Imagine being controlled by a remote or specifically not in control of your own self-conscious mind. Or someone having capabilities like Charles Xaviers (Professor X) from X-Men to control the minds of others and make them do things without being in their consciousness. It’s not just merely an imagination but something similar was experimented on by the CIA in 1953 with their program, codenamed Project MKUltra.

Project MKUltra also known as the CIA mind control program, which included numerous experiments on human subjects, was developed and done by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency – obviously completely illegal at the time.

The Aim of Project MKUltra

Started on the order by CIA director Allen Welsh Dulles in 1953, its goal was to develop a mind-controlling drug during the Korean War and against the Soviet bloc. The idea originated due to the alleged fact that the Soviets, North Koreans and Chinese used mind control techniques against U.S. prisoners.

The U.S. couldn’t resist and didn’t wish to lag behind in any means of warfare techniques used by its enemies in the war, resulting in the sanctioning of Project MKUltra. The CIA aimed for a more fatal area; by manipulating foreign leaders with their secret mind-controlling program. Being illegal, the experiment often included subjects without their consent or knowledge.

A view of the old CIA building.
A view of the old CIA building. (Credit: Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Later it was believed that MKUltra research was undertaken at 80 institutions which included universities and colleges, prisons, hospitals, and other institutions. A conspiracy suggests that the top officials of these institutions were aware of the CIA’s program of experiments.

A key goal of the program was to develop drugs and procedures that could be used against enemies during interrogations. The CIA was concerned that the Soviets and Chinese were developing mind control techniques that could be used against American prisoners of war. By developing their own mind control methods, the CIA hoped to be prepared.

MKUltra Subprojects and Experiments

Project MKUltra consisted of over 150 subprojects and dozens of experiments involving unwitting test subjects. Some of the most disturbing examples include:

  • Subproject 54: This Navy-run project looked into using intense concussion blasts to induce amnesia. The idea was to erase a subject’s memory and then program in new memories through hypnosis.
  • Operation Midnight Climax: The CIA set up brothels in San Francisco and paid prostitutes to secretly dose clients with LSD in order to study its effects. Unsuspecting men were monitored behind one-way glass.
  • Hypnosis experiments: Experiments were conducted on hypnotizing subjects and planting suggestions to carry out actions after coming out of a hypnotic trance.
  • Drug studies: LSD was a major focus of the program. CIA agents administered LSD to each other, prisoners, the mentally ill, and members of the public to study its effects. Other drugs used included heroin, morphine, MDMA, and psychedelic mushrooms.
  • Psychological torture: Sensory deprivation, isolation, verbal abuse, and other forms of psychological manipulation were studied to see if they could break down prisoners.
  • Electroshock therapy: Administering strong electroshocks to amnesic patients in order to de-pattern previous behaviour was tested at McGill University by Dr Donald Ewen Cameron.
  • Child experiments: Dr. Lauretta Bender conducted experiments on children using electroshock, psychedelic drugs, and sensory deprivation. Many suffered psychological trauma.
  • Radiation experiments: Patients at the University of California hospitals were subjected to radiation poisoning in order to study its effects. Prisoners in Oregon and Washington had their testicles irradiated.
  • Biological warfare: In one subproject, the CIA contracted a University of Miami doctor to infect psychological patients with deadly, rare diseases as part of biological warfare research.

Clearly, the scope of the inhumane experiments conducted under MKUltra was wide-ranging and medically unethical. The CIA seemed intent on finding ways to control human behavior and break people down physically and psychologically.

MKUltra Exposed

Project MKUltra came to the light public in 1975 through the Church Committee of the United States Congress and Rockefeller Commission (the same committee that investigated JFK’s and Lee Oswald’s assassination).

Two years before the Church Committee exposed the program, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra-related documents, films and any sort of evidence to be destroyed which was a major raised suspicion towards the illegal program.

Rockefeller commission
Swearing-in Ceremony of the Rockefeller Commission – Copyright – National Reconnaissance Office [Public domain]

Due to a lack of evidence, the full investigation against MKUltra became impossible. Although a misconducted storage led to the discovery of around 20,000 documents related to Project MKUltra that were stored incorrectly in financial records building. These documents helped in further investigation of the case and in the Senate hearing of 1977.

The Rockefeller Commission revealed their investigation on MKUltra to the public, providing a report containing how the CIA and the Department of Defense were involved in experiments conducted on human subjects and how their extensive program aimed to find and manipulate human behavior through the use of specific drugs and psychological means.

The report included the death of at least one subject named Dr. Frank Olson, who died after being dosed with LSD. He was employed by the CIA itself and was a chemist in the MKUltra project, who went into depression and later killed himself jumping off a thirteenth story window.

Further investigation after the revelation included interviewing Sidney Gottlieb, the chemist who directed Project MKUltra, but he claimed to gather very little information regarding the activities in the project. He had retired from the CIA 2 years before he was interviewed.

MKUltra sub-project on LSD approved by Sidney Gottlieb
MKUltra sub-project on LSD approved by Sidney Gottlieb – via Wikipedia

The Church Committee concluded that the Agency obviously didn’t obtain consent from the human subjects prior to the experiment, and nor were any guidelines fixed before and during the program sanctioned.

President at that time, Gerald Ford, was convinced to issue the first Executive Order against the Intelligence Agencies and their activities which prohibited any experiments involving drugs on human subjects without written and informed consent.


Knowing the severity of this program, the government now had to take action towards all the lawsuits filed against the federal government and agencies involved in the case.

Some were successful in receiving compensation through the court order after successfully winning the case against the federal government.

Moreover, President Ford and the CIA director of that time William Colby met with Dr. Frank Olson’s family to apologize publicly. The family received $750,000 U.S. dollars as a settlement for Olson’s death during the experiment.

President Ford (centre right) in the Oval Office with the Olson family. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive


Although the CIA and other government bodies involved in these human experiments insisted that MKUltra kind of projects have now been fully abandoned, stating them to be useless, an investigative journalist from Canada, Elizabeth Nickson claimed that these experiments are still going on today under different code names. Nickson’s mother was a test subject during the MKULtra program.

Moreover, Victor Marchetti, before resigning from the CIA in 1969, also claimed that the CIA’s mind research programs continued to operate and disinformation campaigns are routinely conducted by the CIA.

There is also some evidence that techniques developed in MKUltra have been used in recent conflicts. Reports emerged that some prisoners held by the U.S. in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons were subjected to tactics including sleep deprivation, stress positions, and sensory bombardment that seem similar to MKUltra goals.

Whether officially sanctioned or not, the possibility exists that governments still make use of knowledge gained from unethical human experimentation in MKUltra. The drive to control enemies can override moral considerations.

Ultimately, Project MKUltra stands as one of the most unsettling covert operations undertaken by the CIA. Even though it was shrouded in secrecy for over twenty years, once uncovered, it shone a light on the unscrupulous extremes that unchecked intelligence agencies will consider. The public outrage and distrust spawned by such unethical experiments continue to this day.

Do you think the CIA succeeded in developing mind-controlling devices yet? Or the idea is completely baseless?

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