The Cold War Experiments
Radiation tests were only one small part of a vast research program that used thousands of Americans as guinea pigs.
U.S News and World Report, January 24, 1994.
By Stephen Budiansky, Erica E. Goode and Ted Gest
On June 1, 1951, top military and intelligence officials of the United States, Canada and Great Britain, alarmed by the frightening reports of communist success at ``intervention in the individual mind,'' summoned a small group of eminent psychologists to a secret meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal. The Soviets had gotten Hungary's Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty, an outspoken anti-communist, to confess to espionage, and they also seemed to be able to indoctrinate political enemies and even control the thoughts of entire populations. the researchers were convinced that the communists' success must be the fruit of some mysterious breakthroughs. By the following September, U.S. government scientists, spurred on by reports that American prisoners of war were being brainwashed in North Korea, were proposing an urgent, top-secret research program on behavior modification. Drugs, hypnosis, electroshock, lobotomy -- all were to be studied as part of a vast U.S. effort to close the mind-control gap.
New revelations that government cold war experiments exposed thousands of Americans to radiation have prompted fresh congressional inquiries, including a hearing last week on tests conducted on retarded children in Massachusetts. a Department of Energy hot line set to to handle calls from possible subjects of the tests has been swamped. But the radiation experiments are only one facet of a vast cold war research program that used thousands of Americans as guinea pigs.
From the end of world War II well in to the 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Defense Department, the military services, the CIA and other agencies used prisoners, drug addicts, mental patients, college students, soldiers, even bar patrons, in a vast range of government-run experiments to test the effects of everything from radiation, LSD and nerve gas to intense electric shocks and prolonged ``sensory deprivation.'' Some of the human guinea pigs knew what they were getting into; many others did not even know they were being experimented on. But in the life-and-death struggle with communism, America could not afford to leave any scientific avenue unexplored.
With the cold war safely over, energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has ordered the declassification of millions of pages of documents on the radiation experiments, and the administration is now considering compensating the hundreds of subjects of these odd and sometimes gruesome atomic tests. But the government has long ignored thousands of other cold war victims, rebuffing their requests for compensation and refusing to admit its responsibility for injuries they suffered. And the Clinton administration shows no sign of softening that hard line. ``We're not looking for drugs,'' says cabinet secretary Christine Varney. ``At least initially, we need to keep our focus limited to human radiation.''
In Clinton's court. Now, the only hope for thousands who were injured or who were experimented on without their informed consent is that President Clinton or Congress will take action to compensate the forgotten casualties of the cold war. Continued secrecy and legal roadblocks erected by the government have made it virtually impossible for victims of these cold war human experiments to sue the government successfully, legal experts say.
Despite the administration's reluctance, Congress may be moving to seek justice for all the government's cold war victims. ``It's not just radiation we're talking about,'' says Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, a former Marine and astronaut who is holding hearings on the subject this week. ``Any place government experimenting caused a problem we should make every effort to notify the people and follow up. We ought to set up some sort of review and compensation for those who were really hurt.''
Many of the stories of people whose lives were destroyed by mind-altering drugs, electroshock ``treatments'' and other military and CIA experiments involving toxic chemicals or behavior modification have been known for almost 20 years. But U.S. News has discovered that only a handful were ever compensated -- or even told what was done to them. ``There has essentially been no legitimate followup, despite the CIA's promise to track down the victims and see what happened to them,'' says Alan Scheflin, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School and an authority on cold war mind control research. ``It's just one of the many broken promises.'' A CIA spokesman last week said the agency is searching its files for radiation tests but has no plans to revisit other human experimentation.
MKULTRA. Most victims have never been informed by the government of the nature of the experiments they were subjected to or, in some cases, even fact that they were subjects. In a 1977 hearing, then CIA director Stansfield Turner said he found the experiments ``abhorrent'' and promised that the CIA would find and notify the people used in the tests. Turner last week insisted that ``they found everyone they possibly could find.'' But internal memos and depositions taken from CIA officials in a lawsuit against the agency in the 1980s reveal that of the hundreds of experimental subjects used in the CIA's mind-control program, code-named MKULTRA, only 14 were ever notified and only one was compensated -- for $15,000.
The 14 had all been given LSD surreptitiously by CIA agents in San Francisco in an attempt to test the drug in an ``operationally realistic'' setting. One of the victims, U.S. News discovered, was a San Francisco nightclub singer, Ruth Kelley, now deceased. In the early 1960s, according to a deposition from a CIA official who was assigned in the 1980s to track down MKULTRA victims, LSD was slipped into Kelley's drink just before her act at a club called The Black Sheep. The agents who had drugged her ``felt the LSD definitely took some effect during her act,'' testified Frank Laubinger, the official in charge of the notification program. One agent went to the bar the next day and reported that she was fine, though another recalled that she had to be hospitalized.
Most of the MKULTRA documents were destroyed in 1973 on orders of then CIA Director Richard Helms, and the records that remain do not contain the names of human subjects used in most of the tests. But they do clearly suggest that hundreds of people were subjected to experiments funded by the CIA and carried out at universities, prisons, mental hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers. Even so, according to Laubinger's 1983 deposition, ``it was decided that there were no subjects that required notification other than those in the [San Francisco] project,'' and the CIA made no effort to search university records or conduct personal interviews to find other victims. Admiral Turner, in his 1983 deposition, conceded that ``a disappointingly small number'' were notified but defended the agency's continuing refusal to declassify the names of the researchers and universities involved. ``I don't think that would have been necessarily the best way,'' Turner said. ``Not in the litigious society we live in.'' In 1985, the agency successfully appealed to the Supreme court to block release of that information.
One of the grisliest CIA-funded experiments -- and one of only a few suits that have led to successful lawsuits -- involved the work of a Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. Ewen Cameron. In the 1950s, Cameron developed a method to treat psychotics using what he called ``depatterning'' and ``psychic driving.'' According to a grant application he submitted in 1957 to the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, a CIA-funded front set up to support behavior-control research, the procedure consisted of ``breaking down of ongoing patterns of the patient's behavior by means of a particularly intensive electroshocks (depatterning)'' -- and in some cases, with repeated doses of LSD. This was followed with ``intensive repetition (16 hours a day for six or seven days)'' of a tape-recorded message, during which time ``the patient is kept in partial sensory isolation.'' Cameron's application proposed trying a variety of drugs, including the paralytic curare, as part of a new technique of ``inactivating the patient.''
The 56-day sleep. The analogy to brainwashing was obvious to the CIA, which provided a $60,000 grant through the human ecology society. Nine of Cameron's former patients, who had sought treatment for depression, alcoholism and other problems at the Allan Memorial Institute at McGill University, where Cameron was a director, filed a lawsuit against the CIA in 1979. One patient, Rita Zimmerman, was ``depatterned'' with 30 electroshock sessions followed by 56 days of drug-induced sleep. It left her incontinent; others suffered permanent brain damage, lost their jobs or otherwise deteriorated. The case, Orlikow v. U.S., was settled in 1988 for $750,000. (Cameron died in 1967.)
A more typical experience of those seeking recompense is that of Air Force officer Lloyd Gamble, who volunteered in 1957 to take part in a test at the Army Chemical Warfare Laboratories in Edgewood, Md. He told U.S. News that he was informed he would be testing gas masks and protective gear. Instead, he learned in 1975, he and 1,000 other soldiers were given LSD. ``If they had told me of the risks, I never would have done it,'' he says now. ``It was outrageous.'' He says after the test he was simply ``turned loose to drive from Aberdeen to Delaware'' while under the influence of LSD. ``I didn't even remember having been there.''
Gamble began suffering blackouts, periods of deep depression, acute anxiety and violent behavior. He attempted suicide in 1960, lost his top-secret security clearance and finally took early retirement in 1968. When he belatedly learned he had been given LSD, he sought recompense. The Justice Department rejected his request because the statute of limitations had expired; the Veterans' Administration denied disability payments, saying there was no evidence of permanent injury.
The Defense Department says Gamble signed a ``volunteer's participation agreement'' and that he received two LSD doses. Gamble and others were told that ``they would receive a chemical compound, the effects of which would be similar to those of being intoxicated by alcoholic beverages.'' Democratic Rep. Leslie Byrne of Virginia is sponsoring a bill that seeks $253,488 for Gamble; DOD opposes the bill, saying there is ``insufficient factual basis'' for compensation. Such ``private bills'' usually are difficult to pass in the face of executive branch opposition.
Unreasonable men? Other cases filed by prisoners or soldiers who were given a variety of drugs have been dismissed by judges who have ruled that although the subjects did not learn until the 1970s exactly what had been done to them, the side effects and flashbacks they experienced immediately after the tests should have prompted ``a reasonable man to seek legal advice'' at the time.
``The failure to notify and promptly compensate the people who were victimized by these cold war excesses is inexcusable,'' argues James Turner, one of the lawyers in the Orlikow case. But he says the courts and the agencies now have made it virtually impossible for a victim to succeed in a legal claim. ``Records are gone, key witnesses have died, people have moved; in the drug-testing cases, people are damaged in other ways, which undermines their credibility.''
The justifications offered for these tests cover everything from cloak-and-dagger schemes to discredit foreign politicians to training military personnel. The Army exposed as many as 3,000 soldiers to BZ, a powerful hallucinogen then under development as a chemical weapon. The drug attacks the nervous system, causing dizziness, vomiting, and immobility. Thousands more also participated in the Army's Medical Volunteer Program, testing nerve gas, vaccines and antidotes.
Talkative. The earliest behavior-control experiments were part of a 1947 Navy project called Operation CHATTER, which was seeking ``speech-inducing drugs'' for use in interrogating ``enemy or subversive personnel.'' The project was eventually abandoned because the drugs ``had such a bitter taste it was not possible to keep the human subjects from knowing'' they had been drugged.
But by 1952, undaunted by such setbacks, secret psychological research was booming. ``One of the problems we had all the way along was the ingrained belief on the part of [CIA] agents that the Soviets were 10 feet tall, that there were huge programs going on in the Soviet Union to influence behavior,'' John Gittinger, a CIA psychologist who oversaw the Human Ecology society's operations, told U.S. News.
A classified 1952 study by the U.S. government's Psychological Strategy Board laid out an entire agenda for behavior-control research. Calling communist brainwashing ``a serious threat to mankind,'' scientists urged that drugs, electric shock and other techniques be examined in ``clinical studies ... done in a remote situation.'' The report even mused about the potential of lobotomy, arguing that ``if it were possible to perform such a procedure on members of the Politburo, the U.S.S.R. would no longer be a problem to us,'' though it also noted that the ``detectability'' of the surgical operation made its use problematic.
Although there is no evidence that lobotomy experiments were ever performed, many other bizarre and intrusive procedures were. In 1955, the Army supported research at Tulane University in which mental patients had electrodes implanted in their brains to measure the LSD and other drugs. In other experiments, volunteers were kept in sensory-deprivation chambers for as long as 131 hours and bombarded with white noise and taped messages until they began hallucinating. The goal: to see if they could be ``converted'' to new beliefs.
As recently as 1972, U.S. News found, the Air Force was supporting research by Dr. Amedeo Marrazzi, who is now dead, in which psychiatric patients at the University of Missouri Institute of Psychiatry and the University of Minnesota Hospital -- including an 18-year-old girl who subsequently went into a catatonic state for three days -- were given LSD to study ``ego strength.''
Gittinger concedes that some of the research was quite naive. ``We were trying to learn about subliminal perception and all the silly things people were believing in at that time,'' he says. One study even tried to see if extrasensory perception could be developed by ``training'' subjects with electric shocks when they got the wrong answer. But ``most of it was exciting and interesting and stimulating, and quite necessary as it happens, during that period of time,'' Gittinger insists.
Another former CIA official, Sidney Gottlieb, who directed the MKULTRA behavior-control program almost from its inception, refused to discuss his work when a U.S. News reporter visited him last week at his home. He said the CIA was only trying to encourage basic work in behavioral science. But he added that after his retirement in 1973, he went back to school, practiced for 19 years as a speech pathologist and now works with AIDS and cancer patients at a hospice. He said he has devoted the years since he left the CIA ``trying to get on the side of the angels instead of the devils.''