As the fear of communism was rising in the U.S. after World War II, government officials set their sights on developing a weapon that sounds straight out of science fiction: mind control. This effort was led by the CIA in a program called MK-ULTRA, which was made up of 149 "subprojects" involving more than 80 academic institutions, prisons, and organizations. In this episode, we learn the dark history of MK-ULTRA and examine the origins of Subproject 68: Dr. Ewen Cameron's experimentation on patients at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal.
"Madness: The Secret Mission for Mind Control and the People Who Paid the Price" — an investigative series in 5 parts — unravels the shocking history of CIA-funded mind-control experiments. This is Part 3. If you haven't heard Parts 1 or 2 yet, you can find them here and here.
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- The CIA And The Cult Of Intelligence (1974) by John Marks and Victor Marchetti
- The Search For The Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control (1979) by John Marks
- Poisoner In Chief: Sydney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control (2019) by Stephen Kinzer
- 1977 coverage from The New York Times about John Marks' investigative reporting
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Your ability to put yourself in a mindset of constant, existential dread has a lot to do with your place in the world and the time you’re living in. In the years after World War II ended, a lot of people felt relief. War was over.
(a newsreel plays)
News anchor: This is operation homecoming, the last official mission of the all American Eighty Second Airborne Division. Their objective...
Ben: But at the same time, the end of the war saw the first atomic bombs detonated, and the discovery of mass murder and horrible human experimentation in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.
Amory Sivertson: And while the Nazis had been defeated by the allied powers in the West, there was a new threat on the horizon to the East: the Soviet Union. By the late 1940s, the US government was focused on the next war. A war that could include nuclear weapons.
Stephen Kinzer: Americans were taught during that period that the Soviet Union was about to devastate us at any moment and could, with the flick of a switch, not only destroy our country, but wipe away any possibility for meaningful human life on earth forever.
Amory: That is author, former New York Times reporter and bureau chief Stephen Kinzer, who says the weapons of the next big war imagined by the US government weren’t just massive bombs. People in the Central Intelligence Agency, newly formed in 1947, were worried about something much more insidious.
Ben: The CIA had witnessed two events on the world stage directly after World War II that had the spooks spooked. The first was the testimony of a witness. In 1949 the Roman Catholic bishop of Hungary was hauled up on the stand in a show trial run by communist powers there. He was facing charges for crimes he did not commit. Weirdly he confessed anyway. It sparked a reaction around the world. Weirder still to CIA operatives and others watching the trial, was the bishop’s behavior on the stand.
Kinzer: He spoke in a monotone, seemed a little bit glazed. They looked at his face, they saw him confessing, and they thought somebody else is controlling this guy's mind!
Cardinal Spellman (in archival video): Cardinal Mindszenty became the victim of torturings and druggings that put him beyond the reach or realm of human help. No, the physical Cardinal Mindszenty cannot be saved.
Ben: The other strange occurrence was something that CIA officers supposedly witnessed among prisoners of war coming back from Korea. It wasn’t made public at the time, but some soldiers who had traveled from North Korea through China on their way home had reportedly developed what was dubbed a quote blank state. They also made surprising statements.
Kinzer: Some of them denounced the United States for what it had done in Korea. Some said nice things about Communism. So what could have made these Americans behave this way? The answer had to be, in the mind of the CIA, mind control! So with this, the CIA was electrified!
Amory: Powerful people in the US government were scared. But so were a lot of other powerful people, who saw communism as the antithesis of democracy.
Dr. Ewen Cameron (from 1955 speech): Just hue to the party line and all will be well. Devote yourself and all will be forgiven. One can see that the road here passes very quickly over to authoritarianism with its insistent urge to undermine the whole democratic system.
Ben: That is not a government agent. At least, it’s someone who may not have known he was a government agent. That is Dr. Ewen Cameron. Far away from the CIA’s American headquarters, Cameron was conducting experiments with mind-bending drugs in Montreal on people who had come to him for treatment.
Sarah Anne Johnson: The LSD made her feel like her bones were melting like she was a squirrel trapped in a cage, like she wanted to get out of her own skin and she couldn't get out of her own skin. And it made her feel crazy.
Amory: But Dr. Cameron wasn’t just one bad apple using questionable techniques at a prestigious Montreal university hospital. Whether he knew it or not, he was doing the work of a secret government program to experiment with psychedelic drugs and torture.
Ben: A program designed to win an arms race and find a way to control minds for creating new, human weapons, weapons that would help the West fight the Cold War. A war that powerful people felt the West had to win.
Kinzer: When the stakes are that high, people tend to put aside normal ethical and moral and legal considerations.
(theme music plays)
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson, and you’re listening to Endless Thread, the show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Ben: We’re bringing you Part 3 of a special series: Madness — The secret mission for mind control and the people who paid the price.
Ben: Anyone who has dabbled in the world of conspiracy theories, from aliens at Area 51 to the Illuminati controlling geopolitics with the help of Jay-Z, Beyonce and their baby girl Blue Ivy knows about MK ULTRA.
Amory: But while some of those other ideas are pretty thin on credible evidence, sorry guys, the U.S. government’s mind control efforts? That’s real. It’s a well-documented piece of American history.
Ben: Well-documented enough that it’s constantly seeping into pop culture. It’s part of our collective psyche. Like the brilliant, edgy animated American Spycraft TV show on FX, Archer, which perfectly summarizes the origins and impact of the CIA’s Mind Control Program in a conversation between a few of the show’s main characters.
Lana Kane: Wait, MK-ULTRA, that was the CIA's mind-control program, right?
Slater: Yeah, it's since been, uh, discredited, but-
Sterling Archer: Discredited for being batshit-crazy! And for being in direct violation of the Nuremberg Code, which was written because of medical experiments by Nazi war criminals, many of whom, after World War II, spoiler alert, came to work for the C-I-goddamn-A!
Lana: Wait, what?
Slater: Look, the Soviets were kicking our ass in the Cold War. Our scientists had to think outside the box.
Archer: Oh, is that the box where they kept informed consent? Because I'm pretty sure that all those mental patients the CIA force-fed LSD didn't give it!
Lana: Wait, what!?
Amory: Archer’s doing 30 years of history in 30 seconds. But its writers know their stuff. And they’re talking about a part of history that many of us don’t have top of mind. Because the CIA did everything it could to sweep this under the rug. When Americans eventually learned about MK-ULTRA in the 1970s it was a huge scandal. It’s just, there have been a lot of scandals since.
Ben: But our scandal at the CIA was part of how Dr. Ewen Cameron conducted his experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute. And why so few people know about his work today. So we need a more in-depth history lesson on America’s mind control mission. And for that, you want to hear from someone who has two thumbs and a boatload of knowledge about America’s Cold War efforts. Back to Stephen Kinzer.
Kinzer: I'm the author of Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.
Ben: Kinzer’s book paints a pretty dark picture of the impact of the CIA’s covert operations… and that is saying something.
Ben: And I feel like I'm a pretty optimistic person. But reading your book, I feel kind of disillusioned about the arc of American power. So job well done, I guess.
Kinzer: Welcome to the club.
Ben: Kinzer connects the creation of the CIA itself to our government’s struggles to put up a fight against Hitler and the Third Reich in World War II.
Amory: But by the time the CIA was founded in 1947, Kinzer says the U.S. government was already doing something that seems unthinkable.
Kinzer: So under an American program called Operation Paperclip, hundreds of Nazis came into the United States, including some of the most notorious Nazi scientists. Those that didn't enter the U.S. came to work for the U.S. abroad. So the surgeon general of the Nazi Army, General Walter Schreiber, came to work for the CIA.
Amory: Even people who designed biological weapons and conducted abhorrent experiments in concentration camps were getting recruited to new jobs and new lives in the US. The rocket scientists went to Texas. The biological weapons scientists went to a place called Camp Detrick, which is now Fort Detrick in Maryland.
Kinzer: Allen Dulles, who was the CIA director during the 1950s, concluded, I think quite correctly, that any nation that could master the tools of mind control could control the whole world. And so not realizing or wanting to admit that that was an impossible goal, he set as a very top priority at the CIA to search for ways to control a human mind, and any intensity of experiments was going to be permitted because the urgency of the project was so overwhelming.
Amory: The person who came to run that effort was a man named Sidney Gottleib, a scientist who had helped the U.S. develop biological weapons during World War II. But he quickly moved over to the new directive. In 1953, that directive got a name: MK-ULTRA.
Kinzer: When you are researching MK-ULTRA, I can tell you, very quickly you're only just a few clicks away from the wildest conspiracy theories which seem, needless to say, a lot less wild the deeper you get into the project.
Ben: MK-ULTRA is now a favorite set of letters for conspiracy theorists in real life and on The X-Files, where the conspiracy theorist is Agent Mulder.
(The X-Files plays)
Fox Mulder: The DoD and the CIA have been working on various incarnations of mind control projects since the '50s. Project BLUEBIRD, MK-ULTRA, MK-DELTA...
Ben: MK ULTRA gets associated all the time with stuff that goes beyond outlandish and into straight up fiction.
Amory: But the letter scramble itself was chosen quite carefully. MK denoted which part of the CIA controlled it, the Technical Services Division.
Ben: And ULTRA was the code word for the most highly classified intelligence of World War II. A nod to the program’s true origins, extreme human experiments in concentration camps.
Kinzer: So there really was a direct line between the Nazi camps and MK-ULTRA experiments.
Ben: Gottleib and others at the CIA had discovered that the best information about mind control came from the Nazis who had supposedly found success experimenting with a powerful psychedelic compound called mescaline.
Amory: Another discovery in Switzerland in 1938 had shown similar promise in mind-alteration, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, LSD. As a trained biochemist, Gottleib was very interested.
Kinzer: He wanted to experiment with any combination of drugs he could find. He even sent agents all over the world to find bark, moss, gallbladders of crocodiles, fishtails, anything that was highly toxic. And he would refine this in his laboratory.
Amory: When LSD arrived at Gottleib’s lab it seemed like a potential game changer for the mind control mission — not just to him, but to the whole division.
Kinzer: He and other scientists really believed that LSD could be, as one of his colleagues put it, the key that could unlock the universe.
Amory: People at the CIA imagined all sorts of applications. Among the people in government who had been focused on making germ warfare in World War II, it was a potential peace-maker that could be delivered via LSD bomb to an entire population, rendering soldiers and civilians alike docile and malleable.
Kinzer: Then, they thought, the soldiers would begin to think their weapons are hydrangeas and the people on the other side of the battle line were actually their blood relatives. The war would stop.
Amory: But others thought LSD was a better tool used on individuals, controlling spies or turning them into double agents.
Kinzer: So in 1953, Gottlieb persuaded the CIA to buy the entire world's supply of LSD.
Ben: A decade later LSD would be freeing minds in America, but it came to America to control minds. And in the 1950s, long before LSD was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the CIA needed test subjects.
Amory: So they started secretly funding research all over the place. Like an Atlanta prison, where notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger was reportedly given 50 doses of LSD, along with a handful of other prisoners. They were told they were helping find a cure for schizophrenia, but they weren’t told what they were even being injected with.
Ben: Bulger wrote about the experience a year before he died. He said, “The room would change shape. Hours of paranoia and feeling violent. Guys turning into skeletons in front of me. I saw a camera change to the head of a dog. I felt like I was going insane.”
Amory: Something similar happened at a prison in Lexington, Kentucky.
Kinzer: Seven African-American inmates were selected from the population and put in a cell and then given triple doses of LSD every day for 77 days without being told what it was or what to expect.
Ben: As MK-ULTRA ramped up and up it ballooned to 149 so-called Subprojects. There was Subproject 3, AKA Operation Midnight Climax, where prostitutes lured clients to CIA safehouses, dosed them with drugs, and tried to blackmail them. All of this was observed with hidden cameras and the CIA studied the results.
Amory: Or Subproject 19, where the CIA hired a magician to teach officers how to incorporate aspects of magicians’ craft into clandestine operations.
Ben: They were desperate, which brings us to Subproject 68: The experiments at the Allan.
Kinzer: Gottleib was always interested in keeping up to date with modern scientific developments. And he sent officers to penetrate different medical associations. And he did send an officer to that convention of the American Psychological Association in 1954.
Ben: The CIA officer observing the conference at the hotel in 1954 perked up when he heard about a psychologist named Donald Hebb, who was experimenting with sensory deprivation at McGill University in Canada.
Kinzer: And it was through that that he came to understand that beyond Hebb there was another doctor who was conducting even more intense experiments that made him all the more interesting to the CIA.
Amory: That other doctor? Ewen Cameron. Coming up, Cameron, the CIA, and the investigative journalist who blew the doors open on MK-ULTRA two decades after the program began.
Kinzer: MK-ULTRA is almost too unbelievable to believe.
Amory: Stephen Kinzer again, who says that in the 1950s, the men running a program that would become notorious for how out there it was, felt like they’d hit the jackpot with Dr. Ewen Cameron.
Kinzer: Ewen Cameron carried out what we can now guess in retrospect were some of the most horrifically brutal medical experiments ever connected to MK-ULTRA. Nothing more or less than medical torture and they had no scientific validity whatever. In fact, you could practically use those same phrases for the entire MK-ULTRA project. It was Cameron who took it to its most grotesque extremes.
Ben: Again, the question is why? And the answer seems to be that these experiments were the CIA’s best chance of unlocking what they called the key to the universe: mind control.
Amory: How important was Cameron to the work that the CIA was doing?
Kinzer: Cameron was an integral part of Gottlieb's efforts to explore the outer limits of mind control. Cameron didn't seem to have the slightest hesitation about destroying the lives of his subjects. That was something that Gottlieb really enjoyed.
Amory: Of course, nobody was ever supposed to know any of this.
Kinzer: Even when Gottlieb was finally called to account in the 1970's and had to testify and appear in public, nobody understood what MK-ULTRA was. He had been successful by destroying the records of MK-ULTRA as he left the CIA and only left some scraps for the rest of us.
Ben: After two decades, another journalist found the scraps of this secret CIA project. His reporting in the 1970s led to the release of the only surviving documents about MK-ULTRA. And exposed this infamous program for the first time. That journalist is John Marks.
John Marks: So when that happened I got a call from a publisher in New York right after that and said we’d like to give you an advance to write a book about this stuff.
Amory: John actually wrote two relevant books: The Search for the Manchurian Candidate and a book he co-authored, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. John Marks is a big deal.
Ben: But In the 1970s, John Marks was just doing what investigative journalists do best, submitting Freedom Of Information Act requests, which had only recently become possible thanks to the Freedom of Information Act in 1967. He was trying to access documents related to CIA abuses. And he was getting zilch, because any time he wanted previously classified documents, the CIA told him, you have to be more specific.
Marks: And how could you be specific when the things you're asking about were secret?
Amory: John Marks wasn’t alone. A lot of people were scrutinizing secret government operations around this time. 1975 saw several committees set up to investigate allegations of abuses of power. It would later be called “The Year of Intelligence.”
Frank Church (from 1975 report): The committee does not believe that the acts which it has examined represent the real American character.
Ben: Marks was combing through a recent report from a commission on intelligence abuses and found something intriguing, a paragraph, which mentioned a program deep within the CIA that gave a man LSD. And that man, Frank Olson, had jumped out a window and died.
Broadcaster: And before his CIA escort could prevent him, he ran right through a closed hotel window, which had the shades drawn over it. The window gave way and the employee fell 10 stories to his death.
Ben: So Marks FOIA’d the CIA saying, please give me all the documents you gave the commission on this program.
Marks: They wrote back to me, we didn't give any documents to the Rockefeller Commission about that particular paragraph. So I thought that was pretty interesting. And I told the Washington Post that and they put it into a story. And within a few days, the CIA notified me that they had found, I think, 13 boxes of documents that were responsive to that request.
Ben: Well, how convenient.
Marks: Yes. No, it was quite interesting.
Ben: Marks eventually realized he was looking at something much bigger than a few experiments gone wrong. He was dealing with scores of special projects, often secretly funded by the CIA through shell companies and organizations all connected to more than 80 academic institutions, prisons, organizations all over the country and the world. It was sweeping.
Marks: The CIA was trying to frame this as a L.S.D. testing program, which had a sensational side to it. You know, the gang that couldn't spray straight. And what it really was, was a much more serious program to manipulate and control human behavior.
Amory: The LSD tests the CIA disclosed were treated as a limited experiment, but Marks thought the full program was way bigger. So he set out to find out everything he could about the people involved, starting with the 13 boxes of documents from the CIA.
Amory: Can you say just a little bit more about what was in the documents that you were able to get?
Marks: It was mostly the financial records. But in the financial records there is always a justification of what the program was. And mostly they redacted that kind of thing. And so my job as an investigative reporter was to put back in the names. And because in those days it was before computers were doing the typing, they had done the redaction with crayons. And sometimes they would leave a letter out and you could measure how many letters were in there. We would know, for example, a particular scientist involved name started with B and ended in N and had maybe seven letters in it. And we would go to the scientific journals and we would find somebody like Maitland Baldwin, which happens to fit. And because of the CIA’s sloppy redaction, we were able to put a lot of the names back in.
Ben: Eventually this led Marks to a lot more information, including the name Dr. Ewen Cameron, and the name of the organization that the CIA had set up to secretly funnel money into research like Cameron’s, the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology.
Amory: The Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. It sounds bogus now, but at the time, it was overseen by a neurologist at Cornell University Medical School. It seemed legit. Still, Marks had a hunch. So he called up an anonymous source. A former CIA psychologist he called “Deep Trance.”
Marks: And I told him, what do you know about Dr. Cameron? And he said to me, I didn't think you would ever ask me! You're getting warm.
Ben: It turns out the director of the so-called Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology had approached Cameron to apply for funding for brainwashing experiments. And in his grant application, Cameron detailed the exact components of his techniques: depatterning and psychic driving, right down to his plans to use the CIA’s new favorite secret weapon, LSD, to break down ongoing patterns of behavior in his subjects.
Amory: The CIA, via this shell organization, accepted Cameron’s application. And sent him what would now be over a half a million Canadian dollars — a good chunk of his overall funding, over a period of four years.
Marks: Once I knew that Dr. Cameron was getting this CIA money, I started looking at his research and the best source of stuff on information on Dr. Cameron was the articles he wrote in the professional journals. He used a lot of scientific gobbledygook, so nobody called him on. But everything he was doing was listed in the journals. The prolonged electroshock, putting people to sleep for 60-odd days, that sort of thing was in the journals. They just had a lot of names on it that didn’t make much sense unless you were paying very close attention. So, afterwards, when I interviewed people from around the hospital who had been there, they said they were afraid of him and they didn't want to question his methodology, but they tried to assure me that they didn't agree with what he was doing. Alot of the medical personnel were terrified by him.
Ben: Why do you think MK-ULTRA officials thought it was a good idea to conduct brainwashing experiments outside of the U.S.?
Marks: Well, U.S. laws didn't apply and there were real differences on what they would do to an American and what they would do to a foreigner.
Ben: And that includes Canada and Canadians?
Marks: Let's just say it's a little safer. As one of the CIA sources I interviewed said, we couldn't do this kind of experimentation on housewives in northern Virginia.
Amory: This statement is probably particularly poignant to the family of Velma Orlikow, a housewife in Canada, whose husband David Orlikow, a member of Canada’s Parliament, opened up the paper one day and saw something that would change their family forever, a story based on some of the investigative work John Marks had been doing.
Sarah Anne Johnson: My grandpa was reading the Sunday New York Times and there was an exposé on CIA funding and he recognized some of the fake foundation names as to do with the hospital and called the reporter and then, yeah that's how they discovered the truth.
Ben: Sarah Anne Johnson is the granddaughter of Velma, or Val, and David Orlikow. When Val was in her 30s, in the early years after giving birth to Sarah’s mom, she was suffering from what would now be called postpartum depression.
Sarah: No one really knew what to do with her. And one of the doctors she saw suggested she admit herself to the Allan because it was very well-renowned at the time.
Amory: This was the beginning of a huge disruption in the Orlikow family, based around Val’s treatment at the Allan Memorial Institute. What started out as postpartum depression became a years-long quest for mental health.
Sarah: She was involved with the hospital off and on for three years, and then she continued to see Dr. Cameron’s private practice for a couple years after that. She was an inpatient for not even a year, but then it was too expensive. They actually couldn't afford it. Thank goodness. Because if she had been an inpatient, then she would have been put into the sleep room and had that sleep therapy. She didn't get that. Instead, she got an apartment near the hospital and would come in for daily treatment. She'd spend her days there.
Ben: Sarah says her grandmother was asked to write detailed entries on her feelings and her treatment in personal journals.
Sarah: She was writing them for him to read. So they started off like, “Dear Dr. C.” And so sometimes she'd be talking to him saying I'm so angry at you right now. I'm trying so hard. Nothing's good enough for you, etcetera, giving him God-like status, putting him up on such a pedestal and it just kind of flips between the two.
Amory: The therapy was challenging, especially considering the treatments involved. Dr. Cameron was depatterning Val Orlikow, supposedly trying to erase the parts of her personality that led to her depression. Followed by efforts to reprogram her, psychic driving.
Sarah: And then the psychic driving was LSD injections and these recordings that you had to listen to over and over again.
Ben: Val hated these treatments. It’s easy to see why.
Sarah: One of the recordings that my grandmother had to listen to was Dr. Cameron saying to her, you are a hostile person. You are hostile to the doctors, you're hostile to the nurses. Why are you so hostile? Is it because you hate your mother? She had to listen to this recording over and over and over again and write down like a kind of stream of conscious thoughts on it.
Ben: But in an era where women had much less agency when it came to medical care, Val Orlikow’s feelings about her own care were effectively dismissed.
Ben: Why do you think your grandma was so determined to stick with the treatment if it was clearly making her miserable?
Sarah: Because everyone she knew was telling her that that's what she needed. The doctors were telling her that's what she needed. The nurses were telling her that's what she needed. Her husband was telling her that's what she needed. So when everyone in your world is telling you, “It can't be that bad. Trust your doctor, your doctor knows best. If you really cared about your family, you would do this.” So she stayed with it.
Ben: Val Orlikow’s treatment effectively destroyed the family’s finances. But according to them, it also destroyed the fabric of the family itself. Starting with Val’s behavior when she eventually came back home. And what David Orlikow would do with Val’s baby daughter, Sarah’s mom, to prevent disaster.
Sarah: My grandpa would put my mother in front of the door so that my grandmother couldn't leave the house when she was threatening to run away and kill herself.
Amory: Sarah was 13 when Val died. She’s an artist now, and she’s made work inspired by everything that happened to her grandmother. It’s allowed her to talk with her own mother about what the family experienced.
Ben: But even Sarah has days when she doesn’t want to talk about any of this, especially on the record.
Sarah: I mean, I don't know that you know this, but I said no a couple times to doing this one because I don't want to do these anymore. They're hard.
Sarah: They're hard. And I hate doing them. And I feel like speaking for my whole family and I don't know. Just the whole weight of it is just difficult.
Amory: It is possible that Sarah is still talking about this because she feels like justice still hasn’t been done. Justice was something that her grandmother wanted too.
Ben: Why do you think it was so important to your grandmother, for the U.S. government and the CIA and the Canadian government to apologize officially?
Sarah: Because she was a pacifist and she was disgusted and mortified that she'd been used as a guinea pig to create basically human weapons of war to create better soldiers.
Ben: This is why Val Orlikow, the housewife of a canadian politician who was the victim of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s CIA-funded human experiments, decided to fight.
Sarah: I knew that my grandmother was going after the CIA. I didn't understand exactly what the CIA was, but I knew that they were big and they were government and they were bad and they were American. I was young, I couldn't understand what all that meant. But I knew that my grandmother was doing something huge. And I was very proud of her for that.
Amory: Next time, Orlikow vs. United States.