Though they had the Bomb, in the 1950s, the CIA were still determined to enjoy every advantage over their enemies. To achieve this, they were willing to think outside of the box. Perhaps the best example of this was MK-Ultra, a top-secret project where the CIA attempted to alter brain function and explore the possibility of mind control. While much of the written evidence, including files and witness testimonies, were destroyed soon after the experiments were brought to an end, we do know that the project involved a lot of drugs, some sex and countless instances of rule bending and breaking.
Project MK-Ultra was kick-started by the Office of Scientific Experiments at the start of the 1950s. Central to the project was determining how LSD affects the mind – and, more importantly, whether this could be turned to America’s advantage. In order to learn more, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of individuals, were given doses of the drug. In almost all cases, they were given LSD without their explicit knowledge or consent. For example, during Operation Midnight Climax in the early 1960s, the CIA opened up brothels. Here, the male clients were dosed up with LSD and then observed by scientists through one-way mirrors.
The experiments also included subjecting American citizens to sleep deprivation and hypnosis. Not all of the tests went plainly. Several people died as a direct result of Project MK-Ultra, including a US Army biochemist by the name of Frank Olsen. In 1953, the scientist was given a dose of LSD without his knowledge and, just a week later, died after jumping out of a window. While the official reason of his death was recorded as suicide, Olsen’s family have always maintained that he was effectively killed by the CIA.
When President Gerald Ford launched a special Commission on CIA activities in the United States, the work of Project MK-Ultra came to light. Two years previously, however, the-then Director of the CIA, Richard Helms, had ordered all files relating to the experiments to be destroyed. Witness testaments show that around 80 institutions were involved in the experiments, with thousands of people given hallucinogenic drugs, usually by CIA officers with no medical background. And so, in the end, was it all worth it? The CIA has acknowledged that the experiments produced nothing of real, scientific value. Project MK-Ultra has, however, lived on in the popular imagination and has inspired numerous books, video games and movies.