One of the (many) problems with the CIA is who knows what. The less you know, the less you have to lie about and potentially get caught on. Or catch the agency on, which is worse. The result is illegal actions at will, from torture to drug experiments on the unwitting to assassinations of political leaders around the world. The extreme case, we can only hope, is the story of Sidney Gottlieb, the star of Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief.
The title is the actual nickname Gottlieb had at the agency. He had an incredibly broad mandate to find drugs that would be useful in the field, and fashion them into weapons in order to inject victims directly, or poison their food or their clothing. In order to test them, he routinely tortured unwitting victims both in the USA and around the world. International norms, treaties and laws were of no concern. The CIA reported to no one, dreamed up its own projects and acted on its own missions. All in the name of truth, justice and the American way, of course. Budgets could be unlimited, and scope was a wide as the imagination.
In addition to all the torture, Kinzer gives the example Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who was about to be poisoned when the CIA’s Deputy Director Lucian Truscott Jr. found out about it. He dressed down his boss, CIA director Allen Dulles until he relented and canceled the operation. Otherwise we could have had a(nother) major war and distrust lasting decades.
This was the world Sidney Gottlieb stepped into. It subsumed him. He went farther faster than anyone, relying on things like science fiction and paranoid news items to inspire his work. They led him to believe “the Communists” had mind control as a weapon. So the USA had to have it too. And better.
The lengths he went to are astounding. He set up brothels in New York and San Francisco to test johns on the effects of LSD with sex. He dosed total strangers with LSD depending on what agents said were their weaknesses, from physical disabilities to depression. He got hospitals in Canada and the US to overdose patients with LSD to see if it would erase their memories. Same with prison inmates, who were lied to that it was a test of a schizophrenia drug cure. The results of all these things were all too often completely ruined lives, people who were admitted to get better and left mentally crippled. Thousands of people, all over the world. All so Gottlieb could find his holy grail, a drug weapon that could make a victim into an assassin, a traitor or an informant against his own will.
Gottlieb used his MK-ULTRA project to fund all kinds of outside projects he did not personally lead. Neurologist Harold Wolff at Cornell Medical was given a million dollars (in 1950s money) to study “changes in behavior due to stress brought about by actual loss of cerebral tissue.” The patients in the study did not know they were in the study, what they were taking or why, which was typical. They were, in the CIA’s classification, “expendables”.
“Expendables” were subjected to baking, freezing, constant light, constant dark, starvation, sleep deprivation, unbearable sounds and unbearable silence. They were sourced all over the world – prisoners, derelicts, hospital patients – anyone the country could do without, for cash. The CIA disposed of the bodies, guaranteed. It was all very reminiscent of the Nazis. In fact, the CIA secured the services of Nazi concentration camp doctors to learn from. If Joseph Mengele hadn’t escaped, he would have been offered a contract and moved into comfort for life in the USA courtesy of the CIA. Several others laundered their lives this way.
Gottlieb also played Q to the CIA agents. He developed poisons no one in the world could identify. He invented pens and cameras and all the other accoutrements that spy pulp fiction wrote about. He even developed a hollow silver dollar chain. It contained a straight pin, the grooved tip of which had a poison so strong it would kill in seconds just rubbing it on the skin. Agents, including Francis Gary Powers, the CIA U-2 spy plane pilot, wore them around their necks in case of capture.
With no limitations, Gottlieb’s organization just kept growing in all directions. He got cocky and secretly spiked a bottle of Cointreau so his own staff drank LSD at a retreat. One of them died as result, either jumping or being pushed from a 13th story hotel room window in Manhattan. As usual, fixers covered it up.
And after all this, the result was nothing. “As of 1960 no effective knockout pill, truth serum, aphrodisiac, recruitment pill was known to exist…Years of MK-ULTRA experiments had failed,” Kinzer says. This marked the beginning of Gottlieb’s acknowledgement that his search had been in vain, though it cost thousands of lives interrupted or terminated.
Incredibly, Gottlieb was a spiritual, positive family man, into solar and sustainable living decades before anyone had heard of them. He studied, practiced and taught folk dancing. Everyone thought the world of him, not knowing what he did for a living. When he retired, he and his wife sold everything, traveled the world and volunteered everywhere they went, in places like leper colonies. Then one day a subpoena caught up to him. He spent pretty much the rest of his life testifying before Congress and in court cases. He demanded and received immunity from Congress. But as private cases started to name him personally, he did his duty as a good spook one last time, and is assumed to have committed suicide rather than risk exposing or even denigrating his life’s work at the CIA. He was 80.
It’s an awful story, told fast and well by Stephen Kinzer. Using numerous other biographies and public reporting, Kinzer has put together a revolting look at the champions of freedom in the USA.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.