Project MK Ultra

By Collin Murray

Project MK Ultra was a highly secretive CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) project in the 1950s through the 1970s, in which the CIA conducted dozens of experiments on unwilling subjects on the effects of LSD and other drugs as a form of mind control, psychological torture, and information gathering.

Amidst the Cold War, the U.S. government became wary that Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean agents had been utilizing mind control techniques to brainwash American POWs (Prisoners of war) in Korea. As a response, Project MK Ultra was approved in 1953 by CIA director Allan Dulles. The project was formed to develop mind control techniques, using drugs and other mediums, that could be used against Soviet enemies. 

In total, the project consisted of over 150 experiments on human subjects, using psychedelic drugs, paralytics, and electroshock therapy. Sometimes the subjects were aware of the tests being run on them; other times, they were completely blind. These tests were run mostly at American and Canadian universities, hospitals, and prisons. Due to the fact that the agency kept very poor records of the project and destroyed most documents after the project was halted in 1973, it is unknown how many subjects were used. 

The CIA employed LSD as a medium, hoping to harness the drug’s mind-altering properties for brainwashing and mind-control, under the advice of poison expert Sidney Gottlieb. After many studies at institutions such as Columbia University and Stanford, the drug was deemed to be too unpredictable for use. Along with LSD, MK Ultra experimented with MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline, heroin, barbiturates, methamphetamine, and psilocybin (the hallucinogenic property found in magic mushrooms). 

Operation Midnight Climax, run within Project MK Ultra, in which government-employed prostitutes lured men to a trap house in San Francisco, fitted with listening devices and a two-way mirror. The men would unknowingly be dosed with LSD, and agents behind the mirror would observe their behavior while sipping on martinis.  The program was officially halted in 1973. In 1974, Seymour Hersh, a journalist for the New York Times, published a story regarding the CIA’s non-consensual human experiments and illegal spying operations on citizens. This report began the extensive process of bringing to light the CIA’s many highly illegal operations, bringing MK Ultra into the public eye. The following year—amid the Watergate Scandal and growing skepticism of the U.S. government—President Ford set up the United States President’s Commission to investigate the illegal activities within the CIA and other areas of the U.S. government.