The Frank Olson Legacy Project
secret that could destroy the CIA
by Kevin Dowling and Phillip Knightley
Published in Night and Day magazine, the Sunday supplement to The London Mail on Aug 23, 1998.
Reprinted June 12, 1999 in Dagens Nyheter, largest newspaper in Sweden. Used here with permission of the authors.
looked up to see light shining from a shattered window of a room on the
hotels thirteenth floor. He knelt down alongside the man, cradled
his head in his arms and leaned closer as the man made an effort to speak,
then died. He had obviously jumped out of the window, just another suicide
in a city where the plunge from skyscraper to pavement was a shocking
but not unusual event.
was certainly the finding at the inquestDr Frank Olson, a United
States Army scientist, for reasons no one could fathom, had taken his
own life. And that was what the record showed for the next twenty-two
in 1975 the Rockefeller Commission, set up by President Ford to examine
the extent of the CIAs illegal domestic operations, revealed that
an unnamed army scientist had died after CIA experts, experimenting with
mind-bending drugs, had secretly slipped him a dose of potent LSD. During
the ensuing uproar, the scientist was identified as Frank Olson.
US government moved immediately to show how sorry it was for what had
happened. Congress passed a private humanitarian relief bill which authorised
a payment of $750,000 to the widow, Mrs Olson, and her three children.
Mrs Olson and her son Eric were invited to the White House where President
Ford publicly apologised to them. And the then CIA director, William Colby,
held a lunch for Mrs Olson and Eric in his office at the CIA, apologised
and gave them the CIA file on the case.
to the file, Olson had suffered a chemically-induced psychotic flashback
a week after he had been slipped the dose of LSD. So a CIA doctor, Richard
Lashbrook, had been deputed to look after Olson until he was normal again.
Lashbrook had been sharing the hotel room with Olson and was asleep in
a bed next to him when, he said, he was awoken by the sound of breaking
glass and realised that Olson had crashed through the window.
who is now 54,was never very convinced by this version of events but kept
quiet so as not to distress his mother. Then when she died in 1994 he
decided to test the official story of his fathers death. Experts
told him that in order to achieve the momentum needed to vault over a
central heating radiator under the window, burst through the closed blinds
and smash through the hotels heavy glass panes, Olson would have
had to struck the window travelling at more than 30km per hour. A trained
athlete takes about fifty metres to accelerate to that speed. But the
hotel room was only 5.5 metres long.
there was Dr. Lashbrooks strange behaviour when the hotel manager
Pastore arrived in the room to tell him that his colleague was dead on
the pavement below. Lashbrook went to the telephone, rang a number and
simply said, Olsons gone. Then he hung up and retired
to the bathroom where he sat on the lavatory with his head in his hands.
Olson, a Maryland clinical psychologist, began to spend every spare moment
trying to get at the true story of what had happened to his father. Today
he is convinced he is on the brink of doing so. But the story is so strange,
so reminiscent of the TV series The X-Files, that despite
compelling evidence, it is uncertain that anyone will believe it.
TERMS of the $750,000 government settlement for Olsons death prevented
his family from pursuing the matter in the civil courts. But if Eric Olson
could convince the authorities that his fathers death was a criminal
matter, then he might eventually get at the truth. Four years ago he had
his first breakthrough when he won a court order to exhume his fathers
he was buried the coffin had been sealed. They said he had been so badly
mutilated in the fall that it wouldnt be right for the family to
see him. But when we opened the casket a lifetime later, I knew Daddy
at once. He had been embalmed and his face was unmarked and untroubled.
He hadnt been hurt the way they said he had.
new autopsy confirmed Eric Olson's impression and entirely contradicted
the findings of the first inquest. Carried out by a team led by James
Starrs, Professor of Law and Forensic Science at The National Law Centre,
George Washington University, it could find no sign of the cuts and abrasions
that the first autopsy said had been caused by crashing through the window
other hand, there was a haematoma, unrecorded at the first post mortem
examination, on the left hand side of Olsons skull. This had been
caused by a heavy blow, James Starrs decided, probably from a hammer,
before the fall from the window. Starrs and his team concluded that the
evidence from their examination was rankly and starkly suggestive
the team did not say sobecause it could be only suppositionsomeone
had struck Olson on the head with a hammer, smashed open the window, probably
with the same hammer, and had then thrown Olson out. But the new autopsy
findings were certainly enough for a New York public prosecutor, Stephen
Saracco, to win the right for a grand jury to begin hearing the evidence
he had uncovered. If the jury, too, found the evidence of murder compelling,
then Saracco requested that it should hand down indictments for murder
and conspiracy to murder.
an ambitious, aggressive lawyer with no fear about taking on the American
establishment, says that the men he wants named in the indictments will
include some of Americas most respected CIA veterans and, if the
grand jury agrees to his request to widen his investigations, former officers
of the British Secret Intelligence and Security Services as well.
there are indications that the international intelligence community is
running scared. The CIA and the Department of Justice have resisted Saracco
's attempts to subpoena Dr. Lashbrook, who now lives in California, to
question him, among other things, about Olsons last hours, the telephone
call that Lashbrook made immediately after Olson's death and the work
that Lashbrook and Olson had been engaged in together.
in July, after months of negotiation, the two government departments gave
in and agreed that the grand jury should hear Saracco's team examine Lashbrook
at Venture County Courthouse during the week beginning 24 August. Saracco
has already offered Lashbrook immunity from prosecution in return for
his testimony. He was too late, however, to do the same for William Colby,
the CIA chief who apologised for Olsons death.
April 1996, after Saracco won the right to a grand jury hearing, Colby
who realised that he would be forced to give evidence, vanished from his
country retreat about forty miles south of Washington. It looked as if
he had left in a hurry: the lights and the radio were still on, his computer
was still running, and a half finished glass of wine was on the table.
The next day his empty canoe was found swamped on a sand bar. Five days
later divers found a body identified as Colbys. He had apparently
been the victim of a boating accident.
it would appear that Maryland waters are particularly unkind to retired
members of the CIA. In 1978 another CIA officer, John Paisley, also vaanished
there in another boating accident. A week after Paisleys abandoned
boat was located, a body with a gunshot wound to the head was found. But
the condition of the body meant that precise identification was impossiblemaking
the area a conspiracy blackspot.
Suppose the grand jury does in the end find that the evidence that Olson was murdered and that the perpetrators were other CIA officers, there will still remain a major barrier to an eventual conviction--what was the motive? What was so sensitive to the CIA that it would kill one of its own? To find an answer we have to go back to the fifties when the two great ideologies of the 20th century, communism and capitalism, were locked in a battle to the death and no act no matter how morally shocking was ruled out in the struggle for victory.
NUCLEAR stand-off of the Cold War had sent both sides back to their drawing
boards. If it were impossible to employ nuclear weapons without assuring
mutual total destruction, what other weapons could the boffins come up
withgiven virtually unlimited funds and no moral restraintsthat
would win any future war? Two possibilities attracted attention. The first
was bacteriological warfare.
warfare is remarkably cheap; it has been described as the poor mans
nuclear bomb. A deadly virus sufficient to wipe out every living
person over an area of one square mile would cost only about $50. In the
1950s both sides in the Cold War set up research establishments to develop
biological weapons, methods of delivering them, and methods of protecting
against them. Dr. Frank Olson worked in this area.
as a biochemist, he had been employed since 1943 in the Special Operations
Division at Fort Detrick, Maryland, was associated with a CIA secret research
unit known at the time as MK-ULTRA, and came to Britain frequently between
1950-53 to work at the British Microbiological Research Establishment
(MRE) at Porton Down. Olson was part of a team which was developing aerosol
delivery systems for biological weapons that included staphylococcus enterotoxin,
Venezuelan equine encephalo- myelitis, and anthrax. Olson seems to have
concentrated on counter- biological warfare, trying to find vaccines and
special clothing that would protect against attack.
effective though it may be, biological warfare has drawbacks. There is
always the risk that it may get out of control and attack not only the
enemy but those who decided to employ it in the first place. Like nuclear
warfare, biological warfare could wipe out civilisation as we know it.
So Olson and some of his colleagues became intrigued by another type of
weapon altogether, one which attacked not the body but the mind.
scientists in the Western intelligence community who supported the idea
of developing brain-washing programmes had two gurusDr Douglas Ewan
Cameron, a Glasgow-born psychiatrist, and Dr. Sydney The Gimp
Gottlieb, the CIAs top expert on brainwashing. Cameron won his post-graduate
diploma in psychiatric medicine at the University of London before joining
the staff at John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, in 1926. He became convinced
that the mentally ill posed a grave threat to Anglo-American civilisation
and should be forcibly sterilised.
the Second World War he was a member of the Military Mobilization Committee
of the American Psychiatric Association and was appalled to learn that
of the fifteen million men inducted into the US armed forces, two million
had to be rejected on neuropsychiatric grounds, a proportion far higher
than in any other nation. He set about finding remedies including electroshock
(60,000 ECTs in a single year), lobotomies and other forms of psychosurgery,
sensory deprivation and mind-altering drugs--all used on patients who
had little or no say in their treatment. Conscientious objectors, many
of them Quakers, were defined by Cameron as mentally-ill and sometimes
forced to accept treatment.
the end of the war revealed that the Nazis had been carrying out similar
experiments23 German doctors were convicted at Nurembergthe
Western intelligence community suddenly became very interested in Camerons
work. This interest grew to an obsession after the Stalin show trials
with the robotic, apparently artificially-induced confessions made by
the accused. Then the behaviour of American POWs held in Chinese camps
during the Korean War and their subsequent denunciation of the American
way of life, futher convinced the CIA that the communists were already
well advanced in mind control techniques. In intelligence circles there
were rumours of a Soviet plot to place brain-washed zombies in the White
House and other citadels of Western power.
American response was MK-ULTRA. Its director, Dr. Gottleib, sought help
from his Scottish hero, Cameron, and set him up with cover organisations
to distance the CIA from some of the more abbhorent aspects of MK-ULTRAs
work. So Cameron founded the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology,
ran a proprietary company called Psychological Assessment Associates,
and contributed papers to learned journals on Psychic Driving,
The Restructuring of the Personality and Suggestion
and Extra-Sensory Perception.
short term goals were to counter any communist plot to insert brain-washed
assassins into the West. However, according to authors Gerald Colby and
Charlotte Dennett, biographers of Nelson Rockefellerone-time chairman
of a committee overseeing the MK-ULTRA operationthe scientists also
wanted to find drugs or techniques by which a man could be surreptitiously
drugged through the medium of an alcoholic cocktail at a social party
. . . and the subject induced to perform the act of attempted assassination
of an official in a government in which he was well-established socially
ides, perhaps, but one whose currency was not limited to the CIA. A few
years later, the surreptitious administration of a mind-altering drug
in a drink at a party was suggested as a possible solution to a strange
double death in Sidney, Australia. On the morning of January 1, 1963,
Dr. Gilbert Bogel, and his lover, Mrs. Margaret Chandler, were found dead
on a river bank after a riotous party given by staff of the Commonwealth
Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Bogle, a brilliant scientist,
had told friends that he was about to go to the US to work on scientific
research of great military importance. The deaths were never solved, but
Sydney detectives became convinced that Bogle and his colleagues had been
experimenting with LSD and the effect it produced on their thought-processesthe
invitation to the New Year's party required each guest to bring a painting
done under the influenced of the drugand their either by accident
or by design someone had slipped the couple what turned out to be an overdose.
requests to the BBI under the Freedom of Information Act asking for details
of the work that Boigle would have been doing in the US have met with
refusal on the grounds of national security. But the speculation is irresistible
that it might have involved experiments in mind control similar to those
that Olson had worked on.
long-term aim of these experiments with mind-altering drugs is thought
by those who have studied the MK-ULTRA programme to have been to ensure
the dominance of Anglo-American civilisation in the war of all against
allthe key to evolutionary success. Brain-washing would be
used not only to defeat the enemy but to ensure compliance and loyalty
of one's own population.
did Dr. Olson fit into all this? A Harley Street psychiatrist, Dr. William
Sargant, now dead, was sent by the British goverment in the early 1950s
to evaluate MK-ULTRA. On his return he told a colleague and friend, former
BBC television producer, Gordon Thomas, that what Cameron and Gottlieb
were up to was as bad as anything going on in the Soviet gulags.
whose books include a 1988 study of the CIA's forays into mind-control,
Journey into Madness: Medical Torture and the Mind Controllers,
says Sargant told me that he had urged the British government to
distance this country from it. He said it was blacker than black.
According to Thomas, Sargant told him that Frank Olson had come to Britain
between 1950-53 to work on attachment at Porton Down and had also made
frequent visits to an intelligence facility in Sussex. This
is confirmed by entries in the special passport that Olson used.
stamps on the passport, which declare that the bearer was on official
business for the Department of the Army indicate a pattern of travel
that took Olson between various British military airfields, France, Occupied
Germany, Scandanavia and the United States between May 1950 and August
1953. Prosecuting attorney Saracco believes that something happened on
one of these trips that holds the key to Olsons death. Since the
matter is still before a grand jury Saracco cannot talk about it but Gordon
Thomas has his own idea of what it was. The CIA was using German
SS prisoners and Norwegian Quislings [collaborators] taken from jails
and detention centres as guinea pigs to test Camerons theories about
mind control. The agency preferred to conduct such clinical trials outside
the United States because sometimes they were terminalthe human
guinea pig ended up dead. Olson was accustomed to seeing lethal experiments
done on animals but when human beings were used in this way it was too
much for him. I believe that he wanted out.
Miniccino, an American businessman and historical researcher who has spent
25 years studying the MK-ULTRA programme and developing a database on
its activities says that if Olson expressed doubts about MK-ULTRA and
its work then he would have done so to William Sargant, the Harley Street
psychiatrist, who had evaluated MK-ULTRAs work and who had been
a close colleague of Olsons.
althoughas we already knowSargant wanted the British government
to distance itself from the CIAs work with MK-ULTRA, Miniccino says
he nevertheless was committed to the principle of mind control and became
the link between the British Secret Intelligence Service and MK-ULTRA.
Miniccino adds, So if Frank Olson expressed serious doubts about
the MK-ULTRA project to Sargant, then he signed his own death warrant.
Miniccino is implying and what public prosecutor Saracco wants to prove
is that the MK-ULTRA mind control projectwith its clinical trials
on unsuspecting human beingswas such a sensitive issue with the
western intelligence community that it would go to any lengths to prevent
an insider like Olson, from blowing the whistle.
then, what happened? Did Olson tell the British psychiatrist/SIS agent
Sargant that he wanted out of the mind-control project, and that his conscience
might compel him to reveal publicly what the intelligence services had
been doing? Did Sargant then pass this on to SIS, who in turn told the
CIA? Was a decision then taken to make certain that Olson never talked
by destroying his memory with drugs and, when this failed, by murdering
him and making it look like a suicide?
from the evidence set out earlier, there is another compelling fact that
supports this theory. Until Mrs Olson died in 1993, a regular visitor
at her house was Olsons former boss in Special Operations, Vincent
Ruwet. Ruwet would spent long-daytime hours with Mrs Olson. The two would
drink together at her house (Mrs. Olson became an alcoholic) while Ruwet
listened to the problems she faced in bringing up her three fatherless
children. Everyone considered him to be a sympathetic family friend. But
newly-discovered documents reveal that Vincent Ruwet had been assigned
by the CIA to keep track of the wife.. If Olson was a threat
because of what he knew, and knowledge can be passed on, then the CIA
would have to spy on all those who had been close to him in case he had
told them the truth about MK-ULTRA? THE CIA has always maintained as a
matter of historical record that it has never murdered an American citizen
on American soil. If, as a result of Eric Olson's persistence in trying
to uncover what really happened to his father, and the investigating skills
of public prosecutor Saracco, this turns out to be a lie, it could well
be the beginning of the end of the agency.
Eric Olson says, The Cold War is over and there are now ongoing national debates about the future of the CIA and about unethical medical testing on humans. My father's case covers both. The use of hallucinogens, hypnosis, electroshock and other procedures in an attempt to control the way people behave was the CIAs equivalent of the Manhattan [atom bomb] Project. MK-ULTRA was secret, shocking and incredibly dangerous. They couldnt afford to take the risk of letting my father continue to be involved or, considering all he knew, allowing him to quit. So he was terminated instead. My father's murder crossed a line in the sand which the U.S. government has always publicly respected. The guilty ones will not be allowed to get away with it. Or as Fox Mulder would say, The truth is out there.