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Controlling people's minds
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After World War II, the possibility of gaining control over a person’s mind became one of the top pursuits for intelligence services. Amid never-ending spy games, the capacity to make someone tell the full truth during an interrogation, or to wipe out a subject’s personality and impose another – perhaps, a controlled one – became quite attractive to secret services.
In 1979, former US State Department officer John Marks published a book called “The Search for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’,” which focused on the CIA's mind-control experiments and is based on agency documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The term ‘Manchurian Candidate’ emerged from a title of a novel by Richard Condon, first published in 1959, which tells the story of a US soldier brainwashed and turned into an assassin by the Communists. Back then, the fear that America’s rivals might use such techniques was not only a fictional fantasy, but a matter of very serious concern.
This is how John Marks describes it: “In 1947 the National Security Act created not only the CIA but also the National Security Council – in sum, the command structure for the Cold War. Wartime [Office of Strategic Services] leaders like William Donovan and Allen Dulles lobbied feverishly for the Act. Officials within the new command structure soon put their fears and their grandiose notions to work. Reacting to the perceived threat, they adopted a ruthless and warlike posture toward anyone they considered an enemy – most especially the Soviet Union. They took it upon themselves to fight communism and things that might lead to communism everywhere in the world.”
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Since the late 1940s, the CIA ran several projects involving chemical and biological agents. From 1947 to 1953, a project called CHATTER researched “truth drugs” – something that, according to the Church commission’s report, was a response to “reports of ‘amazing results’ achieved by the Soviets.” Animals and humans underwent tests involving a plant called anabasis aphylla, an alkaloid scopolamine and mescaline.
In 1950, a project dubbed BLUEBIRD was approved. Its aim was to investigate mind-control methods that prevent personnel from “unauthorized extraction of information” and that give the user the means to control an individual using special interrogation techniques. A year later, the project was rebranded as ARTICHOKE. Apart from its defensive purposes, it now included research into “offensive interrogation techniques” involving hypnosis and drugs. There’s no certain information about when the project ended. According to the Church commission’s report, the CIA insisted that ARTICHOKE had been scrapped in 1956 – however, there was evidence that the “special interrogation” it studied had been used for several more years.
There was also MKNAOMI, which investigated biological warfare agents, their storage, and devices for their diffusion. It was scrapped after president Richard Nixon put an end to America's offensive biological weapons program in 1969.
The CIA’s main mind-control research program, which turned out to be a real shock when discovered, was MKULTRA, headed by Dr Sidney Gottlieb. Launched in 1953 and discontinued a decade later, the program involved testing human behavior control with the likes of radiation, electroshock, psychological and psychiatric tools, harassment substances and paramilitary devices. The project had a special branch, MKDELTA, to oversee tests conducted abroad.
For the most part, people now know about MKULTRA because it involved LSD – a psychedelic drug created in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. On April 19, 1943, Hofmann accidentally took LSD himself and discovered how strong the effect might be (this day is now known as ‘Bicycle day,’ as Hofmann was riding a bike when he experienced the first-ever ‘trip’ on LSD, commonly known as ‘acid’). Sandoz Laboratories began marketing the drug under the name ‘Delysid’ four years later, and in 1948 it came to the US.
The CIA knew about LSD’s effects, and relied on it so much that, in 1953, there was a plan to purchase 10 kilograms of LSD, some 100 million doses worth $240,000, for experiments.
The CIA, posing as a research foundation, made deals with universities, hospitals and other institutions to get the materials and substances it needed. The tests were performed on human subjects, with or without their knowledge. Even those who volunteered to take part in the research were unaware of the real purpose behind it. The CIA considered that the secrecy aspect was needed as, in a potential operation, the targeted subject would certainly be unwitting.
Several tests involving LSD were conducted in the army. It was also used abroad during interrogations of alleged foreign spies.
The hallucinogen was also tested on prisoners, sometimes on those with drug addictions. Several volunteer inmates from “Lexington Rehabilitation Center” – a prison for addicts serving sentences for drug violations – were given hallucinogenic drugs in exchange for drugs they were addicted to.
American organized crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger took part in MKULTRA in 1957, while being held in prison in Atlanta. In 2017, he described his experience in an article for the OZY media outlet. According to Bulger, he realized that he had been taking part in the CIA experiments only years later, when he read The Search for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’.
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