what i'm reading: poisoner in chief: sidney gottlieb and the cia search for mind control -- plus a few thoughts on conspiracy theories

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction. It is impeccably researched -- nearly every page yields another revelation -- but written in a clear, accessible style, a true page-turner. The story it unfolds is utterly fascinating. It is also horrifying, nauseating, and nightmarish. If it were fiction, you would never believe it. 

You might know something about MK-ULTRA and the secret histories of the CIA. 

Perhaps you've heard of Operation Paperclip, through which the United States rescued Nazi war criminals, gave them new identities and cushy jobs in NASA, IBM, and elsewhere. The excellent series "Hunters" on Prime introduced many to Paperclip.

You may be aware of Frank Olson, a CIA employee who was unknowingly dosed with LSD, which led directly to his death. Most recently, Errol Morris' "Wormwood" deals with this, as have many "60 Minutes"-style investigations. 

I knew these general outlines. That turned out to be the proverbial tip of a very large and hideously evil iceberg.

From the early 1950s to at least the mid-1970s, a tiny group of men within the CIA, led by Gottlieb, conducted research into biological and chemical weapons, experimenting on human subjects who lives were considered expendable. 

Without informed consent from their subjects, and usually without the subjects' knowledge at all, these CIA men tortured people (and to a lesser extent, animals) by feeding them LSD and applying other techniques of psychological torture. This went on for decades and involved thousands of vulnerable people -- drug users, prison inmates, psychiatric patients. Gottlieb also invented deadly new poisons and ways to secretly administer them, with the goal of assassinating foreign leaders. The program was known as MK-ULTRA.

As one of these pseudo-scientists later admitted, in MK-ULTRA the phrase "unwitting subjects" was a redundancy. At best the subjects were coerced. In one long-running and horrific episode, prisoners in a federal penitentiary were fed LSD daily for 15 months. Their participation was secured with the promise of heroin -- near-constant LSD use in exchange for a fix. Other victims of MK-ULTRA were psychiatric patients who believed they were accessing legitimate mental health treatment. Almost every victim was left damaged. Many lives were destroyed. Many people died.

Dosing unsuspecting citizens with LSD was only part of the fun. Gottlieb developed untraceable poisons that would cause death days after ingestion, so as to avert suspicion. The CIA had planned to use one of these poisons to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the elected prime minister of newly-independent Democratic Republic of Congo -- but Belgium assassinated Lumumba before the CIA plans could be carried out. Gottlieb created poison-laced cigars for the purpose of assassinating Fidel Castro, but the cigars never made it to Castro's compound.

The MK-ULTRA crew released clouds of gas into the fog over the San Francisco Bay -- rehearsal for an anthrax attack that might one day be unleashed on another country. They worked with a violent, drug-addicted organized-crime boss, who procured sex workers, to observe (through a one-way mirror) the effects of LSD on sex. They performed thousands of dangerous, useless drug experiments, often on the most vulnerable people.

The men of MK-ULTRA -- and the predecessor operations, called Artichoke and Bluebird --  operated with absolute carte blanche and with zero oversight. They spent whatever they wanted, to do whatever they wanted. 

There was one singular justification for all these actions: the fear of Communism. During the height of the Cold War, these CIA men believed that the Soviet Union had unlocked the secrets of mind control, and that this asymmetrical knowledge was a dire threat to the US. To them, this torture masquerading as scientific experiments was vital to national security -- indeed, to national survival. 

There was absolutely no evidence that the Soviets were doing anything like this -- and none has ever been discovered. The beliefs of Gottlieb and his men were based on fiction and fear, which mushroomed into elaborate fantasies. And those fevered fantasies were used as justification for whatever schemes they dreamed up.

No one in MK-ULTRA was ever punished. Indeed, many were honoured and celebrated and enjoyed great privilege. Gottlieb later fancied himself a persecuted victim.

One often hears that some heinous practice must be understood in context of the times. Domestic violence. Slavery. Child labour. It was a different time! You have to understand! We didn't know it was wrong! I call bullshit. Of course the men of MK-ULTRA knew what they were doing was wrong, thus the need for extreme secrecy. In declassified documents, MK-ULTRA insiders note that secrecy was essential, because their actions might be received badly by the media and the public. Yeah.

Kinzer is a brilliant writer, who creates gripping nonfiction. I've read his book Overthrow, which tells stories of US-led "regime change" from Hawaii to Iraq, and I'm interested in several other of his titles. Poisoner in Chief is a triumph of research. Gottlieb destroyed his MK-ULTRA files -- itself a federal crime -- but for indefatigable researchers, traces remain. Kinzer steers clear of all woo-woo -- unlike Gottlieb, whose experiments included the use of magic tricks, psychics, and post-hypnotic suggestions, "Manchurian Candidate"-style.

Kinzer concludes the book with a moral and ethical reckoning of Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA, and its toxic legacy. In its stated goals -- mind control -- MK-ULTRA was a failure. Gottlieb discovered that a mind could be destroyed, but it could not be replaced. In another, terrible sense, MK-ULTRA was a great "success": the techniques developed through this program became torture protocols employed by the US in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Guantanamo Bay. 

Kinzer makes it very clear: there is a direct chain of events and rationalization from the war criminals like Kurt Blome and Shiro Ishii (see below), through Sidney Gottlieb, all the way to Abu Ghraib. There are now laws mandating government oversight of the CIA, but those nominal provisions can always be trumped by the magic words: national security

Poisoner in Chief is also a biography of Gottlieb, an unusual man who chose an extremely unusual life. The child of Holocaust survivors, raised in an Orthodox Jewish household in the Bronx, Gottlieb struggled with a club foot and a severe stutter. He never fit in with the CIA brand of starched shirts and WASP pedigrees. For many decades he lived what would later be called "off the grid," embracing a simple life that included raising goats, meditating, and folk dancing. All while dreaming up new ways to surreptitiously test LSD on vulnerable people.

Content warnings galore

Many episodes in this book are difficult to read and to think about. 

The early chapters of Poisoner In Chief document biological, medical, and chemical war crimes, as context for what would come next. Naturally I am aware of Nazi human experimentation. However, I had never heard of Shiro Ishii, a sadistic Japanese scientist who led the torture and slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese people in the remote region of Mongolia. Kinzer gives a brief warning before describing in two concise paragraphs the most heinous human experimentation and torture I've ever read about. 

The US helped most of these war criminals either set up shop in the US or escape to South America.

A few thoughts on conspiracy theories

Reading this book brought to mind many thoughts about the use and misuse of the words "conspiracy theory".

For decades, the CIA conducted secret mind-control experiments involving feeding LSD to hundreds of unsuspecting American citizens. If you didn't know this was true, would you believe it? It certainly sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory.

I've written about this before: "conspiracy theory" has become an elastic label used to discredit nearly anything that seems outlandish and improbable -- and anything that questions an official version of events. I am most interested in this in the context of the terrorist attacks of September 11.

To be sure, there are many wacky ideas that are pure bunk. But read this book. Then tell me, is hiring a few fanatics to fly planes into buildings -- or to look the other way while those plans were made -- so much worse than what was done through Bluebird, Artichoke and MK-ULTRA?

September 11 was a much greater public spectacle, and that spectacle was used to justify untold horrors and abuses, both within the US and around the world. MK-ULTRA was conducted literally and figuratively behind closed doors. The latter is a proven fact. People who question the former are ridiculed as "truthers" and ignored. (A bit of Orwellian irony: the word truth as a pejorative.) 

The most common response to the 9/11 truth movement -- now thoroughly discredited for the  mainstream -- is summed up by this statement: "They wouldn't do that"

"They" have spiked breakfast cereal in orphanages with radioactive material. "They" have released clouds of gas into the fog over San Francisco. "They" maintain secret sites around the globe where people are tortured, and their bodies disposed of. "They" have kidnapped and assassinated elected leaders and replaced them with governments more sympathetic to US business interests. "They" have done all this and much more.

Does it mean that every government theory, no matter how far-fetched, is true? Of course not!

Does this mean that all or most US elected officials are involved in such dastardly doings? Of course not! 

But do small, secret groups within the government organize shocking and grievous events? They do. 

And when official stories, seen in context, make no sense, should they be questioned and examined? 

Since the journalist Seymour Hersh first revealed MK-ULTRA in 1974, there is now supposedly more federal oversight of the CIA. But the same imperatives that justified the earlier secrecy -- whether genuine, invented, believed, or some combination of those -- has not gone away. Then it was the fear of Communism. Now it is the fear of terrorism. 

On the face of it, saying that some people within the US government had knowledge of the attacks of September 11 before they occurred, and that people deep within some faction of the CIA were involved in the planning of the attacks (or paid the people who did the planning) seems bizarre and crazy. But once one confronts the mountains of evidence with an open mind, and sees the massive inconsistencies and elisions in the several official stories, it seems anything but. They wouldn't do that is not much of an argument.

Victims of MK-ULTRA, such as Frank Olson's family and James "Whitey" Bulger, were disparaged and ridiculed. But they were right. 

I wrote about this in-depth here: two words, part one, two words, part two. (This is dated one month before all the comments are wiped out!) 

You also may be interested in this wmtc series "a 9/11 discussion". (Two notes: former screen names L-girl and redsock have been changed to "laura k" and "allan". And the comment discussion here was amazing... and is now gone.)

A quote from the above:
To me, at this point in history, knowing all that we do, to say, "Sure they did this, and this, and this, and this (on and on on), but there's no way they would do that" -- and in saying so deny (or refuse to credit) the mountains of very well founded suspicions and/or evidence, instead choosing to believe that thousands of coincidences all took place at the same time -- and do you know that even the official govt version of 9/11 has changed several times? -- is beyond naive.

9/11 is the singular event from which their entire agenda has flowed and upon which it has been justified -- and by which hundreds of millions of dollars of profit are being reaped. For that reason alone -- not to mention justice for the victims and survivors -- it deserves particular and impartial scrutiny. But it hasn't gotten that. The govt has done everything in its power to prevent impartial parties from scrutinizing it.

And good people of all stripes dismiss any govt complicity as impossible, because it's too terrible to think about. And it is, but the truth has to come first. I don't think you're a Pollyanna, because I shared your views at one point. But the more I read, the more inescapable the conclusion became.


allan said...

In 1964, a CIA memo outlined how the agency would discredit those who questioned the official story that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy. That directive, known as "CIA Document 1035-960", was eventually made public in 1976.

The memo notes the CIA's concern regarding "the whole reputation of the American government" in relation to the Warren Commission Report. The memo laid out a detailed series of actions and techniques for "countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries".

For example, "friendly elite contacts" (such as politicians and newspaper and magazine editors) should be reminded of the Warren Commission's "integrity and soundness" and that any criticism of the Commission is "without serious foundation" and "plays in to the hands of the [Communist] opposition".

The CIA directed its members "[t]o employ propaganda assets to [negate] and refute the attacks of the critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate for this purpose. . . . Our ploy should point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories adopted before the evidence was in, (II) politically interested, (III) financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or (V) infatuated with their own theories."

The memo gives some specific responses to use against the skeptics, including one that is still going strong 57 years later: "Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States."

This plan to discredit anyone who does not tout the party line has been perhaps the CIA's most successful mission. (Even today, some people spread the lie that the CIA's conspiracy theory memo is itself "a conspiracy theory": "It is not very likely that a government organization could intentionally popularize a term or phrase." Really? In under 10 years, the US government made tens of millions of Americans who had never thought twice about Muslims suddenly terrified that Muslims were going to invade their neighborhoods and kill them. That thinking is now so ingrained it hardly needs to be repeated these days. Putting aside the complete lack of factual evidence for the claim, that's pretty fucking impressive.)

Researcher Kevin Ryan: "In the 45 years before the CIA memo came out, the phrase 'conspiracy theory' appeared in the Washington Post and New York Times only 50 times, or about once per year. In the 45 years after the CIA memo, the phrase appeared 2,630 times, or about once per week. Before the CIA memo came out, the Washington Post and the New York Times had never used the phrase 'conspiracy theorist'. After the CIA memo came out, these two newspapers have used the phrase well over 1,000 times."

allan said...

After Carl Bernstein left the Washington Post, he published a 25,000-word cover story for Rolling Stone in October 1977, detailing the extremely close relationship the CIA has with the mainstream media in the US. Some of this information became public in 1976 during an investigation of the CIA by the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church. This investigation is also mentioned in Kinzer's book.

Bernstein writes: "From 1950 to 1966, about ten CIA employees were provided [New York] Times cover under arrangements approved by the newspaper's late publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. The cover arrangements were part of a general Times policy—set by Sulzberger—to provide assistance to the CIA whenever possible. Sulzberger was especially close to Allen Dulles. . . . Sulzberger signed a secrecy agreement with the CIA in the 1950s, according to CIA officials—a fact confirmed by his nephew, C.L. Sulzberger."

Other media had "arrangements" with the CIA, including: CBS, ABC, NBC, Time, Newsweek, Associated Press, United Press International , Reuters, Hearst Newspapers, Scripps-Howard Newspapers, the Copley News Service, and various magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post. "'And that's just a small part of the list," in the words of one official who served in the CIA hierarchy," Bernstein writes.

As I recall, in the mid-to-late-70s, the three main networks, the two top weekly news magazines, the three largest wire services, two huge newspapers chains, and the Times (which sets the pace, even now, for most daily newspapers in the country) was pretty much all there was.

Is there any reason to assume the CIA has scaled back its infiltration of the media in the last 45 years? Or does thinking that make me a "conspiracy theorist"?

laura k said...

Thanks Allan, great stuff.

A government org couldn't or wouldn't popularize an expression??? It's called propagand and it's done all the time.

Another weirdly popular one is, "No one in government can keep a secret." These folks should learn a but more history. Well-kept secrets of the past are revealed with regularity.

Church Commission is usually associated with the death of Patrice Lumumba, but I learned much more about it from this book.

laura k said...

This book also refers to many CIA plants within mainstream media.