisoner in chief.”
The CIA’s mind control program, which was assuming a bigger and bigger importance as fears of Soviet brainwashing grew in the US, was originally called Operation Bluebird and was personally overseen by CIA higher-up All
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