Authors: Martin A. Lee,Bruce Shlain
That was how it went, from one extreme to the other. At times TD seemed to stimulate “a rush of talk”; on other occasions people got paranoid and didn’t say a word. The lack of consistency proved to be a major stumbling block, and “Donovan’s dreamers,” as his enthusiastic OSS staffers have been called, reluctantly weaned themselves from their reefer madness. A handwritten comment in the margins of an OSS document summed up their stoned escapades: “The drug defies all but the most expert and searching analysis, and for all practical purposes can be considered beyond analysis.”
After the war, the CIA and the military picked up where the OSS had left off in the secret search for a truth serum. The navy took the lead when it initiated Project CHATTER in 1947, the same year the CIA was formed. Described as an “offensive” program, CHATTER was supposed to devise means of obtaining information from people independent of their volition but without physical duress. Toward this end Dr. Charles Savage conducted experiments with mescaline (a semi-synthetic extract of the peyote cactus that produces hallucinations similar to those caused by LSD) at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. But these studies, which involved animal as well as human subjects, did not yield an effective truth serum, and CHATTER was terminated in 1953.
The navy became interested in mescaline as an interrogation agent when American investigators learned of mind control experiments carried out by Nazi doctors at the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. After administering the hallucinogen to thirty prisoners, the Nazis concluded that it was “impossible to impose one’s will on another person as in hypnosis even when the strongest dose of mescaline had been given.” But the drug still afforded certain advantages to SS interrogators, who were consistently able to draw “even the most intimate secrets from the [subject] when questions
were cleverly put.” Not surprisingly, “sentiments of hatred and revenge were exposed in every case.”
The mescaline experiments at Dachau were described in a lengthy report by the US Naval Technical Mission, which swept across Europe in search of every scrap of industrial material and scientific data that could be garnered from the fallen Reich. This mission set the stage for the wholesale importation of more than six hundred top Nazi scientists under the auspices of Project Paperclip, which the CIA supervised during the early years of the Cold War. Among those who emigrated to the US in such a fashion was Dr. Hubertus Strughold, the German scientist whose chief subordinates (Dr. Sigmund Ruff and Dr. Sigmund Rascher) were directly involved in “aviation medicine” experiments at Dachau, which included the mescaline studies.
Despite recurring allegations that he sanctioned medical atrocities during the war, Strughold settled in Texas and became an important figure in America’s space program. After Wernher von Braun, he was the top Nazi scientist employed by the American government, and he was subsequently hailed by NASA as the “father of space medicine.”
The CIA, meanwhile, had launched an intensive research effort geared toward developing “special” interrogation techniques. Two methods showed promise in the late 1940s. The first involved narcohypnosis,
in which a CIA psychiatrist attempted to induce a trance state after administering a mild sedative. A second technique involved a combination of two different drugs with contradictory effects. A heavy dose of barbiturates was given to knock the subject out, and then he received an injection of a stimulant, usually some type of amphetamine. As he started to come out of a somnambulant state, he would reach a certain ineffable point prior to becoming fully conscious. Described in CIA documents as “the twilight zone,” this groggy condition was considered optimal for interrogation.
CIA doctors attempted to extend the stuporous limbo as long as possible. In order to maintain the delicate balance between consciousness and unconsciousness, an intravenous hookup was inserted in both the subject’s arms. One set of works contained a downer, the other an upper (the classic “goofball” effect); with a mere flick of the finger an interrogator could regulate the flow of chemicals. The idea was to produce a “push”—a sudden outpouring of thoughts, emotions, confidences, and whatnot. Along this line various combinations were tested: Seconal and Dexedrine; Pentothal and Desoxyn; and depending on the whim of the spy in charge, some marijuana (the old OSS stand-by, which the CIA referred to as “sugar”) might be thrown in for good measure.
The goofball approach was not a precision science. There were no strictly prescribed rules or operating procedures regarding what drugs should be employed in a given situation. The CIA interrogators were left to their own devices, and a certain degree of recklessness was perhaps inevitable. In one case, a group of CIA experts hastily drafted a memo after reviewing a report prepared by one of the Agency’s special interrogation teams. The medical consultants pointed out that “the amounts of scopolamine administered were extremely heavy.” They also noted that the best results were obtained when two or at most three different chemicals were used in a session. In this case, however, heavy dosages of scopolamine were administered along with thiamine, sodium luminal, atropine sulfate, sodium pentothal and caffeine sulfate. One of the CIA’s professional consultants in “H” techniques also questioned why hypnosis was attempted “after a long and continuous use of chemicals, after the subject had vomited, and after apparently a maximum tolerance point had been reached with the chemicals.” Everyone who read the interrogation report agreed that hypnosis was useless, if not impossible, under
such conditions. Nevertheless, the memo concluded by reaffirming that “no criticism is intended whatsoever” and that “the choice of operating weapons” must be left to the agents in the field.
Despite the potential hazards and tenuousness of the procedure as a whole, special interrogations were strongly endorsed by Agency officials. A CIA document dated November 26, 1951, announced, “We’re now convinced that we can maintain a subject in a controlled state for a much longer period of time than we heretofore had believed possible. Furthermore, we feel that by use of certain chemicals or combinations, we can, in a very high percentage of cases, produce relevant information.” Although these techniques were still considered experimental, the prevailing opinion among members of the special interrogation teams was that there had been enough experiments “to justify giving the green light to operational use of the techniques.” “There will be many a failure,” a CIA scientist acknowledged, but he was quick to stress that
“every success with this method will be pure gravy
In an effort to expand its research program the CIA contacted academics and other outside experts who specialized in areas of mutual interest. Liaison was established with the research sections of police departments and criminology laboratories; medical practitioners, professional hypnotists, and psychiatrists were brought on as paid consultants; and various branches of the military provided assistance. Oftentimes these arrangements involved a cover to conceal the CIA’s interest in behavior modification. With the bureaucratic apparatus already in place, the CIA’s mind control efforts were integrated into a single project under the code name BLUEBIRD. Due to the extreme sensitivity of the project, the usual channels of authorization were bypassed; instead of going through the Projects Review Committee, the proposal for BLUEBIRD was submitted directly
to CIA director Roscoe Hillenkoetter, who authorized the use of unvouchered funds to finance the hush-hush undertaking. With this seal of approval the CIA’s first major drug testing program was officially hatched. BLUEBIRD was to remain a carefully guarded secret, for if word of the program leaked out it would have been a great embarrassment and a detriment to American intelligence. As one CIA document put it, BLUEBIRD material was “not fit for public consumption.”
From the outset the CIA’s mind control program had an explicit domestic angle. A memo dated July 13, 1951, described the Agency’s mind-bending efforts as “broad and comprehensive, involving both domestic and overseas activities, and taking into consideration the programs and objectives of other departments, principally the military services.” BLUEBIRD activities were designed to create an “exploitable alteration of personality” in selected individuals; specific targets included “potential agents, defectors, refugees, POWs,” and a vague category of “others.” A number of units within the CIA participated in this endeavor, including the Inspection and Security Staff (the forerunner of the Office of Security), which assumed overall responsibility for running the program and dispatching the special interrogation teams. Colonel Sheffield Edwards, the chairman of the BLUEBIRD steering committee, consistently pushed for a more reliable speech-inducing substance. By the time BLUEBIRD evolved into Operation ARTICHOKE (the formal change in code names occurred in August 1951), Security officials were still searching for the magic technique—the
deus ex machina
—that would guarantee surefire results.
The whole concept of a truth drug was a bit farfetched to begin with. It presupposed that there was a way to chemically bypass the mind’s censor and turn the psyche inside out, unleashing a profusion of buried secrets, and that surely some approximation of “truth” would emerge amidst all the personal debris. In this respect the CIA’s quest resembled a skewed version of a familiar mythological theme from which such images as the Philosopher’s Stone and the Fountain of Youth derive—that through touching or ingesting something one can acquire wisdom, immortality, or eternal peace. It is more than a bit ironic that the biblical inscription on the marble wall of the main lobby at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, reads, “And ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.”
The freewheeling atmosphere that prevailed during the CIA’s early years encouraged an “anything goes” attitude among researchers associated with the mind control program. This was before the Agency’s bureaucratic arteries began to harden, and those who participated in Operation ARTICHOKE were intent on leaving no stone unturned in an effort to deliver the ultimate truth drug. A number of agents were sent on fact-finding missions to all corners of the globe to procure samples of rare herbs and botanicals. The results of one such trip were recorded in a heavily deleted document entitled “Exploration of Potential Plant Resources in the Caribbean Region.” Among the numerous items mentioned in this report, a few were particularly intriguing. A plant called a “stupid bush,” characterized by the CIA as a psychogenic agent and a pernicious weed, was said to proliferate in Puerto Rico and Saint Thomas. Its effects were shrouded in mystery. An “information bush” was also discovered. This shrub stumped CIA experts, who were at a loss to pin down its properties. The “information bush” was listed as a psychogenic agent followed by a lingering question mark. What type of information—prophetic or mundane—might be evoked by this unusual herb was unclear. Nor was it known whether the “information bush” could be used as an antidote to the “stupid bush” or vice versa.
The CIA studied a veritable pharmacopoeia of drugs with the hope of achieving a breakthrough. At one point during the early 1950s Uncle Sam’s secret agents viewed cocaine as a potential truth serum. “Cocaine’s general effects have been somewhat neglected,” noted an astute researcher. Whereupon tests were conducted that enabled the CIA to determine that the precious powder “will produce elation, talkativeness, etc.” when administered by injection. “Larger doses,” according to a previously classified document, “may cause fearfulness and alarming hallucinations.” The document goes on to report that cocaine “counteracts. . . the catatonia of catatonic schizophrenics” and concludes with the recommendation that the drug be studied further.
A number of cocaine derivatives were also investigated from an interrogation standpoint. Procaine, a synthetic analogue, was tested on mental patients and the results were intriguing. When injected into the frontal lobes of the brain through trephine holes in the skull, the drug “produced free and spontaneous speech within two days in mute schizophrenics.” This procedure was rejected as “too
surgical for our use.” Nevertheless, according to a CIA pharmacologist, “it is possible that such a drug could be gotten into the general circulation of subject without surgery, hypodermic or feeding.” He suggested a method known as iontophoresis, which involves using an electric current to transfer the ions of a chosen medicament into the tissues of the body.
The CIA’s infatuation with cocaine was short-lived. It may have titillated the nostrils of more than a few spies and produced some heady speculation, but after the initial inspiration it was back to square one. Perhaps their expectations were too high for any drug to accommodate. Or maybe a new approach to the problem was required.
The search for an effective interrogation technique eventually led to heroin. Not the heroin that ex-Nazi pilots under CIA contract smuggled out of the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia on CIA proprietary airlines during the late 1940s and early 1950s; nor the heroin that was pumped into America’s black and brown ghettos after passing through contraband networks controlled by mobsters who moonlighted as CIA hitmen. The Agency’s involvement in worldwide heroin traffic, which has been well documented in
The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia
by Alfred McCoy, went far beyond the scope of Operation ARTICHOKE, which was primarily concerned with eliciting information from recalcitrant subjects. However, ARTICHOKE scientists did see possible advantages in heroin as a mind control drug. According to a CIA document dated April 26, 1952, heroin was “frequently used by police and intelligence officers
on a routine basis
[emphasis added].” The cold turkey theory of interrogation: CIA operatives determined that heroin and other habit-forming substances “can be useful in reverse because of the stresses produced when they are withdrawn from those who are addicted to their use.”