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What was Project MKUltra? Inside the CIA's mind-control program

Sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be true, like the one about how the CIA tried to use LSD to find a mind-control drug.

The CIA is a goldmine for conspiracy theorists and may hold the dubious honor of being the source of most of the conspiracy theories that end up being true. While some of the conspiracy theories that revolve around the CIA are wild speculation, a few of them are very real and well documented. Among them is a project with little scientific merit and significant ethical concerns called Project MKUltra.


In the 1950s and '60s, the CIA experimented with LSD on American citizens.

Project MKUltra was the code name for a series of investigations into mind-bending substances, techniques, and medical procedures. The goal was to develop truth serums, mind-control drugs, and determine what chemicals and methods had potential use for torture, disorientation, and espionage. The experiments started in 1953 and were slowly reduced in scope over the next 20 years before being halted in 1973.


This really happened, as shown in this record of the United States Senate. No tin foil hats required.

What did the CIA do?

A variety of experiments were undertaken to understand the effects of powerful drugs on unsuspecting subjects. These were often done in conjunction with hospitals and universities who claimed later they were not told what the goal of the experimentation was. At least 86 “universities or institutions” were involved in the acquisition of test subjects and administration of the experiments.

In one set of experiments, aptly named operation midnight climax, prostitutes on the CIA payroll would lure clients back to a safehouse where they would drug them with LSD. The effect the drug had on the unsuspecting victim would be observed behind one-way glass by intelligence agents and recorded.

CIA agents also had a habit of drugging one another both at work and at weekend retreats to the point where random LSD trips became a workplace hazard to see what the effect of the drug was on unsuspecting subjects. However, this resulted in at least one death when a subject developed severe psychotic behaviors after being drugged. While that death is often considered a suicide or an accident, the possibility that it was a murder is often brought up.

Other experiments were also undertaken with sensory deprivation, hypnosis, psychological abuse, MDMA, salvia, psilocybin, and the mixing of barbiturates with amphetamines to sedate a subject before giving them a massive hit of speed in hopes of making them spill their secrets.

Who was experimented on?

Subjects included student volunteers, patients at mental hospitals, prisoners who both did and didn’t volunteer, drug addicts who were paid in more drugs, and the occasional random person in addition to CIA agents who got unlucky.

The author Ken Kesey volunteered for the experiments while he was a student at Stanford. He later worked the experiences into his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was so attracted to the use of psychedelics that he went on to host “Acid Tests” at his home, bringing LSD to the counterculture.


Ken Kesey: counterculture icon and subject of repeated experiments in LSD usage. (Getty Images)

It has also been speculated that Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, was experimented on as part of MKUltra when he participated in a series of experiments at Harvard in which he was verbally abused and had his personal beliefs belittled by an attorney. It must be repeated that this is mostly conjecture, though several sources point out the likelihood of it.

Did any of it work?

Some of it worked, but most of it didn't. 

While some of the drugs were found to make the test subjects more suggestible or pliable, none of them were the truth serums or reliable torture aids that the CIA wanted. Complicating matters, the research was highly unscientific at times, and a great deal of the data was of limited use.

In many ways, it might have been counterproductive. The counterculture was given access to LSD through the experiments and they proceeded to run in the opposite direction with it. John Lennon went so far as to mock the CIA in an interview, noting “We must always remember to thank the CIA and the Army for LSD. That's what people forget. They invented LSD to control people and what they did was give us freedom.”

The head of the project, Sidney Gottlieb, would also go on to say that his entire effort was “useless”, suggesting that the project failed to satisfy anybody. However, some elements of the program have gone on to be used in recent torture regimens with a focus on psychological torment.

How do we know about this?

In 1973, then-CIA-director Richard Helms ordered all documents relating to MKUltra destroyed. However, 20,000 pages of documents were misfiled and survived the purge. In 1977, Congress organized the Church Committee and examined the records. As a result of the findings, Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan issued orders banning all future human experimentation without consent by government agencies, and some remittances were paid to those harmed by the tests.

How illegal was this?

The project violated the Nuremberg codes, agreed to by the United States after the trials of Nazi war criminals, by administering drugs without informed consent. At least two people, Frank Olson and Harold Blauer, died as a result of being drugged without their knowledge. The true extent of psychological damage and death toll is impossible to know, as the records were mostly burned and the unscientific nature of many tests would make it impossible to determine what later events (for example, suicide) were attributable to the tests.

So, there you have it. The CIA did use mind-altering drugs on unsuspecting civilian populations and those too weak to fight back and then tried to cover it up. While most conspiracy theories are far-fetched and debunkable with two minutes of thought, some of them are entirely true.

MKUltra was a conspiracy between the government and many institutions to drug people without their knowledge and use anything learned from it for espionage purposes. Modern research into psychedelic drugs is increasingly benign, but we must remember that a great deal of what we know about them was discovered for the sake of making them weapons. A sobering reminder of what science can do without guidance. 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

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