That Time the CIA Secretly Dosed Americans with LSD

Ten scientists, some from the CIA, gathered in a cabin in Maryland for their semiannual review and conference in November 1953. On day two, a bottle of Cointreau — spiked with LSD — appeared; after it was emptied, Sidney Gottlieb, a CIA program director, informed his colleagues that they were in for a wild ride.

Although the men all seemed to weather their respective trips, things were about to take a turn for the worse. Gottlieb, according to a 1976 report, noticed nothing strange about fellow scientist Frank Olson before the dosing. That night, he had been chatty and boisterous, and all was well. But the next day, Olson appeared to be agitated, then depressed; later that month, he committed suicide, falling 10 stories from a hotel in Washington, D.C.

"Rather than a war on drugs, it was a war with drugs."

Gottlieb was the head of an ultrasensitive CIA program called MKUltra, tasked with developing behavior and mind control, which began in 1953 and ran until the mid-1960s. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it was all the rage: The U.S. was in the midst of a Cold War and had just emerged from World War II, which had raised a “general interest in propaganda” and “psychological manipulation,” says H. P. Albarelli Jr., author of A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments. The project directors were intrigued by the notion of making world leaders look foolish in public by drugging them, dosing whole populations through the water supply and manipulating suspects during interrogation. Rather than a war on drugs, it was a war with drugs.

But the revolutionary idea needed testing, and the CIA wanted to acquaint its own operatives with the effects of the drug. Under MKUltra’s umbrella, LSD — invented in 1938 by chemist Albert Hofmann — was tested on CIA agents and unwitting civilians. In 2006, a man named Wayne Ritchie brought a case claiming that in 1957, he had attempted to rob a bar due to LSD testing at an office Christmas party. Unfortunately for Ritchie, and others, the link between dosings and terrible consequences have been hard to prove.

The program began slowly, first with a select number of agents self-administering LSD, tripping for hours and taking notes. Then, once well-versed in the effects, they agreed to dose each other unexpectedly, anytime and anywhere. After a dosing happened, an agent was given the rest of the day off. Later, they started dosing others in the CIA, people who had never tried the hallucinogen. “Surprise acid trips became something of an occupational hazard among CIA operatives,” Martin Lee wrote inAcid Dreams, a history of LSD and the CIA. Not everyone approved, of course, especially when a rumor circulated that there were plans to use a party as the scene of a mass dosing. A security memo from December 1954 recommended that punch bowls at office parties not be spiked, and one employee brought his own wine — which he guarded — to office functions because of the drug threat, according to John Marks in The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate.

“Surprise acid trips became something of an occupational hazard among CIA operatives."

But for some the risks were worse than stern memos. In one incident, an agent ran out into the street after being dosed unexpectedly. “Each time a car passed, he would huddle down against a parapet, terribly frightened,” a colleague explained. Every car seemed to be a monster out to kill him. By the 1960s, the CIA’s activities had gone further afield — it was funding LSD research labs and operating safe houses in New York and California, where businessmen were lured by prostitutes and then drugged with psychedelics. When the CIA inspector general saw this, he reported the project. “The concepts involved in manipulating human behavior are found by many people … to be distasteful and unethical,” he wrote. It was to little avail, though: The program was still considered integral to keeping up with the Soviet Union. A couple of years later, the program was slowed and then shuttered, with one memo writer noting in 1975 that he believed MKUltra projects had ended in 1966 or 1967.

In 1977, the U.S. Congress held a hearing to ensure no similar programs were still up and running. Sen. Edward Kennedy dug into CIA Director Adm. Stansfield Turner, demanding that such dangerous experiments never be performed again. “I am not here to pass judgment on my predecessors,” Turner said, “but I can assure you that this is totally beyond the pale of my contemplation of activities that … our intelligence agencies should undertake.”

Our contributor John McLaughlin, who was acting director and deputy director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, emphasizes that these events took place during the Cold War, when “a degree of paranoia permeated the government” and well before the emergence of Congressional oversight of the CIA, in 1976, which “provides a high degree of safeguard” against such events in the future. And psychological damage aside, many have argued that the CIA’s drug testing paved the way for the counterculture, providing inspiration for the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey, among many others. As Thomas Powers wrote in the introduction to The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate,” “The CIA probably played as big a role in the development and study of psychoactive drugs as the National Security Agency’s code-breakers did in the development of computers.” The dosers, in other words, had no idea how many people their experiments would affect.

A CIA representative referred us to public record on the matter and did not comment on the facts presented here.