I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

MK-ULTRA: No, Seriously, It Really Happened

by Kathleen Furey
June 9, 2014

It sounds like the plot of a b-movie: a corrupt office of the government comes up with a mind-control drug to use on innocent citizens to get them to reveal potentially big secrets. The drug does more than just extract the truth—it brainwashes the test subjects, making them vulnerable to do anything that anyone tells them. It sounds too good to be true, but these experiments actually happened in the United States in the late fifties and early sixties. This illegal experiment was known as Project MK-ULTRA (sounds like a spy b-movie title, no?)

No one has been able to really pull together the true story of Project MK-Ultra. The bravest attempt, however, was by ABC News in 1979 with Mission Mind Control. Mission Mind Control was created using documents, statements, and fascinating illustrations, perhaps to make the viewers feel as if they were experiencing the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD,) the mind-controlling substance.

The film follows ABC News Correspondent Paul Altmeyer and his camera crew as they visit various participants in the project. There are many former CIA agents who are now reluctant to speak about what they contributed to, some even choosing to write statements for Altmeyer to read. There are others, who were exposed to the drug who are still so visibly traumatized by what they saw thanks to the LSD trip, they can hardly complete the interview. It’s horrifying to watch, especially when the contemporary idea of LSD is that it’s “groovy, man” and a fun party drug. But when you realize that this drug was being used for experiments involving mind-control by our own government, one must really stop and think—what am I doing?

One of the most famous cases from the MK-Ultra projects is Frank Olson. Olson was a senior U.S. Army microbiologist at Fort Detrick in Maryland. On November 28, 1953, it was believed that Olson committed suicide by crashing through a hotel window in New York City and plummeting 150 feet to the sidewalk. However, in 1975, it was revealed that Olson had been injected with LSD, the fatal dose being his fifth. While the government admitted to providing Olson with LSD, they tied to deny that there were mind control experiments going on.

There are many things wrong with the way Olson died. First, by using lower-level government employees, it was clear that the driving forces behind project MK-Ultra were only after people of a lower socio-economic status. It was admitted that the experimenters were after people who they considered lower-rung, such as prostitutes and bartenders. They were after money, so why not have them try and obtain secrets as well? They certainly were not in a position to say no, especially to the United States government. Secondly, the fact that the government would turn on their own is really chilling, especially as Project MK-Ultra was happening in the midst of the cold war, a time when solidarity was being pushed by every media outlet.

Aside from the moral issues, one has to wonder—as ground breaking as Mission Mind Control is, it was originally broadcast on network television. How much could possibly be said? True, CNN didn’t start until the following year, with cable not being widely available until the mid-1980s. Sure, Paul Altmeyer says upfront that they don’t have the whole story, given that the documents pertaining to the project were allegedly destroyed in 1973, but there’s something to be said about a network airing a story on something that was once very top secret. Is it possible that perhaps some of the subjects were paid off? Is it possible that those not wanting to appear on camera may or may not actually exist? The special does get a bit hard to follow at certain points. Could it be an artistic attempt to give viewers at home an idea of the non-psychedelic effects of the experiments, or is it a way to throw them off from wanting to research more on these horrifying experiments? Even today, in 2011, it is hard to find concrete sources, save for some declassified documents loaded with professional jargon.

Overall, Mission Mind Control is a documentary that inspires thought, especially in today’s political climate. It seems that more than ever before, people are expressing their disgust at the government, especially with the way they treat the economy. Watching a documentary from thirty-two years ago detailing the time in which the CIA injected people with various levels of LSD in order to control their minds, then tried to keep it a huge secret, and all while the wealthy were free to do whatever they please while the working class suffered? If you did not even question the government before, you will. And you should!

Kathleen Furey is a 2009 graduate of Binghamton University who may or may not have participated in some anti-establishment rallies during her time there. She currently runs (and shops for) the blog Furious Kitschy and is the community manager of LivLuna .