LANGLEY, VA — When pondering psychedelic drug icons, certain subjects race float to mind: Harvard-scientist-turned-“acid”-guru Dr. Timothy Leary, for example; or perhaps “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles; or maybe even the entire existence of the Grateful Dead, along with the rest of the whole 1960s “flower power” era.
Most of us might very well never get to naming Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Make no mistake, though, in the history of American hallucinogens, Dulles actually ranks as high as any other peyote-pusher or magic-mushroom-maven we normally associate with such substances.
As the CIA chief, he blasted countless brains with delusion-inducing drugs, beginning all the way back in the hyper-square buzz-cut and poodle-skirt days of the early 1950s. Trippy, isn’t it?
More specifically, in 1953, Allen Dulles conceived, approved, and oversaw MK-Ultra, a vast, clandestine, thoroughly illicit program of experiments that employed lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and other powerful psychoactive agents and practices (including hypnosis and electroshock) to master, it was hoped, the global conquest potential of “mind control.”
Precipitating the advent of MK-Ultra were frontline Cold War reports of Soviet and Chinese captors “brainwashing” American prisoners and turning them into defectors, communist dupes, or even double agents.
When CIA chemist and poison expert Sidney Gottlieb introduced Dulles to the consciousness-warping possibilities contained in a single dose of LSD, the director put him in charge of MK-Ultra’s drug excursions. Gottlieb got very, very busy.
Decades before the government launched their “War on Drugs,” MK-Ultra attempted to mount a war with drugs.
Almost immediately, the CIA enacted massive LSD studies on U.S. servicemen and volunteers at Columbia University, Stanford University, and other major colleges. In time, the program would also incorporate heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA, barbiturates, mescaline, and psilocybin.
MK-Ultra would also expand its tests to unsuspecting civilians, drugging them without consent and spying on them, all of which was completely, brazenly, almost stupefyingly illegal — or was it? Much like what the subjects experienced within their minds, the CIA was out in thoroughly unexplored territory here.
Operation Midnight Climax proved to be one particularly outrageous phase of the project. In swanky areas of California and New York, prostitutes on the taxpayers’ dime would lure innocent men from bars to “safe houses” and secretly dose them with acid.
CIA agents then watched what happened from behind two-way mirrors — and occasionally got too wasted themselves to record the results.
Stanford student and future counterculture hero Ken Kesey took part in some of the MK-Ultra experiments. Kesey would go on to fully embrace psychedelics and promote drug trips as the path to enlightenment at “Acid Tests” and acts of absurdity undertaken by his “merry pranksters” in San Francisco, thereby largely igniting the Haight-Ashbury hippie movement.
Other subjects of MK-Ultra’s skullduggery didn’t turn out so groovily benevolent, however. Among them were Ted Kaczynski aka “The Unabomber” and James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston mob brute who eluded the law for decades.
As early as 1964, CIA concluded that acid and the other drugs used by MK-Ultra were too “unstable” and “unpredictable” to be strategically weaponized. By the time youth culture had embraced LSD, then, the feds outlawed it.
Nonetheless, the program did not entirely disband until 1973, at a reported cost of $10 million ($90 million today). Fearing exposure in the age of Watergate, the CIA destroyed many, if not most, of the records regarding MK-Ultra.
All that is agreed upon is that its reach, depth, and extremes far exceeded what remains in written record, with trials and experiments crossing international boundaries into Canada.
In 1974, the year President Richard Nixon resigned, New York Times investigative reporter exposed Seymour Hersh dug into the MK-Ultra story and sussed out what was essentially the tripped-out tip of the iceberg.
President Gerald Ford, ceding to the public outrage over government cover-ups, announced the United States Commission on CIA Activities to explore and bring to light alleged abuses committed by the agency. MK-Ultra loomed large.
Two years later, Ford signed the Executive Order on Intelligence Activities, a mandate that explicitly and officially outlawed “experimentation with drugs on human subjects, except with informed consent, in writing and witnessed by a disinterested third party, of each human subject.”
That means they’re not supposed to do it anymore….