Weird Wednesdays: The CIA’s mind-control experiments

This image released by Netflix shows Noah Schnapp, from left, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb Mclaughlin in a scene from "Stranger Things.". (Netflix via AP)

If you’ve been keeping up with “Stranger Things” you’ll understand the buzz about it: it’s a gripping 80s throwback with elements of horror, science fiction, adventure and conspiracy thriller. It also features some pretty scary stuff, including secret, government-sanctioned mind control experiments, unethical scientific practices and murders framed as accidents. Creepy fiction, isn’t it?

Well, it’s not fiction. It happened.

Well, not all of it. Interdimensional shenanigans, as far as we know it, are still out of the realm of possibility. So is telepathy and extrasensory perception (ESP). The rest—including hidden labs, destroyed information and government coverups—is real.

Project MKUtra was the umbrella name for a series of clandestine experiments (about 149 in total) by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) centered on controlling human behavior through chemically, psychologically and subconsciously administered mechanisms. It was an attempted mind-control operation that ran for over two decades, and involved multiple violations of privacy, consent and medical ethic.

The project was launched in 1953, a little under a decade after the end of another devastating world war, with another possible war emerging as the United States clashed with the Soviet Union. Conflict, if it did erupt, would result in mutual destruction of both parties through nuclear ruin. The Cold War, therefore, would have to be fought with spies.

Thus, Project MKUltra was formulated, originally as a way to convert possible Soviet spies through brainwashing. Now of course, this is entirely unethical—and unethical medical data is a little hard to obtain. Thus, part of the information used for preliminary experiments was obtained from Nazi research (if you could call it research) performed on prisoners in concentration camps.

Most of the data found, and what the experiments entailed, from MKUltra has been lost, due to the systematic and ordered destruction of most of the project documents in 1973 amidst panic over the Watergate scandal. However, due to a clerical error, some of documents escaped destruction and were used in a court case in 1977 charging officials for their unethical practices.  

And unethical, indeed, they were. What info that could be garnered from the remaining documents detailed some disturbing findings—U.S. citizens were being administered mind-altering drugs such as LSD in order to influence their behavior.

Several of these experiments involved “unwitting human beings” according to Senate hearings from 1977, including prostitutes, hospital patients, prisoners and students at universities, including Harvard.

Experiments also involved the realms of hypnosis, sleep and the subconscious, truth serums and “behavioral training,” involving sensory deprivation and forcing LSD trips on subjects who refused to comply.

The LSD experiments, which are the best-recorded, had a heavy impact on those subjected to them. It wasn’t uncommon for CIA operatives themselves to be exposed to LSD through their food, drink or even cigarettes.

One operative, Frank Olson, was working for the CIA as a bacteriologist for research into biological warfare. Olson was reportedly dosed with LSD, and, a little over a week later, flung himself from a high window of the Statler Hotel in New York. Though his death was ruled as a suicide by government officials, a later autopsy of the body revealed cuts and head trauma, suggesting murder.

While why Olson was targeted is still unknown, reports allege that he had requested to leave the biological warfare program a week before his death. Though his family sued for wrongful death, the case was dismissed.

One of the stranger things included in MKUltra was the study of ESP for the purpose of tapping into the minds and activities of Soviets. Though several of the documents detailing the experiments that took place have been destroyed, one grant proposal document detailed that “mediums, children and psychotics” were all candidates for testing.

Though the 1977 Congressional hearings conducted by Frank Church and Senator Ted Kennedy brought MKUltra to light, little came from them. Several of the operatives involved in the project who possess knowledge of the destroyed documents are now deceased (and some of them at suspiciously young ages). What truly happened, what was discovered or even if the government is still continuing the experiments remains unknown.

Makes you think twice about participating in a “research study” for a Subway gift card, doesn’t it?


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.