There are stories that have come to light, over the years, that make the Central Intelligence Agency look like a collection of Looney Tunes shorts. The violence, the slapstick, and the over-the-top ridiculousness of the experiments that have been conducted over the years boggle the mind. They came from the (slightly-boggled) mind of one man: Sidney Gottlieb.
Top image via National Geographic
Sidney Gottlieb proved to the world that there are few things more dangerous than a chemist with a metaphysical streak - especially if he collects a few thwarted ambitions. Born in 1918, he was deemed physically unfit for duty in the Second World War. Instead of going to war, he went to the University of Wisconsin, and graduated with a degree in chemistry. His degree didn't help him into the army, but it did interest the CIA.
The Central Intelligence Agency, barreling into the Cold War, was trying to devise new ways to get an advantage over the enemy. Old warfare strategies wouldn't work. They had to brainstorm new ones. It's said that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. The CIA, at the time, seemed set out to prove that there were no bad ideas at all. And Gottlieb was just the guy to try to help them.
The Possibilities of LSD
Gottlieb used LSD in many of his brainstorming sessions, and unsurprisingly the ideas that came from those sessions revolved around using more LSD. His ideas were ill-defined. Clearly he felt LSD was helpful in bringing about new ideas, but it was clear that he also believed that it could be used to control the mind as well. This idea caught on at the CIA, and over two decades, Gottlieb oversaw project MKUltra.
MKUltra was a nebulous plan to dose pretty much anyone the project could get its hands on with LSD. In San Francisco, prostitutes paid by the CIA secretly gave their clients LSD and dropped them in a room with a two-way mirror to let agents observe what happened to them. In Kentucky, mental patients were dosed with LSD, supposedly as part of their treatment. Around the country, prisoners were given LSD and subjected to mind-control experiments. The CIA even tried to discredit Fidel Castro by dousing a TV station in which he was about to give an interview in LSD.
The project was an unqualified failure. One person died (not Castro), many had lasting mental damage, and quite a few went on to sue the nation when the records eventually went public. LSD, Gottlieb found, did make some people more suggestible, but it did not give anyone the ability to 'control' someone's mind - at least not to get any kind of predictable action as a result.
When Gottlieb wasn't trying to break someone's brain, he was trying to poison people. He was the one to come up with the infamous 'poison cigar' and 'exploding seashell' gags which failed to take out Fidel Castro. When he didn't aim to kill, he simply aimed to annoy. He wanted to spray thallium on Castro's shoes. Supposedly this was to make his beard fall out, but more likely it was yet another murder plot. Thallium is an element that is so toxic it has earned the nickname of "The Poisoner's Poison," or "Inheritance Powder." Although it can be treated with dialysis or chemicals that absorb the element, thallium isn't just a depilatory.
One idea Gottlieb oversaw, meant to poison Castro, was instead used on an Iraqi general. It involved a poisoned handkerchief tucked into a suit pocket. It did not work. Another failed assassination scheme involved a tube of poisoned toothpaste meant for Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo. This toothpaste was meant to be doused with a biological agent, rather than a chemical one. This was a bit outside Gottlieb's experience, so he experimented with many different possible agents, including smallpox, tuberculosis and equine encephalis. Lumumba eventually died in 1961, the victim of an uprising against him.
The Things We Won't Know
Before Gottlieb left the CIA in 1972 to (no kidding) work with lepers in India, he became the head of the Technical Services Staff. There, with access to records, he destroyed about eighty percent of extremely damaging files, many of them about his own projects. This is frustrating for those who want to know the facts.
For others, it's just a goad. If we know about plans for poison toothpaste and LSD-covered TV studios and exploding sea shells - what have we missed?