Authors: Martin A. Lee,Bruce Shlain
It was with the hope of finding the long-sought miracle drug that CIA investigators first began to dabble with LSD-25 in the early 1950s. At the time very little was known about the hallucinogen, even in scientific circles. Dr. Werner Stoll, the son of Sandoz president Arthur Stoll and a colleague of Albert Hofmann’s, was the first person to investigate the psychological properties of LSD. The results
of his study were presented in the
Swiss Archives of Neurology
in 1947. Stoll reported that LSD produced disturbances in perception, hallucinations, and acceleration in thinking; moreover, the drug was found to blunt the usual suspiciousness of schizophrenic patients. No unfavorable aftereffects were described. Two years later in the same journal Stoll contributed a second report entitled “A New Hallucinatory Agent, Active in Very Small Amounts.”
The fact that LSD caused hallucinations should not have been a total surprise to the scientific community. Sandoz first became interested in ergot, the natural source of lysergic acid, because of numerous stories passed down through the ages. The rye fungus had a mysterious and contradictory reputation. In China and parts of the Mideast it was thought to possess medicinal qualities, and certain scholars believe that it may have been used in sacred rites in ancient Greece. In other parts of Europe, however, the same fungus was associated with the horrible malady known as St. Anthony’s Fire, which struck periodically like the plague. Medieval chronicles tell of villages and towns where nearly everyone went mad for a few days after ergot-diseased rye was unknowingly milled into flour and baked as bread. Men were afflicted with gangrenous limbs that looked like blackened stumps, and pregnant women miscarried. Even in modern times there have been reports of ergot-related epidemics.
The CIA inherited this ambiguous legacy when it embraced LSD as a mind control drug. An ARTICHOKE document dated October
1951, indicates that acid was tested initially as part of a pilot study of the effects of various chemicals “on the conscious suppression of experimental or non-threat secrets.” In addition to lysergic acid this particular survey covered a wide range of substances, including morphine, ether, Benzedrine, ethyl alcohol, and mescaline. “There is no question,” noted the author of this report, “that drugs are already on hand (and new ones are being produced) that can destroy integrity and make indiscreet the most dependable individual.” The report concluded by recommending that LSD be critically
tested “under threat conditions beyond the scope of civilian experimentation.” POWs, federal prisoners, and Security officers were mentioned as possible candidates for these field experiments.
In another study designed to ascertain optimal dosage levels for interrogation sessions, a CIA psychiatrist administered LSD to “at least twelve human subjects
of not too high mentality.”
At the outset the subjects were “told only that a new drug was being tested and promised that nothing serious or dangerous would happen to them. . . . During the intoxication they realized something was happening, but were never told exactly what.” A dosage range of 100 to 150 micrograms was finally selected, and the Agency proceeded to test the drug in mock interrogation trials.
Initial reports seemed promising. In one instance LSD was given to an officer who had been instructed not to reveal “a significant military secret.” When questioned, however, “he gave all the details of the secret. . . and after the effects of the LSD had worn off, the officer had no knowledge of revealing the information (complete amnesia).” Favorable reports kept coming in, and when this phase of experimentation was completed, the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) prepared a lengthy memorandum entitled “Potential New Agent for Unconventional Warfare.” LSD was said to be useful “for eliciting true and accurate statements from subjects under its influence during interrogation.” Moreover, the data on hand suggested that LSD might help in reviving memories of past expe riences.
It almost seemed too good to be true—a drug that unearthed secrets buried deep in the unconscious mind but also caused amnesia during the effective period. The implications were downright astounding. Soon the entire CIA hierarchy was head over heels as news of what appeared to be a major breakthrough sent shock waves rippling through headquarters. (C. P. Snow once said, “The euphoria of secrecy goes to the head.”) For years they had searched, and now they were on the verge of finding the Holy Grail of the cloak-and-dagger trade. As one CIA officer recalled, “We had thought at first that this was the secret that was going to unlock the universe.”
But the sense of elation did not last long. As the secret research progressed, the CIA ran into problems. Eventually they came to recognize that LSD was not really a truth serum in the classical sense. Accurate information could not always be obtained from people
under the influence of LSD because it induced a “marked anxiety and loss of reality contact.” Those who received unwitting doses experienced an intense distortion of time, place, and body image, frequently culminating in full-blown paranoid reactions. The bizarre hallucinations caused by the drug often proved more of a hindrance than an aid to the interrogation process. There was always the risk, for example, that an enemy spy who started to trip out would realize he’d been drugged. This could make him overly suspicious and taciturn to the point of clamming up entirely.
There were other pitfalls that made the situation even more precarious from an interrogation standpoint. While anxiety was the predominant characteristic displayed during LSD sessions, some people experienced delusions of grandeur and omnipotence. An entire operation might backfire if someone had an ecstatic or transcendental experience and became convinced that he could defy his interrogators indefinitely. And then there was the question of amnesia, which was not as cut-and-dried as first supposed. Everyone agreed that a person would probably have a difficult time recalling exactly what happened while he was high on LSD, but that didn’t mean his mind would be completely blank. While the drug might distort memory to some degree, it did not destroy it.
When CIA scientists tested a drug for speech-inducing purposes and found that it didn’t work, they usually put it aside and tried something else. But such was not the case with LSD. Although early reports proved overoptimistic, the Agency was not about to discard such a powerful and unusual substance simply because it did not live up to its original expectations. They had to shift gears. A reassessment of the strategic implications of LSD was necessary. If, strictly speaking, LSD was not a reliable truth drug, then how else could it be used?
CIA researchers were intrigued by this new chemical, but they didn’t quite know what to make of it. LSD was significantly different from anything else they knew about. “The most fascinating thing about it,” a CIA psychologist recalled, “was that such minute quantities had such a terrific effect.” Mere micrograms could create “serious mental confusion. . . and render the mind temporarily susceptible to suggestion.” Moreover, the drug was colorless, odorless, and tasteless, and therefore easily concealed in food and beverage. But it was hard to predict the response to LSD. On certain
occasions acid seemed to cause an uninhibited disclosure of information, but oftentimes the overwhelming anxiety experienced by the subject obstructed the interrogation process. And there were unexplainable mood swings—from total panic to boundless bliss-out. How could one drug produce such extreme and contradictory reactions? It didn’t make sense.
As research continued, the situation became even more perplexing. At one point a group of Security officers did an about-face and suggested that acid might best be employed as an anti-interrogation substance: “Since information obtained from a person in a psychotic state would be unrealistic, bizarre, and extremely difficult to assess, the
of LSD-25, which is effective in minute doses, might in special circumstances offer an operative temporary protection against interrogation [emphasis added].”
This proposal was somewhat akin to a suicide pill scenario. Secret agents would be equipped with micro-pellets of LSD to take on dangerous assignments. If they fell into enemy hands and were about to be interrogated, they could pop a tab of acid as a preventive measure and babble gibberish. Obviously this idea was impractical, but it showed just how confused the CIA’s top scientists were about LSD. First they thought it was a truth serum, then a lie serum, and for a while they didn’t know what to think.
To make matters worse, there was a great deal of concern within the Agency that the Soviets and the Red Chinese might also have designs on LSD as an espionage weapon. A survey conducted by the Office of Scientific Intelligence noted that ergot was a commercial product in numerous Eastern Bloc countries. The enigmatic fungus also flourished in the Soviet Union, but Russian ergot had not yet appeared in foreign markets. Could this mean the Soviets were hoarding their supplies? Since information on the chemical structure of LSD was available in scientific journals as early as 1947, the Russians might have been stockpiling raw ergot in order to convert it into a mind control weapon. “Although no Soviet data are available on LSD-25,” the OSI study concluded, “it must be assumed that the scientists of the USSR are thoroughly cognizant of the strategic importance of this powerful new drug and are capable of producing it at any time.”
Were the Russians really into acid? “I’m sure they were,” asserted John Gittlinger, one of the CIA’s leading psychologists during the
Cold War, “but if you ask me to prove it, I’ve never seen any direct proof of it.”
While hard evidence of a Soviet LSD connection was lacking, the CIA wasn’t about to take any chances. What would happen, for example, if an American spy was caught and dosed by the Commies? The CIA realized that an adversary intelligence service could employ LSD “to produce anxiety or terror in medically unsophisticated subjects unable to distinguish drug-induced psychosis from actual insanity.” The only way to be sure that an operative would not freak out under such circumstances would be to give him a taste of LSD (a mind control vaccine?) before he was sent on a sensitive overseas mission. Such a person would know that the effects of the drug were transitory and would therefore be in a better position to handle the experience. CIA documents actually refer to agents who were familiar with LSD as “enlightened operatives.”
Along this line, Security officials proposed that LSD be administered to CIA trainee volunteers. Such a procedure would clearly demonstrate to select individuals the effects of hallucinogenic substances upon themselves and their associates. Furthermore, it would provide an opportunity to screen Agency personnel for “anxiety proneness”; those who couldn’t pass the acid test would be excluded from certain critical assignments. This suggestion was well received by the ARTICHOKE steering committee, although the representative from the CIA’s Medical Office felt that the test should not be “confined merely to male volunteer trainee personnel, but that it should be broadened to include all components of the Agency.” According to a CIA document dated November 19, 1953, the Project Committee “verbally concurred in this recommendation.”
During the next few years numerous CIA agents tried LSD. Some used the drug on repeated occasions. How did their firsthand experience with acid affect their personalities? How did it affect their attitude toward their work—particularly those who were directly
involved in mind control research? What impact did it have on the program as a whole?
At the outset of the CIA’s behavior control endeavors the main emphasis was on speech-inducing drugs. But when acid entered the scene, the entire program assumed a more aggressive posture. The CIA’s turned-on strategists came to believe that mind control techniques could be applied to a wide range of operations above and beyond the strict category of “special interrogation.” It was almost as if LSD blew the Agency’s collective mind-set—or was it mind-rut? With acid acting as a catalyst, the whole idea of what could be done with a drug, or drugs in general, was suddenly transformed.
Soon a perfect compound was envisioned for every conceivable circumstance: there would be smart shots, memory erasers, “antivitamins,” knock-out drops, “aphrodisiacs for operational use,” drugs that caused “headache clusters” or uncontrollable twitching, drugs that could induce cancer, a stroke or a heart attack without leaving a trace as to the source of the ailment. There were chemicals to make a drunk man sober and a sober man as drunk as a fish. Even a “recruitment pill” was contemplated. What’s more, according to a document dated May 5, 1955, the CIA placed a high priority on the development of a drug “which will produce ‘pure euphoria’ with no subsequent letdown.”
This is not to suggest that the CIA had given up on LSD. On the contrary, after grappling with the drug for a number of years, the Agency devised new methods of interrogation based on the “far-out” possibilities of this mind-altering substance. When employed as a third-degree tactic, acid enabled the CIA to approach a hostile subject with a great deal of leverage. CIA operatives realized that intense mental confusion could be produced by deliberately attacking a person along psychological lines. Of all the chemicals that caused mental derangement, none was as powerful as LSD. Acid not only made people extremely anxious, it also broke down the character defenses for handling anxiety. A skillful interrogator could exploit this vulnerability by threatening to keep an unwitting subject in a tripped-out state indefinitely unless he spilled the beans. This tactic often proved successful where others had failed. CIA documents indicate that LSD was employed as an aid to interrogation on an operational basis from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s.
Laboratories of the State
When the CIA first became interested in LSD, only a handful of scientists in the United States were engaged in hallucinogenic drug research. At the time there was little private or public support for this relatively new field of experimental psychiatry, and no one had undertaken a systematic investigation of LSD. The CIA’s mind control specialists sensed a golden opportunity in the making. With a sizable treasure chest at their disposal they were in a position to boost the careers of scientists whose skill and expertise would be of maximum benefit to the CIA. Almost overnight a whole new market for grants in LSD research sprang into existence as money
started pouring through CIA-linked conduits or “cutouts” such as the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, the Society for the Study of Human Ecology, and the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation.