FRESH AIR: During the early period of the Cold War, the CIA became convinced that communists had discovered a drug or technique that would allow them to control human minds. In response, the CIA began its own secret program, called MK-ULTRA, to search for a mind-control drug that could be weaponized against enemies.
MK-ULTRA, which operated from the 1950s until the early ’60s, was created and run by a chemist named Sidney Gottlieb. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, who spent several years investigating the program, calls the operation the “most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.”
Some of Gottlieb’s experiments were covertly funded at universities and research centers, Kinzer says, while others were were conducted in American prisons and in detention centers in Japan, Germany and the Philippines. Many of his unwitting subjects endured psychological torture ranging from electroshock to high doses of LSD, according to Kinzer’s research.
“Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people’s minds, and he realized it was a two-part process,” Kinzer says. “First, you had to blast away the existing mind. Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void. We didn’t get too far on number two, but he did a lot of work on number one.”
Kinzer notes that the top-secret nature of Gottlieb’s work makes it impossible to measure the human cost of his experiments. “We don’t know how many people died, but a number did, and many lives were permanently destroyed,” he says.
Ultimately, Gottlieb concluded that mind control was not possible. After MK-ULTRA shut down, he went on to lead a CIA program that created poisons and hi-tech gadgets for spies to use. Kinzer writes about Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA in the new book, Poisoner in Chief. MORE