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We see a wall with murky brown floral wallpaper and a door with a peephole and the number 1018A. A man is talking on the phone. He says: “See you tomorrow. I love you, Alice.” The camera pans out and reveals another man, sitting on the twin bed next to the first man. He’s smoking a cigarette and watching a boxing match on an old black and white TV set. The first man gets up and turns off the TV. He returns to his bed and starts reading a passage from the Holy Bible he’s holding:
“And the Third Angel sounded; and there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as if it were a lamp; and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood; and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”
Someone tries to open the hotel room door. The first man goes to the door and looks through the peephole. He goes out into the corridor. There’s no one. He returns to the room.
A window shatters. The first man bursts through it head first and begins falling in slow motion, while Perry Como sings “No other love have I, only my love for you” and the opening credits roll.
Thus we are sucked into Wormwood, Errol Morris’s mesmerising new six part docu-drama.
1953 appears on the screen and a voice asks “What were you told at the time of your father’s death?”
A blue-eyed elderly man answers: “I was told that ‘Your father has had an accident. He fell, or jumped out the window. And he died’.”
The voice asking the question is that of Errol Morris. The man answering it is Eric Olson, eldest son of Frank Olson, the man who fell or jumped from the 13th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York, at 2.33 a.m. on 28 November 1953.
Frank Olson was a scientist working on the secret biological weapons program at Fort Detrick, Maryland, a U.S. military research facility. He was also closely involved in two top secret CIA programs. One, code-named Artichoke, was developing special interrogation techniques. The other, code-named MKUltra, was experimenting with mind-control methods, including the use of LSD.
Wormwood tells the story of Eric Olson’s lifelong investigation into his father’s death. Did he fall? Did he jump? Was he pushed? Was it an accident? A mind-control experiment gone wrong? Was it murder? Was it an execution?
To get to the truth, Wormwood also re-enacts the last ten days of Frank Olson’s life. Thus, about 18 minutes into the first episode, Frank Olson is being driven to a lakeside lodge for a meeting with his Fort Detrick and CIA colleagues. He turns on the car radio and the newsreader’s voice says:
Just released films lay bare the shocking truth behind communist charges of germ warfare in Korea and the so-called confessions of captured U.S. airmen. Confiscated films show the red press conferences where the captured flyers admitted dropping germ bombs on civilian territory, statements broadcast by the communist propaganda machine throughout the world, and even carried into the halls of the United Nations. These confessions form the basis of a blatant symphony of hatred…
As the voice speaks, this footage briefly appears on the screen. I recognise it. I rewind and pause the film. The man on the far right in the white shirt is my father, Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett.
I’ve seen this footage before. It’s from a 1952 Chinese film recording “Captured U.S. airmen Kenneth L. Enoch and John S. Quinn, interrogated by the Joint Interrogation Group of Korean and Chinese specialists and News Correspondents” in which the two airmen repeat what they had already said in their “voluntary confessions”: that the U.S. was waging germ warfare in Korea and that they had personally dropped germ bombs. In fact, the “interrogation” looks more like a press conference and, as the voice-over says, “Wilfred Burchett, correspondent of the Paris Ce Soir, also joined the work of the group by invitation.”
Other footage, used later in Wormwood, shows the International Scientific Commission, led by one of Britain’s most distinguished scientists, Joseph Needham, a fellow of the British Academy, who travelled to China and Korea to investigate the allegations and attended the “interrogation” of the captured U.S. pilots.
Allow me to freeze this historic moment, in which two narratives converge from opposing sides of the Korean War and the Cold War.
My father, journalist Wilfred Burchett, was accused by the Australian conservative establishment of fabricating the germ warfare story, of torturing Allied POWs – including Australians – brainwashing them and extracting confessions. He was branded a traitor and denied Australian citizenship for 17 years. These accusations are repeated to this day. What is certain is that he reported the conflict from the North Korean-Chinese side.
When Korean War ceasefire talks were announced in July 1951, he was in China collecting material for a book. The French newspaper Ce Soir asked him to cover the talks for them. They were expected to last three weeks, but ended up lasting two and a half years. Among many other stories, he also reported and investigated allegations made by the Chinese and North Koreans that the U.S. had used germ warfare. Just as he was the first to report on the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and just as he would be one of the first to accuse the U.S. of using chemical defoliants in Vietnam, facts no one now denies. Most people have heard of Agent Orange and its devastating effects on humans and the environment. But the use of bacteriological weapons in Korea is still a contested issue.
The subject of Wormwood, Frank Olson, was involved in secret CIA interrogation and mind control experiments. He was also working on germ warfare programs for the U.S. military at Fort Detrick. As Eric Olson says in the film “This conflation of things, biological weapons on one hand, covert operations on the other, was what brought Fort Detrick and the CIA together. And my father was in the centre of that. He was arguably in the most dangerous spot in the whole Cold War.”
His mother had told him that his father was very upset about Korea. As he tells Morris: “She thought he was certain that the United States had used bacteriological weapons in Korea. He was very upset and angry because the United States was denying it constantly.” And when his father’s body is re-buried after exhumation, Eric states: “Frank Olson didn’t die because he was an experimental guinea pig who’d experienced a bad trip. He died because of concerns he would divulge information concerning a highly classified CIA interrogation program called Artichoke and concerning the use of biological weapons by the United States in the Korean War.”
So scientist Frank Olson, who worked on biological weapons development for the U.S. military and secret interrogation and mind control programs for the CIA was convinced that the U.S. was conducting germ warfare in Korea. He was so tormented by this, that the CIA was afraid he’d reveal its darkest secrets. And they killed him. Dropped him out of a window and claimed it was suicide.
To this day, the US government dismisses the allegations of germ warfare as communist propaganda. Some scholars argue that the germ warfare “hoax” was concocted by Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-sung to tarnish the image of the United States and its Allies in the eyes of world public opinion.
Really? I have in my files a letter from Joseph Needham to my father, dated 23 February 1969. It says “I agree entirely with your formulation of ‘large scale experimentation in delivery systems’, basically insect vectors, and I have in no way changed my opinion since the report was issued. Nor, so far as I know, has any other member of the International Scientific Commission expressed any doubts about the findings.”
Wormwood is meticulously crafted and every image and frame is meaningful, like a masterful painting where every brush stroke is in the right place. So I’m wondering why Morris included Wilfred Burchett in his film, even if only for a few seconds. The film from which that segment was extracted clearly introduces him as Wilfred Burchett, correspondent of the Paris Ce Soir. I don’t believe anything is left to chance in Wormwood.
So I shall indulge in some speculation. Only one other journalist appears at length in the film: legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He first reported on the Frank Olson case in 1975, after the Rockefeller Commission into the CIA’s illegal activities concluded that Olson had jumped to his death because of a CIA experiment with LSD that went bad. The CIA was forced to admit responsibility. President Ford invited the Olsons to the White House and apologised. They also received monetary compensation after agreeing not to push the matter any further. Hersh also accepted the Rockefeller conclusions and took it no further.
But Eric Olson wanted to find out what exactly happened in the New York hotel room on 28 November 1953. So he kept digging, literally. In 1994, he had his father’s body exhumed. For some reason, the body had been embalmed and was remarkably well preserved. A team of forensic pathologists, led by prominent forensic scientist Dr James Starrs, found no traces of laceration from broken glass on the face, contradicting the original medical report. But there was evidence of a heavy blow to the head from some hard object. They thus concluded that Frank Olson didn’t jump, but had been defenestrated. They described it as “murder most foul”.
In 1997 the CIA Assassination Manual was released with a trove of documents pertaining to the coup in Guatemala. In its first edition, that of 1953, Eric Olson, sitting at the kitchen table from where he saw his father for the last time, read that the CIA’s preferred method of assassination was to push somebody off a high building or out a window. As he says: “The verb finally came, after all these years. It wasn’t FALL, it wasn’t JUMP, it wasn’t DIVE. The verb is DROP.” And before dropping the subject it was desirable to give them a blow on the head to render them unconscious.
He was now convinced that the LSD-induced defenestration was a deliberate distraction from the real story. But what was the real story, then?
The answer was provided by a former colleague of his father’s and old family friend. A 2001 New York Times article about the case prompted him to drop Eric Olson a note: “Eric, you got everything right, except one thing. The historical context. Your father had become convinced that the United States was using biological weapons in Korea and he was pissed.”
If Frank Olson believed biological weapons had been used, it would be very difficult to discredit him. So the CIA had to act.
By 2014, Eric Olson had collected enough compelling evidence to prove that his father was killed by the CIA. It was not an accident, not an experiment gone wrong, but a planned, cold blooded execution.
He takes his evidence to Seymour Hersh and asks him to publish it. The LSD story is a decoy to throw everyone off track. Hersh is initially reluctant to revisit a case that should have been closed long ago, but is challenged and agrees to contact one of his “deep throat” informant. His “deep throat” contact provides him with the information he wants. But Hersh can’t reveal it. He won’t publish the story. He must protect his sources.
The truth about Frank Olson’s execution by the CIA remains locked in some deep vault. The world’s most famous investigative journalist has reached the limits of what journalism can do. As he tells Morris: “The fact that you can’t get closure in this thing will be of great satisfaction to the CIA. The old timers, they’ll love it. The trade-craft won. ‘We got away with one. Even though a few people may know what happened, so what? Nobody else does’.”
It’s a moment of breathtaking cynicism. Should the CIA be allowed to carry on its criminal activities just to protect Seymour Hersh’s sources? Should the truth about germ warfare be buried for ever behind a shield of deniability?
Eric Olson ends on a bitter note: “Wormwood. It’s all bitter.”
I’d like to quote Wilfred Burchett here: “I think that as a journalist, there’s a very great responsibility, particularly journalists reporting on international affairs, as I do, to get the facts right and to be absolutely free of any doctrine or of any ideological optical devices. To be free and really seek the truth, get the truth and publish the truth” (in Public Enemy Number One, a film by David Bradbury, 1980).
Wilfred Burchett told the truth about Nazi Germany when the Australian government was courting Hitler and helping arm Imperial Japan. He told the truth about Hiroshima, as the first Western correspondent to report from the city one month after the atomic bomb was dropped. He reported the truth about germ warfare in Korea and the use of chemical defoliants in Vietnam and the many other atrocities of both wars. None of this endeared him to the Australian or US governments of the time. He was accused of treason, denied an Australian passport, was vilified and is still vilified as a communist propagandist, KGB agent and so on.
So, Mr Hersh, I challenge you to tell us the truth about Frank Olson’s murder by the CIA, about germ warfare in Korea and the other dark secrets that led to his elimination by the CIA. You owe it to his son Eric and to the rest of us. You say you know the truth, so please share it with us.
I would like to thank Errol Morris for telling this important story in such a brilliant, masterful and compelling way (and for including my father, no matter how fleetingly, in the narrative). He is a filmmaker who has spent most of his career examining how film and photography reveal and conceal truth and reality, and in our current epoch, so obsessed with the idea of “fake” news, his work is very much of the zeitgeist.
And I want to express my admiration and profound esteem for Eric Olson’s sticking by his father, for seeking the truth about his death and for unpeeling the layers of deceit that protect the dark secret at the heart of the matter. I hope that one day the bitterness washes away, the secret is released and light prevails over darkness.