The Frank Olson Legacy Project


Family Statement on the
Murder of Frank Olson

 

 


August 8, 2002
Frederick, Maryland

Eric Olson, PhD
Stephan Kimbel Olson
Nils Olson, DDS
Lauren Olson
 
Kristin Olson

 
 

 

We welcome you and thank you for coming.

Forty-one years ago—on June 26, 1961—Nils (then twelve years old) and Eric (then sixteen) set out on our bicycles from this house and began cycling to California.

A bit like Lewis and Clark, we had very little idea what we would encounter during our trip West. During the six and a half weeks of our journey we were propelled by a powerful and simple idea, which boiled down to the notion “just keep peddling.” We knew that Route 40, the old National Pike just a few hundred yards from here at the end of the lane, went all the way to the West Coast. Our motto was “Harolds Club or Bust.” All you had to do was just keep going and follow the road. Eventually you would come to San Francisco. (“Cross-country bike trip,” poster 2)

Eight years earlier our father had died—vanished really—and it has taken all the years since then to figure out what happened to him. Our search for the truth about what happened to our father has been a lot like that bike trip to California. All one had to do was to keep following the thread represented by his disappearance. Eventually one would come to the answer.

In both cases one reached the goal by small continuous increments of motion along a single strand. Nevertheless, the final destination did not look anything like the place from which one started out. Little by little one entered unknown terrain. But the destination, whether it was San Francisco or the truth about what happened to Frank Olson, was still on the same map. Incredible as it sometimes seemed, in both cases, the place one finally got to was still part of America.

Today we want want to try to give you some idea of what this journey has been like, and tell you something about the unfamiliar American territory we have discovered.

Our purpose in inviting you here today is to explain why—49 years after his death, 27 years after the government claimed to have told us the truth about his death, and 8 years after we had his body exhumed and a forensic investigation performed—we are going to rebury our father’s remains tomorrow.

The reason we have waited so long to do this is that we wanted to be certain that when we reburied our father’s remains we would not be reburying the truth at the same time.

The gist of what we want to say can be compressed into three headlines:


1. The death of Frank Olson on November 28, 1953 was a murder, not a suicide.

2. This is not an LSD drug-experiment story, as it was represented in 1975. This is a biological warfare story. Frank Olson did not die because he was an experimental guinea pig who experienced a “bad trip.” He died because of concern that he would divulge information concerning a highly classified CIA interrogation program called “ARTICHOKE” in the early 1950’s, and concerning the use of biological weapons by the United States in the Korean War.

3. The truth concerning the death of Frank Olson was concealed from the Olson family as well as from the public in 1953. In 1975 a cover story regarding Frank Olson’s death was disseminated. At the same time a renewed coverup of the truth concerning this story was being carried out at the highest levels of government, including the White House. The new coverup involved the participation of persons serving in the current Administration.


We will make available materials to amplify all these points, and provide copies of a definitive new one-hour documentary film on the Frank Olson case called “Code Name ARTICHOKE” that will air on public TV in Germany (the ARD network) next week, on Monday, August 12.

 

Poster 1
 

I.

Return to the beginning

Now, to back up and approach all this a bit more slowly:

There is a passage in “The Four Quartets” where the poet T.S. Eliot writes:

… the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This is a moment like that, a moment when the circle closes. A moment of returning—this time with knowledge—to the beginning.

Twenty-seven years ago, on July 10, 1975, our family sat at this same picnic table in this same backyard, to hold a press conference. At that time the family consisted of our mother Alice, then 59 years old, Eric, 30, our sister Lisa, 29, and Nils, 26.




Today Eric is 57. Nils is 53. Eric’s son Stephan is 12. Nils’ daughter Lauren is 19. His daughter Kristin is 17. Lisa died in an airplane crash in 1978. Our mother passed away in 1993.



That day in July 1975 we sat at this table and read a family statement. This was how it looked that day.
(“Backyard press conference,” poster 3).

A month earlier, on June 11, 1975, an article—
this article—had appeared on the front page of the Washington Post. The article contained stunning news about our father, but it did not mention his name. The purpose of our press conference in 1975 was to say that the unidentified man referred to in that article was Frank Olson.

Twenty-two years earlier, in the early morning of November 28, 1953, our father died in what we were told was an “accident.” For those twenty-two years between 1953 and 1975 we knew nothing about how he died or why. In 1953 we had been told only that he had had “an accident” in a New York hotel room and had “fallen or jumped” out the window.

Then followed 22 years of inky darkness.

 
 

 

II.

“Suicide Revealed”

Ours was a family that tried its best to be normal in the 1950’s way. But in fact this was a family haunted by fear, shame, uncertainty, and insecurity. It was a family that had, in effect, been terrorized. Two decades passed.

Then on June 11, 1975, out of nowhere, like a message in a bottle suddenly washed ashore by distant storms (in this instance the storms were Vietnam and Watergate), came a cryptic bit of news.

Under the headline “Suicide Revealed” (poster 4) on the front page of the
Washington Post we read the following paragraphs:

A civilian employee of the Department of the Army unwittingly took LSD as part of a Central Intelligence Agency test, then jumped 10 floors to his death less than a week later, according to the Rockefeller commission report released yesterday.

The man was given the drug while attending a meeting with CIA personnel working on a test project that involved the administration of mind-bending drugs to unsuspecting Americans and the testing of new listening devices by eavesdropping on citizens who were unaware they were being overheard.

“This individual was not made aware he had been given LSD until about 20 minutes after it had been administered,” the commission said. “He developed serious side effects and was sent to New York with a CIA escort for psychiatric treatment. Several days later, he jumped from a tenth-floor window of his room and died as a result.”

The CIA’s general counsel ruled that the death resulted from “circumstances arising out of an experiment undertaken in the course of his official duties for the United States government.” His family, thus, was eligible for death benefits. And two CIA employees were “reprimanded” by the director.

The man identified as an “army scientist” turned out to be Frank Olson. But nobody bothered to notify our family that this story was being released. Not the Rockefeller Commission, not the CIA, not the White House.

It was as if a long-lost MIA had at last been found and identified, but his family were not notified.

This horrendous omission turns out to be a key to the whole story. It indicates that the “truth” was being suppressed even as it was coming to light. In fact the headline “Suicide Revealed” was triply ironic. First the death was not a suicide. Second it was not “revealed”: the name was not given. Third, we would later learn that the subject of the experiment was not an “Army scientist.”

We recognized our father in this story only by the fit of the details: the man was a “scientist,” the year was “1953,” the fall was from a “tenth floor window.”

A month later (July 10) we held a press conference, right here, to provide the name—“Frank Olson”—that the story had lacked up to then.

At that point the government wasted no time in getting in touch.

Less than two weeks later (July 23) we were sitting in the Oval Office receiving an official apology from Gerald Ford. And five days after that (July 28) we were having lunch with CIA Director William Colby in the Director’s 7th floor office at Langley, receiving an apology from the CIA, along with what we were told was the complete CIA file on our father’s death.

The contrast between the failure of the government to notify us when the anonymous story about our father was being released, and the scurrying around at the highest levels to apologize to us once we identified ourselves, could not have been more stark.

This was another sign that something was still amiss. Ask yourself when you last remember an American President calling a family to the Oval Office to receive an apology for the unintended effects of a United States government policy.

Actually it was not at all clear exactly what it was that the President and the CIA Director were apologizing for.

Was it for the reckless CIA LSD drugging at Deep Creek Lake?

Was it for the nonchalant medical treatment by the non-psychiatrist to whom Frank Olson was subsequently taken?

Was it for keeping the allegedly psychotic Frank Olson in a hotel rather than a hospital?

Was it for the fact that his CIA escort was asleep in the next bed when Frank Olson “fell or jumped” out the window?

Was it for not telling the truth to his family in 1953?

Or was it for not notifying the Olson family when this story was finally emerging twenty-two years later, in 1975?


The President assured us that the White House would support our efforts to obtain justice. Almost immediately we were advised by White House attorneys that a law suit would be risky, as the law was not on our side. Accordingly the government attorneys strongly recommended that we pursue a settlement via a Private Bill in Congress, which they said the White House would support.



In 1976 our family received a financial settlement from Congress for far less than the White House, CIA Director George Bush, the Justice Department, the Labor Department, and the Treasury Department had recommended. A single Congressman had decided to oppose the settlement, so it was enacted in drastically reduced form.

Having already received the document package from the CIA, the matter was now officially over. We signed an agreement saying that all our claims against the United States government in the death of Frank Olson were settled.

By that time the name “Frank Olson” had started to achieve the almost mythical status it subsequently acquired. “Frank Olson” became a symbol for the effects of careless human experimentation in general and reckless CIA behavior in particular. (“
Psychology Today,” poster 5.)

The “fell or jumped” scenario at the window never really made sense. But nobody in the 1970’s spent much time thinking about how our father actually died. In fact the 1970’s version of the Frank Olson story was a story that everyone could love.

Journalists could pride themselves on having reported a story of horrendous governmental wrong-doing that now had a human face. Congressional investigators and legislators could pride themselves on their dutiful governmental housecleaning in the aftermath of Watergate. The White House could pride themselves on having acted responsibly when the truth came to light. The public could revel in wild stories of government-sponsored drug experiments. And the CIA itself could relax, knowing that behind the popular notion of buffoon-like behaviour of out-of-control-agents the real story had not even been touched.

Everyone seemed to get high on the Frank Olson story. In the midst of all this hubbub what nobody seemed to notice was that the story of Frank Olson’s death hadn’t changed at all.


In 1953 the story was that Frank Olson “fell or jumped” out the window due to job-related stress. The Olson children grew up saying that our father died of a “fatal nervous breakdown.”

In 1975 the story was still that Frank Olson “fell or jumped” out the window. Only now the reason was that he had been drugged with LSD by the CIA eight days earlier.

In both cases the claim was that nobody saw anything even though a CIA official allegedly acting as an escort and protector was sleeping in the next bed when Frank Olson “fell or jumped” out the window of a very small room.

Nobody saw anything in 1953. In the 1975 version nobody saw anything either (the only new element was the unwitting administration of LSD), and nobody notified the Olson family that a new story was coming out. In 1953 the Olson family was assured by the government within three days of Frank Olson’s death that the family would receive government employee’s compensation. In 1975 after the family press conference the Olson family was immediately assured by the President that the government would provide more restitution.

Despite the apparent narrative shift, the continuity in the structure of the story over two decades could scarcely have been more complete.

The story didn’t make any sense in 1953, and it didn’t make any more sense in 1975. But the sensational notion of LSD administered by the CIA served wonderfully to conceal this gap.

Frank Olson didn’t jump out the window (even in physical terms that would have been virtually impossible), and he certainly didn’t fall out. He was pushed out. Or, to use the words of CIA terminology that we would later discover, he was “dropped.”

But if there was foul play in the death of Frank Olson what was the motive? Why would the government murder an “Army scientist” who had been unwittingly drugged with LSD?

At that point the gap concerning what happened at the window turned into a chasm concerning the motive for the whole affair.

The story of Frank Olson’s death, illuminated for a moment with the anonymous news from the Rockefeller Report, seemed to return to inky darkness.

 
 

 

III.

A story no one could love

 

Over the 27 years that have elapsed since 1975 light has been cast on all this from many directions, and the real story of Frank Olson’s death has gradually taken shape.

The real story is not merely a story that no one could love. The real story is a story that no one wanted to know. This made it easy to peddle the ludicrous fairy tale cover story in 1975, a story that in hindsight resembles “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

The real story is not a simple or short one, and we will not be able to tell all of it in detail in this statement. Instead we will fast forward to key the key moments that have, piece by piece, eviscerated the 1975 story and left a very different one in its place. The real story is not one in which anyone will take pleasure. Uncovering this story has been a decades-long agony for us as well.

The real story is like a murder mystery in which the tale begins with a body that floats to the surface of a murky lake. The mystery of the death can’t be solved until that body is reinserted into the sprawling network of crime, corruption, and power that motivated the murder.

In Eric’s quest for truth two quotes have been key:

One came from CBS correspondent Anthony Mason in 1994: “Eric,” Mason said, “you are going to get to the bottom of this, but it is going to be a false bottom.”

That is no longer the situation, but getting to a solid bottom has required a very long descent.

The second quote comes from Tommy Worsley, the genius Volvo mechanic who kept Eric’s car running during the long years of digging. Tommy said:

“Eric, you need to tell this story, because it will help a lot of people connect a lot of other dots in other stories that have nothing to do with this one.”

In that spirit, we will try here to convey the path we followed that led, finally, to a very different story of how, and why, Frank Olson died. We want to emphasize at the outset, however, that our purpose was never to prove that Frank Olson was murdered. Our purpose was to find out what had happened, and to arrive at a story—whatever that story might be—that made sense. In the course of a long search not a single shred of evidence has corroborated the government’s story, which, it is important to remember, was never really a story at all. The Emperor was naked from the start.

 

Problems with the conventional story
(The Colby documents)

In the years after the case was settled we had had time to grapple more carefully with the confusing stack of documents we had received from William Colby. The more we tried to absorb these documents the more they seemed to dissolve in ambiguity in front of our eyes. The story told by the government simply did not hold up to scrutiny.

Already in 1976 the New York Times had observed that the Colby documents were “elliptical, incoherent, and contradictory.” The Times wrote that:

Taken as a whole, the file is a jumble of deletions, conflicting statements, unintelligible passages and such unexplained terms as the “Artichoke Committee” and “Project Bluebird” that tend to confuse more than enlighten.

But the real problem was that the Colby documents seemed to be pointing to a story that they were not telling—a story quite at odds with the spin that had already been placed on the story by the initial account in the Rockefeller Commission Report.

For example, one of the reports submitted by the doctor (an allergist, as it turned out) to whom our father was taken in New York, states that “an experiment had been done to trap” Frank Olson.

We now know that this story begins long before the meeting at Deep Creek Lake November 1953 where the CIA conducted what it later called a “drug experiment.” It begins with concerns about Frank Olson’s commitment to CIA programs, especially after he witnessed terminal interrogations in Germany in the summer of 1953. The aim of the drugging at Deep Creek was apparently to assess the extent of Frank Olson’s disaffection and alienation, given the depth of his ethical qualms.

The CIA official (Sidney Gottlieb) who was reprimanded by the Agency for the drugging of Frank Olson was also personally involved in CIA attempts to assassinate Patrice Lumumba and other national leaders.

In another place the Colby documents refer to something called “the Schwab activity” at Frank Olson’s division at Detrick as being arguably “un-American.” The documents imply that issues pertaining to this activity were somehow involved in Frank Olson’s death.

In these documents the overall context for Frank Olson’s death is related not to the infamous MK-ULTRA program for mind and behavior control, as is generally assumed. The Colby documents locate Olson’s death in the context of a CIA operation called ARTICHOKE. However most of the passages pertaining to ARTICHOKE in the documents provided to the Olson family have been carefully deleted.

Operation ARTICHOKE was a CIA program that preceded MK-ULTRA. ARTICHOKE involved the development of special, extreme methods of interrogation. Officials responsible for the ARTICHOKE program were very concerned with the problem of disposing of “blown agents” and with the task of finding a way to produce amnesia in operatives who had seen too much and could no longer be relied upon.

The Colby documents state, as does William Colby in his 1978 autobiography, that Frank Olson was not an “Army scientist,” but, rather, a “CIA employee,” a “CIA officer.”

 

The key witness changes his story
(What Dr. Lashbrook told Dr. Gibson)

One of the most confusing aspects of the story of what happened to Frank Olson is the inconsistency in the accounts given by the key witness, CIA employee Dr. Robert Lashbrook, who was allegedly asleep in next bed in the same small hotel room at the time Frank Olson went out the window (“Psychology Today,” poster 5).

In the immediate aftermath of Olson’s death in 1953 Lashbrook told Alice Olson that he had seen her husband plunge through the hotel window. But later Lashbrook said that he had been awakened from sleep by the sound of crashing glass, and only upon noticing that the bed next to his was empty did he realize that his roommate had gone out the window. In 1995 we were contacted by Dr. Robert Gibson.

In 1953 Dr. Gibson was the admitting psychiatrist at the hospital near Washington to which Frank Olson was allegedly to have been taken after returning from New York City. Subsequently Dr. Gibson went on to a distinguished career in psychiatry, becoming President of the American Psychiatric Association, and Director of Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore.

Dr. Gibson reported to us the statement that had been made to him by the CIA official who contacted him on the morning of Frank Olson’s death—a statement identical to one Robert Lashbrook made to Alice Olson, but in direct contradiction to the story told in the Colby documents.

In the early morning of November 28, the CIA official who had shared the hotel room with Frank Olson did not tell Dr. Gibson that he was awakened by the sound of crashing glass when his roommate went through the window. Instead, Dr. Gibson was told that Frank Olson’s CIA escort had awakened to see Olson standing in the middle of the room. The witness had tried to speak to Olson, and had then watched as Olson plunged through the window on a dead run.

This account appears to have been the first draft of a cover story that was subsequently revised to the form in which it was eventually disseminated. In that version of the story nobody saw anything.

But if nobody saw nuthin, somebody did hear something. Immediately after the death a call was placed from Frank Olson’s hotel room. The call was overheard by the hotel switchboard operator and reported immediately to the night manager (Armand Pastore). The call consisted of only two sentences. According to the operator the person in the room had said:

“Well he’s gone.”

The person on the other end replied:

“That’s too bad.”

Then they both hung up.

In various versions of Lashbrook’s accounts of what occurred in room 1018A the window was either open or else it was closed; the blind was either drawn and pushed through the window when Frank Olson plunged through the window or else it snapped up and spun around the spindle when it was hit; and Lashbrook either did nor did not see what happened.

 

Digging up the body
(Exhumation and forensic investigation)

The doubts raised by the incoherent Colby documents, and by the many other anomalies in the story, led us to have Frank Olson’s body exhumed and a forensic investigation performed. This we did in 1994.

After his death the Olson family was told that Frank Olson’s body was too disfigured to be seen. For this reason at the funeral in 1953 Frank Olson’s casket was closed. The Olson family never saw his body after he left for New York four days earlier. This contributed to a feeling that Frank Olson had not so much died as disappeared.

When the casket was opened in 1994 Frank Olson’s upper body was not disfigured as the New York Medical Examiner’s Report had claimed in 1953. In fact Frank Olson was recognizable after forty-one years in the grave.

The forensic investigation in 1994 confirmed the family’s worst suspicions. In fact the results of this investigation led the principal forensic investigator, who is with us today, to conclude that the overwhelming probability was that Frank Olson’s death was not a suicide but a homicide.

In November of 1994 Professor Starrs and his team presented the initial findings of their forensic investigation at a press conference. “When you pull on the Frank Olson case,” Professor Starrs said then, “you get the feeling that something very big is pulling back.”

In 1994 nobody had a clear idea of what that big something might be.

 

The question of motive
(Why would the government murder Frank Olson?)

As indications accumulated that Frank Olson had been murdered the question of motive became more pressing. Why would the government murder an “Army scientist” simply because he had been used as an unwitting guinea pig in a drug experiment? Once again, as we went down the path suggested by these questions we discovered that all the assumptions on which they were based were incorrect.

First, as indicated earlier, we discovered that Frank Olson was not simply an “Army scientist.” He was a “CIA officer” associated with projects so heavily guarded that the term “top secret” gives only scant indication of their sensitivity. Actually they are better described as State Secrets.

 

Special Operations Division at Detrick

In 1952 Frank Olson was acting chief of the Special Operations Division at Detrick; at the time of his death in 1953 he was SOD’s director of planning and evaluations. The Special Operations Divison at Detrick was the government’s most secret biological weapons laboratory. In fact the SO Division was only physically located at Detrick. In essence the SO Division was an off-campus CIA biological warfare laboratory, doing work on bacteriological agents for use in covert operations.

The Rockefeller Commission’s account of the suicide of an “Army scientist” not only neglected to add the man’s name and his CIA affiliation; it omitted any reference to his high position in the country’s most secret biological weapons laboratory.

When this information is added to the story, and when one obtains some idea of what sorts of projects were being pursued at the SO Division, then the overall picture of the death of Frank Olson changes entirely. (“Dangerous intersection,” poster 6.)

Projects at the Special Operations Division involved or related to the following activities:

• Assassinations materials research (e.g. the materials used in the CIA’s attempts to assassination Lumumba in the Congo and Castro in Cuba)

• Biological warfare materials for use in covert operations

• Biological warfare experiments in populated areas

• Terminal interrogations

• Collaboration with former Nazi scientists

• LSD mind-control research

• U.S. employment of biological weapons in the Korean War.

 

Security issues

As our understanding of Frank Olson’s work grew, our attention was again drawn back to the Colby documents, and we became aware of another gaping hole in the story we had been given. Considering the ultra-secrecy and strategic importance of the work in which Frank Olson was engaged at the time of his death it is nothing less than astounding that among the documents we had been given by the CIA in 1975, which we were told was the complete file, there is no mention at all of any security issues.

Even within the parameters of the CIA’s own story this could not have been true. Here was a top government scientist, engaged in some of the most secret projects at the height of the Cold War. According to the CIA’s account, this scientist had now been used as an unwitting guinea pig in an LSD experiment. He reacts badly to the drug, becomes unstable, and is taken to New York for treatment. But he is not taken to a hospital, or even a safe house. He is kept in a hotel. Two days before his death he allegedly leaves his room in the middle of the night, wanders the streets alone, throws away wallet, including all of his money and his identification.

At no point do the documents describing this weird scenario mention a security problem.

But if the Colby documents fail to discuss security issues, other internal documents that we obtained do mention this issue. One document, found in Frank Olson’s personnel file at Detrick, specifically mentions “fear of a security violation” after Olson’s trip to Europe in the summer of 1953, just four months before his death.

 

The New York District Attorney

From every direction the story of Frank Olson’s death seemed only to become more dark as we were able to fill in more of the background and context. First, the CIA documents proved unconvincing. Second, the forensic investigation added fuel to the fires of our suspicions. And third, the motive for murder turned out to be far more substantial than we had dared to imagine.

By 1996 our suspicions had reached an intolerable threshold. We decided to turn for assistance to the only governmental institution that might be able to help us. Because the death occurred in New York we presented a memorandum to the New York District Attorney’s Office outlining the many reasons for believing that the death of Frank Olson was a murder. We asked the DA’s office to reopen the case. (Copies of this memorandum are available.) This memorandum proved persuasive. In 1996 the New York District Attorney opened a homicide investigation into the death of Frank Olson.

 

A “perfect murder”

One of the outcomes of the The New York District Attorney’s investigation has been confirmation of an allegation that had earlier seemed too extreme to be taken seriously. The New York DA was informed that for many years the murder of Frank Olson was taught as a case of “perfect murder” at the assassination training unit of the Israeli Mossad outside Tel Aviv. The Frank Olson case was included in the Mossad’s assassination curriculum due to the success with which a murder had been disguised as a suicide.

The New York District Attorney was in fact able to locate a source in Israel with close ties to Israeli intelligence which was able to confirm this allegation. In 2000 this source traveled to the United States to speak with the Assistant District Attorney assigned to the case, and also to Eric Olson. Eric was told directly by the New York DA’s source that the case of Frank Olson’s death has been taught in Israel as a case of “perfect murder.”

 

An alternative story of the death of Frank Olson
(Terminal interrogations and biological weapons in the Korean War)

Gradually a completely new story of the death of Frank Olson was emerging, one that bore very little resemblance to the one that had long-since become the conventional wisdom on this issue. But the question of motive remained a mystery. Eventually that piece of the puzzle appeared as well.

A little over a year ago we were contacted by one of our father’s oldest friends and closest colleagues at Detrick. Together with a small group of other scientists this colleague (Norman Cournoyer) and Frank Olson had designed the protective clothing for the invasion of Normandy during World War II.

Cournoyer told us that a crucial element had been omitted from published accounts of the Olson case. That element was the Korean War.

Cournoyer added three crucial elements to the story:

1. In the late 1940’s Frank Olson joined the CIA where he specialized in the field of “information retrieval.” This was the ARTICHOKE program, which we already knew was the operational context in which Frank Olson was working.

2. In the course of this work in information retrieval Frank Olson made numerous trips to Europe, during which he observed interrogations of persons (Soviet prisoners, former Nazis, and others) which involved the combined application of electro-shock, drugs, and torture. These interrogations sometimes led to the deaths of the subjects being interrogated.

3. Through the “information retrieval” work Frank Olson learned that in fact—despite vehement denials by the American government—the United States was using biological weapons, including anthrax, in the Korean War.

This information from Cournoyer fit well with what we already knew and with what we would soon learn. In documents from the Gerald Ford Library we were about to discover the extreme concern in the 1975 White House that “highly classified national security information” was at stake in the death of Frank Olson.

This information also fits closely with what Alice Olson had repeatedly said about her husband’s state of mind in the period prior to his death. Alice Olson had always insisted that Frank had been very worried that the United States may have been employing biological weapons in Korea. But she did not know whether her husband knew the truth about this or not, or even whether he would have been in a position to know.

This information also fits the fact that in the summer of 1953, after returning from a trip to Europe, Frank Olson underwent a moral crisis concerning his work. This moral crisis was noticed by his wife, by his close friends, as well as by relatives. This crisis occurred, it is important to emphasize, several months prior to the LSD drugging at Deep Creek Lake.

Frank Olson’s moral crisis culminated in his decision to quit his job during the weekend following the drugging, a fact which, again, is not mentioned in the Colby documents. Frank Olson went to work on a Monday morning and resigned from his job. By late Friday night he was dead.

For fifty years the United States has continued to deny that this country has used biological weapons in combat. As chief of the government’s most secret biological lab in the early 1950’s Frank Olson’s position concerning these allegations could not have been discredited.

An interview with Cournoyer elaborating these points appears in the new German documentary film, “Code Name ARTICHOKE.”

 

Technique of a concealed murder
(The CIA assassination manual)

The story of Frank Olson’s death now held two of the three elements that are required to be present to postulate a murder: motive, means, and opportunity. The days in the New York hotel room, away from family and community, had certainly offered an opportunity for the crime. What we had discovered about the scale of national security secrets to which Frank Olson had access, combined with Frank’s growing moral doubts, held a plausible motive. However, we were still unable to conceptualize a means for the execution of the crime. That too was about to change.

In 1997 we obtained a copy of the CIA’s 1953 assassination manual and were stunned to discover its pertinence to the questions that haunted us. The scenario presented in that manual dovetails not only with what we had learned from the forensic investigation, but also with what we had been told regarding the teaching of the Frank Olson case by the Mossad’s assassination training unit in Israel.

The CIA’s own assassination manual contains precise instructions for the technique of disguising a murder as a suicide or an accident through perpetrating what the manual calls a “contrived accident.”

The sort of “contrived accident” that the manual recommends for the purpose of disguising a murder as a suicide is a fall from a high window or roof onto a hard surface.

As with the original Washington Post story that had led us in 1975 to recognize our father—even though he was not named—the fit between what the manual says about this technique and what is known about Frank Olson’s death is stunningly precise. This fit led the principal forensic investigator who had exhumed our father’s body to say that the assassination manual “fits the death of Frank Olson like the fingers of a glove.” (“CIA assassination manual found,” poster 7.)

The assistant district attorney handling the homicide investigation in New York put it even more strongly. After reading the assassination manual the Assistant District Attorney said,

The assassination manual reads like a script for the murder of Frank Olson.… The only question is which came first, the manual or the murder. Was the manual based on the murder or was the murder carried out according to the manual? (“Saracco reads the manual,” poster 8.)

 

Here are some passages from the CIA’s own manual on the technique of disguising a murder through engineering a “contrived accident”:

Assassination is a term thought to be derived from “Hashish,” a drug similar to marijuana, said to have been used by Hasan-Dan-Sabah to induce motivation in his followers…

Assassination is an extreme measure not normally used in clandestine operations.…

No assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded. Consequently, the decision to employ this technique must nearly always be reached in the field, at the area where the act will take place. Decision and instructions should be confined to an absolute minimum of persons. Ideally, only one person will be involved. No report may be made…

TECHNIQUES

The essential point of assassination is the death of the subject.

Techniques may be considered as follows:

1. Manual

It is possible to kill a man with bare hands, but very few are skillful enough to do it well…

2. Accidents

For secret assassination, either simple [where the subject is unaware of the danger he is in] or chase [where the subject is aware of the danger but unguarded], the contrived accident is the most effective technique. When successfully executed, it causes little excitement and is only casually investigated.

The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface. Elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve… If the assassin immediately sets up an outcry, playing the “horrified witness”, no alibi or surreptitious withdrawal is necessary. In chase cases it will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him. Care is required to insure that no wound or condition not attributable to the fall is discernible after death.

If the subject’s personal habits make it feasible, alcohol may be used [2 words excised] to prepare him for a contrived accident of any kind.

3. Drugs

In all types of assassination except terroristic, drugs can be very effective. If the assassin is trained as a doctor or nurse and the subject is under medical care, this is an easy and rare method.

5. Blunt weapons

Blows should be directed to the temple, the area just below and behind the ear, and the lower, rear portion of the skull.


It was on Frank Olson’s temple, above his left eye, that the forensic team discovered a suspicious hematoma which they concluded must have come from a blow to Frank Olson’s head before he went out the window. The forensic team discovered this hematoma, and concluded it must have come from a blow to the head in the room, a full three years before we found the CIA’s assassination manual. (“CIA assassination manual found,” poster 7.)

In the end it was impossible not to read the CIA’s assassination manual as anything but a blueprint for the murder of Frank Olson. Indeed the principal forensic investigator who had exhumed the body viewed it in exactly that way. Hard as it was to imagine that the government would murder an American citizen and then disguise that murder, first as a suicide and then as a reaction to an LSD overdose, we now felt compelled by the overwhelming weight of the evidence to accept this scenario as the only plausible account of this whole complex affair.

 

Clinching the story
(Documents from the 1975 Ford White House)

A long and grueling journey toward understanding seemed to be coming to an end. We now were able to clearly formulate a motive, a means, and an opportunity for the murder of Frank Olson, and to provide an account of the death that was more convincing than anything we had been told by the government. The glaring gap that still remained pertained not to what had happened in 1953 but to what had happened in 1975.

Certainly if the real story to which we were being led was correct, then the government would have been forced into a very awkward position when the Olson family suddenly attached a name to the anonymous story of an “Army scientist” that the Rockefeller Commission had divulged. This would explain why the goverment had reacted so quickly to our press conference in July of 1975, immediately inviting us to meet the President in the Oval Office of the White House to receive an official apology.

But was the truth that was buried in the death of Frank Olson so big that even the President would be enlisted to maintain the secret? Certainly the virtuoso job of disinformational engineering that had been applied to the whole affair seemed to suggest that no resources would be spared to keep the truth secret. But now, having reached what we were now convinced was the truth about the murder, how could we ever learn the truth about the renewal of the coverup in 1975?

That gap in our understanding—which seemed even wider than the one that had once surrounded the death itself—was about to be closed in the most astounding way.

In 2001 we obtained documents from the Gerald Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan pertaining to the handling of our case by the Ford White House in 1975. These documents include intra-office memoranda by senior White House staff members and attorneys. Copies of these documents are available. (“The White House reacts,” poster 9.)

These documents show that the White House was extremely alarmed that the Olson family had recognized the unnamed “Army scientist” as Frank Olson, and was concerned that the family was demanding the truth concerning Olson’s death. Already on July 11, 1975—just one day after our press conference—the White House was outlining a strategy to handle our case, a strategy that would ensure that we did not request pertinent information regarding what had actually happened to Frank Olson.

In 1975 the White House advised us that they were concerned that if we went to court we might lose and not obtain what the White House regarded as appropriate compensation.

But the memoranda we obtained show that the real concern at the White House was that if we went to court we it might become necessary to disclose “highly classified information.” The memos show that the government would refuse to disclose such information. This would mean that the government would have no defense at all against claims for information that the Olson family might legitimately make.

The invitation to our family to meet with President Gerald Ford was part of this strategy. Unbeknownst to us, the intent of the White House in having the family meet personally with the President was to ensure that the Olson family pursue a course that would enable the government to maintain secrecy even as it was being alleged that the full story concerning this incident was being released.

Despite the government’s claim to have released all information pertinent to the death of Frank Olson, we still have not received the information that the White House was so concerned to keep secret.

The 1975 White House documents include the following comments:

First, a passage from a September 1975 memorandum by White House attorney Roderick Hills addressed to Richard Cheney:

The Defense to the Olson Claim. …

two circumstances affect our analysis of the Justice Department position.

(i) The bizarre circumstances of his death could well cause a court of law to determine as a matter of public policy that he did not die in the course of his official duties.

(ii) Dr. Olson’s job is so sensitive that it is highly unlikely that we would submit relevance to the court on the issue of his duties.

The latter circumstance may mean as a practical matter we would have no defense against the Olson law suit. In this connection, you should know that the CIA and the Counsel’s office both strongly recommend that the evidence concerning his employment not be released in a civil trial.

In short, there is a significant possibility that a court would either (a) grant full discovery to the Olsons’ attorneys to learn of Dr. Olson’s job responsibilities; or (b) rule that as a matter of public policy, a man who commits suicide as a result of a drug criminally given him cannot as a matter of law be determined to have died “in the course of his official duties.”

If there is a trial, it is apparent that the Olsons’ lawyer will seek to explore all of the circumstances of Dr. Olson’s employment as well as those concerning his death. It is not at all clear that we can keep such evidence from becoming relevant even if the government waives the defense of the Federal Employees Compensation Act. Thus, in the trial it may become apparent that we are concealing evidence for national security reasons and any settlement of judgment reached thereafter could be perceived as money paid to cover-up the activities of the CIA.


These comments are from the same White House attorney, Roderick Hills, who was simultaneously advising us that we should not go to court because the law was not on our side.

Obviously it was not possible for the Olson family in 1975 to assess the government’s story of what Hills refers to here as Frank Olson’s “bizarre death” as long as the family was being misinformed as to the job Olson was doing—a job that Hills describes as so “sensitive” that the government would refuse to describe it.

The same concerns are evident in a memo that was written by White House Deputy Staff Director Dick Cheney to his boss Donald Rumsfeld on July 11, 1975, the day after our family press conference. In this memo Cheney refers to concerns about:

…the possibility that it might become necessary to disclose highly classified national security information in connection with any court suit, or legislative hearings on a private bill intended to provide additional compensation to the family.

Again, these comments have to be placed in the context of assurances given to us personally by the President of the United States that we would be provided with all relevant information concerning the death of our father.

 
 

 

IV.

What’s it all about?

 

What do we learn, finally, from the harrowing story of the death of Frank Olson and its half-century concealment?

In the years after World War II the United States was busy learning what it could from the two powers it had just defeated—information it would then employ in its new battle against the Soviet Union. This occurred on both of World War II’s major fronts, and Detrick was involved in both.

Detrick scientists made a secret deal to obtain the results of Japanese biological warfare research that had entailed some of the most ghastly human experiements of the century. One of those scientists lived just across the highway from where we are sitting today, about a quarter of a mile from here. And Detrick scientists were also involved in collaboration with former Nazi scientists to obtain the results of experiments that had been performed in the death camps.

A Cold War context in which unethical research was being absorbed and sponsored was bound to see extreme forms of discipline and sanction applied to those who raised ethical questions or who might be likely to do so. In the wake of the Nuremberg trials in the late 1940’s the United States could not afford to be exposed as a sponsor of the sort of research it had prosecuted the Nazis for undertaking. Lacking a Siberia to which the reluctant could be sent, extreme security measures in the US took a more complex form.

We are familiar with the health risks to which workers in plutonium plants were subjected during the Cold War. And we are familiar with the risks taken with the lives of persons who were subjects of unwitting government experiments of various kinds. We are familiar with the stories of those whose lives were ruined when they became victims of unjustified accusations during the McCarthy witch hunts. The discrediting of Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer, which began just two weeks before Frank Olson was killed, illustrates the jeopardy into which highly-regarded scientists who dared to criticize American weapons development in the early 1950’s were placed.

These are all phenomena that have become part of the record of Cold War history, a dark side of this nation’s history during that painful era. But even in this company the true story of Frank Olson opens a new chapter. “National security homicide” and “secret state assassination” are not terms with which we are familiar in this country. There are no other terms for Frank Olson’s “bizarre death,” and for the elaborate disinformational edifice that has been erected to obscure it.

 
 

 

V.

Conclusion:
An MIA with a name

 

With the information concerning biological weapons in the Korean War on the one hand and the information about the White House coverup in 1975 on the other, the story of the death of Frank Olson finally hit bottom. Frank Olson did not die as a consequence of a drug experiment gone awry. He died because of security concerns regarding disavowed programs of terminal interrogation and the use of biological weapons in Korea. This secret was so immense that even twenty-two years later the White House had been enlisted to maintain it.

The body that had floated to the surface of the murky lake had at last been reinserted into the network of shady, disavowed operations that led to the murder. Amazingly, the solution to the mystery had pertained to the most obvious fact of all concerning Frank Olson, but one that was conspicuously missing from the accounts in 1975: Frank Olson was a founding member and in the year prior to his death he was chief of the country’s most secret biological warfare laboratory.

For just under half a century the death of Frank Olson has been a weighty burden for the Olson family. But this is far more than a family story, which is why for many years it has been avidly followed by many people in this country and others.

At the end of this story one’s mind is inevitably drawn back to that Washington Post article which, under the ironic headline “Suicide Revealed,” reported the anonymous suicide of an “Army scientist.” Clearly the intent was that Frank Olson was an MIA who should remain forever nameless.

Frank Olson does have a name. Finally, forty-nine years after his death, he also has a story. We therefore feel ready to rebury the physical remains of our father, our grandfather. This we will do tomorrow.