MK-Ultra: The CIA Infiltrates the Human Psyche

MK-Ultra was the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program, that focused on research and experimentation with mind-controlling techniques program. It is an agency-led response to similar programs within enemy nations. Intelligence reporting claimed foreign adversaries could conduct mind control techniques on Western prisoners of war. To illustrate, this article will examine the project’s origins, methods, and aftermath.

MK-Ultra Origins

In 1953, CIA Director Allen Dulles approved the MK-Ultra program. (source) The project’s focus includes research and experimentation with mind-controlling techniques on enemy actors. 

The agency was in its infancy during the time of MK-Ultra. Six years old, to be exact. As the Second Great War ended, a new global threat rose in its wake. As a result, the Cold War began. The Soviet Union replaced the Axis as the central enemy of the West. In response, the U.S. government recruited the CIA into the war campaign.

Director Dulles green-lit the project. CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb gained the role of chief architect. Gottlieb is comparable to Victor Frankenstein or Josef Mengele. He performed human experiments with a “playing God” mentality, practising little regard for his subjects.

According to author Kris Hollington, Gottlieb had expertise in poisons and toxins. As a result, he gained the nicknames “Dirty Trickster” and “Black Sorcerer”.

Furthermore, Gottlieb used his toxic obsession as the basis of MK-Ultra experiments. In his eyes, it was possible to manipulate the mind of foreign adversaries.

According to journalist Stephen Kinzer (source),

“Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people’s minds, and he realized it was a two-party process… “First, you had to blast away the existing mind. Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void.”

The Method to MK-Ultra’s Madness

MK-Ultra is a blanket term for over 100 different CIA led programs during the project’s duration. In reality, the true nature of those programs is difficult to understand. This is because the CIA destroyed most evidence in 1973, leaving a shroud of mystery about the program.

Also, participant rosters are scarce. Most subjects remained undocumented, which is highlighted in an official government report (source). Nevertheless, there is enough open-source information available to understand the basics of MK-Ultra. This information reveals the problematic nature of the MK-Ultra program.

Test Subjects & Funding

The most controversial part of MK-Ultra is its use of American citizens as test subjects. In addition, formal consent remained absent between the agency and participants. 

The CIA did not force all test subjects into participation. For some, they didn’t have to. That includes citizens from marginalized communities, prisoners, and mentally impaired children. Likewise, members of the U.S. Armed Forces are a notable element of MK-Ultra test subjects.

The project’s scope was quite large, and there was no shortage of funding. According to author Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, the CIA spent roughly 25 million dollars on MK-Ultra. In addition, forty-four universities and twelve hospitals supported the project.

Psychedelic infiltration

MK-Ultra is like a piece of software designed to hack the brain. Through the program, the CIA scanned the human mind in search of vulnerabilities. Psychedelic drugs were their primary key. To backtrack in the 1940s, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann conducted research on ergoline compounds, which come from grain. As a result, Hofmann created an array of research chemicals, including lysergic acid diethylamide. Or, as we know it today, LSD.

MRI brain scan showing on the left a brain on LSD and on the right with a placebo

A curious discovery

On the 19th of April 1943, Hofmann’s scientific curiosity led him to ingest a diluted dose of the LSD compound. (source) As he rode his bicycle home late that afternoon, he felt strange. Later that evening, he experienced the first “bad acid trip”; an experience that is now etched in psychedelic history.

In his memoir, LSD My Problem Child, Hofmann described the symptoms he experienced. Chiefly dizziness, distorted faces, motor disturbances, and the feeling of suffocation.

Hofmann’s accidental discovery of LSD had generation shaping consequences. The Cold War era counter-culture movement in the US embraced the drug. Music, art, and technology reflected LSD’s effects.

While recreational users seek it for an intense psychedelic experience, Gottlieb saw LSD as a key to unlock the minds of America’s enemies.

MK-Ultra & LSD

LSD is the most common method of experimentation in the MK-Ultra project. Gottlieb spent $240,000 of taxpayer money in 1950 to purchase the entire global supply. (source)

Also, LSD is not the only drug used in MK-Ultra experiments. MDMA, opiates, methamphetamine, and other compounds are notable mentions. In addition, scientists performed experiments with hypnosis and behaviour modification techniques. (source)

The LSD experiments included a few cultural figures, such as the mafia boss Whitey Bulger, Grateful Dead member Robert Hunter, poet Allen Ginsberg, and author Ken Kesey.

Ultimately, the use of LSD for mind control has poor results. Scientists determined the substance is ineffective as a mind-control tool. The unpredictability of the drug on subjects is the crux of that judgement. Similarly, the drug induced change of the subject’s mental state pollutes the collection process. As a result, intelligence gathered from LSD dosed subjects is questionable.

A mugshot of Whitey Bulger, a famous American criminal who took part in MK-Ultra LSD experiments. (source)

The Aftermath of MK-Ultra

MK-Ultra remained a CIA secret until the early 1970s. The initial revelation came courtesy of New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh. Hersh printed a 1974 expose in the Times that claimed the CIA used drugs in forced experiments on American citizens. (source)

Between that article and the Watergate Scandal, the CIA was under a microscope. Thus, President Ford directed the congress to act. As a result, Ford created the Rockefeller and Church Commissions as an investigative tool against federal agencies.

Despite Gottlieb‘s efforts to destroy the evidence, MK-Ultra left the shadows of Langley. The investigation conducted by the Church Commission unearthed the agency’s dirty secrets. Thousands of MK-Ultra documents were revealed.

In 1976, President Ford issued an Executive Order. This order prohibited the use of drugs in human experiments, without formal consent. (source)

Furthermore, politicians in the Church Committee described the CIA as a “rogue elephant”, which is a fitting term for an unruly agency.

In the end, MK-Ultra is an example of unchecked power. Likewise, it is a case study of ethics within the intelligence field. The aftermath of the project shows the importance of government checks and balances. Especially for powerful actors on the world stage.

Michael Ellmer
Michael Ellmer
Michael is a Senior Intelligence Analyst at Grey Dynamics. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, where he served as an infantryman for eight years, with tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific Theater. Upon entry into the civilian sector, he completed his undergraduate degree at Seattle Pacific University with a focus on communications studies. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Strategic Intelligence Analysis at Brunel University London.

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