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US Official Poisoner Dies

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Sidney Gottlieb, who for more than two decades managed the CIA’s TechnicalServices Division, died on March 10. His obituaries in the New York Timesand the Washington Post tended to focus own Gottlieb’s testing of LSD onhimself and other CIA officers, portraying him as a kind of Merry Prankster,the CIA’s very own Ken Kesey.

In fact, with Gottlieb’s death, America has lost its prime poisoner.For many years, most notably in the 1950s and 1960s, Gottlieb presided overthe CIA’s technical services division and supervised preparation of lethalpoisons, experiments in mind control and administration of LSD and otherpsycho-active drugs to unwitting subjects. Gottlieb’s passing came at aconvenient time for the CIA, just as several new trials involving victimsof its experiments were being brought. Those who had talked to Gottliebin the past few years say that the chemist believed that the Agency wastrying to make him the fall guy for the entire program. Some speculate thatGottlieb may have been ready to spill the goods on a wide range of CIA programs.

Incredibly, neither the Times nor the Post obituaries mention Gottlieb’scrucial role in the death of Dr. Frank Olson, who worked for the US Army’sbiological weapons center at Fort Detrick. At a CIA sponsored retreat inrural Maryland on November 18, 1953, Gottlieb gave the unwitting Olson aglass of Cointreau liberally spiked with LSD. Olson developed psychoticsymptoms soon thereafter and within a few days had plunged to his deathfrom an upper floor room at the New York Statler-Hilton. Olson was sharingthe room with Gottlieb’s number two, a CIA man called Robert Lashbrook,who had taken the deranged man to see a CIA-sponsored medic called HaroldAbramson who ran an allergy clinic at Mount Sinai, funded by Gottlieb toresearch LSD.

The night Olson made his terminally abrupt descent from the hotel windowthe New York police asked Lashbrook to turn out his pockets. On a pieceof paper were initials GW and MH, identified later as George White and MorganHall, White’s alias. White was retained by Gottlieb to run a CIA safehouseat 81 Bedford St in Greenwich Village, in cooperation with Harry Anslinger’sBureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, for which White had previouslyworked. Gottlieb’s men fixed up the house with one-way mirrors listeningdevices and secret cameras. From the fall of 1953 to the spring of the followingyear White threw parties on Bedford St, dosing his guests with sodium pentothal,Nembutal and of course LSD. Later White moved the CIA operation to San Francisco,with the same sort of set-up. He hired prostitutes to dose the guests, inan exercise known as Operation Midnight Climax. The encounter were filmed,on the walls White, put photos of women being tortured and whipped. Gottliebflew out to visit the safe house at 225 Chestnut Street several times ayear. Another senior CIA man, John Gittinger would interview the hookersabout their drugs and sex habits.

Gottlieb was a man of darkness. He sponsored research by the infamousDr Ewen Cameron, a world famous shrink who had clinic in Montreal at McGillwhere he dosed unwitting subjects (who had entered voluntarily for psychiatrictreatment) with huge jolts of electricity through their brains, plus drugsplus lobotomies. Many people had their lives thus destroyed in Cameron’sresearch, financed by Gottlieb and also by the Rockefeller Foundation. Cameroninvented a particularly ghastly process called “psychic driving”whereby drugged and shocked patients, whom Cameron believed he had wipedclean of their previous personalities, would have tapes played sixteen hoursa day, dictating their new personalities.

From time to time the patients, given Thorazine, Nebutal and Seconal,would be hauled off, administered amphetamines as a wake-up call, then getECT at voltages forty times greater than was considered safe at the time.Cameron died of a heart attack while mountain climbing in 1967. Gottliebhad finessed Cameron $60,000 in the late Fifties for his experiments. Eventuallythe CIA settled with some of Cameron’s victims.

Gottlieb also funded the experiments of Dr. Harris Isbell. Isbell ranthe Center for Addiction Research in Lexington, Kentucky. Passing throughIsbell’s center was a captive group of human guinea pigs in the form ofa steady stream of black heroin addicts. More than 800 different chemicalcompounds were shipped from Gottlieb to Lexington for testing on Isbell’spatients.

Perhaps the most infamous experiment came when Isbell gave LSD to sevenblack men for seventy-seven straight days. Isbell’s research notes indicatesthat he gave the men “quadruple” the “normal” dosages.The doctor marveled at the men’s apparent tolerance to these remarkableamounts of LSD. Isbell wrote in his notes that “this type of behavioris to be expected in patients of this type.”

In other Gottlieb-funded experiment at the Center, Isbell had nine blackmales strapped to tables, injected them with psylocybin, inserted rectalthermometers, had lights shown in their eyes to measure pupil dilation andhad their joints whacked to test neural reactions.

Gottlieb’s research was never a case of pure science. He was a practicalman. From the beginning, Gottlieb saw himself as part of the operationalwing of the CIA. Even the forays into LSD research, Gottlieb saw a testingfor a potential chemical warfare weapon. He arranged a contract with EliLily to produce synthetic LSD “in tonnage quantities.” The aimwas to have enough acid to incapacitate large populations and armies.

By the early 1960s Gottlieb’s techniques and potions were being fullydeployed in the field. Well-known is Gottlieb’s journey to the Congo, wherehis little black bag held an Agency-developed biotoxin scheduled for PatriceLumumba’s toothbrush. He also tried to manage Iraq’s general Kassim witha handkerchief doctored with botulinum and there were the endless poisonsdirected at Fidel Castro, from the LSD the Agency wanted to spray in hisradio booth to the poisonous fountain pen intended for Castro that was handedby a CIA man to Rolando Cubela on November 22, 1963.

Even less well remembered is one mission in the CIA’s Phoenix Programin Vietnam in July of 1968. A team of CIA psychologists set up shop at BienHoa Prison outside Saigon, where NLF suspects were being held after PhoenixProgram round-ups. The psychologists performed a variety of experimentson the prisoners. In one, three prisoners were anaesthetized; their skullswere opened and electrodes implanted by CIA doctors into different partsof their brains. The prisoners were revived, placed in a room with knivesand the electrodes in the brains activated by the psychiatrists, who werecovertly observing them. The hope was that they could be prompted in thismanner to attack each other. The experiments failed. The electrodes wereremoved, the patients were shot and their bodies burned. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

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