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A CIA chemist, mind control — and the return of psychedelic drugs

As science and pop culture embrace psychedelics again, a look back at the original acid trip visionary — a CIA scientist bent on destroying the human mind.

AP/Adobe/Globe Staff

After years of being demonized, followed by decades when they were all but forgotten, psychedelic drugs are back. Several recent books promote the value of LSD for healing. New scientific studies report that psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” can effectively treat depression. Following a referendum in May, Denver is decriminalizing possession of those mushrooms, setting an example for other cities and states. Taking small daily doses of LSD — “microdosing” — is all the rage in Silicon Valley. A lavishly funded institute for the study of mind-altering drugs, the first of its kind in the United States, is about to open in Maryland. Lincoln Center has announced it will present a musical about LSD on Broadway this spring.

Lost amid this rediscovery is the fact that LSD came to the United States through the Central Intelligence Agency. The chief CIA chemist during the 1950s and 60s, Sidney Gottlieb, brought it to America. Gottlieb was the first LSD maven, the original acid visionary. He did not foresee that LSD would leak out of his clinics and laboratories. Now he may be seen as responsible for a spectacular cultural irony. The drug he hoped would give the CIA power to control human minds ultimately fueled a generational rebellion aimed at destroying everything the CIA defends and holds dear.

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As LSD raced through the American counterculture during the 1960s, it became an ultimate symbol of protest. Guardians of mainstream culture panicked. In 1968 Congress made mind-altering drugs illegal. President Nixon called LSD guru Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” LSD was listed as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” For decades, serious research into its potential was impossible. That taboo is now dissolving.

The apocalyptic stereotype of LSD, which during the 1960s was said to cause everything from birth defects to insanity, was bound to fade. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who accidentally discovered it in 1943, hoped it could be used to treat mental illness, and for a time it was taken seriously as a therapeutic tool. The LSD-themed musical that is scheduled to open in March focuses on three celebrities who used it during the 1950s: Cary Grant, Aldous Huxley, and Clare Booth Luce. Entitled “Flying Over Sunset” and written by James Lapine, who shared a Pulitzer for “Sunday in the Park With George” and has won three Tony Awards, it is likely to fuel burgeoning interest in psychoactive drugs.

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Perhaps the most striking evidence of that interest was the announcement in September that Johns Hopkins Medicine has received $17 million in private and foundation grants to open a Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Among its first projects will be experiments to see if LSD and related drugs can be used to treat anorexia, early-onset Alzheimer’s, or opioid-use disorders — or even to help people quit smoking. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have endorsed calls that psilocybin be reclassified as acceptable for medical use. LSD could be next. Sidney Gottlieb, who introduced Americans to LSD nearly 70 years ago, is returning for a curtain call.

Gottlieb was the most powerful unknown American of the 20th century — unless there was someone else who worked in total secrecy, conducted grotesque experiments on human subjects across three continents, and had what amounted to a government-issued license to kill. He ran history’s most systematic search for techniques of mind control, a project that CIA director Allen Dulles named MK-ULTRA. Dulles believed that if a way could be found to seize control of human minds, the prize would be nothing less than global mastery. In 1951 he hired Gottlieb to direct the search. Although Gottlieb had a doctorate in biochemistry from Cal Tech and had worked in several government laboratories, he was an unlikely choice. Dulles and most of the men who ran the early CIA were silver-spoon products of the American aristocracy. Gottlieb was the 32-year-old son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants, grew up in the Bronx, attended City College of New York, stuttered, and limped. He was also a compassionate humanist who meditated, lived in a cabin without running water, grew his own vegetables, and rose before dawn to milk his goats. He was his generation’s most prolific but also most gentle-hearted torturer.

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Gottlieb was fascinated with the mind-control potential of LSD. He and his fellow seekers dared to hope that it might hold, as one of them put it, “the secret that was going to unlock the universe.” By his own account he used it himself at least 200 times. Years later he recalled his first trip: “I happened to experience an out-of-bodyness, a feeling as though I am in a kind of transparent sausage skin that covers my whole body and it is shimmering, and I have a sense of well-being and euphoria for most of the next hour or two hours, and then gradually it subsides.”

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In 1953, Gottlieb persuaded the CIA to spend $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD from its sole producer, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz. Over the next decade, he used his unique stash for two purposes. Some of it went to prisons in the United States and to CIA “safe houses” in Europe and East Asia, where it was used in heinous experiments on unwitting or unwilling human subjects. In one of them, seven African American inmates at a prison in Kentucky were given what the prison doctor called “double, triple and quadruple doses” of LSD every day for 77 days. Experiments abroad, in which LSD was used in concert with other drugs and with torments like electroshock, were even harsher, and caused an unknown number of deaths. These were the most extreme experiments on human subjects that have ever been conducted by an officer or agency of the US government. Gottlieb had concluded that before he could insert a new mind into someone’s brain, he had to blast away the existing mind. Some of his most gruesome experiments at “black sites” in Europe and East Asia were aimed at finding out if overdoses of LSD and other drugs could do that. His victims, called “expendables,” were prisoners of war, suspected enemy agents, and refugees who would not be missed if they disappeared.

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The other side of Gottlieb’s LSD research was quite different — voluntary and non-coercive. He wanted to know how ordinary people would react to LSD in a clinical setting. Since the CIA could not conduct these experiments itself, Gottlieb set up bogus medical foundations that served as conduits for MK-ULTRA funds. Through them, he contracted with hospitals and clinics across the United States that agreed to carry out tests on volunteers. Among the first to sign up was a graduate student named Ken Kesey, who was given doses of Gottlieb’s LSD and psilocybin at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park, California. He liked it so much that he not only urged his friends to volunteer, but took a job at the hospital. That gave him material for his counterculture masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — and also allowed him to pilfer vials of LSD for use at his soon-to-be-famous “acid test” parties.

Gottlieb was also sponsoring experiments at nearby Stanford University — which, like most MK-ULTRA contractors, did not realize that it was working for the CIA. Among the first volunteers at Stanford was the poet Allen Ginsberg, who listened to “Tristan und Isolde” on headphones during his first experience and went on to promote the “healthy personal adventure” of LSD use. Another was the Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who later wrote some of his most celebrated songs while tripping. Together, these unwitting MK-ULTRA subjects helped turn on a generation.

It took decades for LSD evangelists to grasp the bizarre truth that their formative and ultimately culture-shattering LSD experiences were part of a CIA project aimed at finding a tool for mind control. “The United States government was in a way responsible for creating the ‘acid tests’ and the Grateful Dead, and thereby the whole psychedelic counterculture,” Robert Hunter concluded. When an interviewer asked John Lennon about LSD, he replied: “We must always remember to thank the CIA.” Those answers were correct as far as they went, but early psychic voyagers had never heard of Sidney Gottlieb. If they had, they would have realized that they had him to thank for LSD, not simply “the United States government” or “the CIA.”

Timothy Leary, the most prominent LSD promoter of that era, was also introduced to psychedelics thanks to Sidney Gottlieb. He learned of their existence from a 1957 article in Life magazine about an expedition to find “magic mushrooms” in Mexico. Fascinated with the prospect of a mind-altering substance, he traveled to Mexico, found and tried the “magic mushroom,” pronounced it “above all and without question the deepest religious experience of my life,” and set off on the path that made him the Pied Piper of LSD. Neither he nor anyone else could have known it at the time, but Gottlieb had used MK-ULTRA funds, disguised as a foundation grant, to subsidize the expedition that had produced the Life article. “The LSD movement was started by the CIA,” Leary recognized years later. When he mused, “I wouldn’t be here now without the foresight of CIA scientists,” what he meant was: “I wouldn’t be here without Sidney Gottlieb.”

Gottlieb’s decade of MK-UTRA experiments led him to two conclusions. He had proven conclusively that with the application of enough drug overdoses and other extreme techniques over extended periods, it is possible to destroy a human mind; the trail of ruined lives he left in his wake is horrific testimony to his success. Yet he was also forced to admit that he had failed to find a way to insert a new mind into the resulting void. As MK-ULTRA ended in the early 1960s, Gottlieb concluded that psychoactive drugs are “too unpredictable in their effect on individual human beings, under specific circumstances, to be operationally useful.”

Once MK-ULTRA was behind him, Gottlieb went on to other glories at the CIA. Because he knew more about toxins than anyone in the US government — probably more than anyone in the world — it was logical that his CIA superiors would call on him when they needed ways to kill. He made the poisons used in failed attempts to kill Fidel Castro, and at one point mused about creating aerosolized LSD that could be sprayed into a radio studio from which Castro was about to speak. In 1960 he carried poison to the Congo to be used in killing Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The poison was not used, and several months later a Belgian-Congolese squad captured and executed Lumumba. For the last seven years of his career he ran the Technical Services Staff, which makes tools and devices for spies. In later life, perhaps troubled by what he had done, he volunteered at a hospital for leprosy patients, taught students with speech defects, and counseled dying patients at a hospice. Yet LSD is his most mind-boggling legacy. He saw it not as a tool for psychic exploration, as did his unwitting hippie disciples, or for clinical use, but as a potential key to “abolishing consciousness” so minds could be opened to outside control.

Before retiring from the CIA in 1973, Gottlieb destroyed most records of MK-ULTRA. Nonetheless enough have remained to make it possible to reconstruct his astonishing career. Without Gottlieb, LSD might not have become a driving force in American culture during the 1960s — or an object of renewed fascination today. His perturbed spirit hovers above as a new era of interest in psychoactive drugs finally begins to unfold.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and author of “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.” Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.