Project MKULTRA (or MK-ULTRA) was the code name for a covert human experimentation programme run by the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence throughout the 1950s and 1960s (and possibly longer). Published evidence suggests MKULTRA involved the use of drugs (e.g. LSD), chemicals, hypnosis, brainwashing techniques and various forms of torture, using American and Canadian citizens as test subjects. Some were volunteers. Others, allegedly, were unwitting subjects.

In 1973, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of all MKULTRA files. So when the Church Committee brought the matter to the public’s attention in 1975, investigations were hampered by lack of documentary evidence. Nevertheless, the sworn testimony of direct participants revealed that thousands of people, including hospital patients, mental health patients, prisoners and even public citizens had been involved in the testing. One participant is said to have died when he jumped out of a 10th-floor hotel window. Others claimed to have suffered serious psychological damage and hundreds of them sued the federal government for damages in the 1970s. The government settled the lawsuits at a cost of millions of dollars.

The project had been initiated by CIA director Allen Welsh Dulles on April 13 1953 in response to alleged Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean use of mind control techniques on U.S. prisoners of war in Korea. Keen to enhance their own interrogation techniques, the CIA had also wanted to explore the possibility of assassinating enemy leaders (including Cuba’s Fidel Castro) by manipulating mental states and altering brain functions. MKULTRA had been allocated six percent of the CIA operating budget.

Dr Sidney Gottlieb had headed the project in the early years, conducting psychiatric research and developing “techniques that would crush the human psyche to the point that it would admit anything”.

The story gets murkier when you consider the list of alleged participants. A credible amount of circumstantial evidence suggests that Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, participated in MKULTRA experiments carried out at Harvard University. Others on the list include Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, singer-songwriter Robert Hunter, fashion model Candy Jones, beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. Conspiracy theories also link MKULTRA with Mark David Chapman (the man who shot John Lennon), Sirhan Sirhan (the man who shot Bobby Kennedy) and even Lee Harvey Oswald (John F Kennedy’s assassin).


Dr. Sidney Gottlieb's approval of a MKULTRA subproject on LSD
Dr. Sidney Gottlieb’s approval of a MKULTRA subproject on LSD


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