In the early days of the Society, Agency officials trusted
Wolff and his untried ideas with a sensitive espionage assignment. In effect,
the new specialty of human ecology was going to telescope the stages of research
and application into one continuing process. Speeding up the traditional
academic method was required because the CIA men faced an urgent problem.
"What was bothering them," Lawrence Hinkle explains, "was that
the Chinese had cleaned up their agents in China.... What they really wanted to
do was come up with some Chinese [in America], steer them to us, and make them
into agents." Wolff accepted the challenge and suggested that the Cornell
group hide its real purpose behind the cover of investigating "the
ecological aspects of disease" among Chinese refugees. The Agency gave the
project a budget of $84,175 (about 30 percent of the money it put into Cornell
in 1955) and supplied the study group with 100 Chinese refugees to work with.
Nearly all these subjects had been studying in the United States when the
communists took over the mainland in 1949, so they tended to be dislocated
people in their thirties.
On the Agency side, the main concern, as expressed by one ARTICHOKE man, was the "security hazard" of bringing together so many potential agents in one place. Nevertheless, CIA officials decided to go ahead. Wolff promised to tell them about the inner reaches of the Chinese character, and they recognized the operational advantage that insight into Chinese behavior patterns could provide. Moreover, Wolff said he would pick out the most useful possible agents. The Human Ecology Society would then offer these candidates "fellowships" and subject them to more intensive interviews and "stress producing" situations. The idea was to find out about their personalities, past conditioning, and present motivations, in order to figure out how they might perform in future predicaments—such as finding themselves back in Mainland China as American agents. In the process, Wolff hoped to mold these Chinese into people willing to work for the CIA. Mindful of leaving some cover for Cornell, he was adamant that Agency operators not connected with the project make the actual recruitment pitch to those Chinese whom the Agency men wanted as agents.
As a final twist, Wolff planned to provide each agent with techniques to withstand the precise forms of hostile interrogation they could expect upon returning to China. CIA officials wanted to "precondition" the agents in order to create long lasting motivation "impervious to lapse of time and direct psychological attacks by the enemy." In other words, Agency men planned to brainwash their agents in order to protect them against Chinese brainwashing.
Everything was covered—in theory, at least. Wolff was going to take a crew of 100 refugees and turn as many of them as possible into detection-proof, live agents inside China, and he planned to do the job quickly through human ecology. It was a heady chore for the Cornell professor to take on after classes.
Wolff hired a full complement of psychologists, psychiatrists, and anthropologists to work on the project. He bulldozed his way through his colleagues' qualms and government red tape alike. Having hired an anthropologist before learning that the CIA security office would not give her a clearance, Wolff simply lied to her about where the money came from. "It was a function of Wolff's imperious nature," says his partner Hinkle. "If a dog came in and threw up on the rug during a lecture, he would continue." Even the CIA men soon found that Harold Wolff was not to be trifled with. "From the Agency side, I don't know anyone who wasn't scared of him," recalls a longtime CIA associate. "He was an autocratic man. I never knew him to chew anyone out. He didn't have to. We were damned respectful. He moved in high places. He was just a skinny little man but talk about mind control! He was one of the controllers."
In the name of the Human Ecology Society, the CIA paid $1,200 a month to rent a fancy town house on Manhattan's East 78th Street to house the Cornell group and its research projects Agency technicians traveled to New York in December 1954 to install eavesdropping microphones around the building. These and other more obvious security devices—safes, guards, and the like—made the town house look different from the academic center it was supposed to be. CIA liaison personnel held meetings with Wolff and the staff in the secure confines of the town house, and they all carefully watched the 100 Chinese a few blocks away at the Cornell hospital. The Society paid each subject $25 a day so the researchers could test them, probe them, and generally learn all they could about Chinese people—or at least about middle-class, displaced, anti-Communist ones.
It is doubtful that any of Wolff's Chinese ever returned to their homeland as CIA agents, or that all of Wolff's proposals were put into effect. In any case, the project was interrupted in midstream by a major shake-up in the CIA's entire mind-control effort. Early in 1955, Sid Gottlieb and his Ph.D. crew from TSS took over most of the ARTICHOKE functions, including the Society, from Morse Allen and the Pinkerton types in the Office of Security. The MKULTRA men moved quickly to turn the Society into an entity that looked and acted like a legitimate foundation. First they smoothed over the ragged covert edges. Out came the bugs and safes so dear to Morse Allen and company. The new crew even made some effort (largely unsuccessful) to attract non-CIA funds. The biggest change, however, was the Cornell professors now had to deal with Agency representatives who were scientists and who had strong ideas of their own on research questions. Up to this point, the Cornellians had been able to keep the CIA's involvement within bounds acceptable to them. While Harold Wolff never ceased wanting to explore the furthest reaches of behavior control, his colleagues were wary of going on to the outer limits—at least under Cornell cover.
No one would ever confuse MKULTRA projects with
ivory-tower research, but Gottlieb's people did take a more academic—and
sophisticated—approach to behavioral research than their predecessors. The
MKULTRA men understood that not every project would have an immediate
operational benefit, and they believed less and less in the existence of that
one just-over-the-horizon technique that would turn men into puppets. They
favored increasing their knowledge of human behavior in relatively small steps,
and they concentrated on the reduced goal of influencing and manipulating their
subjects. "You're ahead of the game if you can get people to do something
ten percent more often than they would otherwise," says an MKULTRA veteran.
Accordingly, in 1956, Sid Gottlieb approved a $74,000 project to have the Human Ecology Society study the factors that caused men to defect from their countries and cooperate with foreign governments. MKULTRA officials reasoned that if they could understand what made old turncoats tick, it might help them entice new ones. While good case officers instinctively seemed to know how to handle a potential agent—or thought they did—the MKULTRA men hoped to come up with systematic, even scientific improvements. Overtly, Harold Wolff designed the program to look like a follow-up study to the Society's earlier programs, noting to the Agency that it was "feasible to study foreign nationals under the cover of a medical-sociological study." (He told his CIA funders that "while some information of general value to science should be produced, this in itself will not be a sufficient justification for carrying out a study of this nature.") Covertly, he declared the purpose of the research was to assess defectors' social and cultural background, their life experience, and their personality structure, in order to understand their motivations, value systems, and probable future reactions.
The 1956 Hungarian revolt occurred as the defector study was getting underway, and the Human Ecology group, with CIA headquarters approval, decided to turn the defector work into an investigation of 70 Hungarian refugees from that upheaval. By then, most of Harold Wolff's team had been together through the brainwashing and Chinese studies. While not all of them knew of the CIA's specific interests, they had streamlined their procedures for answering the questions that Agency officials found interesting. They ran the Hungarians through the battery of tests and observations in six months, compared to a year and a half for the Chinese project.
The Human Ecology Society reported that most of their Hungarian subjects had fought against the Russians during the Revolution and that they had lived through extraordinarily difficult circumstances, including arrest, mistreatment, and indoctrination. The psychologists and psychiatrists found that, often, those who had survived with the fewest problems had been those with markedly aberrant personalities. "This observation has added to the evidence that healthy people are not necessarily 'normal,' but are people particularly adapted to their special life situations," the group declared.
While CIA officials liked the idea that their Hungarian subjects had not knuckled under communist influence, they recognized that they were working with a skewed sample. American visa restrictions kept most of the refugee left-wingers and former communist officials out of the United States; so, as a later MKULTRA document would state, the Society wound up studying "western-tied rightist elements who had never been accepted completely" in postwar Hungary. Agency researchers realized that these people would "contribute little" toward increasing the CIA's knowledge of the processes that made a communist official change his loyalties.
In order to broaden their data base, MKULTRA officials decided in March 1957 to bring in some unwitting help. They gave a contract to Rutgers University sociologists Richard Stephenson and Jay Schulman "to throw as much light as possible on the sociology of the communist system in the throes of revolution." The Rutgers professors started out by interviewing the 70 Hungarians at Cornell in New York, and Schulman went on to Europe to talk to disillusioned Communists who had also fled their country. From an operational point of view, these were the people the Agency really cared about; but, as socialists, most of them probably would have resisted sharing their experiences with the CIA—if they had known.
Jay Schulman would have resisted, too. After discovering almost 20 years later that the Agency had paid his way and seen his confidential interviews, he feels misused. "In 1957 I was myself a quasi-Marxist and if I had known that this study was sponsored by the CIA, there is really, obviously, no way that I would have been associated with it," says Schulman. "My view is that social scientists have a deep personal responsibility for questioning the sources of funding; and the fact that I didn't do it at the time was simply, in my judgment, indication of my own naiveté and political innocence, in spite of my ideological bent."
Deceiving Schulman and his Hungarian subjects did not bother the men from MKULTRA in the slightest. According to a Gottlieb aide, one of the strong arguments inside the CIA for the whole Human Ecology program was that it gave the Agency a means of approaching and using political mavericks who could not otherwise get security clearances. "Sometimes," he chuckles, "these left-wing social scientists were damned good." This MKULTRA veteran scoffs at the displeasure Schulman expresses: "If we'd gone to a guy and said, 'We're CIA,' he never would have done it. They were glad to get the money in a world where damned few people were willing to support them.... They can't complain about how they were treated or that they were asked to do something they wouldn't have normally done."
The Human Ecology Society soon became a conduit for CIA money flowing to projects, like the Rutgers one, outside Cornell. For these grants, the Society provided only cover and administrative support behind the gold-plated names of Cornell and Harold Wolff. From 1955 to 1958, Agency officials passed funds through the Society for work on criminal sexual psychopaths at Ionia State Hospital,  a mental institution located on the banks of the Grand River in the rolling farm country 120 miles northwest of Detroit. This project had an interesting hypothesis: That child molesters and rapists had ugly secrets buried deep within them and that their stake in not admitting their perversions approached that of spies not wanting to confess. The MKULTRA men reasoned that any technique that would work on a sexual psychopath would surely have a similar effect on a foreign agent. Using psychologists and psychiatrists connected to the Michigan mental health and the Detroit court systems, they set up a program to test LSD and marijuana, wittingly and unwittingly, alone and in combination with hypnosis. Because of administrative delays, the Michigan doctors managed to experiment only on 26 inmates in three years—all sexual offenders committed by judges without a trial under a Michigan law, since declared unconstitutional. The search for a truth drug went on, under the auspices of the Human Ecology Society, as well as in other MKULTRA channels.
The Ionia project was the kind of expansionist activity that made Cornell administrators, if not Harold Wolff, uneasy. By 1957, the Cornellians had had enough. At the same time, the Agency sponsors decided that the Society had outgrown its dependence on Cornell for academic credentials—that in fact the close ties to Cornell might inhibit the Society's future growth among academics notoriously sensitive to institutional conflicts. One CIA official wrote that the Society "must be given more established stature in the research community to be effective as a cover organization." Once the Society was cut loose in the foundation world, Agency men felt they would be freer to go anywhere in academia to buy research that might assist covert operations. So the CIA severed the Society's formal connection to Cornell.
The Human Ecology group moved out of its East 78th Street town house, which had always seem a little too plush for a university program, and opened up a new headquarters in Forest Hills, Queens, which was an inappropriate neighborhood for a well-connected foundation.  Agency officials hired a staff of four led by Lieutenant Colonel James Monroe, who had worked closely with the CIA as head of the Air Force's study of Korean War prisoners. Sid Gottlieb and the TSS hierarchy in Washington still made the major decisions, but Monroe and the Society staff, whose salaries the Agency paid, took over the Society's dealings with the outside world and the monitoring of several hundred thousand dollars a year in research projects. Monroe personally supervised dozens of grants, including Dr. Ewen Cameron's brainwashing work in Montreal. Soon the Society was flourishing as an innovative foundation, attracting research proposals from a wide variety of behavioral scientists, at a time when these people—particularly the unorthodox ones—were still the step-children of the fund-granting world.
After the Society's exit from Cornell, Wolff and Hinkle
stayed on as president and vice-president, respectively, of the Society's board
of directors. Dr. Joseph Hinsey, head of the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical
Center also remained on the board. Allen Dulles continued his personal interest
in the Society's work and came to one of the first meetings of the new board,
which, as was customary with CIA fronts, included some big outside names. These
luminaries added worthiness to the enterprise while playing essentially
figurehead roles. In 1957 the other board members were John Whitehorn, chairman
of the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University, Carl Rogers, professor
of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, and Adolf A. Berle,
onetime Assistant Secretary of State and chairman of the New York Liberal Party.
Berle had originally put his close friend Harold Wolff in touch with the CIA,
and at Wolff's request, he came on the Society board despite some reservations.
"I am frightened about this one," Berle wrote in his diary. "If
the scientists do what they have laid out for themselves, men will become
manageable ants. But I don't think it will happen."
There was a lot of old-fashioned backscratching among the CIA people and the academics as they settled into the work of accommodating each other. Even Harold Wolff, the first and the most enthusiastic of the scholar-spies, had made it clear from the beginning that he expected some practical rewards for his service. According to colleague Hinkle, who appreciated Wolff as one the great grantsman of his time, Wolff expected that the Agency "would support our research and we would be their consultants." Wolff bluntly informed the CIA that some of his work would have no direct use "except that it vastly enhances our value . . . as consultants and advisers." In other words, Wolff felt that his worth to the CIA increased in proportion to his professional accomplishments and importance—which in turn depended partly on the resources he commanded. The Agency men understood, and over the last half of the 1950s, they were happy to contribute almost $300,000 to Wolff's own research on the brain and central nervous system. In turn, Wolff and his reputation helped them gain access to other leading lights in the academic world.
Another person who benefited from Human Ecology funds was Carl Rogers, whom Wolff had also asked to serve on the board. Rogers, who later would become famous for his nondirective, nonauthoritarian approach to psychotherapy, respected Wolff's work, and he had no objection to helping the CIA. Although he says he would have nothing to do with secret Agency activities today, he asks for understanding in light of the climate of the 1950s. "We really did regard Russia as the enemy," declares Rogers, "and we were trying to do various things to make sure the Russians did not get the upper hand." Rogers received an important professional reward for joining the Society board. Executive Director James Monroe had let him know that, once he agreed to serve, he could expect to receive a Society grant. "That appealed to me because I was having trouble getting funded," says Rogers. "Having gotten that grant [about $30,000 over three years], it made it possible to get other grants from Rockefeller and NIMH." Rogers still feels grateful to the Society for helping him establish a funding "track record," but he emphasizes that the Agency never had any effect on his research.
Although MKULTRA psychologist John Gittinger suspected that Rogers' work on psychotherapy might provide insight into interrogation methods, the Society did not give Rogers money because of the content of his work. The grant ensured his services as a consultant, if desired, and, according to a CIA document, "free access" to his project. But above all, the grant allowed the Agency to use Rogers' name. His standing in the academic community contributed to the layer of cover around the Society that Agency officials felt was crucial to mask their involvement.
Professor Charles Osgood's status in psychology also improved the Society's cover, but his research was more directly useful to the Agency, and the MKULTRA men paid much more to get it. In 1959 Osgood, who four years later became president of the American Psychological Association, wanted to push forward his work on how people in different societies express the same feelings, even when using different words and concepts. Osgood wrote in "an abstract conceptual framework," but Agency officials saw his research as "directly relevant" to covert activities. They believed they could transfer Osgood's knowledge of "hidden values and cues" in the way people communicate into more effective overseas propaganda. Osgood's work gave them a tool—called the "semantic differential"—to choose the right words in a foreign language to convey a particular meaning.
Like Carl Rogers, Osgood got his first outside funding for what became the most important work of his career from the Human Ecology Society. Osgood had written directly to the CIA for support, and the Society soon contacted him and furnished $192,975 for research over five years. The money allowed him to travel widely and to expand his work into 30 different cultures. Also like Rogers, Osgood eventually received NIMH money to finish his research, but he acknowledges that the Human Ecology grants played an important part in the progress of his work. He stresses that "there was none of the feeling then about the CIA that there is now, in terms of subversive activities," and he states that the Society had no influence on anything he produced. Yet Society men could and did talk to him about his findings. They asked questions that reflected their own covert interests, not his academic pursuits, and they drew him out, according to one of them, "at great length." Osgood had started studying cross-cultural meaning well before he received the Human Ecology money, but the Society's support ensured that he would continue his work on a scale that suited the Agency's purposes, as well as his own.
A whole category of Society funding, called "cover grants," served no other purpose than to build the Society's false front. These included a sociological study of Levittown, Long Island (about $4,500), an analysis of the Central Mongoloid skull ($700), and a look at the foreign-policy attitudes of people who owned fallout shelters, as opposed to people who did not ($2,500). A $500 Human Ecology grant went to Istanbul University for a study of the effects of circumcision on Turkish boys. The researcher found that young Turks, usually circumcised between the ages of five and seven, felt "severe emotional impact with attending symptoms of withdrawal." The children saw the painful operations as "an act of aggression" that brought out previously hidden fears—or so the Human Ecology Society reported.
In other instances, the Society put money into projects whose covert application was so unlikely that only an expert could see the possibilities. Nonetheless, in 1958 the Society gave $5,570 to social psychologists Muzafer and Carolyn Wood Sherif of the University of Oklahoma for work on the behavior of teen-age boys in gangs. The Sherifs, both ignorant of the CIA connection, studied the group structures and attitudes in the gangs and tried to devise ways to channel antisocial behavior into more constructive paths. Their results were filtered through clandestine minds at the Agency. "With gang warfare," says an MKULTRA source, "you tried to get some defectors-in-place who would like to modify some of the group behavior and cool it. Now, getting a juvenile delinquent defector was motivationally not all that much different from getting a Soviet one."
MKULTRA officials were clearly interested in using their grants to build contacts and associations with prestigious academics. The Society put $1,500 a year into the Research in Mental Health Newsletter published jointly at McGill University by the sociology and psychiatric departments. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, an international culture heroine, sat on the newsletter's advisory board (with, among others, D. Ewen Cameron), and the Society used her name in its biennial report. Similarly, the Society gave grants of $26,000 to the well-known University of London psychologist, H. J. Eysenck, for his work on motivation. An MKULTRA document acknowledged that this research would have "no immediate relevance for Agency needs," but that it would "lend prestige" to the Society. The grants to Eysenck also allowed the Society to take funding credit for no less than nine of his publications in its 1963 report. The following year, the Society managed to purchase a piece of the work of the most famous behaviorist of all, Harvard's B. F. Skinner. Skinner, who had tried to train pigeons to guide bombs for the military during World War II, received a $5,000 Human Ecology grant to pay the costs of a secretary and supplies for the research that led to his book, Freedom and Dignity. Skinner has no memory of the grant or its origins but says, "I don't like secret involvement of any kind. I can't see why it couldn't have been open and aboveboard."
A TSS source explains that grants like these "bought legitimacy" for the Society and made the recipients "grateful." He says that the money gave Agency employees at Human Ecology a reason to phone Skinner—or any of the other recipients—to pick his brain about a particular problem. In a similar vein, another MKULTRA man, psychologist John Gittinger mentions the Society's relationship with Erwin Goffman of the University of Pennsylvania, whom many consider today's leading sociological theorist. The Society gave him a small grant to help finish a book that would have been published anyway. As a result, Gittinger was able to spend hours talking with him about, among other things, an article he had written earlier on confidence men. These hucksters were experts at manipulating behavior, according to Gittinger, and Goffman unwittingly "gave us a better understanding of the techniques people use to establish phony relationships"—a subject of interest to the CIA.
To keep track of new developments in the behavioral sciences, Society representatives regularly visited grant recipients and found out what they and their colleagues were doing. Some of the knowing professors became conscious spies. Most simply relayed the latest professional gossip to their visitors and sent along unpublished papers. The prestige of the Human Ecology grantees also helped give the Agency access to behavioral scientists who had no connection to the Society. "You could walk into someone's office and say you were just talking to Skinner," says an MKULTRA veteran. "We didn't hesitate to do this. It was a way to name-drop."
The Society did not limit its intelligence gathering to the United States. As one Agency source puts it, "The Society gave us a legitimate basis to approach anyone in the academic community anywhere in the world." CIA officials regularly used it as cover when they traveled abroad to study the behavior of foreigners of interest to the Agency, including such leaders as Nikita Khrushchev. The Society funded foreign researchers and also gave money to American professors to collect information abroad. In 1960, for instance, the Society sponsored a survey of Soviet psychology through the simple device of putting up $15,000 through the official auspices of the American Psychological Association to send ten prominent psychologists on a tour of the Soviet Union. Nine of the ten had no idea of the Agency involvement, but CIA officials were apparently able to debrief everyone when the group returned. Then the Society sponsored a conference and book for which each psychologist contributed a chapter. The book added another $5,000 to the CIA's cost, but $20,000 all told seemed like a small price to pay for the information gathered. The psychologists—except perhaps the knowledgeable one—did nothing they would not ordinarily have done during their trip, and the scholarly community benefited from increased knowledge on an important subject. The only thing violated was the openness and trust normally associated with academic pursuits. By turning scholars into spies—even unknowing ones—CIA officials risked the reputation of American research work and contributed potential ammunition toward the belief in many countries that the U.S. notion of academic freedom and independence from the state is self-serving and hypocritical.
Secrecy allowed the Agency a measure of freedom from normal academic restrictions and red tape, and the men from MKULTRA used that freedom to make their projects more attractive. The Society demanded "no stupid progress reports," recalls psychologist and psychiatrist Martin Orne, who received a grant to support his Harvard research on hypnotism. As a further sign of generosity and trust, the Society gave Orne a follow-on $30,000 grant with no specified purpose. Orne could use it as he wished. He believes the money was "a contingency investment" in his work, and MKULTRA officials agree. "We could go to Orne anytime," says one of them, "and say, 'Okay, here is a situation and here is a kind of guy. What would you expect we might be able to achieve if we could hypnotize him?' Through his massive knowledge, he could speculate and advise." A handful of other Society grantees also served in similar roles as covert Agency consultants in the field of their expertise.
In general, the Human Ecology Society served as the CIA's window on the world of behavioral research. No phenomenon was too arcane to escape a careful look from the Society, whether extrasensory perception or African witch doctors. "There were some unbelievable schemes," recalls an MKULTRA veteran, "but you also knew Einstein was considered crazy. You couldn't be so biased that you wouldn't leave open the possibility that some crazy idea might work." MKULTRA men realized, according to the veteran, that "ninety percent of what we were doing would fail" to be of any use to the Agency. Yet, with a spirit of inquiry much freer than that usually found in the academic world, the Society took early stabs at cracking the genetic code with computers and finding out whether animals could be controlled through electrodes placed in their brains.
The Society's unrestrained, scattershot approach to behavioral research went against the prevailing wisdom in American universities—both as to methods and to subjects of interest. During the 1950s one school of thought—so-called "behaviorism,"—was accepted on campus, virtually to the exclusion of all others. The "behaviorists," led by Harvard's B. F. Skinner, looked at psychology as the study of learned observable responses to outside stimulation. To oversimplify, they championed the approach in which psychologists gave rewards to rats scurrying through mazes, and they tended to dismiss matters of great interest to the Agency: e.g., the effect of drugs on the psyche, subjective phenomena like hypnosis, the inner workings of the mind, and personality theories that took genetic differences into account.
By investing up to $400,000 a year into the early, innovative work of men like Carl Rogers, Charles Osgood, and Martin Orne, the CIA's Human Ecology Society helped liberate the behavioral sciences from the world of rats and cheese. With a push from the Agency as well as other forces, the field opened up. Former iconoclasts became eminent, and, for better or worse, the Skinnerian near-monopoly gave way to a multiplication of contending schools. Eventually, a reputable behavioral scientist could be doing almost anything: holding hands with his students in sensitivity sessions, collecting survey data on spanking habits, or subjectively exploring new modes of consciousness. The CIA's money undoubtedly changed the academic world to some degree, though no one can say how much.
As usual, the CIA men were ahead of their time and had started to move on before the new approaches became established. In 1963, having sampled everything from palm reading to subliminal perception, Sid Gottlieb and his colleagues satisfied themselves that they had overlooked no area of knowledge—however esoteric—that might be promising for CIA operations. The Society had served its purpose; now the money could be better spent elsewhere. Agency officials transferred the still-useful projects to other covert channels and allowed the rest to die quietly. By the end of 1965, when the remaining research was completed, the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology was gone.