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REVEALED: The CIA Ran LSD Sex Houses in San Francisco in 1950s and 60s

Gary Kamiya
SF Chronicle

On an elegant dead-end block on the north side of Telegraph Hill is 225 Chestnut St., a swanky modernist building with panoramic bay views. It’s about the last place you would have expected to find a clandestine CIA program during the Cold War.

Yet from 1955 to 1965, this building was the site of “Operation Midnight Climax” — a top-secret mind-control program in which CIA agents used hookers to lure unsuspecting johns from North Beach bars to what they called “the pad,” then dosed the men with LSD and observed the X-rated goings-on through a two-way mirror while sitting on a portable toilet swilling martinis.

As John Marks notes in his 1977 book, “The Search for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’: The CIA and Mind Control,” the CIA’s obsession with mind control had its origins during World War II, when the agency’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, set up a “truth drug” program whose purpose was to discover a substance that would make subjects reveal their secrets.

The drug of choice was a concentrated liquid form of marijuana. The first field test in 1943 was administered to a New York mobster by George White, a tough-guy OSS captain who had been an agent in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The results were promising — White’s sidekick said “every (subject) but one — and he didn’t smoke — gave us more information than we had before” — but ultimately inconclusive.

2-1960s-hippies-LSD-CIA
Red enemy

When the CIA was created in 1947, it continued to do mind-control experiments, with the enemy now being communism. Eastern bloc show trials like that of Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who in 1949 confessed to crimes he apparently did not commit, and reports of communist brainwashing during the Korean War led the CIA to fear there was a “mind-control gap” and that the U.S. was in second place.

So the CIA authorized covert mind and behavior control programs. Drugs were given to people deemed expendable, including North Korean POWs, mental patients, prisoners, addicts and prostitutes. Before the programs were shot down, hundreds of scientists would work on them.

In 1943, a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann developed an unbelievably powerful drug called LSD. When the technical branch of the CIA learned about this drug, the gung-ho head of its chemical division, a young chemist named Sidney Gottlieb, persuaded CIA official Richard Helms that the agency should investigate it as a spy tool. On April 13, 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles approved a program for “covert use of biological and chemical materials” with an initial budget of $300,000. Its name: MKULTRA.

Dangerous game

The CIA began to fund LSD projects at many institutions, including Columbia University and Mount Sinai Hospital. Informed consent and other moral niceties were dispensed with. One researcher kept seven subjects, junkies enticed by promises of hard drugs, on LSD for 77 straight days. No follow-up on them was ever done.

The CIA was playing an extremely dangerous game. In 1953, Gottlieb dosed a CIA colleague, Frank Olson, causing Olson to undergo a mental crisis that ended with him falling to his death from a 10th-floor window. But this horrific incident only put MKULTRA temporarily on hold…

Continue this story at SF Chronicle

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