The Frank Olson Legacy Project
FAMILY STATEMENT, 1975
FAMILY STATEMENT BY THE WIFE AND CHILDREN OF FRANK R. OLSON
in a press conference
We are the family of Frank R. Olson. Frank Olson a civilian biochemist working for the United States Army died shortly after midnight on November 28, 1953, when he plunged to his death from a window on the 10th floor of the Hotel Statler in New York. The death certificate states that Frank Olson jumped or fell and cites multiple fractures, shock and hemorrhage as the causes of death.
An employee of the Central Intelligence Agency had been with Frank Olson in his hotel room the night he died. This man was accompanying Frank Olson in his hotel room the night he died. This man was accompanying Frank Olson when Olson was taken to New York to consult a psychiatrist. Olsons widow was later told that her husbands escort had awakened about 1:30 A.M. to see Olson going at a full run toward the window. He said he saw Olson go through both the closed window and a drawn shade.
For twenty-two years, the only details the family knew of the immediate circumstances surrounding Frank Olsons death were that he was taken to New York to see a psychiatrist and that he jumped or fell to his death. But Alice Olson was convinced that her husbands death was not a deliberate or willful act. She felt that he must have plunged through the window in a state of panic brought on by she knew not what. This was the impression she conveyed to her children.
On June 11, 1975, we suddenly learned something new. On that day The Washington Post published a report of the Rockefeller Commissions disclosure of an LSD suicide, the result of a secret CIA test on unsuspecting persons. This CIA drug test was part of a program conducted from 1953 to 1963 when it was discovered by the CIAs inspector general and stopped. One of Frank Olsons colleagues himself a victim of the CIA drug test has confirmed to us that the man we were reading about in the newspapers was indeed Frank Olson. After twenty-two years Frank Olsons children at last had something of an answer to the question they had asked their mother for so long: How did our father die?
|Frank Olson was not a CIA or Army officer, but a civilian biochemist, a high level research scientist and administrator at Camp Detrick (later renamed Fort Detrick), the Armys biological warfare research installation located in Frederick, Maryland. He had been among the first scientists to come to Camp Detrick during the Second World War (1943) when the Army established its bacteriological warfare research program. There, in a division called Special Operations, under extremely stringent secrecy and security regulations, Frank Olson and his colleagues did research on the most lethal microorganisms known to humanity, those that transmit such diseases as bubonic plague.||
We would have cause to question the statement that Frank Olson was not a CIA officer when, some years later, we read William Colbys memoir, Honorable MenMy Life in the CIA (Simon & Schuster, 1978). Colby wrote the following:
But on one point the Rockefeller Commissions report did add unintentionally to the sensationalism swirling around the CIA. That was on the matter of the death of Frank Olson. Indeed, even CIA professionals, myself included, were shocked and shamed to learn of the true circumstances around this CIA officers suicide, as revealed in the report, following his being administered LSD without his knowledge in 1953 in a joint CIA-Army test program. (Honorable Men, p. 425)
Read Norman Mailers fictionalized account of the chagrin experienced by CIA professionals on William Colbys release of the CIA secrets referred to as the Family Jewels, including the story of Frank Olsons death.
Prior to June 11, 1975,
we had known that during the weekend preceding his death Frank Olson had
been very distressed. He had returned to his home near Frederick from
meetings with members of the Special Operations research group which had
lasted from Monday until Friday at a mountain retreat. During the weekend
following the meeting he expressed to his wife great concern about something
that had happened at a meeting the previous week. He conveyed self-doubt,
self-recrimination and great anxiety. Throughout the weekend he was often
silent and his wife did not know how to interpret his sudden apprehensiveness
and his uncharacteristically withdrawn behavior. He did not discuss the
sources of his distress. His wife attributed his lack of communication
to the secrecy required by his work. She attempted to comfort him and
by the end of the weekend he had decided to quit his job on Monday morning.
Frank Olson went to
work on Monday morning prepared to resign. That day he was reassured by
his colleague. Monday night he related this conversation to his wife.
He seemed to accept his colleagues reassurance and appeared more
relaxed. Tuesday morning he returned home form Camp Detrick at 10:00 A.M.
He told his wife that he had been advised that he needed to see a psychiatrist
and that his colleagues feared that he might do her bodily harm. At this
moment she realized for the first time that her husband was not himself.
She was stunned to hear her husband say that she might not be safe with
That same morning a car driven by a Special Operations division employee arrived to take Olson to Washington where he would be flown to New York to see a psychiatrist. Alice Olson accompanied her husband to Washington and never saw him again.
Not until June 11, 1975,
did we hear that Frank Olson had, without his knowledge or consent, been
given LSD by two CIA employees during the research meeting. These CIA
employees, who were liaison people to a Detrick project, were conducting
the meeting to discuss on-going biological research being done by the
Special Operations division under contract with the CIA. Shortly after
dinner one evening during the meeting Frank Olson and four other Special
Operations division scientists were told that they had been given lysergic
acid diethylamide and that their reactions would be observed. We do not
know what occurred during the remainder of this meeting.
We do know that one
of the other four subjects in the experiment was still hallucinating when
he left the meeting. This man, the one who confirmed that Frank Olsons
death occurred as a result of this experiment, felt himself to be experiencing
direct and indirect effects of the drug for several weeks after the meeting.
He worked closely with Frank Olson and, upon observing him the Tuesday
morning following the meeting, judged him to be exhibiting drug-related
psychiatric symptoms requiring professional help. This colleague then
called one of the two CIA liaison men in Washington to inform him of Olsons
condition. Plans were made to fly Olson immediately to New York to see
a psychiatrist with a high security clearance. According to the colleague
Olson was accompanied on this trip by both the agent and the colleague.
Olson had several very
long sessions with the psychiatrist, including one session that lasted
most of one day. He planned to return to Maryland on Thursday to spend
Thanksgiving with his family. According to the colleague he did return
to Washington but felt himself to be unstable and though he might become
irrational in front of his children. So without going home he returned
to New York to see the psychiatrist again. This time he was accompanied
only by the CIA employee. Olson telephoned his wife Friday evening, spoke
of being at home on Saturday and mentioned plans that he would enter a
psychiatric hospital the following week.
Early Saturday morning
Frank Olsons family was notified by the colleague (who had been
notified by the CIA employee) that Frank Olson was dead. For twenty-two
years we have not known whether it was appropriate to call that death
a suicide. We have agonized over the question of what kind
of horrid nightmare or event could have driven
him to hurl himself at a full run out of a 10th story window, and how
this suicidal nervous breakdown the term we have always
used could have developed so suddenly, so inexplicably, so devoid
of connection to anything we or his friends had known of him.
Within one week of the death the family was notified that employees compensation (figured on the basis of two-thirds of Olsons salary) would be paid because the death was the result of a work-related accident.
The news we received
on June 11, 1975, had a dramatic effect on this family. Since 1953, we
have struggled to understand Frank Olsons death as an inexplicable
suicide. At the time he died Frank Olsons wife thirty-eight
years old, his eldest son was nine years old, his daughter seven, and
his youngest son five. Now, twenty-two years later, we learn that this
death was the result of CIA negligence and illegality on a scale difficult
to contemplate. Suddenly we learn that Alice Olsons being left in
early adulthood to raise a family alone, her children left to grow up
without a father we learn that these deprivations were not necessary
at all. And we suddenly learn that for twenty-two years we were lied to,
led to believe that Frank Olson had a fatal nervous breakdown. Thus Frank
Olsons children grew up under a double shadow, the shadow of their
fathers suicide and the shadowy inexplicability of that act. In
the years following 1953, Alice Olson lived with the inevitable trauma
and day-to-day consequences resulting from her husbands bizarre
We feel our family has
been violated by the CIA in two ways. First, Frank Olson was experimented
upon illegally and negligently. Second, the true nature of his death was
concealed for twenty-two years.
We come together as
a family now to tell this most personal and painful family story because
we feel it is our responsibility to do so. This is an intimate family
story but it is also very much a part of an unfolding American story.
The Rockefeller Commissions disclosure of the LSD suicide received
a great deal of coverage in the press because it is, in media terms, a
very sensational story. The public has reacted to this disclosure with
a mixture of poignant shock and utter disbelief. As one person said, After
learning of this, one wonders whether there is anything the United States
government is not capable of doing?
But horrible as this
event was in its depiction in the mass media, the accounts given of it
there had a surreal quality which rendered it, like so much of this nations
recent history, impossible to feel and absorb. Both TIME and Newsweek
had in their June 23 issues freakish artists impressions of the
LSD suicide victim hurling out of the 10th floor window. We believe that
Frank Olsons death has meaning only when it is placed in the context
of a family story on the one hand and in the context of global CIA misconduct
and immorality on the other. In telling our story we are concerned that
neither the personal pain this family has experienced nor the moral and
political outrage we feel be slighted. Only in this way can Frank Olsons
death become part of American memory and serve the purpose of political
and ethical reform so urgently needed in our society.
The Rockefeller Commission
report revealed a wide array of CIA violations of the rights of American
citizens. These have included illegal forms of domestic spying, maintaining
thousands of files on individuals, interception of mail and phone taps
on newspeople. The drug testing program itself continued for ten years
after Frank Olsons death. And that program was part of a much larger
study, about which very little has yet been publicly disclosed, of methods
to control human behavior including radiation, electric shock,
psychiatry, psychology, sociology, and what the report calls harassment
substances. In light of these patterns of CIA activity which have
persisted for many years we have concluded that it is not appropriate
to regard Frank Olsons death merely as an aberration, an incident
unrelated to what have been characteristic forms of CIA procedure. Though
it was envisioned as an organization which would protect the freedom and
security of Americans, the CIA has in fact substantially threatened these
We are one family whose
history has been fundamentally altered by illegal CIA activity, the family
of the only American so far identified as having died as a result of CIA
treachery. In this we have something in common with those families in
Chile whose hopes for a better life were destroyed by CIA intervention
in elections, in attempted economic reform, and in the effort to establish
a non-capitalist from of government. We have something in common with
those families in Cuba whose struggles for a better life, free of the
dominating exploitation of multinational corporations, has been made so
much more difficult by CIA plots and schemes. And we have something in
common with those families in Southeast Asia whose heroic efforts to be
free of foreign interference has had to cope with CIA subversion.
In comparing our life
as a family with these Third World families we do so humbly, well aware
of the difference between struggles undergone in relative affluence and
those endured in poverty and war. But we think it is crucial to point
out the connections between American treachery and immorality abroad and
those same tendencies evident at home. The immorality of American policies
in Vietnam and the immorality of Watergate are part of a common phenomenon
the phenomenon of massive governmental deception and unaccountability.
Frank Olsons death as the result of an illegal LSD experiment illustrates
the CIAs capacity to ignore humane constraints and ethical boundaries.
The CIA that participates in the assassination of foreign leaders is the
same CIA that infringes the rights of American citizens.
We intend to sue the Central Intelligence Agency for the wrongful death of Frank Olson. In so doing we hope the full story of Frank Olsons death will emerge. We hope that the CIA will be held publicly and punitively accountable for its actions. We hope that this legal process, painful as it will certainly be for this family, will lessen the chances that other families, other persons, will have to suffer such abuses.
Episode !8, Backyard: 1954-1990, of CNNs series Cold War depicts the role that American intervention played in undermining Latin American liberation struggles beginning with the 1954 CIA organized coup to subvert a democratically elected government in Guatemala.