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The Secrets of the CIA’s Mind-Control Programme

In 1953, CIA scientist Frank Olson plunged to his death under the influence of LSD. But his fate, Pat Kinsella reveals, may not have been a tale of tragic misadventure
Through MK Ultra’s experiments, often performed on unwitting test subjects, the CIA hoped to make ‘brainwashing’ real

In the small hours of the morning, on 28 November 1953, a research scientist plunged to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel. As far as his family was aware, Dr Frank Olson had been working for the US army and the official line was that he had committed suicide because of job-related stress.

Twenty-two years later, the CIA confessed that its agents had given Olson the hallucinogen LSD, without his consent or knowledge, and that his subsequent death was probably caused by the effects of the drug. US President Gerald Ford even issued an official apology Tis was an extraordinary sequence of events, but it transpired that the real story was much deeper, and a whole lot darker. If the US government thought it had drawn a line under the affair by admitting limited culpability for one man’s death and saying sorry it was gravely mistaken.

As the increasingly sticky layers were peeled back, this episode would become one of the biggest scandals to ever hit US intelligence services – a troubling tale involving biological weapons, pharmaceutical torture, illegal drug experimentation on innocent US citizens, and murder.


The narrative revolves in concentric circles around a clandestine project known as MK Ultra, most tangible traces of which were hastily destroyed by the authorities involved during investigations into rogue CIA activity following the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

But some documents were not destroyed and not everyone was silenced. New clues came to the fore too, not least a report by a forensic scientist after Olson’s body was finally exhumed in 1994, which discovered physical evidence suggesting that he had been struck on the head and then thrown through the window

The full extent of the story and scale of the cover-up is still unravelling. In 2012, six decades after Frank Olson’s death and following years of indefatigable work by his eldest son Eric, the family filed a lawsuit against the CIA, claiming the scientist had been tortured and killed by the agency after witnessing horrendous human rights abuses.

Even now documents are being drip-fed into the public sphere that shine more light on one of the shadiest episodes of the CIA ’s history and the US government’s extraordinary attempts to conceal the truth – a saga that names that remain part of the tapestry of modern US politics.

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About BBC History Revealed

Few stories can match that of the end of the Incas, when the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas was defeated thanks to deceit and double-crossing. How did thousands of experienced Inca warriors fail to repel just 170 Spaniards? Plus: the CIA’s mind-boggling PsyOps experiments, the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the origins and accuracy of the Bible, wacky races, jousting and much more