The program developed out of another CIA project, Bluebird (begun in 1950 and renamed Artichoke in 1951), which was principally concerned with psychological manipulation and had concerns similar to the navy’s Project Chatter, which was begun in 1947 (lasting until 1953) and which dealt with the discovery and application of truth drugs similar to those that the Soviet Union was alleged to have developed. Both MK-ULTRA and Chatter expanded substantially during the Korean War because of the belief that Soviet forces had successfully used truth drugs and brainwashing techniques on prisoners of war.
MK-ULTRA was authorized by CIA Director Allen Dulles in 1953 and was put into effect by the director of operations, Richard Helms, as an “umbrella project” that combined the interests of Bluebird, Artichoke, and Chatter. Under the control of Dr. Sidney Gottlieb the program engaged in research on a range of projects relating to drugs, toxins, hypnotism, and other forms of behavioral modification.
This general focus on the transformation and control of personality has led to a widespread belief among conspiracy theorists that its military applications were actually a cover for attempts to pacify and control civilian populations, most notably the citizens of the United States.
Under Gottlieb, MK-ULTRA combined the psychological concerns of Bluebird/Artichoke with the interest in drugs found in the navy’s Project Chatter. The general aim of the project was to find ways of conditioning personnel to resist interrogation by hostile powers or to achieve the opposite through the development of control of individuals through interrogation, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and use of drugs.
There were many non-drug-related programs in the 149 subprojects that came within MK-ULTRA’s portfolio, some of which involved hypnosis, investigations of magic, studies of sleep patterns, research on brain concussion, research into stimulus and response in biological systems, radiation, ESP, electroshock therapy, and projects that simply involved funding actual operations or their extension abroad under the MK-NAOMI designation, for example those taking place at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal.
The drug programs have gained the most attention, however, in part because these were a development of overseas experiments that had already taken place regarding the use of sodium pentothal, but also because MK-ULTRA expanded the use of narcotic agents over the course of the program so that the CIA’s experimentation with drugs, in particular LSD, has become the bestknown area of the project in popular consciousness.
The development of LSD and its experimentation on members of the CIA, military personnel, and mental patients formed the early phase of MK-ULTRA’s investigation of drugs in the 1950s. Many of those involved in investigating its effects, such as Gottlieb himself, were habitual users of the drug, and stories of LSD-spiked drinks at parties form some of the most sensational aspects of this opening phase.
The main body of research, however, was performed on volunteer subjects who were tested in sensory deprivation chambers, under hypnosis, or who had aural stimuli played to them while dosed with LSD or other drugs such as mescaline. Some of the subjects, however, were tested without their consent, such as Frank Olsen, whose suicide as a result of a psychotic episode has been attributed to the fact that he was given LSD without his knowledge.
Another major part of the early phase was the testing of narcotics in government, medical, and educational institutions, with one of the first studies taking place at the National Institute of Mental Health’s Addiction Research Center in Lexington, where prison inmates serving sentences for drug violations were dosed with LSD in exchange for heroin.
The most notorious feature of MK-ULTRA, and the feature that is most commonly associated with it, is the testing of LSD in CIA-rented apartments in New York and San Francisco as part of Operation Midnight Climax, which formed the final phase of the program.
During this phase LSD was tested on unwitting subjects in everyday society by undercover agents (with the assent of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) who used prostitutes to bring men back to apartments with two-way mirrors where they were given LSD and their reactions were recorded.
This led to further tests and a more general distribution of LSD that has led to the general perception, as Lee and Shlain argue, that the CIA helped to create the 1960s counterculture or, alternatively, as Jim Keith asserts, that the counterculture was part of a CIA plot to channel youthful dissent into passive and nonviolent areas, with some of its key figures, such as Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary, acting as CIA agents or stooges to achieve this plan.
The MK-ULTRA program was brought to an end in 1963 and most of the papers relating to it were destroyed in 1973 on the orders of CIA director Richard Helms. The program was subject to several hearings in the 1970s, when knowledge of CIA involvement in mind control and in the development and distribution of LSD entered the public domain. The program was the subject of investigations by the Rockefeller Commission in 1975, the Church Committee in 1976, and hearings by Senator Edward Kennedy in 1975 and 1977.
The papers and reports from these investigations form the bulk of the material used by conspiracy theorists, although they usually quote from Marks’s The Search for the Manchurian Candidate or Bowart’s Operation Mind Control, rather than directly from their original source.
The revelations about MK-ULTRA have led to a range of conspiracy theories, mainly involving the attempts by various agencies or conspiracy groups to pacify and control the population of the United States through mind control and the release of drugs into the environment. Keith, for example, claims that MK-ULTRA is part of a larger New World Order plot and that there have already been attempts to use LSD to pacify large numbers of people in the New York subway system.
The factual basis of MK-ULTRA has been used to spin other elaborate plots, particularly when in conjunction with the mythical mind-control operation called “Project Monarch,” which, according to Ron Patton, is orchestrated by Nazis, occult groups, and the Illuminati, all of whom work in the service of the Antichrist rather than for any mere earthly power.