Mind Control & Propaganda

1977 Senate Hearing on MKUltra

2. The Death of Dr. Frank Olson

The most tragic result of the testing of LSD by the CIA was the death of Dr. Frank Olson, a civilian employee of the Army, who died on November 27, 1953. His death followed his participation in a CIA experiment with LSD. As part of this experiment, Olson unwittingly received approximately 70 micrograms of LSD in a glass of Cointreau he drank on November 19, 1953. The drug had been placed in the bottle by a CIA officer, Dr. Robert Lashbrook, as part of an experiment he and Dr. Sidney Gottlieb performed at a meeting of Army and CIA scientists.

Shortly after this experiment, Olson exhibited symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia. Accompanied by Dr. Lashbrook, Olson sought psychiatric assistance in New York City from a physician, Dr. Harold Abramson, whose research on LSD had been funded indirectly by the CIA. While in New York for treatment, Olson fell to his death from a tenth story window in the Statler Hotel.

[24] Even during the discussions which led to the termination of the unwitting testing, the DDP turned down the option of halting such tests within the. U.S. and continuing them abroad despite the fact that the Technical Services Division had conducted numerous operations abroad making use of LSD. The DDP made this decision on the basis of security noting that the past efforts, overseas had resulted in "making an inordinate number of foreign nationals witting of our role in the very sensitive activity." (Memorandum for the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence from the Deputy Director for Plans, 12/17/63, p. 2.)

a. Background. -- Olson, an expert in aerobiology who was assigned to the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the U.S. Army Biological Center at Camp Detrick, Maryland. This Division had three primary functions:

(1) assessing the vulnerability of American installations to biological attack;

(2) developing techniques for offensive use of biological weapons; and

(3) biological research for the CIA. [27]

Professionally, Olson was well respected by his colleagues in both the Army and the CIA. Colonel Vincent Ruwet, Olson's immediate superior at the time of his death, was in almost daily contact with Olson. According to Colonel Ruwet: "As a professional man... his ability... was outstanding." [28] Colonel Ruwet stated that "during the period prior to the experiment... I noticed nothing which would lead me to believe that he was of unsound mind." [29] Dr. Lashbrook, who had monthly contacts with Olson from early 1952 until the time of his death, stated publicly that before Olson received LSD, "as far as I know, he was perfectly normal." [30] This assessment is in direct contradiction to certain statements evaluating Olson's emotional stability made in CIA internal memorandum written after Olson's death.

b. The Experiment. -- On November 18, 1953, a group of ten scientists from the CIA and Camp Detrick attended a semi-annual review and analysis conference at a cabin located at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. Three of the participants were from the CIA's Technical Services Staff. The Detrick representatives were all from the Special Operations Division.

According to one CIA official, the Special Operations Division participants "agreed that an unwitting experiment would be desirable." [31] This account directly contradicts Vincent Ruwet's recollection. Ruwet recalls no such discussion, and has asserted that he would remember any such discussion because the SOD participants would have strenuously objected to testing on unwitting subjects. [32]

In May, 1953, Richard Helms, Assistant DDP, held a staff meeting which the Chief of Technical Services Staff attended. At this meeting Helms "indicated that the drug [LSD] was dynamite and that he should be advised at all times when it was intended to use it." [33] In addition, the then DDP, Frank Wisner, sent a memorandum to TSS stating the requirement that the DDP personally approve the use of LSD. Gottlieb went ahead with the experiment, [34] securing the approval of his immediate supervisor. Neither the Chief of TSS nor the DDP specifically authorized the experiment in which Dr. Olson participated. [35]

According to Gottlieb, [36] " a "very small dose" of LSD was placed in a bottle of Cointreau which was served after dinner on Thursday, November 19. The drug was placed in the liqueur by Robert Lashbrook. All but two of tie SOD participants received LSD. One did not drink; the other had a heart condition. [37] About twenty minutes after they finished their Cointreau, Gottlieb informed the other participants that they had received LSD.

Dr. Gottlieb stated that "up to the time of the experiment," he observed nothing unusual in Olson's behavior. [37a] Once the experiment was underway, Gottlieb recalled that "the drug had a definite effect on the group to the point that they were boisterous and laughing and they could not continue the meeting or engage in sensible conversation." The meeting continued until about 1: 00 a.m., when the participants retired for the evening. Gottlieb recalled that Olson, among others, complained of "wakefulness" during the night. [38] According to Gottlieb on Friday morning "aside from some evidence of fatigue, I observed nothing unusual in [Olson's] actions, conversation, or general behavior." [39] Ruwet recalls that Olson "appeared to be agitated" at breakfast, but that he "did not consider this to be abnormal under the circumstances." [40]

c. The Treatment. -- The following Monday, November 23, Olson was waiting for Ruwet when he came in to work at 7:30 a.m. For the next two days Olson's friends and family attempted to reassure him and help him "snap out" of what appeared to be a serious depression. On Tuesday, Olson again came to Ruwet and, after an hour long conversation, it was decided that medical assistance for Dr. Olson was desirable. [41]

[35] Dr. Gottlieb testified that "given the information we knew up to this time, and based on a lot of our own self-administration, we thought it was a fairly benign substance in terms of potential harm." This is in conflict not only with Mr. Helms' statement but also with material which had been supplied to the Technical Services Staff. In one long memorandum on current research with LSD which was supplied to TSD, Henry Beecher described the dangers involved with such research in a prophetic manner. "The second reason to doubt Professor Rothland came when I raised the question as to any accidents which had arisen from the use of LSD-25. He said in a very positive way, 'none.' As it turned out this answer could be called overly positive, for later on in the evening I was discussing the matter with Dr. W. A. Stohl, Jr., a psychiatrist in Bleulera's Clinic in Zurich where I had gone at Rothland's insistence. Stohl, when asked the same question, replied, 'yes,' and added spontaneously, 'there is a case Professor Rothland knows about. In Geneva a woman physician who had been subject to depression to some extent took LSD-25 in an experiment and became severely and suddenly depressed and committed suicide three weeks later. While the connection is not definite, common knowledge of this could hardly have allowed the positive statement Rothland permitted himself. This case is a warning to us to avoid engaging subjects who are depressed, or who have been subject to depression.'" Dr. Gottlieb testified that he had no recollection of either the report or that particular section of it. (Sidney Gottlieb testimony, 10/19/75, p. 78.)

Ruwet then called Lashbrook and informed him that "Dr. Olson was in serious trouble and needed immediate professional attention." [42] Lashbrook agreed to make appropriate arrangements and told Ruwet to bring Olson to Washington, D.C. Ruwet and Olson proceeded to Washington to meet with Lashbrook, and the three left for New York at about 2:30 p.m. to meet with Dr. Harold Abramson.

At that time Dr. Abramson was an allergist and immunologist practicing medicine in New York City. He held no degree in psychiatry, but was associated with research projects supported indirectly by the CIA. Gottlieb and Dr. Lashbrook both followed his work closely in the early 1950s. [43] Since Olson needed medical help, they turned to Dr. Abramson as the doctor closest to Washington who was experienced with LSD and cleared by the CIA.

Ruwet, Lashbrook, and Olson remained in New York for two days of consultations with Abramson. On Thursday, November 26, 1953, the three flew back to Washington so that Olson could spend Thanksgiving with his family. En route from the airport Olson told Ruwet that he was afraid to face his family. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided that Olson and Lashbrook would return to New York, and that Ruwet would go to Frederick to explain these events to Mrs. Olson. [44]

Lashbrook and Olson flew back to New York the same day, again for consultations with Abramson. They spent Thursday night in a Long Island hotel and the next morning returned to the city with Abramson. In further discussions with Abramson, it was agreed that Olson should be placed under regular psychiatric care at an institution closer to his home. [45]

d. The Death. -- Because they could not obtain air transportation for a return trip on Friday night, Lashbrook and Olson made reservations for Saturday morning and checked into the Statler Hotel. Between the time they checked in and 10:00 p.m.; they watched television, visited the cocktail lounge, where each had two martinis, and dinner. According to Lashbrook, Olson "was cheerful and appeared to enjoy the entertainment." He "appeared no longer particularly depressed, and almost the Dr. Olson I knew prior to the experiment." [46]

After dinner Lashbrook and Olson watched television for about an hour, and at 11:00, Olson suggested that they go to bed, saying that "he felt more relaxed and contented than he had since [they] came to New York." [47] Olson then left a call with the hotel operator to wake them in the morning. At approximately 2:30 a.m. Saturday, November 28. Lashbrook was awakened by a loud "crash of glass." In his report on the incident, he stated only that Olson "had crashed through the closed window blind and the closed window and he fell to his death from the window of our room on the 10th floor." [48]

Immediately after finding that Olson had leapt to his death, Lashbrook telephoned Gottlieb at his home and informed him of the incident. [49] Gottlieb called Ruwet and informed him of Olson's death at approximately 2:45 a.m. [50] Lashbrook then called the hotel desk and reported the incident to the operator there. Lashbrook called Abramson and informed him of the occurrence. Abramson told Lashbrook he "wanted to be kept out of the thing completely," but later changed his mind and agreed to assist Lashbrook. [51]

Shortly thereafter, uniformed police officers and some hotel employees came to Lashbrook's room. Lashbrook told the police he didn't know why Olson had committed suicide, but he did know that Olson "suffered from ulcers." [52]

e. The Aftermath. -- Following Dr. Olson's death, the CIA made a substantial effort to ensure that his family received death benefits, but did not notify the Olsons of the circumstances surrounding his demise. The Agency also made considerable efforts to prevent the death being connected with the CIA, and supplied complete cover for Lashbrook so that his association with the CIA would remain a secret.

After Dr. Olson's death the CIA conducted an internal investigation of the incident. As part of his responsibilities in this investigation, the General Counsel wrote the Inspector General, stating:

I'm not happy with what seems to be a very casual attitude on the part of TSS representatives to the way this experiment was conducted and the remarks that this is just one of the risks running with scientific experimentation. I do not eliminate the need for taking risks, but I do believe, especially when human health or life is at stake, that at least the prudent, reasonable measures which can be taken to minimize the risk must be taken and failure to do so was culpable negligence. The actions of the various individuals concerned after effects of the experiment on Dr. Olson became manifest also revealed the failure to observe normal and reasonable precautions. [53]

As a result of the investigation DCI Allen Dulles sent a personal letter to the Chief of Technical Operations of the Technical Services Staff who had approved the experiment criticizing him for "poor judgment... in authorizing the use of this drug on such an unwitting basis and without proximate medical safeguards." [54] Dulles also sent a letter to Dr. Gottlieb, Chief of the Chemical Division of the Technical Services Staff, criticizing him for recommending the "unwitting application of the drug" in that the proposal "did not give sufficient emphasis for medical collaboration and for the proper consideration of the rights of the individual to whom it was being administered." [55]

The letters were hand carried to the individuals to be read and returned. Although the letters were critical, a note from the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence to Mr. Helms instructed him to inform the individuals that: "These are not reprimands and no personnel file notation are being made." [56]

Thus, although the Rockefeller Commission has characterized them as such, these notes were explicitly not reprimands. Nor did participation in the events which led to Dr. Olson's death have any apparent effect on the advancement within the CIA of the individuals involved.

3. The Surreptitious Administration of LSD to Unwitting NonVolunteer Human Subjects by the CIA After the Death of Dr. Olson

The death of Dr. Olson could be viewed, as some argued at the time, as a tragic accident, one of the risks inherent in the testing of new substances. It might be argued that LSD was thought to be benign. After the death of Dr. Olson the dangers of the surreptitious administration of LSD were clear, yet the CIA continued or initiated [57] a project involving the surreptitious administration of LSD to nonvolunteer human subjects. This program exposed numerous individuals in the United States to the risk of death or serious injury without their informed consent, without medical supervision, and without necessary follow-up to determine any long-term effects.

Prior to the Olson experiment, the Director of Central Intelligence had approved MKULTRA, a research program designed to develop a "capability in the covert use of biological and chemical agent materials." In the proposal describing MKULTRA Mr. Helms, then ADDP, wrote the Director that:

we intend to investigate the development of a chemical material which causes a reversible non-toxic aberrant mental state, the specific nature of which can be reasonably well predicted for each individual. This material 'could potentially aid in discrediting individuals, eliciting information, and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control. [58]

On February 12, 1954, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency wrote TSS officials criticizing them for "poor judgment" in administering LSD on "an unwitting basis and without proximate medical safeguards" to Dr. Olson and for the lack of "proper consideration of the rights of the individual to whom it was being administered." [59] On the same day, the Inspector General reviewed a report on Subproject Number 3 of MKULTRA, in which the same TSS officers who had just received letters from the Director were quoted as stating that one of the purposes of Subproject Number 3 was to:

"observe the behavior of unwitting persons being questioned after having been given a drug." [60] There is no evidence that Subproject Number 3 was terminated even though the officers were unequivocally aware of the dangers of the surreptitious administration of LSD and the necessity of obtaining informed consent and providing medical safeguards. Subproject Number 3, in fact, used methods which showed even less concern than did the OLSON experiment for the safety and security of the participants. Yet the evidence indicates the project continued until 1963. [61]

In the project, the individual conducting the test might make initial contact with a prospective subject selected at random in a bar. He would then invite the person to a "safehouse" where the test drug was administered to the subject through drink or in food. CIA personnel might debrief the individual conducting the test, or observe the test by using a one-way mirror and tape recorder in an adjoining room.

Prior consent was obviously not obtained from any of the subjects. There was also, obviously, no medical prescreening. In addition, the tests were conducted by individuals who were not qualified scientific observers. There were no medical personnel on hand either to administer the drugs or to observe their effects, and no follow-up was conducted on the test subjects.

As the Inspector General noted in 1963:

A significant limitation on the effectiveness of such testing is the infeasibility of performing scientific observation of results. The [individuals conducting the test] are not qualified scientific observers. Their subjects are seldom accessible beyond the first hours of the test. The testing may be useful in perfecting delivery techniques, and in identifying surface characteristics of onset, reaction, attribution, and side-effect. [62]

This was particularly troublesome as in a number of instances,... the test subject has become ill for hours or days, including hospitalization in at least one case, and the agent could only follow up by guarded inquiry after the test subject's return to normal life. Possible sickness and attendant economic loss are inherent contingent effects of the testing. [61]

Paradoxically, greater care seems to have been taken for the safety of foreign nationals against whom LSD was used abroad. In several cases medical examinations were performed prior to the use of LSD. [64]

Moreover, the administration abroad was marked by constant observation made possible because the material was being used against prisoners of foreign intelligence or security organizations. Finally, during certain of the LSD interrogations abroad, local physicians were on call, though these physicians had had no experience with LSD and would not be told that hallucinogens had been administered. [65]

The CIA's project involving the surreptitious administration of LSD to unwitting human subjects in the United States was finally halted in 1963, as a result of its discovery during the course of an Inspector General survey of the Technical Services Division. When the Inspector General learned of the project, he spoke to the Deputy Director for Plans, who agreed that the Director should be briefed. The DDP made it clear that the DCI and his Deputy were generally familiar with MKULTRA. He indicated, however, that he was not sure it was necessary to brief the DDCI at that point.

On May 24,1963, the DDP advised the Inspector General that he had briefed the Director on the MKULTRA program and in particular had covered the question of the surreptitious administration of LSD to unwitting human subjects. According to the Inspector General, the DDP said that "the Director indicated no disagreement and therefore the testing will continue." [66]

One copy of an "Eyes Only" draft report on MKULTRA was prepared by the Inspector General who recommended the termination of the surreptitious administration project. The project was suspended following the Inspector General's report.

On December 17, 1963, Deputy Director for Plans Helms wrote a memo to the DDCI, who with the Inspector General and the Executive Director-Comptroller had opposed the covert testing. He noted two aspects of the problem: (1) "for over a decade the Clandestine Services has had the mission of maintaining a capability for influencing human behavior;" and (2) "testing arrangements in furtherance of this mission should be as operationally realistic and yet as controllable as possible." Helms argued that the individuals must be "unwitting" as this was "the only realistic method of maintaining the capability, considering the intended operational use of materials to influence human behavior as the operational targets will certainly be unwitting. Should the subjects of the testing not be unwitting, the program would only be "pro forma" resulting in a "false sense of accomplishment and readiness." [67] Helms continued:

If one grants the validity of the mission of maintaining this unusual capability and the necessity for unwitting testing, there is only then the question of how best to do it. Obviously, the testing should be conducted in such a manner as to permit the opportunity to observe the results of the administration on the target. It also goes without saying that whatever testing arrangement we adopt must afford maximum safeguards for the protection of the Agency's role in this activity, as well as minimizing the possibility of physical or emotional damage to the individual tested. [68]

In another memo to the Director of Central Intelligence in June, 1964, Helms again raised the issue of unwitting testing. At that time General Carter, then acting DCI, approved several changes in the MKULTRA program proposed by Mr. Helms as a result of negotiations between the Inspector General and the DDP. In a handwritten note, however, Director Carter added that "unwitting testing will be subject to a separate decision." [69]

No specific decision was made then or soon after. The testing had been halted and, according to Walter Elder, Executive Assistant to DCI McCone, the DCI was not inclined to take the positive step of authorizing a resumption of the testing. At least through the summer, the DDP did not press the issue. On November 9, 1964, the DDP raised the issue again in a memo to the DCI, calling the Director's attention to what he described as "several other indications during the past year of an apparent Soviet aggressiveness in the field of covertly administered chemicals which are, to say the least, inexplicable and disturbing." [70]

Helms noted that because of the suspension of covert testing, the Agency's "positive operational capability to use drugs is diminishing, owing to a lack of realistic testing. With increasing knowledge of the state of the art, we are less capable of staying up with Soviet advances in this field. This in turn results in a waning capability on our part to restrain others in the intelligence community (such as the Department of Defense) from pursuing operations in this area." [71]

Helms attributed the cessation of the unwitting testing to the high risk of embarrassment to the Agency as well as the "moral problem." He noted that no better covert situation had been devised than that which had been used, and that "we have no answer to the moral issue." [72]

Helms asked for either resumption of the testing project or its definitive cancellation. He argued that the status quo of a research and development program without a realistic testing program was causing the Agency to live "with the illusion of a capability which is becoming minimal and furthermore is expensive." [73] Once again no formal action was taken in response to the Helms' request.

From its beginning in the early 1950's until its termination in 1963, the program of surreptitious administration of LSD to unwitting nonvolunteer human subjects demonstrates a failure of the CIA's leadership to pay adequate attention to the rights of individuals and to provide effective guidance to CIA employees. Though it was known that the testing was dangerous, the lives of subjects were placed in jeopardy and their rights were ignored during the ten years of testing which followed Dr. Olson's death. Although it was clear that the laws of the United States were being violated, the testing continued. While the individuals involved in the Olson experiment were admonished by the Director, at the same time they were also told that they were not being reprimanded and that their "bad judgment" would not be made part of their personnel records. When the covert testing project was terminated in 1963, none of the individuals involved were subject to any disciplinary action.

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