What Was The Secret Cold War CIA Program 'MKUltra' Really About?


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer


Brainwashing in the way you think almost certainly isn't real, but coersion and torture certainly produce some grim effects in their subjects. lolloj/Shutterstock

When you hear the phrase “MKUltra”, what do you think of? I’m going to hazard a guess here and say that mind control crops up immediately, along with the CIA. Brainwashing. Hypnotizing people to carry out orders, even assassinations. Secretive experiments all kept behind closed doors during the Cold War – right?

As with any incognito research effort undertaken by the government, it’s generated quite the extravagant and often unsubstantiated headlines over the years, as well as providing some inspiration for plot points of various shows, the latest featuring in Stranger Things’ sophomore season.


In fact, as pointed out by Rolling Stone, MKUltra is often associated with experiments that looked into pseudoscience, like telepathy, remote viewing (seeing things at a great distance), and psychokinesis (moving things with your mind). Although not associated with MKUltra, these experiments were genuinely carried out by the US Army in the 1970s-80s under the moniker Project Stargate.

That’s a story for another time, though. As for MKULtra, it turns out that the truth of the matter is more sobering and viscerally grim than any rumor or fanciful tale could ever be.

Through The Looking Glass

So – what actually was MKUltra? It certainly wasn’t merely a rumor or a myth, but a bona fide program designed to investigate a phenomenon that some in the US government hoped would give them an advantage over the Soviet Union and China.


No, we’re not talking about psychic powers or transdimensional beings here, but psychological, biological, and chemical warfare. Yes, brainwashing and reprogramming were part of it.

As explained by Today I Found Out, a 1977 hearing report given to the Select Committee On Intelligence at the US Senate – the first public admission of the program’s existence – described the project as one that involved “behavioral modification”. The parameters for the original project, authorized in 1953, were designed to – according to proponents of it – “defend ourselves against a foe who might not be as restrained in the use of these techniques as we are.

These quickly became open to interpretation and expansion, however, and within a couple of years, hypnosis, intoxication through alcohol, protection against “brainwashing” during interrogation, memory loss, acute anemia, inducing shock and confusion, and more were being investigated. Clearly, things got a little out of hand, based on the 1977 report to the Senate.

“It should be made clear from the outset that in general, we are focusing on events that happened over 12 or as long as 25 years ago,” it begins. “It should be emphasized that the programs that are of greatest concern have stopped and that we are reviewing these past events in order to better understand what statutes and guidelines might be necessary to prevent the recurrence of such abuses in the future.


“The reappearance of reports of the abuses of the drug testing program and reports of other previously unknown drug testing programs and projects for behavioral control underline the necessity for effective oversight procedures, both in the executive branch and in the Congress.”

MKUltra was an ambitious, morally corrupted attempt by a paranoid, pro-active agency, which escalated very quickly over a very short space of time, culminating in illegal drug tests on thousands of American individuals in the name of national security. As the daughter of one subject of the study once opined, “What they attempt to do is erase your emotions. They strip you of your soul.”

What happened?

It Begins


On April 13, 1953, the Director of the CIA approved the project. The Korean War had drawn to a close, but some of the returned POWs were publicly praising communism and denounced America – and a deep unease set in. The powers-that-be wondered: Is brainwashing real? If so, how do we arm our forces with these brainwashing powers, and how do we protect them from those of hostile agents?

It was carried out under a prominent veil of secrecy – even for the CIA – due to the opinion that, should the facts be made public, there would be an outcry. That's what the "Ultra" means: it was used to denote the most secret classification of intelligence.

It wasn’t even just a single project, but 162 different ones that were indirectly funded by the CIA. As noted by The Smithsonian, at least 80 research institutions were involved, including 185 researchers – but plenty had no idea that they were doing work for the CIA.

There are no strings on me. FGC/Shutterstock

The hearing report explains that “some unwitting testing took place on criminal sexual psychopaths,” and around 12 hospitals were even paid to conduct experiments on terminal cancer patients. Experiments on children have been rumored and suggested by some, but these haven't been substantiated at present.


The hearing report explains that, of all these subprojects, eight of them involved hypnosis, four involved sleight-of-hand practiced by magicians, six involved the use of “exotic pathogens and the capability to incorporate them in effective delivery systems,” and three “on activities whose nature simply cannot be determined.”

Some unspecified projects were designed to be used by the Army Special Operations Division, otherwise known as the Special Forces.

Brainwashing and Drink Spiking

One of those involved in MKULtra research on brainwashing – which is arguably the most rumor-prone part of the endeavor – told the Senate in 1977 that drugs or mind-altering conditions didn’t really exist in this manner. However, isolating a human being and putting them under extremely stressful conditions seemed to make people compliant.


He complained that the famous brainwashing-based movie, The Manchurian Candidate, “really set us back a long time, because it made something impossible look plausible.” It turned out that the fantastical ability to completely rewrite the human mind, and get someone to give up their free will permanently, didn't exist. You can torture or subtly influence someone to change their mind, but brainwashing in the common parlance is a fiction.


Mind-altering drugs, like LSD, featured heavily in the research programs too. Details remain somewhat fuzzy, but it appears that it was administered to plenty of people in social situations without them being aware of it.

In one particularly disturbing scenario, a group of scientists at a conference in a cabin in Maryland back in 1953 were shocked when they were told by the CIA after having drinks that they were unknowingly ingesting LSD.


One of these unwilling subjects was Dr Frank Olson, who had previously worked with the US Army to develop biological warfare techniques. Although the other scientists were ultimately fine, Olson developed severe paranoia and schizophrenia.

A few weeks later, the CIA officer stayed with him in a 10th-floor hotel room in New York City after promising to arrange treatment for him. Late that night, he crashed through the window and fell to his death, and the circumstances remain ambiguous to this day.

International Anthem

The Guardian points to the story of the late-Ewen Cameron, a Scottish psychiatrist working in Canada in the 1950s, who was wondering if you could corrupt someone’s mind and make them act in specific, desirable ways. At the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal – a Canadian psych ward – the CIA funded Cameron to conduct horrific experiments on patients: electroshock therapy, drug-induced sleep, injections of massive doses of LSD, and more.


They were reduced to a state wherein they could no longer perform basic skills. At this point, they were then assaulted with negative verbal recordings, which then transitioned to positive ones. If they refused to listen, the speakers were fastened to their heads, all in an attempt to see if they could be reprogrammed or not.

It's not clear that they could be in the way movies and books suggest, although there were occasional signs of patients repeating phrases often blared at them for days or weeks on end at random moments. Many of these patients were left with permanent mental damage.

Patients’ cases from this branch of MKUltra were, since 1992, awarded monetary compensation, but many weren’t allowed reparations as they weren’t thought to be damaged enough by the project. The Canadian government, which only partly knew the extent of matters, never admitted any legal responsibility, but they offered payments on humanitarian grounds.

Cameron’s name may be well-known these days, but plenty of other participants weren’t. The Supreme Court held a case on the subject in 1985, and it concluded that although revelations could be made via Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs), the names of those directly involved in MKUltra were exempted in order to preserve their covers. Those who weren’t aware that they were working for the CIA were exempted too.


Plenty of mystery hangs over the exact nature of parts of MKUltra itself. As the 1977 document explains, the agency destroyed plenty of these documents in a project-killing purge in 1973, triggered by the fallout of the Watergate scandal. Many other documents had already been destroyed throughout the years as per standard routine. What is known about the project comes from witness testimonies and FOIAs that found MKUltra budgetary documents that were incorrectly filed.

Although additional files have been released by the CIA in recent times, the issue of responsibility, and the extent of who knew about the project at the time, remains enigmatic.

Admiral Stansfield Turner, who was appointed to lead the CIA in 1977, spoke at that year’s committee hearing. Responding to queries from the panel, Turner said that “there is no evidence with the Agency of any involvement at higher echelons – the White House, for instance – or specific approval. That does not say there was not,” he added, “but we have no such evidence.”

Senator Inouye pressed Turner, asking: “Are you personally satisfied by the actual investigation that this newly discovered information was not intentionally kept away from the Senate of the United States?”


“I have no way to prove that, sir,” came the reply.


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