Originally published at Moral Low Ground

The early 1950s. Anti-communist hysteria was at a fevered pitch; Senator McCarthy and his red witch hunt were at their ugly nadir. The Korean War was raging, and the fretful folks at the new Central Intelligence Agency were shocked by reports of American POWs being “brainwashed” (a theretofore unknown term) by their communist North Korean and Chinese captors, who were believed to possess mind control technology unknown to the United States.

The novel The Manchurian Candidate, later made into a hit film starring Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh, was released around the same time. It told the story of a group of American soldiers captured in Korea and brainwashed. They return to the US remembering nothing of their ordeal, but one of them has been programmed to kill on cue. When triggered, he’s to assassinate a presidential candidate.

America’s intelligence agencies grew obsessed with brainwashing and mind control, and the CIA wanted to create its very own real-life Manchurian Candidate. To this end, they launched Project BLUEBIRD. During the course of experiments, thousands of Americans, often from the most powerless segments of our population, including mental patients and prisoners, were subject to highly unethical procedures performed by some of the best and brightest psychiatrists and medical doctors at the most prestigious institutions in the nation. BLUEBIRD researchers worked tirelessly to create Manchurian Candidates as well as controlled amnesia and hypnotic couriers.

Next came Project ARTICHOKE, which intensified research into interrogation, hypnosis and forced opiate addiction. Armed forces intelligence personnel and the FBI worked alongside the CIA toward the following end, summed up in a declassified 1952 memo:

Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?

On April 19, 1953, Projects BLUEBIRD and ARTICHOKE gave way to Project MK-ULTRA, which ranks among the darkest—yet most little-known—chapters in our nation’s history. Wild stories of the Soviets mastering mind control techniques and creating human robots that would do their evil bidding were readily believed by many of our national security planners, who adopted a “whatever-it-takes” mentality as they embarked upon a 20-year project of unspeakable horrors.

MK-ULTRA planners knew that what they were about to do was highly unethical and repulsive to most Americans. The tightest possible secrecy was imperative. Only CIA director Allen W. Dulles and a few others knew the full scope of MK-ULTRA. “Precautions must be taken,” a CIA official wrote in an internal memo, “not only to protect the operation from exposure to enemy forces, but also to conceal these activities from the American public in general.”

When all was said and done, some 80 institutions, including 44 colleges or universities, as well as hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical company laboratories were involved in MK-ULTRA research. The most appalling studies involved using patients, often unwitting ones, as human guinea pigs in radiation exposure experiments.

MK-ULTRA was far from the first time this was done in the United States; in fact, the project drew upon knowledge from earlier human radiation experiments like a Vanderbilt University study in which 829 pregnant women were fed “nutrition cocktails” and told the drinks were good for their unborn babies. In fact, they were being forced to ingest a toxic concoction of radioactive iron.

As if poisoning pregnant women and their unborn babies wasn’t sinking low enough, the nation’s most prestigious scientific university, MIT, fed mentally retarded boys locked up at the Fernald School in Massachusetts radioactive oatmeal. The boys were made to believe they were part of a “science club,” their parents told only that the children were being fed a diet rich in iron. The “science club” ruse was apparently a way to make the boys feel special. “It would be nice to do something for them because… we’ve had to jab them [with needles], and they had to eat a meal—every little drop of it, because you wanted to be sure they got 100% of the radioactivity,” one researcher said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to do something for them?”

This is just a sampling of the sinister science that helped to inspire MK-ULTRA researchers as they began their twisted project.

Some of the most sensational—yet true—stories surrounding MK-ULTRA involved the used of hallucinogenic drugs on both informed and unwitting test subjects. Some notable names offered up their bodies and minds to the project. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was one such volunteer. He reacted badly to the drug, perceptively sensing “being connected to Big Brother’s brain.” Ginsberg said he wasn’t able to properly enjoy an acid trip for years after his weird first dance with the drug.

In 1960, a straight-laced athletic student named Ken Kesey, who’d only been drunk once in his life, volunteered to try various psychedelic drugs under the tutelage of Dr. Leo Hollister at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Palo Alto, California. Weeks later Kesey was smoking marijuana and working in the VA hospital’s psychiatric ward while working on a play called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Another MK-ULTRA volunteer who went on to become famous, albeit in a much more sinister way, was a Harvard student who agreed to participate in a psychological experiment carried out by Dr. Henry Murray at Harvard. Murray wanted continue working on mind control experiments performed by Nazi doctors in concentration camps, and under MK-ULTRA he got his wish. One of his Harvard volunteers was a young man by the name of Theodore Kaczynski, who later became infamous as the home-grown terrorist you may remember better as the Unabomber.

At the US Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington Kentucky, other “volunteers” were tripping out on LSD in the name of national security. Dr. Harris Isbell ran the Addiction Research Center at the hospital and he was using incarcerated heroin addicts, almost all of them black, as human guinea pigs in MK-ULTRA LSD experiments. The deal went like this: the fiending addicts would agree to be dosed with LSD in return for a heroin fix. The “volunteers” were given increasingly larger doses of acid for as long as 77 straight days. Isbell himself was amazed that any human being could tolerate such a mind-twisting ordeal. Years later Dr. Isbell defended his work before a Senate subcommittee. “It was the custom in those days,” he explained in 1975. “The ethical codes were not so highly developed… I personally think we did a very excellent job.”

As unethical as Dr. Isbell’s experiments were, he could at least claim that all of his test subjects were “volunteers.” The same could not be said for many others, like the Eskimos who were fed radioactive pills by the US Air Force in order to study the effects of extreme cold on the thyroid gland. The Eskimos were never told the pills were radioactive, and even if they had been, it was highly unlikely that any of them would have been aware of the danger given their lack of understanding of modern science and medicine. What’s as shocking as the experiment itself is that as late as 1995 the government was making excuses for this quite inexcusable incident. Witness the Department of Energy’s explanation:

The selection of Alaskan Indians and Eskimos as subjects for this research was not arbitrary. In order to better understand acclimatization and human performance under conditions of extreme cold, it was reasonable and potentially important to study people who lived under such conditions.

Another MK-ULTRA researcher, the renowned Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron, exploited unsuspecting patients in his quest to master brainwashing. Cameron’s claim to fame was “psychic driving,” in which patients were reduced to comatose lumps by administering massive doses of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) in combination with drug-induced sleep therapy. ECT was similar to clinical electroshock treatments used on psychiatric patients at the time, but both the voltage and the frequency of the jolts were dramatically increased. Cameron’s victims were repeatedly shocked until they were so spent that they actually stopped convulsing. This was known as the “de-patterning” stage. According to Dr. Colin Ross, a highly respected trauma psychiatrist, at this point “patients were incontinent of urine and feces, unable to feed themselves, and unable to state their name, location, or the date.”

Now it was time to go “psychic driving.” The patients were placed in a sensory isolation room, drugged into a deep sleep, then recorded messages were played over and over and over again for hundreds of hours. The ultimate goal was to achieve total control over the patient’s mind; to create a human robot. Dr. Ross describes another one of Cameron’s test subjects:

Linda MacDonald was a victim of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s unethical, destructive mind control experiments between May 1 and September 12, 1963. Dr. Cameron used a “treatment” which involved intensive application of three brainwashing techniques: drug disinhibition, prolonged sleep treatment, and prolonged psychological isolation. These were combined with ECT treatments. The amount of electricity introduced into Linda’s brain exceeded by 76.5 times the maximum amount recommended in the ECT Guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Cameron proved that doctors skilled in the right procedures can erase a subject’s memory. His depatterning technique resulted in permanent and complete amnesia. To this day, Linda MacDonald is unable to remember anything from her birth to 1963. As recorded by her nurses in her chart, Linda was reduced to a vegetable state by depatterning. She was completely disoriented. She didn’t know her name, age, or where she was. She didn’t recognize her children. She couldn’t read, drive, cook, or use a toilet. Not only did she not know her husband, she didn’t even know what a husband was.

Even CIA agents found themselves unknowingly used as MK-ULTRA guinea pigs. Shortly after CIA employee Frank Olson was unwittingly dosed with LSD, he mysteriously fell to his death from the window of a 10th floor New York hotel room.

Project MK-ULTRA continued until the 1970s, when Congress and the President Ford ordered investigations. But then-CIA director Richard Helms had ordered all files pertaining to the project destroyed, greatly hampering the probes.

MK-ULTRA was then largely forgotten, until Eileen Welsome, a reporter for the now defunct Albuquerque Tribune, located survivors of US radiation experiments. Her research led to a series of Pullitzer Prize-winning Tribune articles late in 1993. These, in turn, caught the attention of Hazel O’Leary, Secretary of Energy during Bill Clinton’s first term. O’Leary was “appalled and shocked” by what she learned, and shortly thereafter President Clinton launched an investigation of human radiation experiments. He created the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) in 1994 with a mandate “to investigate and report on the use of human beings as subject of federally funded research using ionizing radiation.”

The Department of Energy concluded that about 16,000 men, women and children were used as human guinea pigs until well into the 1970s. Dr. Tara J. O’Toole, Assistant Energy Secretary for environmental safety and health at the time, specifically mentioned the following three concerns: that children, mental patients, retarded people and prisoners were used; that lethal doses of radiation were sometimes administered; and that women who were about to have abortions were irradiated so that researchers could perform tests on the aborted fetuses. Incredibly, Dr. O’Toole went on to praise some of the work done in these projects. “It’s really quite heroic,” she swooned.

And what became of these “heroes” who marched troops onto ground zero immediately following nuclear detonations, injected plutonium into the bodies of unsuspecting women, administered debilitating electroshocks that were 76 times more powerful than recommended, fed radioactive oatmeal to retarded children, and perpetrated countless other unspeakable horrors against our most vulnerable citizens?

MK-ULTRA chief Sidney Gottlieb continued to work with the CIA, devising fantastic plots to assassinate Fidel Castro (including poisoned cigars and exploding seashells) and other men the US government opposed. Later, during the Vietnam War, Dr. Gottlieb reportedly planted electrodes in the brains of Viet Cong prisoners to see if they could be activated to kill each other. They couldn’t; the POWs were shot dead, and their bodies were burned. After retiring, Sidney Gottlieb lived out his days in bucolic rural Virginia herding goats and folk dancing.

Dr.  Robert G. Heath, along with Australian psychiatrist Dr. Harry Bailey, performed CIA-funded experiments on African-American prisoners involving brain electrodes, LSD, and bulbocapnine, a powerful drug which in high doses reduces human beings to vegetables. Dr. Bailey once told a group of nurses that he and Dr. Heath used blacks for their experiments because it was “cheaper to use niggers than cats because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals.” Tulane Univeristy awarded Heath an honorary doctoral degree in 1985 and named a prestigious chairmanship after him, the Robert G. Heath Chair of Psychiatry/Neurology. The university also created the Heath Endowed Lectureship in Psychiatry and Neurology in 1993.

Dr. Ewen Cameron, he of ‘psychic driving’ fame, enjoyed a career full of accolades and achievements. McGill University has an online archive featuring information about former faculty members, which mentions absolutely nothing about Cameron’s MK-ULTRA or CIA work. It does ironically note that “Cameron’s high reputation in the psychiatric field is attested by his appointment in 1945 to the American panel to examine [the Nazi] Rudolf Hess at the Nuremberg Trials.” Unbelievably, Dr. Cameron went on to become the head of the Canadian, American and World Psychiatric Associations not despite but rather because of much of his highly unethical work.

Many Americans, when confronted with the truth about MK-ULTRA, are seemingly unable or unwilling to digest that their beloved county could sink to the level of using its own unwitting citizens as human guinea pigs. It’s hard to hear such things. Still, many apologists have attempted to rationalize what happened. Some say the Cold War fight against communism justified victory by any means. But what, dear reader, could possibly justify poisoning American children with deadly radiation? What enemy on the face of the earth could be so evil that the United States of America would resort to even greater evil in order to defeat it?

There are those who concede the barbarity of US crimes but excuse them because they happened in the past. These apologists are quick to argue that we can’t expect people who lived in the 20th century to adhere to 21st century moral and ethical standards. One of the biggest problems with this argument is that it’s simply not true; the moral and ethical standards of that time were clearly established at Nuremberg in 1945-46, when plenty of Nazis were sentenced to hang for many of the same crimes committed in American projects that continued until at least the 1970s.

Speaking of Nazi war criminals, the US government actively and enthusiastically employed many of those very same Germans to carry out the same sorts of reprehensible research it had recently condemned them for. The Americans who decided it was acceptable for US researchers to inject pregnant women with radiation and then experiment on their aborted fetuses and to hire doctors fresh from Germany who’d only recently dissected live Jewish babies, knew that what they were condoning would be considered at least immoral in any era. President Bill Clinton acknowledged this on October 3, 1995 when he issued a formal apology to the victims of radiation and mind control research:

“Thousands of government-sponsored experiments did take place at hospitals, universities and military bases around our nation. Some were unethical not only by today’s standards, but by the standards of the time in which they were conducted. They failed both the test of our national values and the test of humanity. The United States of America offers a sincere apology to those of our citizens who were subjected to these experiments, to their families and to their communities. When the government does wrong we have a moral responsibility to admit it.

As important as Clinton’s apology was, very few Americans noticed. The nation’s collective eyeballs were glued to the news as OJ Simpson’s “not guilty” verdict was read. Said cable talk guru Larry King: “If we had God booked and OJ was available, we’d move God.” There was no way that Clinton’s apology could compete with God, let alone The Juice, and more than a few critics wondered if the president didn’t plan it that way.

Thousands of American lives had been irreparably scarred by the government that was supposed to have been protecting them. Victims and advocates asserted that serious compensation was due. In November 1996 the federal government decided that this colossal betrayal of trust and rights was worth a paltry $400,000 to each of a dozen out of the many thousands of survivors of inhumane experiments. Of those twelve, only one was still alive.