There are a number of prominent figures that were a part of MK Ultra, but the one person that led the pack is a man named Sidney Gottlieb. While Allen Dulles approved the MK Ultra project, it was Sidney Gottlieb, a poison expert within the CIA, that headed up the project. It only seems natural to start by telling Gottlieb's story and his role within the CIA and MK Ultra.
When looking into Gottlieb's life, I found that it was almost as though I was researching two different people. The dichotomy between who he was in the CIA and who he was outside of the CIA made me raise an eyebrow and check that I was still reading about the same person. In one paragraph, I would be reading jarring, stomach turning details about MK Ultra. But then the next paragraph would be about his kindness and generosity toward others.
Most of the early members of the CIA were upper crust members of society. It was also common for members to have a military background. Gottlieb different in both regards. Sidney Gottlieb as born in the Bronx to Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents. He had also been born with club feet and spoke with a stutter for his whole life. While he had surgeries as a young boy on his club feet, he still walked with a limp and was unable to serve in the military.
As a young adult, Gottlieb excelled in school. He attended City College of New York, Arkansas Tech University, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, and California Institute of Technology. While at UW Madison, Gottlieb earned his undergrad in chemistry magna cum laude. From Californai Institute of Technology, he earned his PhD in chemistry.
In 1951, at the age of 33, Gottlieb joined the CIA. With his outstanding chemistry background, he held a position as their poison expert. In addition, he headed the chemistry division of Technical Service Staff. It was only 2 years later, in 1953, that Project MK Ultra would begin. Gottlieb was the man who would head up the project.
There is a military base in Maryland called Fort Detrick that, from the beginning, the CIA has used to work on their biochemical tests and experiments. Early on, it was the location that the CIA selected to work on something called germ warfare. This was also where Gottlieb did his work.
MK Ultra was a secret project to more than just the general public. Within the CIA, only those involved with the project were to know about it. To keep the details of it hidden, Gottlieb created a small secluded area within Fort Detrick to work on MK Ultra with his small team from the Special Operations Division.
With it being so secretive, others within the CIA often wondered and speculated about what could be happening. Some suspected what they could be doing. But their work wasn't just eyebrow raising, it also often caused issues with other members of the CIA. Gottlieb and his team were known to run tests in labs that belonged to people that were not a part of the MK Ultra project. They had no knowledge about the project or what tests they were running. Gottlieb and his team would not ask permission or tell them what they were doing. They simply came in and ran their tests behind the person's back.
So what were Gottlieb and his team doing?
The experiments that Gottlieb and his team were running on people varied. Project MK Ultra is typically associated with the drug LSD, and while that was a part of it, there was also much more involved. As I explained from the speech Allen Dulles gave, there was a large interest in the concept of brain washing, brain changing, and brain warfare. While Dulled condemned those that were believed to be doing these experiments, he was also supporting Gottlieb to explore the same objectives.
To start, one needed to break a person's mind down, or "wash" their brain. There were a number of ways that this could be done. When trying to break down a person's mind, individuals wound undergo electroshock treatments (ECT), extreme temperatures, given different medications, sensory deprivation, etc. Typically a person would not experience just one of these, but rather a variety.
Who were the test subjects?
Most of the people that these tests were done on were unaware of what was being done to them. Most were prisoners or people sick in hospitals. Two of the more well known locations were a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia and an addiction research center in Lexington, Kentucky.
By the beginning of the 1950s, Gottlieb wanted to acquire all of the LSD in the world for his project. The CIA paid $240,000 (today would be about $2,593,075) to buy and acquire all of the LSD in the world. Once in his possession, Gottlieb spread it to the hospitals, prisons, and facilities that were his target locations. He arranged with them run a research project with the people at these locations to understand the drug and learn everything he could about it.
Not everyone underwent these tests without their knowledge. There were also people who would volunteer to take LSD to aid in this research. Among those that volunteered was well known author Ken Kesey.
The majority of what Gottlieb was doing was done unsupervised. While Allen Dulles approved the project, he very quickly turned a blind eye to the project itself. He didn't really want to know what was happening.
By the 1960s, Gottlieb focused a lot of his work on producing toxic materials that could kill leaders in other countries. Fidel Castro was one of his main targets. He created a variety of different options, but ultimately none were used to kill Castro.
Everything began changing in the 1970s. Starting in 1970, President Nixon ordered that all government agencies were to destroy all bio toxins. While everyone else went along with the order, Gottlieb didn't want to give in that easily. It had been his life's work and he couldn't stomach having it all destroyed. He went to the CIA director Richard Helms to try to find a way to save what he had created. Helms, however, knew that wasn't an option. Finally Gottlieb agreed to let it all go.
Or so he claimed.
While agreeing to Helms to have it all destroyed, he secretly ordered a couple of people from his team to sneak out something called saxitoxin. They managed to sneak out about 11g of it which was enough to kill approximately 55,000 people. After getting it out of Fort Detrick, they took the saxitoxin to the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington where they were able to hide it away in a warehouse.
Around that same time, Helms and Gottlieb realized that officials would come sniffing around about their secret project MK Ultra. The men agreed that it would be best to destroy all records of the project. Gottlieb himself went to the CIA records center to personally destroy all of the records. There were a small handful of records that the men missed. Thankfully historians have been able to use these records to piece together as much information as possible about this project. However, knowing that so many records were destroyed shows that there is so much more that we don't know and likely never will know about what happened.
In 1973, President Nixon had Richard Helms removed from the CIA. Not long after that, Gottlieb retired from the CIA before they got the chance to remove him as well. By 1975, officials found the hidden saxitoxin. By this time, Gottlieb had already been retired. The saxitoxin was destroyed.
In extreme contrast, Gottlieb spent his later years with his wife living in a remote cabin, essentially living off the land, and for a period of time running a leper hospital in India. He mostly led a quiet life after leaving the CIA and flew under the radar. But in the end, it isn't the good he has done for people that he is remembered for. Rather, it is the horrific things he did to others that he will forever be remembered for.
Until next time...