Project MKUltra And The CIA Plot To Defeat The Soviets With Mind Control

Published October 31, 2017
Updated July 26, 2019
Published October 31, 2017
Updated July 26, 2019

From LSD to hypnosis to self-deprivation tanks, the real events of Project MKUltra were wilder than any movie or TV show could ever depict.

Project MKUltra File

Wikimedia Commons A declassified document detailing Project MKUltra’s mind control experiments. Some information has been redacted.

The CIA maintains that they never set out to hurt anybody.

Their plan for Project MKUltra had been to research, observe, and ultimately find a way to gain a military advantage over the Soviet Union.

But somewhere down the line, something was compromised. The most horrendous experiments, meant to be theoretical, started to become real, and human beings were dragged into the project as subjects, often without their consent.

No one was supposed to know. The project was treated with such secrecy that it was given multiple code names. In the end, all the records pertaining to it were destroyed by the director of the CIA himself — that is, all but a small misfiled cache.

In 1975, the surviving documents were discovered in a financial records building and later released under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The public now has access to 20,000 documents, a very small percentage of the original records: all that remains of what is arguably one of the largest and most heinous government cover-ups of all time.

They tell the strange and stomach-churning story of the U.S. government’s attempt to develop mind control.

Before MKUltra, There Was Operation Paperclip

MKUltra Redacted Document

Wikimedia CommonsA redacted MKUltra project document.

It’s unlikely that Project MKUltra’s mind control experiments would have been possible without the groundwork laid by Operation Paperclip.

Started by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency in 1945, Operation Paperclip was a project designed to harness German intelligence to expand America’s weapons program and gain an advantage over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.

Paperclip involved bringing German scientists to the U.S. to work on government projects — though President Truman was adamant that no Nazis or Nazi sympathizers should be employed.

But the intelligence officials running the project, determined to outpace the Soviets at any cost, simply expunged the records of Nazi scientists and war criminals to make them viable candidates and onboarded them anyway.

The researchers who came to the U.S. through Operation Paperclip were, for the most part, respected members of the scientific community. Several received awards for their work from NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, and two are recognized by the International Space Hall of Fame.

But others were assigned to more disturbing projects and went on to build darker legacies.

Among the intelligence community’s most pressing concerns were interrogation techniques: the U.S. government feared it was already falling behind the Soviet Union.

Which is why, on April 13, 1953, Allen Welsh Dulles, then-director of the CIA, sanctioned a new controversial and highly secretive project.

The Birth Of The CIA’s Mind Control Project

Project MKUltra mind control experiments proposal

Wikimedia Commons The MKUltra project proposal.

Thus MKUltra, which later also operated under the cryptonyms Project MKNAOMI and MKDELTA, was born.

“MK” was used to indicate that the project was sponsored by the Technical Services Staff of the CIA, and “Ultra” was a nod to the codename that had been used for classified documents during WWII.

The original goal of MKUltra was to create a truth serum that could be used against Soviet spies and prisoners of war to gain intelligence on Soviet actions during the Cold War.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a real truth serum proved elusive. What seemed more possible to the researchers was a kind of mind control brought on by placing the subject in a heavily altered mental state — typically with the help of wildly experimental drugs.

The CIA was particularly anxious to embark on the project because there had been rumors that the Soviet Union, Chinese, and North Koreans were all developing mind control techniques (which later turned out to be just that — rumors).

With reports of favorable outcomes for Soviet scientists, the U.S. intelligence community was banking on MKUltra’s success. They were so confident that they even seriously drew up several schemes to drug Fidel Castro.

So, under the aegis of the CIA, the MKUltra scientists began conducting experiments.

What Did Project MKUltra’s Mind Control Experiments Do?

Project MKUltra mind control experiments LSD

Getty Images A doctor administers a dose of LSD to a volunteer.

For secrecy’s sake, the experiments were spread out across multiple cities, college campuses, and hospitals.

Most of the experiments involved observing the effects of illegal drugs, such as LSD and opioids, on human subjects.

An MKUltra document from 1955, one of the few recovered, lists the assortment of drugs and substances that were given to the test subjects.

1. Substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.

2. Substances which increase the efficiency of mentation and perception.

3. Materials which will cause the victim to age faster/slower in maturity.

4. Materials which will promote the intoxicating effect of alcohol.

5. Materials which will produce the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so that they may be used for malingering, etc.

6. Materials which will cause temporary/permanent brain damage and loss of memory.

7. Substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture, and coercion during interrogation and so-called “brain-washing.”

8. Materials and physical methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use.

9. Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use.

10. Substances which produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc.

11. Substances which will produce a chemical that can cause blisters.

12. Substances which alter personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced.

13. A material which will cause mental confusion of such a type that the individual under its influence will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning.

14. Substances which will lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts.

15. Substances which promote weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably without permanent effects.

16. A knockout pill which can surreptitiously be administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol, etc., which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.

17. A material which can be surreptitiously administered by the above routes and which in very small amounts will make it impossible for a person to perform physical activity.

Some of the most used substances were LSD, THC, and the synthetic, government-created super hallucinogen BZ, as well as widely available stimulants such as alcohol.

Researchers would often administer two drugs with opposite effects (such as a barbiturate and an amphetamine) simultaneously and observe their subjects’ reactions, or give subjects already under the influence of alcohol a dose of a drug like LSD.

Hypnosis was also performed, often in an effort to create fears in subjects that could then be exploited to gain information. Researchers went on to investigate the effects of hypnosis on the results of polygraph tests and its implications for memory loss.

Sensory deprivation tanks were sometimes used to test the effects of drugs without the stimuli of the outside world. MKUltra also witnessed experimentation involving electroconvulsive therapy, aural stimulation, and paralytic drugs.

Who Were The Subjects Of MKUltra?

Project MKUltra mind control experiments

Wikimedia CommonsAn electroconvulsion machine used during the experiments.

Some of the subjects of MKUltra were volunteers, students who were paid to take the drugs or addicts who were bribed with the promise of more drugs if they participated.

Some of the subjects were unwitting, notably those from the most vulnerable populations: prostitutes, prisoners, and mental patients.

In one experiment, an unwitting mental patient in Kentucky was given a dose of LSD every day for 174 consecutive days.

The unsuspecting participants weren’t all civilians, though; some of them were CIA operatives themselves.

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the head chemist of MKUltra, wanted to study the effects of LSD in “normal” settings — and so he began to administer LSD to CIA officials without warning.

The experiments continued for years, even after an Army scientist, Dr. Frank Olson, began to suffer from drug-induced depression and jumped out a thirteenth-story window.

The side effects incurred by the experiments’ subjects, both volunteers and the unaware, were significant.

People reported depression, anterograde and retrograde amnesia, paralysis, withdrawal, confusion, disorientation, pain, insomnia, and schizophrenic-like mental states as a result of the experiments.

The effects and repercussions were never treated or reported to authorities.

It was clear that the government had violated the Nuremberg Code, the set of ethical principles on human experimentation set down in the aftermath of World War II — and no one could know.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.