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Book Review

Poisoner in Chief:
Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control

By Stephen Kinzer
2019, Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN-10: 1250140439;
ISBN-13: 978-1250140432
368 pages; $30 Hardcover

Author Stephen Kinzer is an award winning foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. Kinzer spent more than 20 years working for The New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. His foreign postings placed him at the center of historic events and, at times, in the line of fire. While covering world events, he has been shot at, jailed, beaten by police, tear-gassed, and bombed from the air. His articles and books have led the Washington Post to place him “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” I have read many of his books; they’re always very well researched and written in a very engaging style.

Much of Poisoner in Chief takes place at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Maryland. Back in the day, Fort Detrick was an extremely top secret facility for all manner of chemical and biological warfare research. Today the facilities are all still there (though some permanently closed and sealed up, and so badly contaminated that it’s too dangerous to demolish them), although all of the work going on is devoted to peacetime research on human cancer, dangerous pathogens of humans and crop plants, etc. Some of the research facilities there afford the highest levels of security (against escape) for pathogens and is rivaled in the USA only by Plum Island, off the tip of Long Island. The worst of the worst human pathogens are studied there and almost nowhere else. Pathogens of humans like ebola and hanta viruses; pathogens that endanger our crops like potato late blight and plum pox. I worked for the US Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service there, as a research scientist, a couple of decades ago and long after the book’s grisly story took place, more than 70 years ago.

So … just what exactly went on there you are likely wondering? Among other things, a top secret project of the CIA call MK-ULTRA. It was the mission of this project, and its leader Sidney Gottlieb, to develop techniques to control the mind—the minds of enemy combatants, as well of our own military personnel. Highest on the list of chemicals was the newly discovered compound lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), as well as psilocybin—both derived from fungi. Much has been written over the years about MK-ULTRA though Kinzer has done some great sleuth work to dig up new information. But it couldn’t have been easy. Directors of the CIA mind control program MKULTRA, which used Detrick as a key base, destroyed most of their records in 1973. Some new secrets have been revealed in declassified documents, as well as through interviews by the author and combing through mountains of pages from congressional investigations. Kinzer’s findings reveal Detrick’s central role in MK-ULTRA and in the manufacture of poisons intended to kill foreign leaders like Cuban Fidel Castro and Congolese Patrice Lumumba.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why would the CIA need these new weapons for mind control? Afterall, the USA already had nuclear weapons … the race for military superiority should have been over. (It doesn’t get more terrifying than the threat of nuclear holocaust.) Turns out, the CIA and many heads of government were convinced that the Soviets had something even more terrifying: mind control. The power to “brainwash,” as it was dubbed. As the Cold War began, two seemingly unrelated developments on opposite sides of the world stunned the newly created Central Intelligence Agency. The first was the show trial of the leader of the Roman Catholic church of Hungary, Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, for treason in 1949. At the trial, the cardinal appeared disoriented, spoke in a monotone and confessed to crimes he had clearly not committed. Then, after the Korean War ended, it was revealed many American prisoners had signed statements criticizing the United States and, in some cases, confessing to war crimes. The CIA came up with the same explanation for both: brainwashing. The Soviets—or the Chinese, or the North Koreans—somebody, the CIA concluded, must have developed a drug or technique that enabled them to control human minds. No evidence of this ever emerged, but the CIA fell hard for the fantasy. So, in the spring of 1949 the Army created a small, supersecret team of chemists at then “Camp” Detrick called the Special Operations Division. Its assignment was to develop all manner of new weapons of war based on chemicals, microbes, and any other toxin that could be found in nature or dreamt up. At the same time, the CIA was still sneaking out of Europe imprisoned scientists who had been working on the Nazi war machine and awaiting trial for war crimes. The covert mission was known as Operation Paperclip. Some of the liberated scientists ended up at Detrick. MK-ULTRA was deemed critically important to the security of the nation and was well-funded and staffed, with Sidney Gottlieb put in charge. Ironically enough, Gottlieb was not part of the silver-spoon aristocracy from which most officers of the early CIA were recruited. He was a spindly 33-year-old, born into a Jewish immigrant family who limped and stuttered. He was eccentric. He meditated, lived in a remote cabin without running water, and rose before dawn to milk his goats. Poisoner in Chief is a fascinating story with many twists and turns!

Gottlieb & Co. searched relentlessly for ways to unravel human minds so new ones could be implanted in their place. He tested an astonishing variety of drug combinations, often in conjunction with other torments like electroshock or sensory deprivation. Gottlieb,s team looked into all manner of plant and fungal toxins. Hadn’t Claudius Caesar been offed with Amanita mushrooms … where can we get those? Gottlieb got word of psychedelic mushrooms in Mexico; someone named Gordon Wasson was hot on their trail. Can we get someone to infiltrate his circle of friends? (Actually, yes. James Moore, a chemist from Parke Davis, was tapped and did indeed infiltrate Wasson’s group. One of Wasson’s expeditions was secretly CIA-funded.)

In the United States, Gottlieb’s victims were unwitting subjects at jails and hospitals—all documented by Kinzer. And “subjects” (victims, really) were not just in the USA, many many more were tormented against their will in Europe and East Asia, kept as prisoners in secret detention centers. One of those centers, built in the basement of a former villa in the German town of Kronberg, might have been the first secret CIA prison. While CIA scientists and their former Nazi comrades sat before a stone fireplace discussing the techniques of mind control, prisoners in basement cells were being prepared as subjects in brutal and sometimes fatal experiments. Some of the victims were employees of the CIA who’d outlived their usefulness or were feared a threat to blab information about the unethical— and outright criminal—methods being used. A near-fiasco ensued after one CIA officer, Frank Olson, was massively dosed with LSD, repeatedly, went nuts and jumped (or was pushed, more likely) from hotel window in New York City and ended up all over the sidewalk … and in headlines of The New York Times.

Poisoner in Chief would make for a great movie, or documentary film at the very least. All throughout, lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth kept coming to mind. Have we eaten on the insane root that takes the reason prisoner? And Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes.

Ultimately, mind control was a mirage. There were no secret drugs or techniques used by the Soviets. Or the Chinese. Or the North Koreans. In 1970, President Richard Nixon ordered all government agencies to destroy their supplies of biological toxins and to end chem-bio weapons research. Although you likely and have never heard of Sidney Gottlieb, at one time he was one of the most powerful (and frightening) men in America. Fort Detrick was his nightmarish laboratory. It’s unlikely the final word has been written; much about this episode remains a secret. Much about Fort Detrick,s past remains a secret, hidden in plain view of the town that has now encircled the military base. Hidden in plain view of the seat of the US government in Washington DC, a mere 50 miles away.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi