The Frank Olson Legacy Project

FAMILY STATEMENT, 1975

 

 
 

FAMILY STATEMENT BY THE WIFE AND CHILDREN OF FRANK R. OLSON

Alice Wicks Olson
Eric Wicks Olson
Lisa Wicks Olson Hayward
Nils Wicks Olson

Released in a press conference
July 10, 1975

 

 

 

 

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. Olson’s widow was later told that her husband’s 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 Olson’s 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 husband’s 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 Commission’s 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 CIA’s inspector general and stopped. One of Frank Olson’s 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 Olson’s 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 Army’s 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 Colby’s memoir, Honorable MenMy Life in the CIA (Simon & Schuster, 1978). Colby wrote the following:

“But on one point the Rockefeller Commission’s 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 officer’s 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 Mailer’s fictionalized account of the chagrin experienced by CIA professionals on William Colby’s release of the CIA secrets referred to as “the Family Jewels,” including the story of Frank Olson’s 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 colleague’s 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 him.

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 Olson’s 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 Olson’s 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 Olson’s 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 employee’s compensation (figured on the basis of two-thirds of Olson’s 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 Olson’s death as an inexplicable “suicide.” At the time he died Frank Olson’s 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 Olson’s 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 Olson’s children grew up under a double shadow, the shadow of their father’s 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 husband’s bizarre death.

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 Commission’s 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 nation’s 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 Olson’s 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 Olson’s 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 Olson’s 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 Olson’s 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 values.

When one begins to think critically about the CIA’s domestic activities one is led also to question the legitimacy of many CIA operations abroad. We cannot expect that everyone in this nation will be as critical of the CIA as we have become; no other family has been violated in quite the same way. But as we have seen how the CIA has undermined the rights of Americans we have been given an eerie glimpse into the dark side of American policies in other countries as well.

 

 
 

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 Olson’s death as the result of an illegal LSD experiment illustrates the CIA’s 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 Olson’s 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 CNN’s 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.