story no one could love
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.
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.”
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.
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
quest for truth two quotes have been key:
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.
quote comes from Tommy Worsley, the genius Volvo mechanic who
kept Eric’s car running during the long years of digging. Tommy
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.
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.
1976 the New York Times had observed that the Colby documents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
on the other end replied:
both hung up.
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
up the body
(Exhumation and forensic investigation)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
question of motive
(Why would the government murder Frank Olson?)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
at the Special Operations Division involved or related to the
materials research (e.g. the materials used in the CIA’s attempts
to assassination Lumumba in the Congo and Castro in Cuba)
warfare materials for use in covert operations
warfare experiments in populated areas
with former Nazi scientists
• LSD mind-control
employment of biological weapons in the Korean War.
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.
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
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.
New York District Attorney
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.
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
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.”
alternative story of the death of Frank Olson
(Terminal interrogations and biological weapons in the Korean
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.
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.
told us that a crucial element had been omitted from published
accounts of the Olson case. That element was the Korean War.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
with Cournoyer elaborating these points appears in the new German
documentary film, “Code Name ARTICHOKE.”
of a concealed murder
(The CIA assassination manual)
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.
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.”
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
district attorney handling the homicide investigation in New York
put it even more strongly. After reading the assassination manual
the Assistant District Attorney said,
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
some passages from the CIA’s own manual on the technique of disguising
a murder through engineering a “contrived accident”:
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…
is an extreme measure not normally used in clandestine operations.…
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…
point of assassination is the death of the subject.
may be considered as follows:
It is possible
to kill a man with bare hands, but very few are skillful enough
to do it well…
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.
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
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.
(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.
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 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
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
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.
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.
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.
White House documents include the following comments:
passage from a September 1975 memorandum by White House attorney
Roderick Hills addressed to Richard Cheney:
to the Olson Claim. …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.