Project MKUltra: CIA’s Secret Brainwashing Experiments

Project MKUltra was a secret human mind and behavior control program launched by the CIA.

Jun 26, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor

project mk ultra cia secret experiments


As World War II came to an end, concerns grew over the Soviets using US prisoners of war in mind and behavior control experiments for interrogations. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) responded by launching Project MKUltra. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, intelligence agency officials conducted behavior and mind-altering experiments on human subjects to figure out how to combat a so-called “truth serum” that was believed to be used on US prisoners of war by the Soviets. More than 100 experiments were conducted under Project MKUltra by the CIA, with many carried out unbeknownst to the human subjects or institutions involved.


Events Leading to Project MKUltra

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Office memorandum to the Director of Central Intelligence discussing Project Bluebird operations, 1950, via CIA Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room


Project MKUltra, also spelled MK-Ultra, was a mind and human behavior research program that included the development, testing, and management of drugs, psychotherapy, and other techniques to alter human behavior. The program was initially launched for defensive purposes. It also stemmed from two other projects that were approved years prior to the establishment of the CIA under the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) and the Inspection and Security Office (I&SO). There was a growing concern in the late 1940s and 1950s that the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were using chemical and biological agents on their enemies. As a result, US government intelligence agencies decided to implement a defensive program to study the use of various drugs and other techniques that Communists may have used on prisoners of war.


Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was one of the primary drugs studied throughout MKUltra. LSD was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1943. The Soviet Union attempted to purchase the world’s LSD supply, presumably to use the drug for interrogation and brainwashing purposes. This increased fears among US intelligence agencies over the possibility of US personnel revealing government secrets if apprehended by Communist countries using so-called “truth serums.”


Launching Project MKUltra

cia director allen dulles
Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, via The National WWII Museum, New Orleans


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Highly classified programs that included the study of chemical and biological agents prior to MKUltra included Operation Paperclip, Project Bluebird, and Project Artichoke. Operation Paperclip was implemented in 1945. The operation was led by the newly established Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency. The main objectives of the program included recruiting former Nazi scientists, some of whom had studied torture and brainwashing techniques.


Project Bluebird was another chemical and biological agent research program that became a precursor to Project MKUltra. Project Bluebird was authorized in 1950 to investigate potential threats of enemies who had the ability to extract sensitive information through unknown means. It also incorporated studies on memory enhancement, special interrogation techniques in the form of drugs and hypnosis, and the potential of defensive means to prevent Agency personnel from relaying sensitive information to enemies when under hostile control. The program was renamed Project Artichoke in 1951. Project MKUlta was authorized on April 13, 1953 under Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, who succeeded Walter Bedell Smith. The CIA’s Technical Services Staff (TSS) chief, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, was selected to run the program.


Goals of Project MKUltra

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Chicago Sun-Times newspaper article reporting on Project MKUltra goals and experiments by Patrick Oster, 1977, via CIA Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room


Although Project MKUltra started out as a research program to formulate defensive measures against enemy mind and behavior control interrogation techniques, agency officials quickly began exploring offensive measures. The program encompassed several objectives that involved experimentation with various drugs, psychotherapy, hypnosis, and other ways to alter human behavior. Some of its main goals were to identify substances that caused illogical and impulsive thinking, substances to counteract the effects of certain drugs, how to induce hypnosis, and ways drugs could be administered in a secretive manner.


Another objective that would later appear in operations to make assassination attempts against Fidel Castro included developing a knockout pill that could be surreptitiously administered in food or drink. Early experiments centered on the administration of LSD to witting and unwitting human subjects to examine how it altered behaviors. The CIA later explored other drugs such as barbiturates, morphine, heroin, scopolamine, alcohol, and marijuana. Electric shock, hypnosis, and even magic were other avenues that were researched and tested. Experiments were carried out in multiple phases. By the time the program was shut down, the CIA had implemented 149 subprojects under Project MKUltra.


Experiments Conducted

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Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky, where Project MkUltra human experimentation took place, via Institute for Research, Education, & Training in Addictions


The extensiveness of Project MKUltra and the experiments conducted may never be fully known because most records on the program were destroyed upon its termination. However, thousands of pages of Project MKUltra files were misplaced in the budget and fiscal records, which were discovered after an investigation on MKUltra was launched following its termination. These files offer details on some aspects of the program and experiments conducted. The experiments were carried out in various settings. The US Army also coordinated with the CIA to conduct experiments.


A number of experiments were conducted at educational institutions and penitentiaries. In the 1950s and ‘60s, prisoners in the Atlanta, Georgia federal penitentiary were used as human test subjects for Project MKUltra. One of the prisoners, Farrell V. Kirk, claimed that he was given doses of various drugs which caused him to attempt suicide. Another prisoner, Don Roderick Scott, suffered brain damage from the tests the researchers conducted.


Some of the earliest experiments conducted took place at the National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) Addiction Research Center in Lexington, Kentucky. The facility was once known as the Lexington Rehabilitation Center, which housed drug addicts who were arrested for drug violations and were ordered to serve their sentences at the facility. The human test subjects used in these experiments did give their consent, but their reward for participating is grim. The subjects were given hallucinogenic drugs so researchers could study their behaviors, and they were rewarded with their desired drug to which they were addicted for participating.


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Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Canada, where psychic driving experiments were conducted under Project MKUltra, via McGill Archives


Criminally insane patients at the Ionia State Hospital in Michigan were unknowingly pulled into the CIA’s human mind control experiments. They were given various derivatives of LSD and marijuana and were interrogated by doctors while under the influence. The Detroit Free Press reported on the experimentations in 1977. Between 1957 and 1960, more than 140 patients at the hospital unwittingly participated in MKUltra experiments.


The CIA also took interest in foreign researchers who had knowledge of areas that Project MKUltra was concerned with. For example, the CIA recruited Donald Ewen Cameron, who was a Scottish psychiatrist that formulated the psychic driving procedures. Psychic driving involved putting patients into drug-induced comas and playing different messages on repeat to the subjects for extended periods of time. Cameron commuted from New York to the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Canada each week to carry out the experiments. The CIA allocated $69,000 for the experiments conducted in Canada.


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Patients presumably part of the Subproject 68 MKUltra experiments, via Bryn Mawr College



Human subjects were administered LSD and paralytic drugs, and some went through extreme electroconvulsive therapy. Prior to the experiments, a number of the patients went to the institution for anxiety disorders and depression. Some subjects were put into a drug-induced coma for more than a month. The patients unsurprisingly suffered greatly as a result of the experiments. Many experienced severe amnesia and confusion. Experiments like the ones previously described took place from the early 1950s through the late 1960s. Many of the experiments were conducted on vulnerable individuals, with and without their consent. Project MKUltra experiments were considered top-secret, and only staff involved in coordinating and conducting the subprojects and experiments were aware of these events.


Subjects and Institutions Involved in Project MKUltra

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Baltimore Sun article reporting on the institutions informed on their involvement in Project MKUltra by the CIA by Albert Sehlstedt, Jr., 1977, via CIA Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room


The exact number of human subjects, voluntarily or involuntarily, involved in Project MKUltra is largely unknown since most files were destroyed. However, numerous educational and research institutions were involved in the experiments. Some of the human subjects included the CIA’s own personnel. Others included prisoners, mental patients, and random subjects. The institutions involved didn’t know they were participating in the CIA’s MK-Ultra program until it was later revealed to the public in the 1970s. The CIA contacted a number of these institutions to inform them that a number of experiments conducted in their facilities in the 1950s and 1960s were on behalf of the CIA’s top-secret human mind and behavior control program.


The CIA set up funding organizations to keep their involvement in the experiments unknown. George Washington University was given a $32,858 grant to conduct research on sleep and insomnia for MKUltra in 1956 and 1957. An additional $20,000 was granted to the university for bioelectrical response patterns experiments in 1960 and 1961. The Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology was one of the fronts that the CIA established to anonymously grant funding to institutions for experiments. Other institutions that unknowingly conducted experiments under MKUltra included: the University of Wisconsin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Denver University, Princeton University, Ohio State University, and Harvard University. The list goes on, amounting to approximately 80 universities, research institutions, and hospitals.


The Death of Frank Olson

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Portrait of US Army biochemist Dr. Frank Olson, via Mount Olivet Cemetery


There is only one firm record of death that occurred as a result of a Project MKUltra experiment. Dr. Frank Olson was a civilian biochemist and biological weapons researcher for the US Army’s Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. He had met with CIA researchers and other men in the SOD at a cabin in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland on November 18, 1953.


The CIA researchers, including Project MKUltra head Dr. Sidney Gottlieb and CIA officer Dr. Robert Lashbrook, asked the men to participate in consuming a substance for observation. Records indicated that the men agreed to consume the drug, despite not knowing what kind of drug it was. However, SOD Lt. Colonel Vincent Ruwet, who was also present at the cabin, claimed he had no recollection of being asked if they would consume a drug. According to CIA records, the type of drug was revealed to the men about 20 minutes after they had consumed it. They were given LSD in Cointreau liquor, which caused them to have a reaction and not be able to carry on a serious conversation.


project mkultra frank olson death
Frederick News article reporting on the death of Dr. Frank Olson, 1953, via Mount Olivet Cemetery


Dr. Olson had struggled with bouts of depression in the past, and consuming the LSD triggered a depressive episode. His family members and colleagues expressed concerns about Olson acting strangely in the days following his consumption of LSD. Olson was experiencing severe depression, paranoia, and schizophrenic episodes. He was taken to Dr. Harold Abramson in New York City to receive psychiatric assistance.


Following a night of what Lashbrook described as Olson acting almost like his normal self, Lashbrook and Olson went to stay at the Statler Hotel. Lashbrook had woken to the sound of a window breaking. Olson had jumped from the tenth-story window of their hotel room and fell to his death on November 28, 1953. Olson’s family members were notified, but they weren’t given a clear explanation of his cause of death. It wasn’t until Project MKUltra was uncovered and made public that they were able to pry more information out of the CIA on how Olson actually died. Upon the investigation of the CIA’s activities in MKUltra, it was determined that Frank Olson’s death was directly caused by consuming the LSD. Olson’s family eventually received a $750,000 settlement and formal apology in 1976 for his wrongful death.


Termination of Project MKUltra & its Aftermath

cia director richard helms project mkultra termination
CIA Director Richard Helms by Diana Walker, 1977, via National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC


CIA Director Richard Helms ordered that all files related to Project MKUltra be destroyed in 1973. However, numerous files on Project MKUltra were misplaced in the budget and fiscal files, which allowed investigators to gain a better understanding of the kind of activities the CIA was involved in during Project MKUltra. Some of the human subjects or their families did receive compensation once details on Project MKUltra were released to the public; however, some were determined ineligible for compensation.


The Church Committee and Rockefeller Commission investigated the CIA’s Project MKultra program. They compiled their findings into a report, which detailed the types of activities that the CIA performed, including human experimentation with drugs, psychotherapy, hypnosis, and other unorthodox methods to study altered human behavior for defensive and offensive purposes.


The lack of caution and complete disregard for the law when conducting many of the Project MKUltra experiments led to Congress passing various laws to prevent these occurrences in the future. Following the investigation, the Church Committee suggested to President Gerald Ford that human experimentation with drugs should only be acceptable when the subject has given full informed consent in writing, along with the presence of an unassociated third party to be a witness to the experiment. The National Commission on Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research was also given more control and authorized to cover all federally funded human experimentation research.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.