George White's "pragmatic" approach meshed
perfectly with Sid Gottlieb's needs for drug testing. In May 1953 the two men,
who wound up going folk dancing together several times, formally joined forces.
In CIA jargon, White became MKULTRA subproject #3. Under this arrangement, White
rented two adjacent Greenwich Village apartments, posing as the sometime artist
and seaman "Morgan Hall." White agreed to lure guinea pigs to the
"safehouse"—as the Agency men called the apartments—slip them
drugs, and report the results to Gottlieb and the others in TSS. For its part,
the CIA let the Narcotics Bureau use the place for undercover activities (and
often for personal pleasure) whenever no Agency work was scheduled, and the CIA
paid all the bills, including the cost of keeping a well-stocked liquor
cabinet—a substantial bonus for White. Gottlieb personally handed over the
first $4,000 in cash, to cover the initial costs of furnishing the safehouse in
the lavish style that White felt befitted him.
Gottlieb did not limit his interest to drugs. He and other TSS officials wanted to try out surveillance equipment. CIA technicians quickly installed see-through mirrors and microphones through which eavesdroppers could film, photograph, and record the action. "Things go wrong with listening devices and two-way mirrors, so you build these things to find out what works and what doesn't," says a TSS source. "If you are going to entrap, you've got to give the guy pictures [flagrante delicto] and voice recordings. Once you learn how to do it so that the whole thing looks comfortable, cozy, and safe, then you can transport the technology overseas and use it." This TSS man notes that the Agency put to work in the bedrooms of Europe some of the techniques developed in the George White safehouse operation.
In the safehouse's first months, White tested LSD, several kinds of knockout drops, and that old OSS standby, essence of marijuana. He served up the drugs in food, drink, and cigarettes and then tried to worm information—usually on narcotics matters—from his "guests." Sometimes MKULTRA men came up from Washington to watch the action. A September 1953 entry in White's diary noted: "Lashbrook at 81 Bedford Street—Owen Winkle and LSD surprise—can wash." Sid Gottlieb's deputy, Robert Lashbrook, served as "project monitor" for the New York safehouse.
White had only been running the safehouse six months when Olson died (in Lashbrook's company), and Agency officials suspended the operation for re-evaluation. They soon allowed him to restart it, and then Gottlieb had to order White to slow down again. A New York State commissioner had summoned the narcotics agent to explain his role in the deal that wound up with Governor Dewey pardoning Lucky Luciano after the war. The commissioner was asking questions that touched on White's use of marijuana on Del Gracio, and Gottlieb feared that word of the CIA's current testing might somehow leak out. This storm also soon passed, but then, in early 1955, the Narcotics Bureau transferred White to San Francisco to become chief agent there. Happy with White's performance, Gottlieb decided to let him take the entire safehouse operation with him to the Coast. White closed up the Greenwich Village apartments, leaving behind unreceipted "tips" for the landlord "to clear up any difficulties about the alterations and damages," as a CIA document put it.
White soon rented a suitable "pad" (as he always called it) on Telegraph Hill, with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz. To supplement the furniture he brought from the New York safehouse, he went out and bought items that gave the place the air of the brothel it was to become: Toulouse-Lautrec posters, a picture of a French cancan dancer, and photos of manacled women in black stockings. "It was supposed to look rich," recalls a narcotics agent who regularly visited, "but it was furnished like crap."
White hired a friend's company to install bugging equipment, and William Hawkins, a 25-year-old electronics whiz then studying at Berkley put in four DD-4 microphones disguised as electrical wall outlets and hooked them up to two F-301 tape recorders, which agents monitored in an adjacent "listening post." Hawkins remembers that White "kept a pitcher of martinis in the refrigerator, and he'd watch me for a while as I installed a microphone and then slip off." For his own personal "observation post," White had a portable toilet set up behind a two-way mirror, where he could watch the proceedings, usually with drink in hand.
The San Francisco safehouse specialized in prostitutes. "But this was before The Hite Report and before any hooker had written a book," recalls a TSS man, "so first we had to go out and learn about their world. In the beginning, we didn't know what a john was or what a pimp did." Sid Gottlieb decided to send his top staff psychologist, John Gittinger, to San Francisco to probe the demimonde.
George White supplied the prostitutes for the study, although White, in turn, delegated much of the pimping function to one of his assistants, Ira "Ike" Feldman. A muscular but very short man, whom even the 5'7" White towered over, Feldman tried even harder than his boss to act tough. Dressed in suede shoes, a suit with flared trousers, a hat with a turned-up brim, and a huge zircon ring that was supposed to look like a diamond, Feldman first came to San Francisco on an undercover assignment posing as an East Coast mobster looking to make a big heroin buy. Using a drug-addicted prostitute name Janet Jones, whose common-law husband states that Feldman paid her off with heroin, the undercover man lured a number of suspected drug dealers to the "pad" and helped White make arrests.
As the chief Federal narcotics agent in San Francisco, White was in a position to reward or punish a prostitute. He set up a system whereby he and Feldman provided Gittinger with all the hookers the psychologist wanted. White paid off the women with a fixed number of "chits." For each chit, White owed one favor. "So the next time the girl was arrested with a john," says an MKULTRA veteran, "she would give the cop George White's phone number. The police all knew White and cooperated with him without asking questions. They would release the girl if he said so. White would keep good records of how many chits each person had and how many she used. No money was exchanged, but five chits were worth $500 to $1,000." Prostitutes were not the only beneficiaries of White's largess. The narcotics agent worked out a similar system to forgive the transgressions of small time drug pushers when the MKULTRA men wanted to talk to them about "the rules of their game," according to the source.
TSS officials wanted to find out everything they could about how to apply sex to spying, and the prostitute project became a general learning and then training ground for CIA carnal operations. After all, states one TSS official, "We did quite a study of prostitutes and their behavior.... At first nobody really knew how to use them. How do you train them? How do you work them? How do you take a woman who is willing to use her body to get money out of a guy to get things which are much more important, like state secrets. I don't care how beautiful she is—educating the ordinary prostitute up to that level is not a simple task."
The TSS men continually tried to refine their knowledge. They realized that prostitutes often wheedled extra money out of a customer by suggesting some additional service as male orgasm neared. They wondered if this might not also be a good time to seek sensitive information. "But no," says the source, "we found the guy was focused solely on hormonal needs. He was not thinking of his career or anything else at that point." The TSS experts discovered that the postsexual, light-up-a-cigarette period was much better suited to their ulterior motives. Says the source:
Most men who go to prostitutes are prepared for the fact that [after the act] she's beginning to work to get herself out of there, so she can get back on the street to make some more money. . . . To find a prostitute who is willing to stay is a hell of a shock to anyone used to prostitutes. It has a tremendous effect on the guy. It's a boost to his ego if she's telling him he was really neat, and she wants to stay for a few more hours.... Most of the time, he gets pretty vulnerable. What the hell's he going to talk about? Not the sex, so he starts talking about his business. It's at this time she can lead him gently. But you have to train prostitutes to do that. Their natural inclination is to do exactly the opposite.
We didn't know in those days about hidden sadism and all that sort of stuff. We learned a lot about human nature in the bedroom. We began to understand that when people wanted sex, it wasn't just what we had thought of—you know, the missionary position.... We started to pick up knowledge that could be used in operations, but with a lot of it we never figured out any way to use it operationally. We just learned.... All these ideas did not come to us at once. But evolving over three or four years in which these studies were going on, things emerged which we tried. Our knowledge of prostitutes' behavior became pretty damn good. . . . This comes across now that somehow we were just playing around and we just found all these exotic ways to waste the taxpayers' money on satisfying our hidden urges. I'm not saying that watching prostitutes was not exciting or something like that. But what I am saying was there was a purpose to the whole business.
As the TSS men learned more about the San Francisco
hustlers, they ventured outside the safehouse to try out various
clandestine-delivery gimmicks in public places like restaurants, bars, and
beaches. They practiced ways to slip LSD to citizens of the demimonde while
buying them a drink or lighting up a cigarette, and they then tried to observe
the effects when the drug took hold. Because the MKULTRA scientists did not move
smoothly among the very kinds of people they were testing, they occasionally
lost an unwitting victim in a crowd—thereby sending a stranger off alone with
a head full of LSD.
In a larger sense, all the test victims would become lost. As a matter of policy, Sid Gottlieb ordered that virtually no records be kept of the testing. In 1973, when Gottlieb retired from the Agency, he and Richard Helms agreed to destroy what they thought were the few existing documents on the program. Neither Gottlieb nor any other MKULTRA man has owned up to having given LSD to an unknowing subject, or even to observing such an experiment—except of course in the case of Frank Olson. Olson's death left behind a paper trail outside of Gottlieb's control and that hence could not be denied. Otherwise, Gottlieb and his colleagues have put all the blame for actual testing on George White, who is not alive to defend himself. One reason the MKULTRA veterans have gone to such lengths to conceal their role is obvious: fear of lawsuits from victims claiming damaged health.
At the time of the experiments, the subjects' health did not cause undue concern. At the safehouse, where most of the testing took place, doctors were seldom present. Dr. James Hamilton, a Stanford Medical School psychiatrist and White's OSS colleague, visited the place from time to time, apparently for studies connected to unwitting drug experiments and deviant sexual practices. Yet neither Hamilton nor any other doctor provided much medical supervision. From his perch atop the toilet seat, George White could do no more than make surface observations of his drugged victims. Even an experienced doctor would have had difficulty handling White's role. In addition to LSD, which they knew could cause serious, if not fatal problems, TSS officials gave White even more exotic experimental drugs to test, drugs that other Agency contractors may or may not have already used on human subjects. "If we were scared enough of a drug not to try it out on ourselves, we sent it to San Francisco," recalls a TSS source. According to a 1963 report by CIA Inspector General John Earman, "In a number of instances, however, the test subject has become ill for hours or days, including hospitalization in at least one case, and [White] could only follow up by guarded inquiry after the test subject's return to normal life. Possible sickness and attendant economic loss are inherent contingent effects of the testing."
The Inspector General noted that the whole program could be compromised if an outside doctor made a "correct diagnosis of an illness." Thus, the MKULTRA team not only made some people sick but had a vested interest in keeping doctors from finding out what was really wrong. If that bothered the Inspector General, he did not report his qualms, but he did say he feared "serious damage to the Agency" in the event of public exposure. The Inspector General was only somewhat reassured by the fact that George White "maintain[ed] close working relations with local police authorities which could be utilized to protect the activity in critical situations."
If TSS officials had been willing to stick with their
original target group of marginal underworld types, they would have had little
to fear from the police. After all, George White was the police. But
increasingly they used the safehouse to test drugs, in the Inspector General's
words, "on individuals of all social levels, high and low, native American
and foreign." After all, they were looking for an operational payoff, and
they knew people reacted differently to LSD according to everything from health
and mood to personality structure. If TSS officials wanted to slip LSD to
foreign leaders, as they contemplated doing to Fidel Castro, they would try to
spring an unwitting dose on somebody as similar as possible. They used the
safehouse for "dry runs" in the intermediate stage between the
laboratory and actual operations.
For these dress rehearsals, George White and his staff procurer, Ike Feldman, enticed men to the apartment with prostitutes. An unsuspecting john would think he had bought a night of pleasure, go back to a strange apartment, and wind up zonked. A CIA document that survived Sid Gottlieb's shredding recorded this process. Its author, Gottlieb himself, could not break a lifelong habit of using nondescriptive language. For the MKULTRA chief, the whores were "certain individuals who covertly administer this material to other people in accordance with [White's] instructions." White normally paid the women $100 in Agency funds for their night's work, and Gottlieb's prose reached new bureaucratic heights as he explained why the prostitutes did not sign for the money: "Due to the highly unorthodox nature of these activities and the considerable risk incurred by these individuals, it is impossible to require that they provide a receipt for these payments or that they indicate the precise manner in which the funds were spent." The CIA's auditors had to settle for canceled checks which White cashed himself and marked either "Stormy" or, just as appropriately, "Undercover Agent." The program was also referred to as "Operation Midnight Climax."
TSS officials found the San Francisco safehouse so successful that they opened a branch office, also under George White's auspices, across the Golden Gate on the beach in Marin County. Unlike the downtown apartment, where an MKULTRA man says "you could bring people in for quickies after lunch," the suburban Marin County outlet proved useful for experiments that required relative isolation. There, TSS scientists tested such MKULTRA specialties as stink bombs, itching and sneezing powders, and diarrhea inducers. TSS's Ray Treichler, the Stanford chemist, sent these "harassment substances" out to California for testing by White, along with such delivery systems as a mechanical launcher that could throw a foul-smelling object 100 yards, glass ampules that could be stepped on in a crowd to release any of Treichler's powders, a fine hypodermic needle to inject drugs through the cork in a wine bottle, and a drug-coated swizzle stick.
TSS men also planned to use the Marin County safehouse for an ill-fated experiment that began when staff psychologists David Rhodes and Walter Pasternak spent a week circulating in bars, inviting strangers to a party. They wanted to spray LSD from an aerosol can on their guests, but according to Rhodes' Senate testimony, "the weather defeated us." In the heat of the summer, they could not close the doors and windows long enough for the LSD to hang in the air and be inhaled. Sensing a botched operation, their MKULTRA colleague, John Gittinger (who brought the drug out from Washington) shut himself in the bathroom and let go with the spray. Still, Rhodes testified, Gittinger did not get high, and the CIA men apparently scrubbed the party.
The MKULTRA crew continued unwitting testing until the
summer of 1963 when the Agency's Inspector General stumbled across the
safehouses during a regular inspection of TSS activities. This happened not long
after Director John McCone had appointed John Earman to the Inspector General
Much to the displeasure of Sid Gottlieb and Richard Helms, Earman questioned the
propriety of the safehouses, and he insisted that Director McCone be given a
full briefing. Although President Kennedy had put McCone in charge of the Agency
the year before, Helms—the professional's professional—had not bothered to
tell his outsider boss about some of the CIA's most sensitive activities,
including the safehouses and the CIA-Mafia assassination plots.
Faced with Earman's demands, Helms—surely one of history's most clever
bureaucrats—volunteered to tell McCone himself about the safehouses (rather
than have Earman present a negative view of the program). Sure enough, Helms
told Earman afterward, McCone raised no objections to unwitting testing (as
Helms described it). A determined man and a rather brave one, Earman countered
with a full written report to McCone recommending that the safehouses be closed.
The Inspector General cited the risks of exposure and pointed out that many
people both inside and outside the Agency found "the concepts involved in
manipulating human behavior . . . to be distasteful and unethical." McCone
reacted by putting off a final decision but suspending unwitting testing in the
meantime. Over the next year, Helms, who then headed the Clandestine Services,
wrote at least three memos urging resumption. He cited "indications . . .
of an apparent Soviet aggressiveness in the field of covertly administered
chemicals which are, to say the least, inexplicable and disturbing," and he
claimed the CIA's "positive operational capacity to use drugs is
diminishing owing to a lack of realistic testing."
To Richard Helms, the importance of the program exceeded the risks and the
ethical questions, although he did admit, "We have no answer to the moral
issue." McCone simply did nothing for two years. The director's indecision
had the effect of killing the program, nevertheless. TSS officials closed the
San Francisco safehouse in 1965 and the New York one in 1966.
Years later in a personal letter to Sid Gottlieb, George White wrote an epitaph for his role with the CIA: "I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steak rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?"
After 10 years of unwitting testing, the men from MKULTRA
apparently scored no major breakthroughs with LSD or other drugs. They found no
effective truth drug, recruitment pill, or aphrodisiac. LSD had not opened up
the mind to CIA control. "We had thought at first that this was the secret
that was going to unlock the universe," says a TSS veteran. "We found
that human beings had resources far greater than imagined."
Yet despite the lack of precision and uncertainty, the CIA still made field use of LSD and other drugs that had worked their way through the MKULTRA testing progression. A 1957 report showed that TSS had already moved 6 drugs out of the experimental stage and into active use. Up to that time, CIA operators had utilized LSD and other psychochemicals against 33 targets in 6 different operations. Agency officials hoped in these cases either to discredit the subject by making him seem insane or to "create within the individual a mental and emotional situation which will release him from the restraint of self-control and induce him to reveal information willingly under adroit manipulation." The Agency has consistently refused to release details of these operations, and TSS sources who talk rather freely about other matters seem to develop amnesia when the subject of field use comes up. Nevertheless, it can be said that the CIA did establish a relationship with an unnamed foreign secret service to interrogate prisoners with LSD-like drugs. CIA operators participated directly in these interrogations, which continued at least until 1966. Often the Agency showed more concern for the safety of its operational targets abroad than it did for its unwitting victims in San Francisco, since some of the foreign subjects were given medical examinations before being slipped the drug.
In these operations, CIA men sometimes brought in local doctors for reasons that had nothing to do with the welfare of the patient. Instead, the doctor's role was to certify the apparent insanity of a victim who had been unwittingly dosed with LSD or an even more durable psychochemical like BZ (which causes trips lasting a week or more and which tends to induce violent behavior). If a doctor were to prescribe hospitalization or other severe treatment, the effect on the subject could be devastating. He would suffer not only the experience itself, including possible confinement in a mental institution, but also social stigma. In most countries, even the suggestion of mental problems severely damages an individual's professional and personal standing (as Thomas Eagleton, the recipient of some shock therapy, can testify). "It's an old technique," says an MKULTRA veteran. "You neutralize someone by having their constituency doubt them." The Church committee confirms that the Agency used this technique at least several times to assassinate a target's character.
Still, the Clandestine Services did not frequently call on TSS for LSD or other drugs. Many operators had practical and ethical objections. In part to overcome such objections and also to find better ways to use chemical and biological substances in covert operations, Sid Gottlieb moved up in 1959 to become Assistant for Scientific Matters to the Clandestine Services chief. Gottlieb found that TSS had kept the MKULTRA programs so secret that many field people did not even know what techniques were available. He wrote that tight controls over field use in MKDELTA operations "may have generated a general defeatism among case officers," who feared they would not receive permission or that the procedure was not worth the effort. Gottlieb tried to correct these shortcomings by providing more information on the drug arsenal to senior operators and by streamlining the approval process. He had less luck in overcoming views that drugs do not work or are not reliable, and that their operational use leads to laziness and poor tradecraft.
If the MKULTRA program had ever found that LSD or any other drug really did turn a man into a puppet, Sid Gottlieb would have had no trouble surmounting all those biases. Instead, Gottlieb and his fellow searchers came frustratingly close but always fell short of finding a reliable control mechanism. LSD certainly penetrated to the innermost regions of the mind. It could spring loose a whole gamut of feelings, from terror to insight. But in the end, the human psyche proved so complex that even the most skilled manipulator could not anticipate all the variables. He could use LSD and other drugs to chip away at free will. He could score temporary victories, and he could alter moods, perception—sometimes even beliefs. He had the power to cause great harm, but ultimately he could not conquer the human spirit.