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Conspiracies & Crap: Project MKUltra describes the Cold War as a bitter battle that took place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Beginning right on the heels of World World II, this struggle would continue from 1947 all the way up until 1991, though no fighting ever actually broke out. One word to describe the American public during the height of the conflict was paranoid. Communist spies were an everyday concern for the government as well as atomic bombs, and the brainwashing techniques of the Soviets. The latter concern was the driving force behind Project MKUltra. As the Soviet Union geared up to take over the world with its communist agenda, the U.S. was focused on containing the issue and preventing the spread of the gangrenous ideology. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, the counter-culture was erupting across the country. In the shadows of that culture the CIA was up to something sinister.

All That's Interesting states that the U.S. government became preoccupied with the Soviet's technological advancements. They were afraid that they were falling behind the enemy in interrogation techniques. It was on April 13, 1953 that Project MKUltra was approved by then CIA director, Allan Dulles. This operation was highly covert. So much so that many in the highest positions of government had no knowledge of its existence, or the existence man overseeing it all. In all 162 experiments took place all over the U.S. and Canada. These experiments involved the use of psychedelic drugs, paralytics, hypnosis, and electroshock therapy. Many came away from these studies with debilitating, life-long effects that they never received any kind of compensation for.

The bulk of the experiments took place between 1953 and 1964, and the agency kept plenty busy in that time. There's no way of knowing how many poor souls were subjected to experimentation, but a few notable names have been leaked in the surviving documents on the ultra-classified project. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was inspired by the experiments he underwent when writing his book. He went on to promote LSD, hailing his experience as a positive one. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter was also a test subject, as well as notorious crime boss, James "Whitey" Bulger.

It was under the direction of agency chemist Sidney Gottlieb that the studies with LSD, as well as other mind-altering drugs, began. Within the most covert groups in the American government, Gottlieb was known as the "Black Sorcerer." With such a reputation, he likely struck fear into many both inside and outside of these circles. He believed that the mind-altering effects of certain drugs could be harnessed for the benefit of the government in their standoff with the Soviets. Enemies could be psychologically tortured, or even brainwashed with the right substance. With the CIA funding his experimentation, Gottlieb began hacking away at the delicate mental frames of many American and Canadian citizens.

Not one to limit himself, the dangerously curious chemist also tested the effects of mescaline, heroin, barbiturates, methamphetamine, opioids, THC, MDMA (ecstasy), psilocybin ("magic mushrooms"), and the synthetic government-created super hallucinogen known as BZ. His initial focus had been truth serum. When this proved difficult to accomplish, he shifted his focus to mind-control. He realized that in order to control a person's mind, it would first have to be wiped clean. Then an entirely new mind could be inserted into the void. Gottlieb was quoted by All That's Interesting as saying that the experiments had tested how drugs may "enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture, and coercion." They also produced the effects of "amnesia, shock, and confusion."

A 1955 declassified document stated that MKUltra had been interested in "materials which will cause the victim to age faster/slower in maturity." They had also researched "substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public." A favorite experiment of Gottlieb's involved administering two drugs with opposite effects to the same person. Barbiturates were given alongside amphetamines just to see what would happen as the subjects suffered severely. Those administered large quantities of alcohol would also be dosed with LSD to gauge their physical and mental reactions.

Due to the extremely dubious ethics of the project, it was conducted in the utmost secrecy. For the sake of keeping the shady operation under wraps the numerous experiments were conducted in multiple cities between the U.S. and Canada. College campuses, prisons, and hospitals, particularly those housing the mentally ill, were the perfect places to carry out such atrocities. A total of 185 researchers were involved in the project, many of which had no idea their work was meant for the CIA. Only a fraction of the countless guinea pigs actually knew that they were participating in an experiment. Many were dosed with mind-altering substances without their knowledge or consent.

Hypnosis was also used in experimentation to create fear in subjects so they could be exploited for information. Those under hypnosis were given polygraph examinations to see what kind of results they would produce. They had an interest in the implications of hypnosis for memory loss.

Electroconvulsive therapy and aural stimulation were also experimented with, leading to ghastly results. Experimenter Donald Cameron was known to drug subjects while repeatedly playing tapes of noises or suggestions. These tapes would play as the subjects lay in a comatose state for long periods of time. The hope had been to reprogram the mind by erasing memories, thus correcting schizophrenia. These dangerous and unethical experiments resulted in participants being left comatose for months at a time. These victims suffered from amnesia and incontinence for the rest of their lives afterward. The same man that performed these experiments would become the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association and the president of the American and Canadian psychiatric associations.

Noted animal behaviorist John C. Lilly had unwittingly become involved in the classified project when he created the first sensory deprivation flotation tank. His ingenious innovation was brought to life for his research in human communication with dolphins. He had no way of knowing that his tank would be commissioned by MKUltra scientists for their unscrupulous work on mind-control. Researchers wanted to create a sensory-free environment so participants could experience their LSD trips without any kind of outside stimuli.

Though there were many studies conducted on unknowing subjects, there were also willing participants. Gottlieb was quite honest about the fact that they targeted those who were unable to fight back. Their ideal test subjects were drug-addicted prisoners, sex workers, mental patients, and terminal cancer patients. Even mentally disabled children were not safe from Gottlieb's monstrous experimentation. While some who were experimented on were volunteers or paid students, others were addicts bribed with the promises of more drugs in exchange for their participation. There were even CIA operatives that willingly signed up to be studied. There were other agents that were tested without their knowledge or consent, though.

The range of abuses faced by those who either participated or who were unknowingly studied are vast and disturbing. A mental patient in Kentucky was dosed with LSD every single day for 174 straight days. Whitey Bulger said that he was monitored by doctors while under the influence of acid. The doctors observing him would also ask such questions as "Would you ever kill anyone?" He said that it was his participation in MKUltra that led to his brutal and violent life of crime.

It's thought that Unabomber Ted Kaczynski may have been a victim of the project while attending Harvard in the 1960s. Charles Manson is another thought to have been experimented on during one of his many stints in prison. Tom O'Neill, author of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, makes the claim that there were those within his circle connected to the CIA. He also points to the way in which he kept his family members drugged on LSD and belladonna, much the way he would've been if studied.

With a desire to see the drug's effects in "normal" settings, Gottlieb started dosing CIA officials without warning and observing them. Army scientist Dr. Frank Olsen suffered debilitating depression after being experimented on during the project's infancy. This led him to jump from the thirteenth floor window of his hotel room. Even after his death these kinds of studies continued for more than a decade. His family was offered a settlement of $1,250,000, but that amount was reduced to $750,000. They also received the hollow apologies of President Ford along with their reduced settlement in 1975. This meant little to a family that not only had to grieve the loss of a loved one, but reconcile the misdeeds of their government as well.

The long-term effects of the CIA's nightmarish experiments were widely varied, each side-effect worse than the previous. These went largely unreported and untreated by the victims. Depression, paralysis, withdrawal, confusion, disorientation, pain, insomnia, schizophrenic-like mental-states, and anterograde and retrograde amnesia were the kinds of ramifications suffered by the victims.

In the wake of Dr. Olsen's death, rather than rein in their horrific research, they decided to double down with a sub-project. In 1954, Sidney Gottlieb established Operation Midnight Climax. This was the tongue-in-cheek name of the CIA's most shocking study ever performed. The operation took place in San Francisco and Marin County, California as well as New York City. The plan was based on interrogation methods researched during Project Artichoke. The fine line drawn in the sand between Project Artichoke and MKUltra was that permission had been granted to test drugs on unknowing citizens during Artichoke. No such permission was given to Gottlieb this time, but that didn't stop him. With little oversight in an atmosphere that demanded it, it didn't take long for the operation to devolve into an all-out party.

CIA safehouses were set up in San Francisco, Marin County, and New York City. Government-employed prostitutes would lure men back to these safehouses for drug experiments. None of these men signed on or bargained for anything more than a run-in sexual encounter. Instead they were dosed with LSD while CIA operatives observed the effects through a two-way mirror. Recording devices were disguised throughout these safehouses as electrical outlets. Operatives would sip cocktails behind two-way mirrors as they watched men descend into an altered state of mind. These unwitting test subjects would be dosed with an array of drugs, LSD being just one.

The prostitutes working on the CIA's payroll had a larger role in the project than just luring victims to their psychological demise. These women were also instructed in something that Wikipedia termed as "post-coital questioning." Their next job after drawing these men into their honey trap was to see if they could be convinced to give up vital information.

Some of the victims of Operation Midnight Climax were fed large amounts of drugs before being subjected to subliminal messages that were meant to induce them into illegal acts. Such crimes as robbery, assault, and even assassination weren't off the table when subjects were coerced by the CIA and their arsenal of drugs. When it came to the highly secretive project there were no boundaries. Not a single line drawn for these researchers to see how far they'd gone. With such limited oversight and a mad scientist at the helm, MKUltra and its sub-project was nothing more than a danger to the public at large.

With no one watching over the operatives or their actions, agents and researchers began having entirely too much fun with the women, drugs, and alcohol at their disposal. Not only were they preparing and sipping cocktails as they observed their test subjects, they began partaking in the drugs and having sex with the prostitutes as well. A regular day on the job on Operation Midnight Climax was nothing short of a jamboree of sex, hallucinogens, and overflowing drinks.

On October 15, 1978, Wilmington News Journal reported "the spy agency purchased two pounds of Yohimbine Dr. Robert V. Lashbrook, the chief aide to Sidney Gottlieb." Wikipedia quotes this article, stating that Lashbrook's role in the project was to "monitor and approve materials for Operation Midnight Climax." It was just one more alarming detail to emerge from the scant leftover documents concerning the operation.

The sub-project was expanded from private safehouses into public venues before it was finally shut down. CIA operatives would slyly dose citizens in bars, restaurants, and out on beaches with mind-altering substances. With all of this taking place during the boom of the counter-culture, one has to wonder how much MKUltra and Midnight Climax influenced the scene. Ken Kesey attributed his role in the San Francisco Bay Area psychedelic scene directly to his participation in the study. Just as they had with its mother project, agents volunteered to take the drugs themselves for experimentation during Midnight Climax.

In 1963, nine years after the sub-project was started, the safehouses in which the experiments were conducted were scaled back dramatically. This was thanks to a report submitted by CIA Inspector General John Earman suggesting that the facilities be closed down altogether. By 1965, the San Francisco safehouses had been closed, with the ones in New York City closely following in 1966. Though Operation Midnight Climax officially ended, the CIA and Gottlieb were far from finished with Project MKUltra.

Senate investigators had been told that the purpose of these experiments had been to study mind-control as well as sexual behavior. They also intended on learning more about brainwashing techniques in order to better protect field operatives. Their other, more disturbing purpose had been to identify drugs that could incapacitate entire buildings full of people if introduced to their food. Something that could create a sense of "confusion-anxiety-fear" in individuals as well as headaches and earaches. They were also studying drugs that could have the effect of amnesia on both foreign spies and retiring CIA agents. In an experiment pulled straight from a nightmare, the CIA even studied the effects of isolation while under the influence of LSD. Subjects were left for months with little food, water, or human contact after being dosed.

The CIA had been prohibited from spying against American citizens by President Truman in 1947. This had been borne from the fears of political abuse. The actions of researchers as well as agents during the covert project violated this order directly. Developing from this abhorrent study was extensive research into sexual blackmail, surveillance technology, and the possible use of mind-altering substances in field operations. Those administering the experiments were told that what they were doing was for the good of the country as well as those fighting to protect its citizens. Though there are many that still believe it was nothing more than a legal exercise in torture, there are those under the belief that this research was conducted for the good of national security.

Fast forward to 1973. The Watergate scandal had shocked, enraged, and captivated the nation. It was at this time that then CIA director Richard Helms ordered all files on MKUltra destroyed out of his fear that all government agencies would be investigated in the aftermath. The last thing he wanted was for information on such a controversial and unethical project to be leaked to the public. Just a year later, in 1974, New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh would blow the lid off the operation when he published his article exposing the CIA's illegal spying and experimentation on American citizens. It was his story that started it all. The unraveling of the CIA's most top-secret project. By the spring of 1977, the full scale of Project MKUltra had been brought to light.

A wide range survey of the CIA's Technical Services Division in 1977 shed a bright light on the shadowy operation. President Gerald R. Ford commissioned an investigation into the agency's activities in 1975, hoping to clear up conspiracy theories floating around about them. Seymour Hersh's article had grabbed the attention of the nation and left everyone with questions. While the president figured his investigation would set the public at ease, he couldn't have been more wrong. Instead the investigation managed to turn up 8000 documents pertaining to the project that had not been destroyed. They were located inside of a financial records building and then released publicly under a Freedom of Information Act request. The shocking documents weren't the only thing to come from this probe. The Church Committee of the U.S. Congress and the Rockefeller Commission also rose from this investigation.

The surviving documents being released to the public launched a series of hearings on the ethics of the project later in 1975. It didn't take long for participants to start filing lawsuits against the CIA and the federal government. All of these suits were in regards to informed consent laws. It wasn't until 1992 that 77 participants were finally rewarded with settlements. Countless many were denied the same compensation due to their difficulty in proving that they had been experimented on. The lawsuits weren't only pouring into the American courts, but the Canadian courts as well. Families of a group of participants filed a class-action suit against the provincial and federal governments of Canada for the experiments performed by Dr. Cameron in the 60s.

The government has not denied that the project ever took place, but what actually happened during the seedy, clandestine operation has never been fully disclosed. Though we may think we know the full scope of the study, we only know what has been released to the public. If 8000 documents managed to survive destruction, how many more were shredded? It's been admitted that these immoral experiments took place at 80 different institutions and normally on unwitting subjects. Due to continued secrecy around the project, the destruction of records, and the ever-changing code names, conspiracy theorists believe the experiments continue to this day. Most discussion heard on the subject today normally comes from conspiracy theorists that wonder about this very thing.

This topic makes for a fascinating one for so many reasons. There are many questions one could ask about the project and the time in which it took place, and how they are connected to one another. It seemed as though the paranoid culture during the height of the Cold War fueled the study as much as the study may have fueled the psychedelic scene that exploded into the counter-culture.

Regardless of whatever influence it may or may not have had on the culture of the swinging 60s, it has definitely influenced pop culture for decades. Project MKUltra has inspired many writers and creators since the unveiling of its existence. Such movies and shows as The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Jason Bourne series, and Stranger Things have been inspired by the events of the study. Wikipedia states that Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War both feature characters subjected to MKUltra experimentation. In 2022 the film MK Ultra was released, based on the top secret project. It follows a psychologist named Anson Mount as he delves into the conspiracy of CIA mind-control experiments. Such television series as The Sleep Room, Bones, and Wormwood have also referenced MKUltra.

Considering the fact that this just sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie it's no wonder the project continues to inspire writers. One can hardly believe that these disgusting experiments ever took place, but they did. Unbelievable as it is this is just one part of America's long and sordid history. It's a true testament to what paranoia can do when allowed to run rampantly throughout the upper tiers of government. It's also a hard and shocking lesson of what our own government is quite capable of.

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