06/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

MKULTRA: the Perversion of Ethics

When you are going mad, you first notice new, shocking things about the world; you had not previously realized that the pigeon on the windowsill is always the same pigeon, nor that the rhythm of its coos is the rhythm of human speech. Only later does the fear begin, as you sense that even the most intimate and familiar parts of life are infested and undermined by secret forces. In the last phase, everything makes sense again. Your world is not that of other people, but you know what you have to do - whatever the consequences.

This, essentially, was what happened to parts of the US intelligence establishment in the years between 1945 and 1964. America had come late to covert war; victory had arrived before the fledgling OSS had progressed much further than learning how easy it is to be fooled by a clever enemy, when its largest network in Nazi Germany was shown to be irredeemably compromised. The discovery soon after the war that Soviet agents and sympathizers had been working in positions of importance in the US government added the push of fear to the sense of disorientation. When, during the Korean War, American prisoners started coming back from Chinese captivity expressing communist convictions, the CIA (and, to a lesser degree, the Navy and Army) decided that our new enemies had hold of something - a brainwashing technique, a truth drug - that could reshape the human mind. We had to have it, too.

On this date in 1953, the Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles, authorized Project MKULTRA. Its purpose was to find "avenues to the control of human behavior... including radiation, electro-shock, harassment substances, and paramilitary devices." Its scope extended from finding "substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public" to devising "physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time."

Almost all papers relating to the project were destroyed in 1973 on the orders of one of its prime movers, then CIA director Richard Helms. What little we know with certainty comes from limited congressional investigations and a report of the Inspector General - but even these outline sketches are enough to reveal events both horrible and shameful. Unwitting people were slipped high doses of hallucinogens in public places and left to believe themselves in the grip of psychosis. Others, often unidentified foreign prisoners, were interrogated for months under combinations of drugs that left them permanently damaged. Patients going to reputable clinics to be helped for mild depression received instead electroshock treatment far beyond the medical guidelines, often combined with drug-induced coma and ceaseless suggestion tapes. There were deaths, conveniently ascribed to suicide. Hundred of lives were ruined. The profession of psychiatry was deeply undermined. And nothing substantive came out of it except, perhaps, the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual: the CIA's first and most influential handbook for torturers.

This was literally bad science, driven by comprehensible if inexcusable human impulses. There was the heady combination of limitless, unaccountable money and little time; the usual excuse for going beyond ethical limits was to suppose that "someone planted an A-bomb in one of our cities and we had twelve hours to find out from a person where it was. What could we do to make him talk?" (Does this sound familiar to you?) There was the chance to tinker, to try this and that, which appealed to researchers weary of the discipline of the scientific method and the straitjacket of professional ethics. And there was that insidious disease that strikes scientists and interrogators alike: the urge to objectify the subject, especially when the subject is suffering. People shun helpless pain, as they do failure or grief. Brief hurt provokes empathy, but long, relentless suffering calls up something like disgust. When you add to this the ostensible purpose of the research, "controlling the individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against such fundamental laws of nature as self preservation," you will see how easy it was for the scientists involved to lose any sense of kinship with the humans whose minds they so clumsily ransacked.

After discovering the horrors of Nazi medical experimentation, the US devised the "Nuremberg code," which specifically forbade testing without informed consent; but, just as the Cold War made America employ Nazi scientists, it also made Nazi morality more acceptable. The Inspector General's report on MKULTRA mentioned that many people would find it "distasteful and unethical;" that it "raised questions of legality;" that it "placed the rights and interests of US citizens in jeopardy;" and that it could produce "serious adverse reaction in US public opinion." None of these were reasons not to do it, however - merely explanations for why "normal procedures for project approval, funding, and accounting were waived."

The pigeon is only a pigeon; there are no secret messages in the wallpaper. But that the CIA can wantonly destroy innocent lives in the pursuit of illusory goals - that's something you don't need a tin-foil hat to believe.