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Legacy of Secrecy and Shame: MKULTRA, Psychiatry, and Mind Control

Referring to the existence of the secret government and the evolution of the national security state, one former U.S. president summed it up accurately and succinctly: “Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.”

Every since President Harry S Truman made the fateful decision to sign the National Security Act of 1947 that gave birth to the Central Intelligence Agency, secrecy has been spreading like a runaway cancer metastasizing throughout the body politic. Accountability to the people is one of the fundamental hallmarks that distinguishes a democratic society from the darker alternatives, and when this principle is compromised, what is left behind is the illusion of democracy only. When bureaucrats, elected officials, and political appointees are placed in a position where they are free to use the machinery of government to pursue their own agendas without any checks and balances, abuse of power will inevitably run rampant.

The CIA and the other intelligence organizations of the U.S. national security state-within-a-state ostensibly exist to gather information that can help protect our nation from threats that originate from outside our borders. But almost immediately following its creation, the CIA morphed into an institution that was involved in far more than simple fact-finding. Under the leadership of ambitious men who relished the game of high-stakes poker between East and West that defined the Cold War era, the CIA, along with the intelligence arms of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, expanded their activities well beyond the gathering of intelligence. Essentially, these institutions came to function as the elite forces of an aggressive campaign of covert warfare, where nothing was considered off-limits in the battle against the spread of communism.

Not everyone accepts the idea that the actions of the CIA during the Cold War and beyond have been motivated mainly by a fear of the “enemy” (whoever the enemy happens to be at the time). Many see the CIA as the guardians of American corporate and financial interests, while others are convinced the CIA is a rogue organization that has been pursuing its own sinister agenda for quite some time. While there is evidence to support all three views, what happened under CIA sponsorship in the 1950s and 1960s at a Montreal psychiatric hospital called the Allan Memorial Institute really defies easy rationale or explanation. The fact an institute of the United States government actually supported the events and insanity we will be examining shortly, which took place there between 1957 and 1964, is profoundly disturbing and does not bode well for our future if the national security state as it currently exists is allowed to continue in its present form.

Mind Control and the Evolution of MKULTRA
During the Korean War, American POWs in the hands of the communist North Koreans suddenly began making statements confessing to war crimes and denouncing the policies of the United States. Intelligence analysts concluded (correctly) that these men had been the victims of mind control, which they believed (correctly, again) was being studied and practiced by both the Russians and the Chinese, the latter of whom were closely allied with the communist government in North Korea. Learning more about the possibilities in this area came to be seen as an imperative, and the agents of the national security state soon decided they should have a mind control program of their own.

In 1950, Project Bluebird was launched by the CIA. Bluebird’s mission was to study how drugs, hypnosis, and psychological warfare could be used to break the minds and spirits of enemy captives, leaving them open to manipulation and behavioral control. In 1951, Bluebird was replaced by a CIA/Army, Navy, and Air Force cooperative venture called Project Artichoke, and in 1953 the program was reorganized again under the auspices of the CIA and renamed Project MKULTRA. It was in its latter form that the government’s program of research into mind control went into full acceleration – and amazingly, a good amount of the research they funded was hidden in plain sight. Over a 20 year period, CIA front organizations such as the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology at Cornell University funneled money for mind control research – although it was of course never openly labeled that way – to approximately 185 researchers associated with 80 different private, non-governmental organizations around the world, including universities, non-profit foundations, hospitals, clinics, and penal institutions.

The CIA was particularly attracted to any research that involved the use of drugs or psychological deprogramming to alter mental states. Given this orientation, it is hardly surprising that one of the researchers whose work came to receive heavy supporte was a Scottish-born American psychiatrist named Donald Ewen Cameron.

The “Science” of Psychic Driving
After rising through the psychiatric ranks in New York during the 1930s and early 1940s, Dr. Cameron ultimately set up shop across the Canadian border at Montreal’s McGill University, where he headed up a psychiatric hospital called the Allan Memorial Institute from 1943 to 1964. Over time, Dr. Cameron developed a theory of the mind that saw the human brain as an information-processing machine, similar perhaps to a very simplified version of the modern computer. Staying with the computer analogy, Cameron essentially believed mental illness could be cured by erasing the bad programming recorded in the mind of a poorly functioning individual and replacing it with good programming, and his attempts to find a way to do this eventually led him to develop a technique he called ‘psychic driving’.

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The first step in the psychic driving procedure used drugs, electroshock therapy, and sensory deprivation to shatter a patient’s existing mental states and coping mechanisms. Once the minds of Dr. Cameron’s patients had been sufficiently scrambled and emptied of any organized content, they would then be placed in a drug-induced coma for periods of time ranging from one week to several weeks, depending on the severity of their previous mental illness. While in the coma, headphones would be placed over the patients’ ears and they would be forced to listen to an endless loop of simple audio messages played over and over again for hour after hour each day. These messages of health, happiness, and wellness were supposed to reprogram the subconscious until all of the faulty beliefs of the past had been replaced with sunny and happy thoughts of the future, and after patients were awakened they would be magically cured of their mental disorders and free to leave and return to their normal lives.

To the surprise of absolutely no one with even an ounce of common sense, Dr. Cameron’s pseudo-scientific crackpot theories and methodology never cured a single soul. But the first part of the psychic driving procedure, where drugs and electroshock torture were used to break down people’s existing sense of identity and memory, proved to be an extremely effective way of taking people with mild psychiatric disorders like depression or anxiety and turning them into catatonic shells no longer capable of functioning in the real world.

In a sane world, Dr. Ewen Cameron would have been arrested and put on trial for crimes against humanity. But from the murky perspective of the CIA, Ewen Cameron’s work was groundbreaking and important, and just the sort of thing they were interested in sponsoring as a part of their ongoing research into the prospects of mind control. An article about his work written in 1956 is what supposedly first brought Dr. Cameron to the CIA’s attention, and at the encouragement of the Agency, he submitted a grant proposal to the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology in 1957. This grant was approved, and for the next seven years, his research into methods for controlling and manipulating the human mind received covert funding through the CIA’s MKULTRA program.

Or at least, this is the official story. In fact, Ewen Cameron’s connections to the world of intelligence actually went back to World War II, when he worked with an organization called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner of the CIA. He was involved in helping the OSS develop techniques for prisoner interrogation, and he was also called in to consult on the Nuremberg trial of the famous German war criminal Rudolph Hess, who many felt acted so peculiarly that he may have been a victim of mind control at some point. Cameron’s decision to leave the U.S. and stay in Canada for as long as he did is also interesting, since the CIA has clear rules against operating on American soil. Also intriguing is a paper Cameron wrote for an academic conference in 1953, in which he discussed the situation with the American POWs during the Korean War and also made other references that showed his awareness of and interest in the whole subject of mind control.

Based on pieces of information like this, and knowing how the Agency works, many have concluded that Ewen Cameron was probably connected to the CIA’s mind control program in some way well before they officially started funding his work in 1957. If this it true, then Cameron’s psychic driving procedure may have been about mind control all along, and his poor patients may have been nothing more than human guinea pigs sacrificed to the ruthless, amoral interests of a secret national security state that does not really believe in concepts like democracy or basic human rights.

Learning to Fear the National Security State
The horrors perpetrated by Dr. Ewen Cameron are only one example of the mind control projects that were undertaken by the CIA during the Cold War era. In this case, what happened was made possible because the victims of Cameron’s research had mental and emotional problems that left them vulnerable and unable to protect themselves, or to speak to anyone about what was happening to them. But at least in this case the truth eventually came out; for the most part, we can only guess at what kind of grim and terrible things might have taken place under the auspices of MKULTRA.

While it would be nice to believe things like this could never happen again, after 9/11 and under the guise of fighting terrorism, the government has used the World Trade Center attack as an excuse to push through repressive anti-constitutional legislation such the Patriot Act and the recent National Defense Authorization Act. These initiatives have given the government new and expanded powers to detain people indefinitely without charges ever being filed, or with the accused having any chance to defend him or herself in a court of law. When elected officials, bureaucrats, and members of the military and intelligence organizations are given the power to make people disappear into the bowels of the secret government on the slightest whim, once again a situation is being set up where abuse becomes not just possible, but inevitable.

“Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.”

Truer words than these have never been spoken. Unfortunately, the president who made this observation, Harry S Truman, did not realize the full truth of this statement until after he had made the mistake of signing the bill that allowed the CIA to come into existence. Intelligence gathering is of course important for any nation, and no one would seriously suggest that we give up this practice completely. But the national security state is not about intelligence, it is about secrecy, and until we can rid the body politic of this cancer, democratic government and the rule of law will remain little more than a dream, or a memory of something we lost long ago.

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