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The CIA's Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A 'Poisoner In Chief'

Stephen Kinzer's new book 'Poisoner in Chief' is about the CIA's secret experiments with LSD in the 50s and 60s in search of a drug that could be weaponized to control the minds of enemies. It's also about the man who who led it.

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Other segments from the episode on September 9, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 9, 2019: Interview with Stephen Kinzer; Review of book 'The Testaments.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You may have heard stories about the CIA's secret experiments with LSD, through which '60s counterculture luminaries like Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were first introduced to the drug. There's a lot more to the CIA's experiments with LSD, and some of it is pretty horrifying. My guest, journalist Stephen Kinzer, has spent several years investigating the CIA's mind control program, which was known as MK-Ultra. LSD was just one of the mind-altering drugs that were tested in the program to see if and how they could be weaponized to control human behavior. Many of the unwitting subjects of these experiments were subjected to what amounts to psychological torture.

The MK-Ultra program was created by Sidney Gottlieb in 1953. He ran it until it was shut down in the early '60s. Gottlieb was also the CIA's chief chemist, creating poisons and innovative ways of surreptitiously administering them. He also became head of the CIA program that creates high-tech gadgets for spies to use. Stephen Kinzer's new book is called "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control." One of Kinzer's previous books was about the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster Dulles. Allen Dulles was the CIA director during most of the years MK-Ultra was in operation.

Stephen Kinzer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with, what was the mission of MK-Ultra?

STEPHEN KINZER: During the early period of the Cold War, in the late '40s and early 1950s, the CIA became paralyzed with a fear that communists had perfected some kind of a drug or a potion or a technique that would allow them to control human minds. This was actually a greatly exaggerated fear, but it played on something cultural that affected everybody that grew up in the early 20th century. We were fed a lot of books and movies about the idea of mind control, that you could hypnotize someone or give someone a drug that would make them do something that otherwise they would never do. And seized by this myth, the CIA not only believed that communists had approached or reached this Holy Grail, but that the CIA should also find out a way to do it.

So MK-Ultra was a project lasting up to 10 years in which the CIA sought to find ways to control the human mind. They wanted to be able to have a truth serum that would make prisoners say everything they knew, also an amnesiac that would make people forget what they had done and, most important, a technique or a drug that would allow the CIA to direct agents to carry out acts like sabotage or assassination and then forget who had ordered them to do it, or even that they'd carried out the actions at all. So MK-Ultra was the most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.

GROSS: So LSD was created in 1943 by Dr. Albert Hoffman at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. How did the CIA find out about LSD?

KINZER: As part of the search for drugs that would allow people to control the human mind, CIA scientists became aware of the existence of LSD, and this became an obsession for the early directors of MK-Ultra. Actually, the MK-Ultra director, Sidney Gottlieb, can now be seen as the man who brought LSD to America. He was the unwitting godfather of the entire LSD counterculture. In the early 1950s, he arranged for the CIA to pay $240,000 to buy the world's entire supply of LSD. He brought this to the United States, and he began spreading it around to hospitals, clinics, prisons and other institutions, asking them, through bogus foundations, to carry out research projects and find out what LSD was, how people reacted to it and how it might be able to be used as a tool for mind control.

Now, the people who volunteered for these experiments and began taking LSD, in many cases, found it very pleasurable. They told their friends about it. Who were those people? Ken Kesey, the author of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," got his LSD in an experiment sponsored by the CIA, by MK-Ultra, by Sidney Gottlieb. So did Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, which went on to become a great purveyor of LSD culture. Allen Ginsberg, the poet who preached the value of the great personal adventure of using LSD, got his first LSD from Sidney Gottlieb, although of course he never knew that name.

So CIA brought LSD to America unwittingly. And actually, it's a tremendous irony that the drug that the CIA hoped would be its key to controlling humanity actually wound up fueling a generational rebellion that was dedicated to destroying everything that the CIA held dear and defended.

GROSS: Even Timothy Leary, who turned a lot of people onto LSD and helped guide them through trips, he found out about LSD because of Sidney Gottlieb. He wasn't part of one of the experiments, but what's the connection?

KINZER: You're absolutely right. Tim Leary, who became the great guru of LSD, first came across psychedelics through Sidney Gottlieb, although like all these other people, he had never heard Gottlieb's name because Gottlieb lived in complete invisibility. So Tim Leary's interest in psychedelic drugs was sparked by an article that appeared in Life magazine in 1957. It was about a couple of Americans who had gone to Mexico and found the magic mushroom that produces hallucinations. Leary was fascinated by this. He later went to Mexico, and before he ever tried LSD, he was using those magic mushrooms.

What he did not know and had no way of knowing is that that expedition to Mexico that produced the Life magazine article was paid for by Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA. It was part of his effort to test all kinds of substances, including naturally occurring ones like shrubs and trees and barks and mushrooms and fish parts and animal pieces, as possible tools for mind control. So it's not surprising that later on in life Tim Leary said the entire LSD movement was started by the CIA. If he had known better, he would have said it was founded by the CIA and, in particular, Sidney Gottlieb.

GROSS: So just so I understand this correctly - so the CIA basically set up phony philanthropic foundations which then funded university and college research, and it's through those research experiments that people like Ginsberg and Kesey and Robert Hunter got introduced to LSD. And the university researchers had no idea that their research was actually being funded by the CIA.

KINZER: I think that's largely correct. So Stanford University was running a program in which they asked for volunteers to come in and try this new substance. Allen Ginsberg was one of the volunteers; so was Robert Hunter. A similar set of experiments was going on at the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital. That's where Ken Kesey took LSD for the first time. He was so excited about it he took a job in the hospital and began stealing the LSD to give it to his friends. That became the basis for "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." So all of these original strands that came together in the '60s to produce this great countercultural revolt based around LSD can be traced back through these bogus foundations to the CIA and, ultimately, the director of MK-Ultra, Sidney Gottlieb.

GROSS: Now, there's a much darker side to this program because a lot of people who were being experimented on, they were prisoners. I mean, they had no idea what they were being given. One of those prisoners was the famous gangster Whitey Bulger, who was serving time then for hijacking a truck, and he was in the Atlanta Penitentiary. So he actually wrote something describing his experience. Can you give us a summary of what he said?

KINZER: Whitey Bulger was one of the prisoners who volunteered for what he was told was an experiment aimed at finding a cure for schizophrenia. As part of this experiment, he was given LSD every day for more than a year. He later realized that this had nothing to do with schizophrenia, and he was a guinea pig in a government experiment aimed at seeing what people's long-term reactions to LSD was; essentially, could we make a person lose his mind by feeding him LSD every day over such a long period?

Bulger wrote afterword about his experiences, which he described as quite horrific. He thought he was going insane. He wrote, I was in prison for committing a crime, but they committed a greater crime on me. And towards the end of his life, Bulger came to realize the truth of what had happened to him, and he actually told his friends that he was going to find that doctor in Atlanta who was the head of that experiment program in the penitentiary and go kill him. Now, that doctor later died a natural death, so Bulger didn't get to carry out his wish. But Bulger was one of many prisoners across America who unwittingly were fed huge doses of LSD, and the reason for this was very simple.

Gottlieb wanted to create a way to seize control of people's minds, and he realized it was a two-part process. First, you had to blast away the existing mind. Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void. Well, he didn't get too far on No. 2, but he did a lot of work on No. 1 - trying to find out how to destroy the mind of a human being, and that was the purpose of experiments that he carried out in prisons in the United States and at secret detention centers in Europe and East Asia.

GROSS: And he worked with some pretty high-class torturers, too, from one of the Nazi doctors and the chief poisoner from Japan during World War II. How did they end up in his program?

KINZER: One of the most remarkable discoveries that I made in the research for this book is that the CIA mind control project, MK-Ultra, was essentially a continuation of work that began in Japanese and Nazi concentration camps. Not only was it roughly based on those experiments, but the CIA actually hired the vivisectionists and the torturers who had worked in Japan and in Nazi concentration camps to come and explain what they had found out so that we could build on their research.

For example, Nazi doctors had conducted extensive experiments with mescaline at the Dachau concentration camp, and the CIA was very interested in figuring out whether mescaline could be the key to mind control. That was one of their big avenues of investigation. So they hired the Nazi doctors who had been involved in that project to advise them. Another thing the Nazis provided was information about poison gases like sarin, which is still being used.

Nazi doctors came to America to Fort Dietrich in Maryland, which was the center of this project, to lecture to CIA officers to tell them how long it took for people to die from sarin and was there a difference in how long it took to die if you were a small child or an infant, whether you were an elderly person or whether you were a healthy middle-aged person. The only way to know this would be to have killed all those people. The CIA was eager to get this kind of information.

And actually, one of the things that is the most bizarre about the fact that we relied on Nazi doctors is that Sidney Gottlieb himself was Jewish, and his parents had emigrated from Central Europe in the early 20th century. If they had not emigrated, Sidney Gottlieb might well himself have been brought up in Central Europe, forced into a ghetto, brought to a concentration camp and become the subject of one of these grotesque Nazi medical experiments. Nonetheless, he didn't seem to have any problem working as a CIA officer with the doctors who conducted those experiments.

GROSS: Yeah, I found that pretty hard to understand. But, you know, also, Kurt Blome, one of the Nazi doctors who was hired by Sidney Gottlieb, was on trial in Nuremberg. He was acquitted, but he was one of the Nazi doctors who was tried. And the Nuremberg Code established that if you are conducting experiments, that the person you are experimenting on needs to give informed consent. And of course, MK-Ultra totally violated the Nuremberg Code, but apparently the U.S. never signed on to that, never adapted that.

KINZER: If the United States had used the Nuremberg Code domestically, Sidney Gottlieb would never have been able to do what he did; there couldn't have been MK-Ultra. What Sidney Gottlieb did is exactly what we sentenced Nazi doctors to death after the Second World War for doing in concentration camps.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Kinzer. His new book is called "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Kinzer. We're talking about his new book, "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control." Gottlieb created the MK-Ultra program which experimented with psychoactive drugs like LSD to see what the effects were, with the goal of learning if LSD could be weaponized as a form of mind control.

It wasn't just a question of administering these super-high doses of LSD for very extended periods of time. There was also, like, questioning and other kind of testing that went along with the administration of these high doses. Tell us about that.

KINZER: Gottlieb and the CIA established secret detention centers throughout Europe and East Asia, particularly in Japan, Germany and the Philippines, which were largely under American control in the period of the early '50s. And therefore Gottlieb didn't have to worry about any legal entanglements. In these places, he carried out his most extreme experiments, some undoubtedly fatal. We don't know how many people died, but a number did, and many lives were permanently destroyed.

So what you found in these Europe experiments was a confluence of two interests, both that preoccupied the CIA. No. 1 was Gottlieb's desire to find the key to mind control, which the CIA considered its absolute greatest project and most important priority. Second, CIA officers in Europe and Asia were capturing enemy agents and others who they felt might be suspected persons or otherwise, what they called expendable.

They would grab these people and throw them into cells and then test all kinds of - not just drug potions but other techniques like electroshock, extremes of temperature, sensory isolation, all the meantime bombarding them with questions trying to see if they could break down resistance and find a way to destroy the human ego. So these were projects designed not only to understand the human mind but to figure out how to destroy it. And that made Gottlieb, although in some ways a very compassionate person, certainly the most prolific torturer of his generation.

GROSS: And were there any guidelines in effect in the U.S. that would have made it illegal had people known what he was doing?

KINZER: This is one of the most remarkable aspects of the Gottlieb story. He operated almost completely without supervision. He had sort of a check off from his titular boss and from his real boss, Richard Helms, and from the CIA director, Allen Dulles. But none of them really wanted to know what he was doing.

This guy had a license to kill. He was allowed to requisition human subjects across the United States and around the world and subject them to any kind of abuse that he wanted, even up to the level of it being fatal. Yet nobody looked over his shoulder. He never had to file serious reports to anybody.

I think the mentality must have been, this project is so important. Mind control, if it can be mastered, is the key to global world power, that the idea of it disturbing a few lives or losing even a few hundred lives could not be seen as important enough to outweigh that imperative. Only when you get caught up in a cause like that that allows you to put aside conscience and all other moral considerations and even serious scientific considerations can you allow yourself to get caught up in a situation like this where one person is allowed, on his own whim, to go out and torture and kill people.

And the people who might be supervising him really don't want to hear about it for reasons that have to do with the old CIA code which is the code of all secret services - the less you know, the better. You're not implicated. As a result of this, Gottlieb was allowed to work for 10 years without anybody supervising him or even really being aware or wanting to be aware of what he was doing.

GROSS: So before Sidney Gottlieb started experimenting with LSD, he ran CIA experiments with marijuana, cocaine, heroin, mescaline. I guess those didn't work as mind control drugs.

KINZER: He was trying everything. He not only used the drugs that you mentioned but extreme forms of stimulants and sedatives. One of the techniques they tested in Europe was to sedate a person to the coma state and then feed him extreme doses of stimulants. And then when the person was in the transition phase between comatose and hyperactive, they would electroshock him with very high doses, hoping that maybe this combination would be the thing that could blow away a person's mind.

So the CIA, and Gottlieb in particular, were limited only by their own imagination. Gottlieb's imagination ran wild. He himself used LSD, by his own estimate, about at least 200 times. So his imagination was very fertile. And under the conditions of his employment, he was allowed to pursue any form of experimentation that he could imagine.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Kinzer. His new book is called "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control." After a break, we'll talk about how Gottlieb thought LSD could be weaponized to weaken world leaders and how he created poisons that could be used to assassinate them. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Stephen Kinzer about his new book "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control." In the '50s and early '60s, Gottlieb headed the secret CIA program MK-Ultra, which conducted experiments to see if LSD and other mind-altering drugs could be weaponized as a form of mind control. Gottlieb was also the CIA's chief chemist, creating poisons and unusual ways of surreptitiously administering them should they be needed to kill enemies, including world leaders, and he headed the program that created high-tech gadgets for spies.

You know, one of the uses Gottlieb envisioned for LSD was - you could slip it to an unfriendly world leader, and their behavior would be so erratic and weird that they'd lose popularity or they'd be thrown out of office because they would appear to not be able to function normally anymore.

KINZER: You're right. So Gottlieb was the chief CIA chemist. In that capacity, he was also the chief poison maker, so he made the poisons to kill Zhou Enlai, Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba. But he wasn't only involved in making poisons to kill people. He was also interested in making toxins that would affect their behavior in various ways. He made a list of the ways he thought drugs could be used to affect behavior. Could you find a drug that would alter a personality structure in a way that would allow the operator to take control of another person's behavior? Could you produce shock and confusion or physical disablement?

At one point, he came up with the idea of using a spray can full of LSD to pollute the studio in which Fidel Castro was going to give a radio speech, and then presumably, Castro would become disoriented and, as you say, lose popularity and fall from power. This is the level of bizarre plots that he became involved with when he was hired as part of a separate aspect of his job besides MK-Ultra to be the person who devised toxins and psychoactive substances to be used in covert operations by CIA officers around the world.

GROSS: So this is just a little sidebar that I found very interesting as somebody who listens to a lot of jazz. The people who Sidney Gottlieb hired included George Hunter White, who directed a lot of the MK-Ultra experiments, and he had been a narcotics agent and led the Narcotics Bureau's campaign against jazz in New York City. He spied on musicians and entrapped them, including Billie Holiday, and Billie Holiday being busted was a turning point in her career because she couldn't get a cabaret license. There were places she couldn't perform in. It was a really tragic thing for her, and that's this guy.

KINZER: George Hunter White was one of the key operatives of MK-Ultra, and he stands out even in this extremely bizarre MK-Ultra cast of Nazi doctors and torturers and obsessed chemists. So George Hunter White, as you say, was a narcotics agent in New York, but he was the kind of narcotics agent who not only lived at the edge of the law. He crossed over a lot. He used all the substances that he confiscated from people. His use of alcohol and narcotics was legendary, but he was also a cop who did pursue jazz figures, including Billie Holiday. He had a special dislike for her because he said the way that she flaunted her furs and her big cars was offensive to him.

GROSS: Wow.

KINZER: In the early 1950s, Gottlieb hired this guy George Hunter White to run a safe house for him in New York City to which people would be lured off the street and then given LSD so CIA officers could watch them from an adjoining apartment through a one-way mirror. Later, White was moved to San Francisco, where he set up one of the craziest MK-Ultra projects that was known inside the agency as Operation Midnight Climax. This was an operation in which White would assemble a stable of prostitutes who would bring their men back to an apartment that the CIA hired and furnished, feed them LSD and George Hunter White would sit in an adjoining apartment sitting on a portable toilet, drinking pitchers of martinis while watching people having sex under the influence of LSD with the vague idea that this was somehow going to help the United States defeat communism. So these were the kind of people that naturally gravitate to a project like this one.

GROSS: When the men were having sex with prostitutes and were unknowingly given doses of LSD, weren't they then asked questions to see what their answers would be like under LSD?

KINZER: Exactly. So White and the people who worked with him would prep these prostitutes, and they would say, we want to find out under what circumstances - under what combination of sex and drugs men would be most likely to reveal secrets. So we want you to stay with the guy after the thing is over and talk to him and try to draw him out about his work and ask him, for example, you know that plane you've been working on? So how high does it fly, really? And the idea was to try to draw out information and to see whether drugs could make people talk, and of course, they found out things that are very obvious - that people will talk. Men will talk after sex.

And the people who were observing these experiments, like George Hunter White, had no background in psychology or anything that would allow them to assess these situations in a clinical way. Everything was very slapdash and haphazard, so not surprisingly, no serious results ever came out of this, except the fact that we can now sit here and talk about the fact that our tax dollars were used to pay for a bordello run by the CIA in San Francisco to which unwitting men were brought, fed LSD and used as experiments in Sydney Gottlieb's campaign to try to figure out how to penetrate the human mind so it could be controlled in the interests of the United States government and its covert projects around the world.

GROSS: Well, there's plenty more to talk about, but we have to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Kinzer. His new book is called "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen Kinzer. His new book is called "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search For Mind Control." Gottlieb created the MK-Ultra program which experimented with psychoactive drugs like LSD to see what the effects were, with the goal of learning if LSD could be weaponized as a form of mind control. So Sidney Gottlieb's MK-Ultra program was ended in the early 1960s. Why was it ended?

KINZER: After all the experiments that led to deaths in unknown numbers around Europe and Asia and led to unknown torments across the United States, Gottlieb, who was, in the end, a scientist, was forced to reach the conclusion that he had failed. Mind control, he finally came to conclude, is a myth. It was fed by fantasies from fiction that these people had imbibed at a young age. But once you got to see if you could transfer those fantasies from the realm of fiction to the realm of reality, they broke down.

So Gottlieb finally had to admit he never could find a way to control human minds. And what skeptics had said at the beginning, which is that you cannot program a person to do something that he or she is basically and deeply and morally opposed to doing, and make them go out and do it. He had to waste unknown numbers of lives in order to reach a conclusion that should have been clear from the beginning.

GROSS: So what did he do after the MK-Ultra program was ended? Because he stayed in the CIA.

KINZER: Gottlieb had a long career after MK-Ultra ended, and he went on to become the head of the Technical Services staff, which is the - part of the CIA where they make the tools, the gizmos, the gadgets that spies use. So if you remember Q from those James Bond movies, that was Gottlieb. And he spent years at the head of that operation.

And he made an astonishing variety of covert tools from all those things you see on TV like cameras that you can fit inside a cigarette lighter or a tie clip, all the way to more bizarre things like a rubber boat, a car with a secret compartment to smuggle agents out of foreign countries, a compressor for foreign currency so you could pack a huge amount of it into a small container, and even a jailbreak kit that could be contained in a rectal suppository. He invented a hyper...

GROSS: Can you explain that? 'Cause I can't envision that exactly.

KINZER: (Laughter) He had a series of tiny tools that would have knives and other devices that would allow you to break through solid walls, all miniaturized. This was just a piece of his genius. He invented a hyper-thin hypodermic needle so that you could poison a bottle of wine through the cork without leaving any trace in the cork.

His imagination was just as fertile when he was inventing spy tools for CIA officers as it had been earlier when he was trying to devise ways of finding mind control techniques.

GROSS: You describe him as the poisoner in chief, and that's not just about the LSD experiments. He actually created and found ways to administer poison. Describe that part of his job.

KINZER: As the chief CIA chemist, it was logical that Gottlieb be consulted whenever the CIA needed a poison or a toxin. And this became part of his work during the late 1950s and into 1960. In the mid-'50s, the United States set out on a project to kill Prime Minister Zhou Enlai of China while he was visiting Indonesia.

Gottlieb actually made a potion that was supposed to be put in a rice bowl that Zhou Enlai would eat from. And actually, this poison was only going to work after a day or two. The idea was that Zhou would be back in China, and the poison wouldn't be able to be traced back to the CIA.

Later on, when the CIA became obsessed at the order of the White House in killing Fidel Castro, it was Sidney Gottlieb who made all the poison pills, the poison potions, even the poison wet suit that was supposed to be given to Castro. In 1960, President Eisenhower ordered the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the Congo. Sidney Gottlieb was given the job of making the poison.

GROSS: Among the very, very bizarre things about Sidney Gottlieb is after leaving the CIA, he pursued a spiritual life. He and his wife go to India. They tried to work with the poor. They're working with people who have leprosy.

It is so hard to reconcile the different parts of Sydney Gottlieb's personality - an Orthodox Jew who works with Nazi doctors on the CIA drug experiments, somebody who has, like, ruined lives, who's created poisons and done these, like, really horrible experiments and people but feels like he himself is a very spiritual person.

KINZER: This is one of the things that makes the Gottlieb story so fascinating. So Gottlieb really lived a Jekyll-and-Hyde life. We already talked about the things that he was doing in his day job, but what was he like outside of work? Actually, he was a very gentle, compassionate humanist. He lived in an eco cabin in the woods with no running water. He grew his own vegetables. He meditated. He studied Buddhism and wrote poetry. He got up before dawn to milk his goats. He ate yogurt at work and preached the benefits of natural living way back in the 1950s. Later on he built himself one of the first solar homes in Virginia.

So he was kind of a proto hippie. And he traveled between these two worlds of spiritual meditation and then torturous experiments. I think it creates a much fuller and more perplexing picture of a person who lived such different sides of his life. You wonder, how could he have reconciled this? Maybe he was thinking that he was an extreme individualist and he was fighting a global force that wanted to crush all individualism in the world, and therefore anything was justified.

In the long run, in the cosmic sense, I think you can say that commitment to a cause always gives you the justification for immoral acts. And patriotism is among the most seductive of those causes because it posits the nation as a value that's so transcendent that anything done in its service is virtuous. So caught up in that mentality of the age, and maybe by his own personal desire to be of service to the United States - because, as a result of his handicap, he had been refused the chance to serve in World War II - Gottlieb felt that he could put aside the normal pull of conscience and morality. I don't think he ever faced the question or answered the question of whether there are limits to the amount of evil you can do in a righteous cause before the evil begins to outweigh the righteousness.

GROSS: So Sidney Gottlieb worked in secrecy. That secrecy was partially shattered by the Church Committee, a committee - it was a Senate committee from the 1970s that was chaired by Democratic Senator Frank Church. And it was tasked with investigating abuses committed by intelligence agencies, and Gottlieb was called to testify. So how much did the committee find out about what Gottlieb had really done?

KINZER: Gottlieb was living in India, working in a hospital for leprosy victims when he got a note from the CIA saying, somebody has figured out who you are, and that somebody is the Church Committee that's investigating the CIA, and they want to talk to you. So the anonymity in which Gottlieb had lived his whole life was suddenly under threat. Gottlieb had to come back to the United States. He did testify at two rounds of hearings, one undercover - that is, under a pseudonym in a private room - another under his own name but also in a private room.

And the Senators were able to ask him some probing questions, but really, they didn't know anything about MK-Ultra. If they had known anything like what's in this book, Gottlieb would have been questioned much more seriously, but the Church Committee was focused on a number of other abuses that the CIA had been accused of, like domestic spying, assassination plots in which Gottlieb had played, essentially, only the role of a pharmacist. They didn't know what he had done abroad. They didn't know what he had done in prisons inside the United States.

His lawyer had arranged for him to be granted immunity from prosecution for his testimony. Nonetheless, he didn't reveal anything, and he claimed, essentially, to have forgotten everything that he had spent his whole CIA career doing. So he forgot who his boss was. He forgot who was deputy was. He couldn't remember what part of the CIA he had worked in. And the Church Committee investigators didn't press him hard enough. They didn't know what to ask him. So essentially, although his anonymity was briefly shattered, he was able to emerge from that experience without anybody reaching the heart of his mystery.

GROSS: Gottlieb tried to destroy evidence of programs that he headed. What did he do to try to destroy the evidence of MK-Ultra?

KINZER: The end of Gottlieb's career came in 1972 when his patron Richard Helms, who was then director of the CIA, was removed by Nixon. Once Helms was gone, it was just a matter of time until Gottlieb would be gone, and most important was that Helms was really the only person at the CIA who had an idea of what Gottlieb had been doing. So as they were both on their way out of the CIA, they agreed that they should destroy all records of MK-Ultra. Gottlieb actually drove out to the CIA Records Center and ordered the archivist to destroy boxes full of MK-Ultra records, and he wrote in his report that these records were destroyed over my stated objections.

So the records of MK-Ultra were destroyed as Gottlieb was leaving office. However, it turns out that there were some found in other places. There was a depot for expense account reports that had not been destroyed, and various other pieces of paper remained. So there is enough out there to reconstruct some of what he did, but his effort to wipe away his traces by destroying all those documents in the early '70s was quite successful.

GROSS: Well, Stephen Kinzer, thank you for this book. I found the revelations in it really remarkable. Thank you for talking with us.

KINZER: Thank you.

GROSS: Stephen Kinzer is the author of the new book "Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MIDNIGHT HOUR'S "BETTER ENDEAVOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As a black gay kid growing up in Texas in the 1990s, poet Saeed Jones remembers getting negative messages about his identity from every aspect of his life. It was around the time of Matthew Shepard's murder in Wyoming, and Jones felt alone and unsafe.

07:40

From Anorexia To Dystopia, New Operas Eloquently Tackle Contemporary Topics

Ellen West, a new one-act chamber opera presented by Opera Saratoga, is based on a tragic poem by Frank Bidart, while Poul Ruders' The Thirteenth Child draws on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

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