MK-Ultra: The CIA Infiltrates The Human Psyche

MK-Ultra was a CIA program taking place between the 1950s and 1960s. As a response to rumours of Cold War antagonists performing mind control techniques on US prisoners of war. This article examines the projects origins, methodology, and aftermath.

The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a legacy. With great misfortune, that legacy has arguably been more controversial than positive in the eyes of the public sphere. Now, it is far from charitable to paint a broad stroke of generalizations over the entirely of the CIA and its past, present, and future operations. It is impossible for individual citizens to know the breadth and depth of the CIA’s operations, successes and failures.

No system of government, no military, and no intelligence agency, no matter how much pedigree is contained within it, is free from the infiltration of the human condition.

While the human condition has led the CIA to do some wild stuff in the name of intelligence; their MK-Ultra project elevates them to a Frankenstein-esque level of human experimentation.  

MK-Ultra Origins

MK-Ultra was approved by the agency director Allan Dulles in 1953 as a program designed to explore mind-controlling techniques on foreign hostile actors. The agency was still in its infancy, six years old to be exact, and was baptized by fire straight into the Cold War. Marxism and the Soviet Union replaced the Axis as the enemy of the West, and the CIA was a national asset in combating it.

“National power derives from the intelligence community’s ability to discern, first, whether the target country has the necessary number and range of institutions to adequately support its military forces in their operational tasks, and second, whether the quality of these institutions is comparable to those in the country’s peer competitors and/or the United States”

This idea from the RAND policy institute explores the concept of “national power”, and a case can be made that the second clause draws parallels to MK-Ultra’s intended function, as a sort-of parallel response to the competition, the Soviets, North Koreans, and Chinese – all of whom were rumoured to be utilizing mind control techniques for the purpose of manipulating the psyche of US prisoners of war.

 Director Dulles may have given the program the green light, but CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the chief architect. Gottlieb can be compared to Viktor Frankenstein or Josef Mengele, in the sense that he performed human experimentation with a “playing God” mentality, and with little regard for the subjects, that the retrospective side of MK-Ultra revealed.

According to author Kris Hollington, Gottlieb “had joined the CIA in 1951 as a poisons expert and his enthusiasm for nerve-frazzling toxins soon earned him two nicknames: ‘the Black Sorcerer’ and ‘the Dirty Trickster’.”

And in the words of journalist Stephen Kinzer in his book Poisoner in Chief, “Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people’s minds, and he realized it was a two-party process”, “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.”

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide

MK-Ultra was like a piece of software designed to conduct a penetration test on the brain, except instead of using Kali Linux, vulnerabilities in the operating system of the human mind were searched for with psychoactive drugs.

Circa the 19th of April 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was on his afternoon commute home from his laboratory via bicycle. His area of the current research was on ergoline compounds – derived from various grains – which had resulted in the synthesis of research chemicals, including lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

A few days prior to the 19th, Hofmann had accidentally ingested LSD, enough to feel quite ill. On the day of, his scientific curiosity led him to dilute in water and ingest a small dose of the recently synthesized compound. As he rode his bicycle home late that afternoon, he began to feel strange. Later that evening, he experienced what could now be considered, the first “bad trip”.

In his memoir LSD My Problem Child, Hofmann described the symptoms he experienced, which were far removed from the now mythic tales of the first acid trip in history:

“dizziness, visual disturbance, the faces of those present seemed vividly colored and grimacing; powerful motor disturbances, alternating with paralysis; my head, body and limbs all felt heavy, as if filled with metal; cramps in the calves, hands cold and without sensation; a metallic taste on the tongue; dry and constricted throat; a feeling of suffocation; confusion alternating with clear recognition of my situation, in which I felt outside myself as a neutral observer as I half-crazily cried or muttered indistinctly.”

Volumes can be written about LSD and its effect on the counter-cultural movement in the US, as well as its impact on music, art, and technology. And while recreational users generally seek it for an expanded consciousness and psychedelic experiences, Gottlieb saw it as a potential key into the minds of America’s enemies.

MK-Ultra Methods to Madness

MK-Ultra was a blanket term for over 100 different CIA led programs underneath its umbrella. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the majority of MK-Ultra’s records were destroyed in 1973. Records of actual participants are also scarce, partially due to the fact that most of them were not formally recorded, as mentioned in this official government report. Nonetheless, enough documentation, reporting, and actual congressional testimony remain to shed light on the ways the experiments played out.

The most controversial and unethical part of MK-Ultra was arguably its use of American citizens as test subjects – often without their formal consent. The scope of the project was quite large, and there was no shortage of funding. According to author Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine, “MK-Ultra would spend $25 million on research in a quest to find new ways to break prisoners suspected of being communists and double agents. Eighty institutions were involved in the program, including forty-four universities and twelve hospitals.”

Not all test subjects were coerced into participating, but many came from marginalized parts of society, such as prisoners and mentally-impaired school-aged children. US military personnel were even part of the fun.

LSD was the primary method of experimentation, so much so that Gottlieb spent $240,000 of taxpayers money in 1950 to acquire the entire supply of LSD in the world. along with hypnosis and other behavioral modification techniques. MDMA, heroin, methamphetamine, and other psychedelic substances were included in some experiments as well.

Operation Midnight Climax is one of the more “creative” experiments, in which case prostitutes on a government payroll led potential customers to CIA safehouses, where the men would then be dosed with LSD and observed.

MK-Ultra LSD experiments also included individuals famous in US culture, such as the mafioso Whitey Bulger, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, poet Allen Ginsberg, and author Ken Kesey.

The experiments with LSD specifically concluded that it was not possible to use it as an effective mind-control tool. The unpredictability of the drug and subjectivity to how individuals react to it were benefactors in that judgement, as well as the general loss of mental faculties and coherency needed to produce an accurate and clear intelligence product.


“The intelligence community of this Nation, which requires a shroud of secrecy in order to operate, has a very sacred trust from the America people. The CIA’s program of human experimentation of the fifties and sixties violated that trust. It was violated again on the day the bulk of the agency’s records were destroyed in 1973. It is violated each time a responsible official refuses to recollect the details of the program. The best safeguard against abuses in the figure is a complete public accounting of the abuses of the past.”  

Those words from the late senator Ted Kennedy were recorded during a Joint Hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence on the 3rd of August 1977. That congressional hearing was specifically about MK-Ultra and the magnitude of its deviation from ethical practices and morality in general.

During the 1975 Church Committee in the US Senate, the CIA was described as a “rogue elephant” in regard to its overreach, and MK-Ultra is a clear instance of that. Although there is a scarcity of records documenting the true aftermath, the entire project can be used as a case study in ethics within the intelligence field, and of the importance of checks and balances within organizations like the CIA who have sensitive and powerful capabilities on the world stage.


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