For ten years during the Cold War, the CIA conducted mind-control experiments on unsuspecting San Franciscans. Dubbed Operation Midnight Climax, the program was packed with salacious details: a power-mad narcotics agent, a brothel equipped with two-way mirrors, and gallons of LSD.
Top image: Surian Soosay/Flickr
Operation Midnight Climax was one of a few operations involving government-employed sex workers conducting business in "safe houses" as agents secretly watched; similar outposts existed in New York and in Stinson Beach, just north of San Francisco. The brothels/science labs were part of the CIA's sprawling, clandestine MKUltra initiative, the infamous "program of research in behavioral modification," of which LSD experiments were just one element. MKUltra thrived in the 1950s and '60s, a time in America when paranoia about the Soviet Union and communism in general was sky-high. Hey, if tinkering around with mind control could secure some kind of military advantage, what could be the harm?
The most notorious casualty of MKUltra — overseen by CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb, it ran from 1953-1973, though its schemes were curtailed drastically after 1963, when CIA staffer John Vance discovered and reported its existence — was probably Frank Olson.
Olson, a scientist who worked for the CIA, died in 1953 after crashing through his hotel room window and plunging to the NYC sidewalk below. His reasons for doing so (or whether he even did it of his own volition) have been the subject of much discussion and controversy. The only thing anyone can agree on is that nine days prior to his death, the well-liked family man unwittingly drank LSD-spiked Cointreau, supplied by Gottlieb, while at a work retreat at a lodge in rural Maryland.
Image: Shane Gorski/Flickr
On the West Coast, Operation Midnight Climax managed not to end any lives, although it did almost ruin some. In a 2012 interview with the SF Weekly, former U.S. marshal Wayne Richie recalled his own unwelcome brush with the program after a 1957 holiday party. Good cheer was flowing ... until Richie, who'd been sipping on bourbon and having a jolly time, started to trip out. He became paranoid. The military veteran and former Alcatraz prison guard had always been a law-abiding man, but on that night, in a frenzied state, he grabbed two service revolvers from his work locker with crime on his mind.
"I decided if they want to get rid of me, I'll help them. I'll just go out and get my guns from my office and hold up a bar," Ritchie recalls. "But I was unsuccessful."
It was over in a flash. A waitress came up behind him and asked Ritchie what he was doing. When Ritchie turned around, a patron hit him over the head and knocked him unconscious. He awoke to a pair of police officers standing over him.
Ritchie says he had expected to get caught or killed.
The judge went easy on him and Ritchie avoided prison. He resigned from the Marshals Service, pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery, paid a $500 fine, and was sentenced to five years' probation.
At the time of the SF Weekly story, Ritchie was identified as one of the last living victims of Operation Midnight Climax. His story is dramatic, but history remembers the program for its most prurient aspect, namely that many of its subjects (none of whom, not surprisingly, seem to have spoken on the record about their experiences) were johns visiting prostitutes in brothels that were decorated with velvet curtains and raunchy posters ... and secretly equipped with two-way mirrors and recording devices. The most famous address: 225 Chestnut Street, an unassuming dwelling in San Francisco's Telegraph Hill neighborhood.
The houses were set up by George Hunter White, a Bureau of Narcotics (now known as the DEA) agent who had become a CIA consultant of sorts. He was a singular character who "made that fruitcake Hoover look like Nancy Drew," according to a colleague, and he'd always have "a pitcher of martinis" ready for his own use while he conducted surveillance. His conduct on the clock sounds more like a Hollywood spy movie than anything that has any business being funded by the government:
Throughout the experiments, George White behaved like a power drunk sadist, reveling in his ability to foment debauchery ... The hookers would pour the johns LSD laced drinks. Meanwhile, White would sit and observe behind two way mirrors installed in the rooms. The drug took hold after some time and perversions quickly ensued. The rooms were fitted with listening and recording equipment, providing agents further lurid insights into minds of the drug addled johns.
Ostensibly, the objective of Operation Midnight Climax was to observe the effects of LSD, and to investigate whether it might have military applications. Could it enhance interrogations? Could it turn a soldier into a time bomb, a la The Manchurian Candidate? The nature of the experiment also allowed the CIA to study the use of sex as a tool of war, discovering, for instance, that "the postsexual, light-up-a-cigarette period was much better suited" to information-gathering than any other part of the encounter between prostitute and customer.
Naturally, any government program this bonkers was bound to come to a dramatic end, and Operation Midnight Climax, by way of MKUltra, was not helped by the fact that "LSD, radiation, and electroshock all ended up as dead ends in the quest for mind control." Though the CIA's Vance internally uncovered the program years prior, the public discovered MKUltra thanks to documents like 1974 Seymour Hersh's "Family Jewels" article in the New York Times and John Marks' 1979 book The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. In the late 1970s, US Senate hearings and declassified documents revealed even more about this bizarre chapter in US intelligence history.
Even with that said, we may never know the full, complete saga of Operation Midnight Climax. (Would we want to?) The least shocking element in this entire story is that many, if not most, of the key MKUltra documents were conveniently destroyed in 1973, at the instruction of then-CIA director Richard Helms.