Sidney Gottlieb, MKUltra And Brainwashing's Mystery Man

Culture | January 8, 2020

Sidney Gottlieb. Courtesy the CIA, via npr.org

In the Cold War years, we didn't even know about it: MKUltra, directed by Sidney Gottlieb of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). MKUltra aggressively researched mind control -- or "brainwashing" -- using human subjects as guinea pigs. The best-known experiments involved LSD, although that's not Gottlieb's only legacy. He was also involved in assassination attempts of foreign leaders.

Sidney Gottlieb, left, and his attorney, appearing at a Senate hearing in 1977. Source: dailytelegraph.com.au

Sidney Gottlieb, the child of Hungarian immigrants, was born on August 3, 1918. After getting a doctorate in biochemistry from California Institute of Technology in 1940, he married Margaret Moore, who had been born in India.

The secretive scientist who only had one known picture of himself was hired in 1951 by Allen Dulles, who would later become the head of the CIA and two years later, Gottlieb was running MKUltra, named for the ultra-sensitive activities they were participating in. For twenty years, he was the senior scientist. The C.I.A., convinced that its enemies had developed a method to control human minds, developed MKUltra to find its own techniques until the 1960s, inspired by the work of Japanese and Nazi scientists. This mind control research was dubbed “Artichoke.”

Experiments Inspired By The Nazis

A guinea pig in the LSD experiments. Source: (whyy.org)

As head of the CIA's MKUltra program, Gottlieb presided over the LSD experiments and took part in them, taking the drug hundreds of times. Gottlieb believed that, to control minds, he would have to blast away the existing mind and then insert a new one. Some of his experiments were conducted in American prisons, and some in detention centers in Germany, Japan, and the Philippines. In addition to administering high doses of LSD, he subjected people to psychological torture, including electroshock therapy.

To start the LSD experiments, he convinced the CIA to buy the entire world supply of the drug, and the CIA complied, spending $240,000. Gottlieb distributed it to hospitals and other institutions under the guise of fake foundations. Because of the secretive nature of his work, we have no idea how many people died or had their lives destroyed by his experiments.

The CIA Unwittingly Fuels The Counterculture

Ken Kesey, one well-known subject. Source: (npr.org)

We do know, however, who some of the people who became involved in the LSD culture were -- they were introduced to the drug because of Gottlieb, although they never knew his name. Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Hunter were among the users of the drug that became part of the rebellion for their generation.

Criminals Became Victims Of A Crime

Whitey Bulger. Source: (wfsb.com)

Prisoners were also given LSD, notably Whitey Bulger, who volunteered for what he thought were experiments to find a cure for schizophrenia. Bulger was given LSD every day for a year. Bulger would eventually write about his experiences, which he described as horrifying. As he said, "I was in prison for committing a crime, but they committed a greater crime on me."

Additionally, CIA agents captured “expendables” in Asia and Europe and subjected them to not only LSD, but electroshock and other methods of torture, asking them questions to see if they could destroy the human ego.

He Was Not Just Involved In Hallucinogenic Drugs

Richard Helms, Gottlieb's supervisor. Source: (wikipedia)

Gottlieb was involved in assassination attempts during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, developing unconventional weapons, including a poison handkerchief to kill an Iraqi colonel, poison “gifts” for Fidel Castro, and a poison dart to kill a leader in the Congo. He was not an effective assassin though, as he did not successfully kill any of the intended targets.

Gottlieb’s career came to an end in 1973 when Richard Nixon removed Richard Helms from his position as the director of the C.I.A. When Helms was on his way out, he and Gottlieb destroyed the records of the experiments. Not everything was destroyed, and so they have been able to piece together parts of what Gottlieb did.

Hidden In Plain Sight

Tim Blake Nelson who portrayed him in Wormwood. Source: (indiewire.com)

When he left the C.I.A., Gottlieb seemed to reinvent himself, running a leper colony in India for more than a year. He then got a master’s degree in speech therapy and bought an old log cabin in Virginia, with the idea of setting up a communal living space. During his last years, he engaged in two hobbies: herding goats and folk dancing. He also volunteered at a hospice.

Gottlieb died in 1999, leaving us to try to piece together the things that he did during his secretive career.

He was portrayed by Tim Blake Nelson in Errol Morris’ Wormwood in 2017, which was based on the death of Frank Olson who was connected to Gottlieb and died under mysterious circumstances. Then, in 2019, Stephen Kinzer released a book, Poisoner in Chief, detailing Gottlieb's work in the C.I.A. 

Tags: CIA | LSD | MKUltra | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Sidney Gottlieb | The Cold War | What Did He Do?...

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!