THIS MONTH I published my 10th book, and for the first time, I’m truly shocked at what I discovered. Decades of trying to understand the hidden power of governments and other potent global forces did not prepare me for this. I think I discovered the most powerful unknown American of the 20th century — unless there was someone else who worked in complete anonymity and had a government-issued license to kill. Piecing together his astonishing biography gave me a disturbing view of the unseen world that thrives behind the façade of public politics and diplomacy. It raises a question we can never truly answer: How strongly do invisible people and forces shape our national lives?
The subject of my new biography is a Bronx-born chemist named Sidney Gottlieb, who joined the CIA in 1951. He was given a ridiculously daunting assignment: discover the secret of mind control. The CIA was looking for a truth serum, an amnesiac, and a way to program people to become spies, saboteurs, and assassins. Gottlieb’s search, code-named MK-ULTRA, led him to conduct the most extreme experiments on human subjects ever sponsored by the US government. MK-ULTRA was one of the Cold War’s deepest secrets, largely unknown even within the CIA.
Before Gottlieb could try to implant a new mind into someone’s brain, he had to find a way to blast away the existing mind. He spent years testing techniques for “abolishing consciousness.” Doctors who had experimented on inmates at Japanese and Nazi concentration camps were among his valued partners. Together they conducted intense drug, stress, and electroshock experiments on “expendable” prisoners at secret detention centers across Europe and East Asia. An unknown number of victims died. Many others were permanently shattered. Gottlieb’s boss, CIA director Allen Dulles, was convinced that mind control could be the key to global mastery. The destruction of a few innocent lives, or even a few hundred, seemed insignificant when weighed against that promise.
Gottlieb spent years as the CIA’s chief chemist. He made poisons intended to kill Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders — hence the title of my book, “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.” At the end of his career he headed the division in charge of making spy tools. Yet his MK-ULTRA decade, working at the intersection of covert action and extreme science, showed him at his most literally mind-boggling.
No one supervised Gottlieb. His superiors gave him power to requisition human subjects at will, both abroad and at prisons in the United States, but they did not want to hear details. After years of inflicting immense pain on countless victims, Gottlieb was forced to conclude that his search had failed and that mind control is a myth.
Gottlieb’s story offers a fleeting glimpse into a world that is usually no more than a phantasm or a hideous dream. Could there have been others like him? Are invisible operators, working with direct or implicit government support, now carrying out bloody projects of which the rest of us are unaware? How far has private power intruded on public power? To what extent are our visible leaders the world’s true decision-makers? Which conspiracy theories are justified? Herman Melville wrote that visible objects “are but as pasteboard masks,” and that to find truth we must “strike through the mask.” That is a political as well as a metaphysical imperative.
In his farewell speech after ending his term as president of Guatemala in 1951, Juan Jose Arevalo lamented that his efforts at social reform had been frustrated by “that anonymous force that rules, without laws or morals, international relations and the relationships of men.” The visionary propagandist who helped overthrow Guatemala’s democracy three years later, Edward Bernays, famously wrote that “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” is the key to dominance, and that “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
Clusters of bland-looking office buildings line the highways that fan out from Dulles Airport in Virginia. Inside more than a few of them, secret projects, experiments, or investigations are underway, commissioned by government agencies or private companies. No single person, or even any group of people like a presidential cabinet or Congressional committee, could possibly have more than the vaguest idea of what most of them are doing. To rein in this obscure force, or even to know how pervasive it is or what it does, seems all but impossible. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested this when he reflected that many secret government programs are “on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there.”
Sidney Gottlieb wielded terrifying life-or-death power while remaining completely unknown. He and his Cold War superiors believed that threats to the United States were profound enough to justify extreme measures. Today we face the same temptation. It feeds government’s impulse to do things secretly — whether that means spying on citizens, launching a cyber-attack, or deploying troops to a distant combat zone. Cover-ups fail, however, and secrets eventually leak out. That feeds Americans’ suspicion that much of what shapes our lives is unseen.
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.