The Frank Olson Legacy Project

“Justice Delayed”

Final section of new Postscript to:

Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans

by Jonathan Moreno

Professor of Biomedical Ethics,
University of Virginia


In Chapter Seven I chronicled some of the outrageous activities of the national security agencies during the 1950s. Perhaps the most famous single case of CIA “mind control” experiments was that of Frank Olson, the scientist who has long been said to have committed suicide by jumping out of a New York City hotel room window after being given LSD without his knowledge. That, at least, is the story that the public has come to know and that is recounted in this book.

However, in the fall of 1999 the A&E cable television network aired a program that reiterated previously broadcast doubts about the official story and also offered the most comprehensive alternative theory yet presented. The program noted that the New York City district attorney's office has reopened the 1953 case as a homicide investigation. The D.A. was partly influenced by the findings of a forensic pathologist from George Washington University who examined Olson's remains and concluded that Olson suffered a blow on the head with a blunt object prior to his fall. Just as importantly, the pathologist did not find the facial lacerations that had been recorded by the coroner in 1953 (though the skin was intact upon exhumation of the remains), though cuts would have been expected from a violent thrust through glass. Others interviewed on the program disputed the likelihood of suicide from a closed window with the shade drawn, and in fact Olson has spoken calmly to his wife on the telephone a few hours before. But why would a quiet scientist like Frank Olson be murdered?

In the spring of 2000 Eric Olson, Frank Olson’s son, called me in my office at the University of Virginia. We talked about the standard account of his father's death and he shared with me his theory, one that will be tested by the New York district attorney. According to Eric Olson, his father was eliminated because he posed a threat to the agency's top secret drug experiments, including some that may have been conducted abroad. Frank Olson, it seems, was not only an experimental subject but also engaged as a researcher in the CIA’s Special Operations Division. As a researcher Olson himself used animals in experiments and perhaps witnessed the use of humans as well. Whatever he saw, perhaps in U.S.-occupied West Germany, seems to have greatly disturbed him. As it happens, Eric Olson told me, the CIA’s declassified assassination manual for 1953 specifies a faked suicidal jump as a preferred means of elimination.

I asked Eric Olson for the image that came to his mind after nearly five decades of life with one of the greatest burdens a person can have, the unsolved mystery of his father's death. “I have long thought that accounts of my father's death are very like H.C. Andersen’s story ‘The Emperor's New Clothes,’ Olson said. “After the perceptual cloud is punctured and the emperor is seen to be stark naked one wonders how the illusion of fine garb could have been sustained so long.” Olson continued:

“Neither version of the story of my father's ‘suicide’— neither the one from 1953 in which he ‘fell or jumped’ out a hotel room window for no reason, nor the 1975 version in which he dives through a closed window in a nine-day delayed LSD flashback while his hapless CIA escort either looks on in dismay or is suddenly awakened by the sound of crashing glass (both versions were peddled) — made any sense. On the other hand both versions deflected attention from the most troubling issue inherent in the conduct of the kind of BW and mind-control research in which my father and his colleagues were engaged.

“The moral of my father's murder is that a post-Nuremberg world places the experimenters as well as the research subjects (my father was both simultaneously) at risk in a new way, particularly in countries that claim the moral high ground. Maintenance of absolute secrecy in the new ethical context implies that potential whistle blowers can neither be automatically discredited nor brought to trial for treason. Nor can casualties arising from experiments with unacknowledged weapons be publicly displayed. The only remaining option is some form of ‘disposal.’ This places the architects of such experiments in a position more like that of Mafia dons than traditional administrators of military research. The only organizational exit is a horizontal one. In the face of this implication the CIA enforcers of the early 1950's did not flinch, though historians along with the general public have continued to see the state in all its finery.”

My conversations with Eric Olson were one of two experiences that brought his father's case home and the CIA's decades-old experiments home to me after Undue Risk was first published. A history devoted specifically to American biological weapons program, The Biology of Doom, also appeared for the first time in 1999. Its author, Ed Regis, is like me a former philosophy professor. Reading Regis’ book I learned that Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA spymaster responsible for their chemical warfare program, including the LSD experiments, died at the University of Virginia Hospital. His death occurred while I was putting the finishing touches on Undue Risk, and his deathbed was steps from my office in the medical school.

Later a second irony occurred to me. Gottlieb's privacy was scrupulously protected by my physician colleagues, his doctors, as it should have been. They afforded him the moral consideration and human dignity that he seems not to have granted those who were unfortunate enough to be unwitting participants in his experiments. Yet I am more hopeful than ever that efforts to quash the truth about some of the most closely held secrets of cold war experiments, including the circumstances surrounding Frank Olson's death, will ultimately fail. The only way to be sure is to demand that federal officials open the files on biological and chemical experiments, just as they did on radiation experiments. The New York district attorney's handling of the Olson case can light the way for the rest of government, but only if all of us refuse to forget the victims of undue risk.

Jonathan D. Moreno, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Biomedical Ethics
University of Virginia
Box 348 Health Sciences Center
Charlottesville, Va. 22908

Paperback edition of Undue Risk, Routledge, November 2000.
Hardcover edition, W.H. Freeman, 2000.

Video tapes of Jonathan Moreno’s December 13, 2000 NIH lecture, “The Historical and Ethical Aspects of Informed Consent” are avaiable from Satellite Video.

Email: Satellite Video or call: (800) 747-0856



Ed Regis, The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project
(New York: Henry Holt, 1999; paperback 2000).

For a critique of The Biology of Doom in relation to the Frank Olson story see “Shutting off Curiosity.”