by Owen Marshall, Global Research:
As the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) marks its seventy-fifth anniversary, it has made conspicuous efforts to rebrand itself as a progressive force for scientific and technological change.
Facing the retirement of its notoriously “pale, male, and Yale” Baby Boomer cohort, it has awkwardly adopted the language of neurodiversity and intersectionality in an attempt to appeal to the relatively young and tech-savvy Silicon Valley set.1 Through its in-house venture capital fund In-Q-Tel, it has recently made well-publicized investments in CRISPR-based wooly mammoth resurrection research, information-collecting skin care products, and the synthetic biology firm—and alleged “colossal scam”—Ginkgo Bioworks.2
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Under the leadership of Gina Haspel, it has also adopted a tech start-up model via its new “CIA Labs,” which entices would-be innovators with lucrative patent opportunities.3 At the same time, it has made well-publicized donations to makerspaces and science education organizations.4 Sympathetic press coverage has cast covert agents not as unaccountable interlopers into publicly funded research, but rather as “spies for planet earth.”5 The CIA has even started a podcast.6
A brief survey of the Agency’s history, however, suggests that it is one of the last organizations we should expect to provide us with either reliable information or socially beneficial technologies. Since its earliest days, the CIA and the “Intelligence Community” of which it is a part has repeatedly shown a willingness to pursue harmful, illegal, and intentionally misleading research. Indeed, “intelligence” is arguably a misnomer. As author and former CIA agent Ralph McGehee explains,
“the CIA is not an intelligence agency, it’s a covert action agency. . . . A part of covert action is disinformation, and the American people, in my estimation, are the primary target audience of the agency’s disinformation operation.”7
CIA’s Pre-History of Scientific Disinformation
False scientific claims were the US Intelligence Community’s stock-in-trade even before the CIA was officially founded. In 1944, Lieutenant Thomas J. McFadden, head of Morale Operations (MO) for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the CIA’s WWII-era precursor), requested funds to employ renowned tropical disease expert Dr. Morton Charles Kahn. Dr. Kahn, wrote McFadden, “has been employed by us to write a number of articles containing pseudoscientific material on tropical diseases.”8
That year, OSS agents prepared a barrage of forged medical documents reporting outbreaks of leprosy, food poisoning, and grisly deaths following blood transfusions contaminated with animal plasma.9 Like all MO undertakings, these were fabrications designed to attack enemy morale by causing panic and confusion.
The audience for this sort of “black propaganda” was not necessarily limited to enemy soldiers. In a subsequent progress report, the MO Branch Chief listed under the heading “Achievements and Commendations” high-profile instances of “comeback”—meaning the appearance of MO fabrications in reputable English-language news services such as the Associated Press.10 In contrast to the more familiar term “blowback,” used to refer to the unintended negative consequences of clandestine operations, “comeback” was seen as a positive metric—an indication that the government’s lie had been good enough for its own population to “buy” it.
Compared to the death and destruction of the Second World War (WWII), scientific disinformation operations of this sort seemed relatively harmless or even humane. In the wake of Japan’s surrender, however, as the WWII-era OSS evolved into the Cold War–era Central Intelligence Agency, the relation between American Intelligence and the scientific community has only become more pathological. Over the course of the Agency’s seventy-five-year existence, it has repeatedly enlisted experts not just to lie about scientific atrocities but to commit them.
One of the earliest and most consequential CIA covert actions was its role in Operation Paperclip, a campaign to recruit and whitewash the reputations of over a thousand prominent Nazi scientists. In her authoritative book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Annie Jacobsen details the CIA’s eagerness to take advantage of these
“men who had everything to lose and were, at the same time, uniquely focused on personal gain. In Operation Paperclip, the CIA found a perfect partner in its quest for scientific intelligence. And it was in the CIA that Operation Paperclip found its strongest supporting partner yet.”11
Kurt H. Debus, a former V-2 rocket scientist who became a NASA director, sitting between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnsonin 1962 at a briefing at Blockhouse 34, Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex (Licensed under the Public Domain)
The CIA’s Nazi scientists included the chemist Walter Schieber, who specialized in sarin gas production; the similarly-named Walter Schreiber, former “surgeon general of the Third Reich,” who was hired to oversee torture of enemy prisoners of war at the original CIA black site, Camp King; and Friedrich “Fritz” Hoffman, a chemical weapons scientist for the Luftwaffe, whom the CIA sent around the world to scout for new and exotic poisons. It was at Camp King that the Agency made its first foray into high-tech torture and mind-control research, developing what Jacobsen describes as “‘extreme interrogation’ techniques and ‘behavior modification programs’ . . . [including] hypnosis, electric shock, chemicals, and illicit street drugs.”12
MK-ULTRA: Domestic and International Terror in the Name of Science
Hiring high-ranking Nazis to test new torture methods on prisoners was only the beginning, however. By 1953, CIA scientists like Schreiber and Sidney Gottlieb—the titular character of Stephen Kinzer’s book, Poisoner in Chief—had initiated a sprawling two-decade campaign of reckless human experimentation best known by the codename MK-ULTRA. A quixotic but well-funded hunt for truth serums, brainwashing drugs, and other mind control techniques, MK-ULTRA scientists subjected countless non-consenting and/or otherwise vulnerable people to powerful drugs and interrogation techniques.13 In spite of being subject to three separate government investigations, only a small fraction of the total program has been publicly disclosed since the CIA shredded nearly all relevant documents. What little we do know, however, is horrifying.14
With the help of OSS veteran and federal narcotics detective George Hunter White, Gottlieb maintained a network of domestic and international “safe houses” where he would administer LSD to unwitting and “expendable” subjects such as petty criminals and drug users.15 Sometimes, Gottlieb’s expendable subjects included other scientists, such as bacteriologist Frank Olson, who was dosed with LSD and allegedly murdered by CIA, supposedly because of fears that he would reveal America’s use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW).16 The Agency has had more than its share of CBW-use allegations beginning in this period, including the open-air testing of aerosolized biological agents in New York City and spreading whooping cough on the coast of Florida in 1955.17
MK-ULTRA research was also conducted at university laboratories, such as those of Harold Wolff and Louis Jolyon West at Cornell Medical College and the University of Oklahoma, or Donald Ewen Cameron at McGill University in Montreal.
Between 1957 and 1963, Cameron used CIA money to develop psychological “depatterning” techniques on approximately one hundred patients. These techniques included placing patients in extended drug-induced comas, LSD dosing for months at a time, electro-shock treatments, and forcing patients to listen to recorded messages such as “my mother hates me” played on a loop.18
A multi-million dollar class action lawsuit against McGill, the Canadian government, and the Royal Victoria Hospital on behalf of Cameron’s victims and their families is currently underway.19 MK-ULTRA later found a home in existing networks set up by scientific institutions and universities in the USA and Canada.
The Phoenix Program and Beyond
Years after Cameron finished his work, similar experimentation began to take place in Vietnam. In 1966, a team of CIA researchers conducted brutal and sometimes fatal psychological experiments on Viet so-called mental patients. In an attempt to coerce labor out of his supposedly communist-indoctrinated patients, Dr. Lloyd H. Cotter and his colleagues threatened them with electrical shocks.20 Female patients, who proved more resistant, were starved into submission.21