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On Contact: CIA search for mind control with Stephen Kinzer

Chris Hedges talks to author Stephen Kinzer about the CIA’s quest for mind control through its experiments with drugs and torture during the 1950s and 1960s, both domestically and internationally. Kinzer’s new book is titled ‘Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss our invisible government and the CIA with author Stephen Kinzer.

SK: Allan Dulles the CIA Director came up with the idea that mind-control was the key to global mastery.  If you could find a way to control other people's minds, you can control the world.  And he believed this could happen.  Part of the reason was these events that I talked about but I think there's another larger reason that fertilized the ground in these people's minds to misinterpret events.  And that had to do with all the books, and movies, and stories that they've grown up with about Svengali and people that put a potion in a drink and the person will go out and kill and then forget they've done it.  They began to think that what fiction writers could imagine, scientists could certainly do.  And they looked for a scientist who was a visionary chemist and also willing to overlook the ethical standards that most other people might feel they had to observe.  And that's when they found this extraordinary figure, who is the center of my book, Sidney Gottlieb. 

CH: There are two forms of government in the United States.  There is the visible government, the White House, Congress, courts, state legislatures, and governorships.  And the invisible government or deep state where anonymous technocrats, intelligence operatives, generals, bankers, corporations, lobbyists, manage foreign and domestic policy regardless of which political party holds a majority.  The most powerful and important organs in the invisible government are the nation's bloated and unaccountable intelligence agencies.  They are the vanguard of the invisible government.  They oversee a vast black world tasked with maintaining the invisible government's lock on power.  They spy on and smear domestic and foreign critics, fix elections, bribe, extort, torture, assassinate, and flood the airwaves with black propaganda.  And they are impervious to the chaos and human destruction they leave in their wake.  The best window we have into this shadow world comes with historical accounts of its crimes, including those in Stephen Kinzer 's new book "Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind-Control."  Joining me in the studio to discuss our invisible government is Stephen Kinzer.  So I knew some of this.  But even I couldn't imagine how dark and bizarre this became.  I mean it--I mean it's--if you wrote this as sci-fi, I don't even know if people would buy it.  It's--so let's begin at the beginning, the end of World War II and the worst war criminals, Japanese and Nazi become coveted assets to the American intelligence community.  Start there and go forward.

SK: Well, I had the same reaction to this story when I was writing it that you had when reading it.  So, this is my 10th book and I've devoted my career to what you just referred to, trying to figure out what's behind the facade of public diplomacy and public politics that we see.  And I've discovered a lot of things that are surprising but I have to say, this is the first time I've been truly shocked.  I cannot believe that this happened and I cannot believe that this guy existed.  I think I discovered the most powerful unknown American of the 20th Century.

CH: Oh.

SK: So going back to the beginning, it's before Gottlieb even came on to the scene, the CIA had become electrified with an idea that turned out to be a complete fantasy.  And they should have realized it was a fantasy.

CH: But policy is built around this fantasy.

SK: Absolutely.

CH: And I mean, I don't know if it's an exaggeration to say, thousands of people's lives are affected, many of whom are killed.  I mean, it's--but it's all--but it's all based on an untruth.

SK: So a CIA propagandist came up with--invented a word "brainwashing" that word came from a guy that was working with the CIA.  And he tried to convince Americans that the Soviets were trying to brainwash the United States.  But the CIA then fell for the--its own fantasy.  I think there were two sets of reasons for that.  One was that there were a couple of events that the CIA greatly misinterpreted.

CH: But they were--yeah, and what were they?  Run this down.

SK: One was the trial of the Roman Catholic Prelate in Hungary in 1949.  In his trial he seemed to speak in a monotone with glazed eyes and he confessed to things he hadn't done, so we assumed brainwash.

CH: Well, Stalin already done that in the '30s but…

SK: He had…

CH: For the old techniques.

SK: In the--in later times we figured out that exactly this Cardinal had been coerced with the same techniques that interrogators have been using for centuries.  But the CIA wanted to believe its own fantasy so they considered the Soviets have found the pill or the technique to control people's minds.  The same thing happened after some American released prisoners from the Korean War turned out to have signed statements criticizing the United States.

CH: Which John McCain did in Vietnam by the way, but yeah.

SK: And they had also--some of those Americans in Korea had confessed to using germ warfare which the United States insists that we had never done.

CH: But they had?  But they had.

SK: And so, again, the only explanation the CIA wanted out there was, they'd been brainwashed.

CH: Right.

SK: So Allen Dulles, the CIA Director came up with the idea that mind-control was the key to global mastery.  If you could find a way to control other people's minds, you can control the world.  And he believed this could happen.  Part of the reason was these events that I talked about but I think there's another larger reason that fertilized the ground in these people's minds to misinterpret events, and that had to do with all the books and movies and stories that they'd grown up with about Svengali and people that put a potion in a drink and the person will go out and kill and then forget they've done it.  They began to think that what fiction writers could imagine, scientists could certainly do.  And they looked for a scientist who was a visionary chemist and also willing to overlook the ethical standards that most other people might feel they had to observe, and that's when they found this extraordinary figure, who is the center of my book, Sidney Gottlieb.

CH: And let's go back to right after the war because in this effort, they were recruit and whitewashed through what's called Operation Paperclip.  The--these war criminals who oversaw these medical experiments on whether it was in the concentration camps or in Manchuria in--with the Japanese occupied.  But talked a little bit about those figures who are--who are immediately whitewashed and brought into this effort.

SK: So Gottlieb's idea was that it--before you could find a way to insert a new mind into somebody's brain, you first had to find a way to blast away the mind that was in there.  You had to destroy a human psyche, and a human soul, and a human body if you could.  Where do we start?  Who's already an expert on this?  Oh, the doctors in the Nazi concentration camps and those that worked in the Japanese vivisection shop up in Manchuria.  So rather than hang those people, we decided we would hire them and they became the basis of the American mind-control program.

CH: And I just want to insert because it's in your book, and we got their research, the slides that had the human tissue which, as you point out in Japan, were often cut out of living human beings, you know.

SK: We had a great excitement actually at the prospect of being able to find the results of lethal experiments and the people who had conducted them became valued colleagues to the CIA doctors.  So I found in the course of researching my book what I think might be the first CIA secret prison in this lovely chalet in Germany which looks like it could be a bed and breakfast.  The young German businessman who owns it was very nice.  He took me into the house and he took me into the basement and he said these were the cells we're CIA doctors working with their Nazi counterparts carried out experiments that were just the continuation of experiments that went on in the concentration camps.  And he told me the older people in this neighborhood all know what happened in this house and they have told me that there are bodies buried in what used to be forests underneath what are now apartment blocks and shopping malls.

CH: Well, they had a term for them.  They would take these figures.  They'd call them Expendables, explain.

SK: This is really an amazing word that they started to use.  The people who they could torture to death or they could experiment to death were people that they called Expendables.  This is all over Europe and all over East Asia.  They were people who were either suspected enemy agents or refugees with no known connections to anybody who might complain.  In East Asia, many of them were captured North Korean prisoners of war.  And on these people, Sidney Gottlieb and the people who worked with him conducted the most extreme experiments on human beings that have ever been conducted by any officer or agency of the US Government.

CH: Now, explain what they did and what they were trying to achieve.

SK: So, the goal was to find a way to destroy a human mind.  Gottlieb set up two groups of projects, one in the United States and one abroad.  In the US, he liked to experiment on prisoners.

CH: African-American?

SK: Most normally.  In fact, that was the focus of one of the most bizarre experiments that he administered at a federal prison in Kentucky.  The doctor who worked with him segregated seven African-American inmates and fed them triple doses of LSD every day for seventy-seven days without telling them what it was or what might happen to them.  So this was an effort to see if that kind of abuse could destroy a person's mind.  And guess what?  It can.  It does.  We have no idea what happened to those seven men.  We don't know their names.  All those records were destroyed.  Then in Europe and in East Asia, Gottlieb's people were carrying out even more extreme experiments where they would actually torture people to death.  For example, in one set of experiments, the idea was take the Expendable, place him in a deep coma with barbiturates, then feed him massive over doses of stimulants.  And while he was in the transition phase from coma to hyperactivity, electroshock him and give him extremes of temperature, hot and cold alternating, to see if that would destroy a person's mind.  And again, guess what happened?  It did.  So after 10 years of this, in the early 1960s Sidney Gottlieb finally had to reach essentially two conclusions, number one, yes it is possible to destroy a human mind.  And he found many ways to do it and he left a trail of victims across those various countries.

CH: Many US citizens?

SK: Including US citizens.

CH: Eventually he's setting up what he calls safe houses in New York, and in San Francisco, in Marin County.  Explain that process.

SK: So, he was carrying out a series of experiments, he had a hundred and forty-nine of what he called subprojects and one of them was this idea to figure out whether sex and drugs combined could make people talk in different combinations.  And he set up a bordello in San Francisco on Telegraph Hill.

CH: And we have to talk about the guy who ran it.  It was White, right?

SK: So this federal narcotics agent named George Hunter White was recruited by Gottlieb to run the bordello in San Francisco.  It was called Operation Midnight Climax.  So George Hunter White was a law officer who lived well outside the law.  He seemed to be enforcing the law while he was breaking it all the time.  So he was a massive user of drugs and alcohol even though he was a drug agent.  He was…

CH: And had spent his previous time destroying the lives of jazz figures like Billy Holiday?

SK: He persecuted the jazz community in New York then he went out to San Francisco, recruited a group of prostitutes who were paid then to bring men back to this bordello on Telegraph Hill while George Hunter White, with no training in psychology or anything related to that would watch through a one-way mirror while sitting on his portable toilet and drinking martinis from a pitcher.  That's your tax dollars at work and that was a project aimed at fighting communism.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the extensive power of intelligence agencies and the invisible government with journalist and author Stephen Kinzer.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about US intelligence agencies and the invisible government with Stephen Kinzer.  So before the break, we were talking about The Bordellos in San Francisco, white.

SK: The conclusion that all these experiments led Gottlieb to at the end after 10 years was, as I said, first of all, I found lots of ways to destroy people physically and psychologically but I never found a way to put a new mind into the void that I created.  So essentially, he came to the conclusion that mind control is a myth and that his entire 10 years of wreaking this havoc on so many lives was for nothing.  It didn't produce anything.  However, later on, it turned out that some of the contributions he made to the CIA actually were quite lasting.  He wrote up a series of documents about the techniques of interrogation.

CH: But let's go--let's go back to Cameron.

SK: Uh-huh.

CH: Because it comes out of experiments that are being carried out at McGill University in Canada that--so they realize it's a ferret and they destroy their records as you point out in the book, so there's very little trace of--and people have to go back and look at the accounting records to kind of piece together, in many ways, clue-like what was done.  So they realize it's a failure.  And part of, as you write in the book, part of what they had sought to do was to erase the mind and reprogram it so that CIA agents could go out and commit assassinations, crimes, and then through induced narcotics, forget the very crimes that they had committed.

SK: Or that they wouldn't even have to be CIA operatives.  You could just be an ordinary person that you could program.

CH: Right.  And that's what they did in Vietnamese.  They put electrodes in the…

SK: They implanted electrodes in the prisoner's mind to see if they could get them to kill each other.

CH: Right, right.  And they gave them a knife--knives and they just sit in a room and they didn't.

SK: And then they were all shocked.

CH: Then they took the green berets out and executed them.

SK: Yeah.  Right.

CH: But let's go--let's talk, because--so they realize it's a failure.  They've, you know, destroyed lives and let's just mention the CIA scientist Olson and what happened.

SK: So one of the people in Gottlieb's small group began to have doubts about his work.  He was a chemist named Frank Olson who was working at Fort Detrick in Maryland which was Gottlieb's laboratory.

CH: And let's just throw in there, they were also having biological agents, sarin, all sorts of--at the same time, building this arsenal of biological weapons.

SK: I think Gottlieb knew more about poisons than any American, and quite possibly more than anybody in the world.  So Gottlieb developed this network of doctors who were willing to carry out these extreme experiments.  He didn't have the facilities in his own office to do this, so he subcontracted them out.  You mentioned Ewen Cameron.  This was a doctor who worked at McGill University in Canada.

CH: But let's go back to Olson first.

SK: Okay.

CH: And then go to Cameron.

SK: So Frank Olson had a crisis of conscience.  He went to Europe in the summer of 1953 and he saw people being tortured and perhaps tortured to death with poisons that he himself had devised.  This troubled him deeply.  He told people he had had enough and he was going to quit the CIA.  And he even told this to his colleagues in the CIA, so this news quickly got back to Gottlieb.

CH: And we should just throw in here, this was an ultra-secret operation that even at the highest levels of government, they knew about only vaguely, if at all.

SK: You're absolutely right.  The idea was that the people above Dulles--people above Gottlieb understood that Gottlieb was doing terrible things, and therefore better not to ask.  Just let him go out and do whatever he wants.  So Frank Olson was the only member of the group that suddenly was struck by conscience.  And a few weeks after he started expressing these ideas, he went out the window.

CH: Well, he was--the other thing…

SK: Oh, 13…

CH: …Gottlieb would do is surreptitiously give, including Olson, even members of his own staff LSD and then watch the effects.

SK: Gottlieb was fascinated by LSD.  And it only took--it was 22 years later that the family was told, actually, it wasn't just the suicide because Olson was depressed.  We have to confess.  We had surreptitiously given him LSD.  So actually, it was a bad trip that we helped format and the President of the United States Gerald Ford invited the family in to apologize, something that has never happened before.  But the family now believes that even that coming clean about the LSD was part of another cover up and that actually he didn't commit suicide for either of those reasons, and in fact didn't commit suicide at all but was helped out the window.

CH: And his son Eric exhumes his body, and what happens?

SK: They find in the exhumed body a giant bruise on the forehead.  And we have later discovered…

CH: And he landed on his back.

SK: We've later discovered an assassination manual written by Gottlieb at that time and it says that the most effective mechanism is throwing somebody from a high window or roof.  But first, you should disable him by hitting him on the forehead.  So everything seems to fit together very well.

CH: Well, and the forensic pathologist says that he believes that he was killed.

SK: And the New York City medical examiner is right now considering the possibility of reclassifying that from a cause unknown to homicide which would open up the case again.

CH: Okay.  Let's talk about McGill because this is really the understanding of how to break people down that has been carried on and with extraordinary rendition and went on about everything else.

SK: Exactly.  So, all of the techniques that Gottlieb used and wrote about became the basis for manuals that were used in Vietnam and Latin America and then in the Middle East.  Ewen Cameron was one of these doctors who was willing to carry out bizarre extreme experiments.  We know some of his work from the victims and…

CH: But weren't his records also destroyed?

SK: Yes.  However, some of the victims have come forward.  And we have this one woman whose husband was a member of the Canadian parliament, so he was able to pursue the case.  He wrote later that his wife was never again able to use a fork or recognize members of her family, so what happened to her?  She went into a psychiatric clinic asking for treatment for a minor ailment.  I believe it was postpartum depression.  Cameron saw her as a person he could grab for one of his experiments.  He put her into a coma that lasted for weeks while she was being blasted with bright lights from strobes and she was wearing headphones in which short phrases would be repeated tens of thousands of times like, "My mother hates me, my mother hates me."  She would then be taken out and given all sorts of drug cocktails and she was one of those people through whom it was proven that it is possible to destroy a human mind.  Now, it turns out that this woman's granddaughter is now an interesting artist in Canada and she's done a whole series based on the torments that her grandmother went through.  And in my book, the last photo in my photo section is one of her images that is intended to give you a sense of how Gottlieb's work had impacted--went way into the future.

CH: So--but they--the techniques are extreme isolation, sensory overload or deprivation, and you can, very quickly he found, reduce people essentially to a childlike state of total dependence on the interrogator.

SK: Dependence is the actual key.  That is--and he was the first CIA person to develop this idea that the way you make that person do what you want is to cut him off from all sensory stimulation and make him realize that you're his only path back to reality.  That is exactly what has been done in Vietnam, in Latin America, and now with great sophistication in places like Guantanamo.

CH: With the same--just an updated version of the same manual in essence?

SK: And that's one of the ways that Gottlieb's work still resonates to this day.  I would say it also resonates in a larger way which is that in those--in that period of the early Cold War, the US government was telling us that in this emergency situation, when the United States faced such an extraordinary threat, it was necessary to put aside some of the legal, and ethical, and moral considerations that as Americans, we normally observe all the time.  We're now being told the same thing.  There's always some sudden emergency that makes us vulnerable to being called now we have to have more surveillance, more control, less civil liberties.  And when this ends, everything will go back to normal, but of course, it never does.

CH: I think the takeaway from the book, which is great, is that you don't want to hand unlimited resources to security agencies and without any kind of oversight.  You had the church committee in the '70s that explored some of this.  But the attempt by Dianne Feinstein to examine the current techniques of torture by the CIA was essentially quashed.  So I think it's very naive to think that somehow this is, in many ways, history.  I think the importance of the book is that it's a window into what happens when these vast subterranean agencies are unmoored and can do whatever they want.

SK: You cannot read this book, and I can tell you, you certainly cannot write this book, without having this question come into your mind.  How vast is the secret apparatus that we don't see?  How many Gottliebs are there out there?  Today, the technology is so much further advanced, and the size of this bureaucracy is so massive that I think we are in a situation now that has even less control than the situation that Gottlieb lived through.  At least he was supervised by people who knew he was doing terrible things and didn't want to know about them, didn't want to hear the details.  Now, I don't think there's any committee, any group, or any individual that even knows a portion of what is going on behind closed doors.  So this book definitely, it's a window on a secret sphere at a certain moment, but it has to raise the question of what is that secret fear and how much of what shapes our lives and our world is shaped in complete secrecy.

CH: I just want to mention William Colby oversaw the Phoenix Program.  Danny Schechter used to call him was a Piano Wire Colby because they would send agents in with piano wire to strangle--they killed 20,000 supposedly Vietnamese sympathizers often after horrific torture.  And you mentioned it briefly in the book, but I found it very interesting, I believe his daughter dies, right?  And he begins to become introspective amazingly.  What happens?

SK: So Colby also, he lost his daughter.  He was Catholic.  He went through a kind of a religious rebirth.

CH: The former head of the CIA.

SK: Uh-hmm.  Even while he was at the CIA, he outraged the CIA establishment and particularly Richard Helms by being fairly candid with investigators.

CH: Well, they kept telling him to be quiet.

SK: He was testifying in front of the Rockefeller Commission and Nelson Rockefeller took him aside and said, "Don't tell us all these things."  That shows you how intent we were on actually getting to the truth.  So it's certainly true that there's no deep desire to want to find out these secrets.  And that I think is the real key.

CH: But you mentioned in the book that because he essentially was speaking publicly about what was happening internally, and his biographer believes he was murdered.

SK: He spoke more freely than the CIA wanted him to.  Would he have spoken more once he retired?  Nobody knows, because he had this odd canoeing accident where he suddenly disappeared and I know that even some members of his family doubt the official version.  You would think it would be crazy that the CIA would think of killing one of its own, but look at the Frank Olson story that happened here in New York, and a lot of things that you'd say that sounds too crazy don't sound crazy anymore after you read a book like mine.

CH: No.  Got to read the book.  Thanks, Steve.  That was Stephen Kinzer, journalist and author, speaking about his new book Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.