The Search for the Manchurian Candidate
No mind-control technique has more captured popular
imagination—and kindled fears—than hypnosis. Men have long dreamed they
could use overwhelming hypnotic powers to compel others to do their bidding. And
when CIA officials institutionalized that dream in the early Cold War Days, they
tried, like modern-day Svengalis, to use hypnosis to force their favors on
unwitting victims. One group of professional experts, as well
as popular novelists, argued that hypnosis would lead to major breakthroughs in
spying. Another body of experts believed the opposite. The Agency men, who did
not fully trust the academics anyway, listened to both points of view and kept
looking for applications which fit their own special needs. To them, hypnosis
offered too much promise not to be pursued, but finding the answers was such an
elusive and dangerous process that 10 years after the program started CIA
officials were still searching for practical uses.
The CIA's first behavioral research czar, Morse Allen of
ARTICHOKE, was intrigued by hypnosis. He read everything he could get his hands
on, and in 1951 he went to New York for a four-day course from a well-known
stage hypnotist. This hypnotist had taken the Svengali legend to heart, and he
bombarded Allen with tales of how he used hypnosis to seduce young women. He
told the ARTICHOKE chief that he had convinced one mesmerized lady that he was
her husband and that she desperately wanted him. That kind of deception has a
place in covert operations, and Morse Allen was sufficiently impressed to report
back to his bosses the hypnotist's claim that "he spent approximately five
nights a week away from home engaging in sexual intercourse."
Apart from the bragging, the stage hypnotist did give Morse
Allen a short education in how to capture a subject's attention and induce a
trance. Allen returned to Washington more convinced than ever of the benefits of
working hypnosis into the ARTICHOKE repertory and of the need to build a defense
against it. With permission from above, he decided to take his hypnosis studies
further, right in his own office. He asked young CIA secretaries to stay after
work and ran them through the hypnotic paces—proving to his own satisfaction
that he could make them do whatever he wanted. He had secretaries steal SECRET
files and pass them on to total strangers, thus violating the most basic CIA
security rules. He got them to steal from each other and to start fires. He made
one of them report to the bedroom of a strange man and then go into a deep
sleep. "This activity clearly indicates that individuals under hypnosis
might be compromised and blackmailed," Allen wrote.
On February 19, 1954, Morse Allen simulated the ultimate
experiment in hypnosis: the creation of a "Manchurian Candidate," or
programmed assassin. Allen's "victim" was a secretary whom he put into
a deep trance and told to keep sleeping until he ordered otherwise. He then
hypnotized a second secretary and told her that if she could not wake up her
friend, "her rage would be so great that she would not hesitate to 'kill.'
" Allen left a pistol nearby, which the secretary had no way of knowing was
unloaded. Even though she had earlier expressed a fear of firearms of any kind,
she picked up the gun and "shot" her sleeping friend. After Allen
brought the "killer" out of her trance, she had apparent amnesia for
the event, denying she would ever shoot anyone.
With this experiment, Morse Allen took the testing as far as
he could on a make-believe basis, but he was neither satisfied nor convinced
that hypnosis would produce such spectacular results in an operational setting.
All he felt he had proved was that an impressionable young volunteer would
accept a command from a legitimate authority figure to take an action she may
have sensed would not end in tragedy. She presumably trusted the CIA enough as
an institution and Morse Allen as an individual to believe he would not let her
do anything wrong. The experimental setting, in effect, legitimated her behavior
and prevented it from being truly antisocial.
Early in 1954, Allen almost got his chance to try the crucial
test. According to a CIA document, the subject was to be a 35-year-old,
well-educated foreigner who had once worked for a friendly secret service,
probably the CIA itself. He had now shifted his loyalty to another government,
and the CIA was quite upset with him. The Agency plan was to hypnotize him and
program him into making an assassination attempt. He would then be arrested at
the least for attempted murder and "thereby disposed of." The scenario
had several holes in it, as the operators presented it to the ARTICHOKE team.
First, the subject was to be involuntary and unwitting, and as yet no one had
come up with a consistently effective way of hypnotizing such people. Second,
the ARTICHOKE team would have only limited custody of the subject, who was to be
snatched from a social event. Allen understood that it would probably take
months of painstaking work to prepare the man for a sophisticated covert
operation. The subject was highly unlikely to perform after just one command.
Yet, so anxious were the ARTICHOKE men to try the experiment that they were
willing to go ahead even under these unfavorable conditions: "The final
answer was that in view of the fact that successful completion of this proposed
act of attempted assassination was insignificant to the overall project; to wit,
whether it was even carried out or not, that under 'crash conditions' and
appropriate authority from Headquarters, the ARTICHOKE team would undertake the
problem in spite of the operational limitations."
This operation never took place. Eager to be unleashed, Morse
Allen kept requesting prolonged access to operational subjects, such as the
double agents and defectors on whom he was allowed to work a day or two. Not
every double agent would do. The candidate had to be among the one person in
five who made a good hypnotic subject, and he needed to have a dissociative
tendency to separate part of his personality from the main body of his
consciousness. The hope was to take an existing ego state—such as an imaginary
childhood playmate—and build it into a separate personality, unknown to the
first. The hypnotist would communicate directly with this schizophrenic offshoot
and command it to carry out specific deeds about which the main personality
would know nothing. There would be inevitable leakage between the two
personalities, particularly in dreams; but if the hypnotists were clever enough,
he could build in cover stories and safety valves which would prevent the
subject from acting inconsistently.
All during the spring and summer of 1954, Morse Allen lobbied
for permission to try what he called "terminal experiments" in
hypnosis, including one along the following scenario:
CIA officials would recruit an agent in a friendly foreign
country where the Agency could count on the cooperation of the local police
force. CIA case officers would train the agent to pose as a leftist and report
on the local communist party. During training, a skilled hypnotist would
hypnotize him under the guise of giving him medical treatment (the favorite
ARTICHOKE cover for hypnosis). The hypnotist would then provide the agent with
information and tell him to forget it all when he snapped out of the trance.
Once the agent had been properly conditioned and prepared, he would be sent into
action as a CIA spy. Then Agency officials would tip off the local police that
the man was a dangerous communist agent, and he would be arrested. Through their
liaison arrangement with the police, Agency case officers would be able to watch
and even guide the course of the interrogation. In this way, they could answer
many of their questions about hypnosis on a live guinea pig who believed his
life was in danger. Specifically, the men from ARTICHOKE wanted to know how well
hypnotic amnesia held up against torture. Could the amnesia be broken with
drugs? One document noted that the Agency could even send in a new hypnotist to
try his hand at cracking through the commands of the first one. Perhaps the most
cynical part of the whole scheme came at the end of the proposal: "In the
event that the agent should break down and admit his connection with US
intelligence, we a) deny this absolutely and advise the agent's disposal, or b)
indicate that the agent may have been dispatched by some other organ of US
intelligence and that we should thereafter run the agent jointly with [the local
An ARTICHOKE team was scheduled to carry out field tests
along these lines in the summer of 1954. The planning got to an advanced stage,
with the ARTICHOKE command center in Washington cabling overseas for the
"time, place, and bodies available for terminal experiments." Then
another cable complained of the "diminishing numbers" of subjects
available for these tests. At this point, the available record becomes very
fuzzy. The minutes of an ARTICHOKE working group meeting indicate that a key
Agency official—probably the station chief in the country where the
experiments were going to take place—had second thoughts. One participant at
the meeting, obviously rankled by the obstructionism, said if this nay-sayer did
not change his attitude, ARTICHOKE officials would have the Director himself
order the official to go along.
Although short-term interrogations of unwitting subjects with
drugs and hypnosis (the "A" treatment) continued, the more complicated
tests apparently never did get going under the ARTICHOKE banner. By the end of
the year, 1954, Allen Dulles took the behavioral-research function away from
Morse Allen and gave it to Sid Gottlieb and the men from MKULTRA. Allen had
directly pursued the goal of creating a Manchurian Candidate, which he clearly
believed was possible. MKULTRA officials were just as interested in finding ways
to assert control over people, but they had much less faith in the
frontal-assault approach pushed by Allen. For them, finding the Manchurian
Candidate became a figurative exercise. They did not give up the dream. They
simply pursued it in smaller steps, always hoping to increase the percentages in
their favor. John Gittinger, the MKULTRA case officer on hypnosis, states,
"Predictable absolute control is not possible on a particular individual.
Any psychologist, psychiatrist, or preacher can get control over certain kinds
of individuals, but that's not a predictable, definite thing." Gittinger
adds that despite his belief to this effect, he felt he had to give "a fair
shake" to people who wanted to try out ideas to the contrary.
Gottlieb and his colleagues had already been doing hypnosis
research for two years. They did a few basic experiments in the office, as Morse
Allen did, but they farmed out most of the work to a young Ph.D. candidate at
the University of Minnesota, Alden Sears. Sears, who later moved his CIA study
project to the University of Denver, worked with student subjects to define the
nature of hypnosis. Among many other things, he looked into several of the areas
that would be building blocks in the creation of a Manchurian Candidate. Could a
hypnotist induce a totally separate personality? Could a subject be sent on
missions he would not remember unless cued by the hypnotist? Sears, who has
since become a Methodist minister, refused to talk about methods he experimented
with to build second identities.
By 1957, he wrote that the experiments that needed to be done "could not be
handled in the University situation." Unlike Morse Allen, he did not want
to perform the terminal experiments.
Milton Kline, a New York psychologist who says he also did
not want to cross the ethical line but is sure the intelligence agencies have,
served as an unpaid consultant to Sears and other CIA hypnosis research. Nothing
Sears or others found disabused him of the idea that the Manchurian Candidate is
possible. "It cannot be done by everyone," says Kline, "It cannot
be done consistently, but it can be done."
A onetime president of the American Society for Clinical and
Experimental Hypnosis, Kline was one of many outside experts to whom Gittinger
and his colleagues talked. Other consultants, with equally impressive
credentials, rejected Kline's views. In no other area of the behavioral sciences
was there so little accord on basic questions. "You could find an expert
who would agree with everything," says Gittinger. "Therefore, we tried
to get everybody."
The MKULTRA men state that they got too many unsolicited
suggestions on how to use hypnosis in covert operations. "The operators
would ask us for easy solutions," recalls a veteran. "We therefore
kept a laundry list of why they couldn't have what they wanted. We spent a lot
of time telling some young kid whose idea we had heard a hundred times why it
wouldn't work. We would wind up explaining why you couldn't have a free
lunch." This veteran mentions an example: CIA operators put a great deal of
time and money into servicing "dead drops" (covert mail pickup points,
such as a hollow tree) in the Soviet Union. If a collector was captured, he was
likely to give away the locations. Therefore Agency men suggested that TSS find
a way to hypnotize these secret mailmen, so they could withstand interrogation
and even torture if arrested.
Morse Allen had wanted to perform the "terminal
experiment" to see if a hypnotically induced amnesia would stand up to
torture. Gittinger says that as far as he knows, this experiment was never
carried out. "I still like to think we were human beings enough that this
was not something we played with," says Gittinger. Such an experiment could
have been performed, as Allen suggested, by friendly police in a country like
Taiwan or Paraguay. CIA men did at least discuss joint work in hypnosis with a
foreign secret service in 1962.
Whether they went further simply cannot be said.
Assuming the amnesia would hold, the MKULTRA veteran says the
problem was how to trigger it. Perhaps the Russian phrase meaning "You're
under arrest" could be used as a preprogrammed cue, but what if the police
did not use these words as they captured the collector? Perhaps the physical
sensation of handcuffs being snapped on could do it, but a metal watchband could
have the same effect. According to the veteran, in the abstract, the scheme
sounded fine, but in practicality, a foolproof way of triggering the amnesia
could not be found. "You had to accept that when someone is caught, they're
going to tell some things," he says.
MKULTRA officials, including Gittinger, did recommend the use
of hypnosis in operational experiments on at least one occasion. In 1959 an
important double agent, operating outside his homeland, told his Agency case
officer that he was afraid to go home again because he did not think he could
withstand the tough interrogation that his government used on returning overseas
agents. In Washington, the operators approached the TSS men about using
hypnosis, backed up with drugs, to change the agent's attitude. They hoped they
could instill in him the "ability or the necessary will" to hold up
An MKULTRA official—almost certainly Gittinger—held a
series of meetings over a two-week period with the operators and wrote that the
agent was "a better than average" hypnotic subject, but that his goal
was to get out of intelligence work: The agent "probably can be motivated
to make at least one return visit to his homeland by application of any one of a
number of techniques, including hypnosis, but he may redefect in the
process." The MKULTRA official continued that hypnosis probably could not
produce an "operationally useful" degree of amnesia for the events of
the recent past or for the hypnotic treatment itself that the agent
"probably has the native ability to withstand ordinary interrogation . . .
provided it is to his advantage to do so."
The MKULTRA office recommended that despite the relatively
negative outlook for the hypnosis, the Agency should proceed anyway. The
operation had the advantage of having a "fail-safe" mechanism because
the level of hypnosis could be tested out before the agent actually had to
return. Moreover, the MKULTRA men felt "that a considerable amount of
useful experience can be gained from this operation which could be used to
improve Agency capability in future applications." In effect, they would be
using hypnosis not as the linchpin of the operation, but as an adjunct to help
motivate the agent.
Since the proposed operation involved the use of hypnosis and
drugs, final approval could only be given by the high-level Clandestine Services
committee set up for this purpose and chaired by Richard Helms. Permission was
In June 1960 TSS officials launched an expanded program of
operational experiments in hypnosis in cooperation with the Agency's
Counterintelligence Staff. The legendary James Angleton—the prototype for the
title character Saxonton in Aaron Latham's Orchids for Mother and for
Wellington in Victor Marchetti's The Rope Dancer—headed
Counterintelligence, which took on some of the CIA's most sensitive missions
(including the illegal Agency spying against domestic dissidents).
Counterintelligence officials wrote that the hypnosis program could provide a
"potential breakthrough in clandestine technology." Their arrangement
with TSS was that the MKULTRA men would develop the technique in the laboratory,
while they took care of "field experimentation."
The Counterintelligence program had three goals: (1) to
induce hypnosis very rapidly in unwitting subjects; (2) to create durable
amnesia; and (3) to implant durable and operationally useful posthypnotic
suggestion. The Agency released no information on any "field
experimentation" of the latter two goals, which of course are the building
blocks of the Manchurian Candidate. Agency officials provided only one heavily
censored document on the first goal, rapid induction.
In October 1960 the MKULTRA program invested $9,000 in an
outside consultant to develop a way of quickly hypnotizing an unwitting subject.
John Gittinger says the process consisted of surprising "somebody sitting
in a chair, putting your hands on his forehead, and telling the guy to go to
sleep." The method worked "fantastically" on certain people,
including some on whom no other technique was effective, and not on others.
"It wasn't that predictable," notes Gittinger, who states he knows
nothing about the field testing.
The test, noted in that one released document, did not take
place until July 1963—a full three years after the Counterintelligence
experimental program began, during which interval the Agency is claiming that no
other field experiments took place. According to a CIA man who participated in
this test, the Counterintelligence Staff in Washington asked the CIA station in
Mexico City to find a suitable candidate for a rapid induction experiment. The
station proposed a low-level agent, whom the Soviets had apparently doubled. A
Counterintelligence man flew in from Washington and a hypnotic consultant
arrived from California. Our source and a fellow case officer brought the agent
to a motel room on a pretext. "I puffed him up with his importance,"
says the Agency man. "I said the bosses wanted to see him and of course
give him more money." Waiting in an adjoining room was the hypnotic
consultant. At a prearranged time, the two case officers gently grabbed hold of
the agent and tipped his chair over until the back was touching the floor. The
consultant was supposed to rush in at that precise moment and apply the
technique. Nothing happened. The consultant froze, unable to do the deed.
"You can imagine what we had to do to cover-up," says the official,
who was literally left holding the agent. "We explained we had heard a
noise, got excited, and tipped him down to protect him. He was so grubby for
money he would have believed any excuse."
There certainly is a huge difference between the limited aim
of this bungled operation and one aimed at building a Manchurian Candidate. The
MKULTRA veteran maintains that he and his colleagues were not interested in a
programmed assassin because they knew in general it would not work and,
specifically, that they could not exert total control. "If you have one
hundred percent control, you have one hundred percent dependency," he says.
"If something happens and you haven't programmed it in, you've got a
problem. If you try to put flexibility in, you lose control. To the extent you
let the agent choose, you don't have control." He admits that he and his
colleagues spent hours running the arguments on the Manchurian Candidate back
and forth. "Castro was naturally our discussion point," he declares.
"Could you get somebody gung-ho enough that they would go in and get
him?" In the end, he states, they decided there were more reliable ways to
kill people. "You can get exactly the same thing from people who are
hypnotizable by many other ways, and you can't get anything out of people who
are not hypnotizable, so it has no use," says Gittinger.
The only real gain in employing a hypnotized killer would be,
in theory, that he would not remember who ordered him to pull the trigger. Yet,
at least in the Castro case, the Cuban leader already knew who was after him.
Moreover, there were plenty of people around willing to take on the Castro
contract. "A well-trained person could do it without all this
mumbo-jumbo," says the MKULTRA veteran. By going to the Mafia for hitmen,
CIA officials in any case found killers who had a built-in amnesia mechanism
that had nothing to do with hypnosis.
The MKULTRA veteran gives many reasons why he believes the
CIA never actually tried a Manchurian Candidate operation, but he acknowledges
that he does not know.
If the ultimate experiments were performed, they would have been handled with
incredible secrecy. It would seem, however, that the same kind of reasoning that
impelled Sid Gottlieb to recommend testing powerful drugs on unwitting subjects
would have led to experimentation along such lines, if not to create the
Manchurian Candidate itself, on some of the building blocks, or lesser
antisocial acts. Even if the MKULTRA men did not think hypnosis would work
operationally, they had not let that consideration prevent them from trying out
numerous other techniques. The MKULTRA chief could even have used a defensive
rationale: He had to find out if the Russians could plant a "sleeper"
killer in our midst, just as Richard Condon's novel discussed.
If the assassin scenario seemed exaggerated, Gottlieb still
would have wanted to know what other uses the Russians might try. Certainly, he
could have found relatively "expendable" subjects, as he and Morse
Allen had for other behavior control experiments. And even if the MKULTRA men
really did restrain themselves, it is unlikely that James Angleton and his
counterintelligence crew would have acted in such a limited fashion when they
felt they were on the verge of a "breakthrough in clandestine
Morse Allen's training in hypnosis was described in Document
#A/B, V,28/1, 9 July 1951, Subject [Deleted]. His hypnosis experiments in the
office are described in a long series of memos. See especially #A/B, III, 2/18,
10 February 1954, Hypnotic Experimentation and Research and #A/B, II, 10/71, 19
August 1954, Subject: Operational/Security [deleted] and unnumbered document, 5
May 1955, Subject: Hypnotism and Covert Operations.
The quote on U.S. prisoners passing through Manchuria came
from document #19, 18 June 1953, ARTICHOKE Conference.
Alden Sears' hypnosis work was the subject of MKULTRA
subprojects 5, 25, 29, and 49. See especially 49-28, undated, Proposal for
Research in Hypnosis at the [deleted], June 1, 1956 to May 31, 1957, 49-34,
undated, Proposals for Research in Hypnosis at the [deleted], June 1, 1956 to
May 31, 1957; 5-11, 28 May 1953, Project MKULTRA, Subproject 5 and 5-13,20 April
1954, Subject: [deleted]. See also Patrick Oster's article in the Chicago Sun-Times,
September 4, 1977, "How CIA 'Hid' Hypnosis Research."
General background on hypnosis came from interviews with
Alden Sears, Martin Orne, Milton Kline, Ernest Hilgard, Herbert Spiegel, William
Kroger, Jack Tracktir, John Watkins, and Harold Crasilneck. See Orne's chapter
on hypnosis in The Manipulation of Human Behavior, edited by Albert
Biderman and Herbert Zimmer (New York: John Wiley & Sons; 1961), pp.
The contemplated use of hypnosis in an operation involving a
foreign intelligence service is referred to in the Affidavit by Eloise R. Page,
in the case John D. Marks v. Central Intelligence Agency et al., Civil
Action no. 76-2073.
The 1959 proposed use of hypnosis that was approved by TSS is
described in documents #433, 21 August 1959, Possible Use of Drugs and Hypnosis
in [deleted] Operational Case; #434, 27 August 1959, Comments on [deleted]; and
#435, 15 September 1959, Possible Use of Drugs and Hypnosis in [deleted]
MKULTRA Subproject 128 dealt with the rapid induction
technique. See especially 128-1, undated, Subject: To test a method of rapid
hypnotic induction in simulated and real operational settings (MKULTRA 128).
A long interview with John Gittinger added considerably to
this chapter. Mr. Gittinger had refused earlier to be interviewed directly by me
for this book. Our conversation was limited solely to hypnosis.
1. Sears still maintains the fiction that
he thought he was dealing only with a private foundation, the Geschickter Fund,
and that he knew nothing of the CIA involvement in funding his work. Yet a CIA
document in his MKULTRA subproject says he was "aware of the real
purpose" of the project." Moreover, Sid Gottlieb brought him to
Washington in 1954 to demonstrate hypnosis to a select group of Agency
2. Under my Freedom of Information suit,
the CIA specifically denied access to the documents concerning the testing of
hypnosis and psychedelic drugs in cooperation with foreign intelligence
agencies. The justification given was that releasing such documents would reveal
intelligence sources and methods, which are exempted by law. The hypnosis
experiment was never carried out, according to the generic description of the
document which the Agency had to provide in explaining why it had to be
3. Referring to this CIA-mob
relationship, author Robert Sam Anson has written, "It was inevitable:
Gentlemen wishing to be killers gravitated to killers wishing to be
4. The veteran admits that none of the
arguments he uses against a conditioned assassin would apply to a programmed
"patsy" whom a hypnotist could walk through a series of seemingly
unrelated events—a visit to a store, a conversation with a mailman, picking a
fight at a political rally. The subject would remember everything that happened
to him and be amnesic only for the fact the hypnotist ordered him to do these
things. There would be no gaping inconsistency in his life of the sort that can
ruin an attempt by a hypnotist to create a second personality. The purpose of
this exercise is to leave a circumstantial trail that will make the authorities
think the patsy committed a particular crime. The weakness might well be that
the amnesia would not hold up under police interrogation, but that would not
matter if the police did not believe his preposterous story about being
hypnotized or if he were shot resisting arrest. Hypnosis expert Milton Kline
says he could create a patsy in three months- an assassin would take him six. (back)