Original 650 illustration by Kaz Palladino / Awkward Affections

Get to know the CIA’s “gentle-hearted torturer” who made the SF Peninsula his LSD testing ground

Stephen Kinzer’s new biography—Poisoner in Chief—details the shadowy life of head CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb and the twisted experiments he ran at Stanford, Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital and SF’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood.

How do you write the biography of “a guy who didn’t exist?”

Author and former NY Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer took on that task to compile a definitive account of the highly secretive life and career of chief CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb. Perhaps you’ve heard wisps of Gottlieb’s work by way of urban legend over the years. He’s the guy who reads like Q from the James Bond films, designing poison cigars for a proposed plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, not to mention that pill Francis Gary Powers failed to take during the U-2 spy plane incident.

(Book cover courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.)

Gottlieb was also the driving force behind the CIA’s obsession with the hallucinogenic substance LSD. Here on the SF Peninsula, you may have caught snippets of that history as it ties back to the experiences of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest author Ken Kesey or Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (who passed away earlier this week). Both young men were unwitting (though that’s not to say unenthusiastic) volunteers for CIA-led LSD experiments at places like the Menlo Park VA and Stanford University.

Sounds crazy? Well, as Kinzer is quick to point out, it really was. His new biography, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, is heavily-based on a treasure trove of declassified government documents that extensively chronicles a disturbing laundry list of I-can’t-believe-this-stuff-really-happened events in our nation’s history.

We caught up with Kinzer ahead of his current book tour for a further dose of the Bay Area ties to this legacy, the present day renaissance of LSD and the still current relevance to Gottlieb’s work.

“ Poisoner in Chief…” author Stephen Kinzler. (Author photo courtesy of Henry Holt & Co.)

Sidney Gottlieb is a very obscure, very secretive figure. So while reading the book, I was curious about how he first surfaced on your radar and when you then thought to write a biography of him?

So I wrote a book a few years ago that was a biography of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles—the Secretary of State and CIA director during the ‘50s—and in that book I tell briefly the story about how one of Dulles’s operations was sending someone to the Congo with poison to kill Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the Congo. That story stuck with me and I started to wonder—who was that guy? Allen Dulles and the CIA sent someone to the Congo to kill the prime minister? Was that guy a courier? Who was he? Well, it turns out he was the chief chemist of the CIA—Sidney Gottlieb. And he not only made the poison to assassinate Lumumba, but he also created all these other pills and potions to kill Fidel Castro.

So I became interested in him, but it didn’t take me long to realize during my research that making poisons to kill foreign leaders was a just a sideshow for Gottlieb. His real story was a project called MK-Ultra, which involved LSD and the search for mind control.

Can you explain how Gottlieb first encountered LSD as a substance?

Sidney Gottlieb was fascinated by LSD. By his own account, he used it more than 200 times himself. He and his people thought that it might be—as one of his chemists put it—the key that might unlock the universe. They thought this might be the magic substance that would allow them to control minds.

In 1953, Gottlieb persuaded the CIA to spend $240,000 to buy the entire world supply of LSD. He bought that from the company in Switzerland that produced it. He then got it to the United States and then began using it in two very different kinds of experiments. The first were these horrific brutal experiments he conducted in prisons in the United States and secret detention centers in Europe and East Asia. Gottlieb had been assigned by the CIA to find the key to mind control, and he decided to set out on his search with this framework: before you can figure out how to insert a new mind into somebody’s brain, you first have to blast away the mind that’s in there. So he set out and spent years on projects that were aimed at finding ways to destroy a human mind. He used all sorts of drugs and other techniques, like sensory deprivation and electroshock, all in an effort to find out how to destroy a person’s mind.

For example, one of the experiments he carried out in the United States was one in which seven African American inmates in a federal prison in Kentucky were given triple doses of LSD everyday for 77 days. This was an effort to find out if you can destroy a person’s mind by giving them that much LSD, and guess what? It is. That’ll do it. And no one knows what ever happened to those poor seven guys, we don’t even know their names. And Gottlieb was conducting these experiments at various other locations around the U.S.

But that whole cruel use of LSD was not the only way he distributed the great store of acid that he brought back from Switzerland. He also used it in non-coercive experiments. He set up a couple of bogus foundations that contacted university clinics and hospitals, and then told them that they had a new psychoactive substance and if you’re interested we’ll give you money to put an ad in the newspaper and ask for volunteers to come in and try it … all you have to do is write down little reports on how these people reacted. These experiments began in clinics, hospitals and universities where the people giving the LSD had no idea that it was coming from the CIA. They thought it was coming from a medical foundation.

So who were among the very first people to take that LSD, to volunteer for experiments? One of them was Ken Kesey at the Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital.

De-classified MK-Ultra documents from 1953 detailing budget details to CIA LSD experiments. (via the Black Vault)

Yeah, so this is where Stanford University factors into this history as one of these participating institutions?

Absolutely. Stanford was where Allen Ginsberg took his first LSD. Also, where Robert Hunter the lyricist for the Grateful Dead first took LSD. So, these guys were turned on by Sidney Gottlieb from the CIA. Of course, Kesey began stealing the LSD out of the medicine chest and began using it to turn on all his friends. Robert Hunter turned on the Grateful Dead with all of Sidney Gottlieb’s acid. So the irony, of course, is that the drug that Gottlieb thought would allow the CIA to control people’s minds wound up fueling a generational rebellion that was aimed at destroying everything that the CIA believed.

And yet these universities experiments appear to be among the more benign that surface in this history. On the other end of the spectrum can you explain Operation Midnight Climax?

That was another of Gottlieb’s projects. He was interested in experimenting with every combination of drugs and other techniques, and one of the things that occurred to him was that sex and drugs as a combination might be useful as a way of getting people to talk. So Gottlieb set up a bordello on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco on Chestnut Street and he had an agent there who hired a group of prostitutes whose job was to bring men back to the apartment where their drinks would be laced with LSD so that their reactions could be observed. So the United State government set up a bordello in San Francisco and paid prostitutes to do this — your tax dollars at work — and the purpose of this was to protect the United States against communism. So, go figure.

Reading through your book, I had to wonder about how many people are out in the world who might have been affected by these things unwittingly and then had lingering effects years later?

Absolutely, there are many of them, but I believe that nearly all never realized what had happened to them. There are some, who years later, came to realize it and were pursuing Gottlieb with lawsuits towards the end of his life.

But the story is so unbelievable that if you had gone in and tried to tell it to a law enforcement officer, they probably would have been very skeptical. Even I can hardly believe now — with all the documents I have — that these things happened. You can easily roll your eyes. The MK Ultra experiments are truly unbelievable and that is why I think a lot of people would have been skeptical, including the victims themselves.

Portrait of former head CIA chemist Sidney Gottlieb. (Image via the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency)

That’s what’s so interesting. It’s this highly impactful history, but one that is generally unknown. In fact, you make mention in your notes that you had spoken to a former director of the CIA and he had no idea who Gottlieb was?

Gottlieb operated in total anonymity. In a way, my book is the biography of a guy who didn’t exist. He was so anonymous that even people at the CIA had no idea what he was doing. And later on, when his extremes became clear, the CIA tried to dismiss him as a crazy guy who went off on his own.

Yet he appeared to have been well-funded and have green lights at every turn?

Absolutely. He operated almost without supervision. He was not a sadist, but he might as well have been considering what he did. Nobody really looked over his shoulder and I think there was a reason for that. Allen Dulles and his close associate Richard Helmes—who was really the chief protector of Gottlieb—understood in general that Gottlieb was turning out horrific projects and experiments. So for that very reason, they decided that they didn’t want to hear about it. I believe this is obedience to CIA culture, which is a culture in which you don’t want to know too much. Ignorance is an asset.

And with that in mind, it seems that there was a sense of this all as a means to an end for winning the Cold War?

Yes, the justification was that the United States was in this emergency situation where we had a horrible worldwide enemy that could destroy our entire way of life. Under those circumstances, it was easier for them to say that the loss of a few lives—or even a few hundred lives—was a minor price to pay.

The end of Gottlieb’s life is pretty interesting. I noticed he went to San Jose State and lived here on the SF Peninsula for a while and in that time he just doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you would expect to carry these things out. In fact, there’s a quote from one of his friends that describes him as “an old hippie.” So I’m wondering if you were surprised by that mismatch, of him as a person versus the nature of his experiments?

It’s truly mystifying and it makes him a much more complex figure.

So yes, he was kind of this proto-hippie who grew his own vegetables and studied Buddhism and got up before dawn to milk his goat. He was a spiritually-oriented person, he thought of himself as deeply caring and compassionate. He was definitely the most gentle-hearted torturer you can ever imagine. And it’s odd to think that he spent his days dreaming up these horrific experiments and then spent his evenings back in his spiritual cocoon with his quotes from the Koran and a picture of Desmond Tutu on his wall. Toward the end of his life he became the Sidney Gottlieb that he thought he always had been. People who knew him thought he was a model citizen. But, many of them also pointed out that he seemed troubled. Seymour Hersh told me that he was wracked with guilt, he was a broken man.

He refused to talk about MK Ultra. He would never discuss it, but anybody who had lived a life like his and believed in karmic payback or final judgement would have been very distressed.

In a big picture sense, Gottlieb was looking at LSD to work as a tool for mind control and then conversely you have the likes of Timothy Leary who see it more as a substance for raising consciousness and freeing people. And on both ends, it seemed like they were projecting what they wanted it to be. So I’m curious what your take is on LSD as a substance?

So, Albert Hoffman, the guy who discovered LSD, was also puzzled— “What do we do with this?” And his idea was that it could be used to treat mental illness. Now that was completely different from both the Gottlieb approach and the Tim Leary/Grateful Dead approach. All the counterculture made LSD seem like an awful thing to the people in power. Richard Nixon once called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America,” which led to the banning of LSD. But I really think we’re at a point, finally, where we are now able to circle back to Albert Hoffman in the 1940s. There’s a revival of interest in LSD as a tool for treating mental illness and depression, for alcoholism. There’s a new institute at John Hopkins that was just founded in the last few months with a huge endowment to study psychoactive drugs, which would never have been possible in past years. So having gone through all the craziness, I think we might be getting to the point where we look seriously at the therapeutic possibilities of LSD.

De-classified MK-Ultra documents of CIA-led mind control experiments. (via the Black Vault)

Reading through this book, it’s such a dark legacy, so I’m wondering where you think this files into U.S. history? Is it alongside the likes of My Lai and Abu Gharib or is there something worthwhile or redeeming to what went on?

I wouldn’t call it redeeming, but I do think that it is an episode that is not isolated in history. It has resonance for today. One way is what you just mentioned, Gottlieb became the CIA’s greatest expert in techniques of interrogation because he was using these drug combinations to find ways to make people talk, to break their spirits. So he wrote about the ways that you can do this. His writings became the basis for manuals that were used in Vietnam and Latin America during the 1980s as well as the techniques that were later used in places like Abu Gharib and Guantanamo. In some cases, the phrases are exactly the same. The lineage is clear.

In a larger sense, I think the message for today is that you never want to lose site of whether you are doing so much evil in the pursuit of what you think is a good cause that the evil begins to outweigh the good. I think Gottlieb lost sight of that even as patriotism is what motivated him to believe he could get away with it. And in a sense, I think we’re going through that again today.

(Editor’s Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Stephen Kinzer will be speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Thursday, October 3rd, at 6:30pm. See the full event details here.

Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, is available now through Henry Holt and Co. Publishers.

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Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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