“Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?”
That’s from a real 1952 CIA memo. The man who wrote it was presumably a bald, grinning scientist with a vaguely European accent, a personal shark tank, and a loyal pet cat.
Most of the time, we suspect our government is protecting us, but every now and then, we discover that our tax dollars have helped fund some truly bizarre and f*cked up programs. When the smoke has cleared and the documents have been declassified, we see that the history of the CIA has more in common with science fiction than we could possibly imagine.
1. Luring people with prostitutes and slipping them LSD
That memo we just mentioned? It marked the beginning of Project ARTICHOKE, a CIA investigation into mind control that experimented with hypnosis, forced addiction, and LSD. We’re going to assume that the project was a failure when they realized participants were too busy studying the tiny galaxies in their fingerprints and having conversations with a tree to be much good to them.
That said, the CIA was more into acid than a Pink Floyd fan. As part of Project MKultra, their main mind-control program, agents administered LSD to everyone from prisoners to prostitutes in order to study its effects. Frequently, prostitutes would be hired to lure men to CIA sites, where they’d be dosed with acid while scientists watched them from behind one-way glass. They said they wanted “people who couldn’t fight back,” which is also the mantra of a date rapist. The CIA dubbed this sub-project Operation Midnight Climax (really), because they were just daring future Internet writers to make the easy joke.
These studies may have resulted in at least one death, that of Dr. Frank Olson, a CIA employee who suffered a nervous breakdown after his boss spiked his drink with LSD. He fell to his death in New York about a week later. The official story is suicide, but there’s been much speculation that he may have been murdered. A second autopsy revealed trauma that was “starkly suggestive of homicide.”
Cue the X-Files theme music.
2. Using psychics to try to gather intelligence…for 17 years
Intelligence agencies collect as much info from as many sources as possible so our leaders can make informed decisions about global and domestic threats. It just so happens that one of those sources was, for a time, essentially Miss Cleo.
The Stargate Project wasn’t just the name of your dad’s ’70s prog-rock band. It was a military program, later handed off to the CIA, designed to determine whether or not psychic powers such as remote viewing—seeing events occurring in another part of the world—could be used by the government as a means of gathering information.
This wasn’t some fringe group that spent a week studying the phenomena either. The program began in 1978 and didn’t end until 1995, when the CIA admitted, “Even though a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory, it remains unclear whether the existence of a paranormal phenomenon, remote viewing, has been demonstrated. The laboratory studies do not provide evidence regarding the origins or nature of the phenomenon, assuming it exists, nor do they address an important methodological issue of inter-judge reliability.”
That’s right, your government has some evidence that psychics are real. But not enough to make any decisions.
3. Playing Whack-A-Mole with world leaders
When your job involves protecting the free world, you start to see danger everywhere. As such, the CIA has a tendency to look at world leaders and decide that, though they aren’t an immediate threat, they can cause problems down the line, and that’s simply unacceptable. And damn do they like doing something about it. Just a few examples:
In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran was planning to nationalize its petroleum industry. The CIA, fearing the financial damage this would do to BP, pulled off a coup and installed the Shah in power. In Guatemala, 1954, the CIA helped overthrow the elected government when it became clear that some of its proposed policies sounded suspiciously communist—the civil war that followed resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The CIA even admitted being involved in the 1973 Chilean coup that overthrew the elected government and installed a dictator. For a decade, the CIA tried to take down the Nicaraguan government, helping to arm the contras.
Basically, the backstory to The Bourne Identity wasn’t so far-fetched after all.
4. Snaking all the Nazi scientists after WWII and giving them jobs
When World War II ended, there were a bunch of German scientists—many of them members of the Nazi party—who had a lot of info about important technologies. Organized by the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, Operation Paperclip involved bringing them to America and giving them jobs. Overall, more than 1,500 people were given new lives in America through the project.
On the surface, this plan was about making sure their knowledge didn’t fall into Soviet hands. However, the former Nazis were quickly put to work—often with generous paychecks in store for them—helping our government develop chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps even contributing to the creation of Agent Orange.
5. Lying about torture practices and falsifying effectiveness
You probably shouldn’t take what you learned in Zero Dark Thirty as gospel truth, but you also shouldn’t put much stock in what the CIA tells you. When it comes to torture, they’re like the little kid who thinks that if he keeps lying about something eventually he won’t be in trouble for it.
As per the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, the interrogation methods were much more intense than the CIA claimed, the information they provided on its effectiveness was false, they detained people they were most definitely not supposed to detain, they leaked fabricated stories to the media, and their justifications for torture were falsified. And, holy shit, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. OJ Simpson would be impressed with the amount of lies that were told.
Maybe they wanted to cover up the fact, revealed in the report, that many people who were tortured were later found to be innocent. Or that the CIA paid millions to specialists in order to develop the best torture techniques they could come up with. Which is kind of strange, isn’t it? When you’re sticking someone in a coffin for over a week and screaming in his face that you’re going to violate him sexually, do you really need a psychological contractor to tell you which orifice to mention for maximum effect?
6. Playing Big Brother to over 300,000 U.S. citizens decades before the Internet
Thanks to Edward Snowden, many Americans now feel like the protagonist of a Lifetime channel thriller—we thought our government loved us, only to discover that it has a dangerously paranoid side we didn’t see.
And it turns out this has been going on for longer than we realized. Back when the Cold War was at its coldest (or is it hottest? How does that work, really?), peace groups, women’s liberation movements, and the Black Panthers were starting to worry the folks in the CIA, who thought they might have ties to foreign communists. That would completely ruin that Vietnam thing they were working on! Operation CHAOS, which sounds way too much like a supervillain collective, was established to tackle this problem.
Over the course of the program, agents tapped phones, monitored correspondence, and infiltrated student groups, amassing records on more than 300,000 civilians. The project was only shut down when the media attention surrounding the Watergate break-in threatened to blow the lid off the whole thing. When the truth was revealed in a New York Times article, the government conducted a full-scale investigation and concluded that Operation CHAOS had involved “improper accumulation of material on legitimate domestic activities.”
That’s a very diplomatic way of saying that the CIA spent years stalking harmless domestic movements like a crazy, jealous ex.
7. Having real-life mad scientists on staff doing insane experiments to humans
You’re gonna want to sit down for this one. Maybe pour yourself a drink.
We’ve already covered the fact that Project MKULTRA was, to use technical terminology, messed the eff up. With Subproject 68, run by Dr. Ewen Cameron, it devolved into a plot line you might expect in a Human Centipede sequel.
Cameron believed that he could conduct experiments which would leave subjects with the mental capacity of babies, allowing him to then try to rebuild their personalities. Converting horse stables to sensory deprivation chambers, Cameron would induce comas in his subjects, isolate them for weeks, administer intense electric shocks, then force them to listen to a repeated loop of recorded messages meant to recreate their identity, all while wearing helmets designed for total sensory deprivation. One subject was forced into listening to the same message on repeat for 101 days. Yes, there was lots and lots of screaming.
Yeah, maybe next time someone accuses the government of an evil conspiracy, just remember, you were right when you used to say that there’s no way people working to protect our country could be that soulless. In truth, they can be way, way worse.
By Joe Oliveto