Volunteers fed hallucinogen in mind control experimentsRob Evans
GuardianFifty years ago, Eric Gow had a baffling and unexplained experience. As a 19-year-old sailor, he remembers going to a clandestine military establishment, where he was given something to drink in a sherry glass and experienced vivid hallucinations.
Other servicemen also remember tripping: one thought he was seeing tigers jumping out of a wall, while another recalls faces "with eyes running down their cheeks, Salvador Dalí-style".
Mr Gow and another serviceman had volunteered to take part in what they thought was research to find a cure for the common cold.
Mr Gow felt that the government had never explained what happened to him. But now he has received an official admission for the first time, confirmed last night, that the intelligence agency MI6 tested LSD on servicemen.
The Guardian has spoken to three servicemen who say that they were not warned that they were being fed a hallucinogen during experiments.
One of the scientists involved at the time suggested that the experiments were stopped because it was feared that the acid could produce "suicidal tendencies".
MI6, known formally as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and responsible for spying operations abroad, carried out the tests in the cold war in an attempt to uncover a "truth drug" which would make prisoners talk against their will in interrogations.
It appears that MI6 feared that the Russians had discovered their own "brainwashing" chemical to control the minds of their enemies, fears triggered by pictures of American servicemen who had been captured during the Korean war confessing to their "crimes" and calling for a US surrender.
In 1949, a Hungarian dissident had also "confessed" robotically in a show trial without, it seemed, being in control of himself.
In parallel experiments, the CIA infamously tested LSD and other drugs on unwitting human subjects in a 20-year search to uncover mind-manipulation techniques. The trials were widely criticised when they came to light in the 1970s.
Mr Gow and another man say that while serving in the military they volunteered to take part in research. They were told to go to the Porton Down chemical warfare establishment in Wiltshire, where servicemen were regularly tested in experiments.
Mr Gow, then a radio operator in the Royal Navy, says that scientists gave him the liquid to drink in 1954, a decade before the effects of LSD were popularised by hippies.
Soon he could not add up three figures. The radiator started to go in and out "like a squeezebox", while shoe marks on the floor spun like a catherine wheel. He says he still seemed to be tripping that evening, when he and a colleague went dancing in nearby Salisbury, with wellies on. "I don't think we got a date that night," he said yesterday.
He added that the scientists had been "irresponsible", particularly as they had not kept the men under close supervision. Now a magistrate, he submitted an open government request to the Ministry of Defence seeking more details of the experiments.
The MoD replied that "much of the information concerning LSD involves research conducted at the behest of the Secret Intelligence Service ... We are more than happy to speak to them [SIS] on your behalf and will pursue the question of downgrading the security classification of certain documents to allow us to disclose them to you".
Last night, a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed that in 1953 and 1954 Porton Down carried out SIS-commissioned tests of LSD on service personnel.
Don Webb says that in 1953, when he was a 19-year-old airman, scientists told him to take LSD several times in a week. He experienced "walls melting, cracks appearing in people's faces, you could see their skulls, eyes would run down cheeks, Salvador Dalí-style faces".
Alan Care, a lawyer representing Mr Gow and Mr Webb, has written to MI6 demanding more documents about the trials and is threatening legal action. Yesterday he said: "Clearly these men were duped and subjected to unethical LSD thought control experiments. MI6 should release all its documents about these trials - national secrets will not be compromised."
A senior Porton Down official described the LSD trials as "tentative and inadequately controlled", according to a document made public in the National Archives.
One scientist involved was believed to be the late Harry Cullumbine, who was in charge of human experiments at Porton Down in the 1950s.
Extracts from his unpublished autobiography were aired at the recent inquest into the death of the airman Ronald Maddison after nerve gas trials in 1953. According to the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, Cullumbine wrote: "We stopped the trials ... when it was reported that in a few people it might produce suicidal tendencies."
Mr Masters told the inquest: "MI6 was eager to try it as a truth drug."
However, the quest came to nothing, because the scientists discovered that LSD was useless for manipulating the human mind.Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005