Saturday, 02 November 2019 20:26

Review of Stephen Kinzer, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control (Henry Holt and Co., 2019)

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Michael Le Flem reviews Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control (Henry Holt and Co., 2019)


In his latest book on the Central Intelligence Agency’s history of dirty tricks, longtime historian Stephen Kinzer attempts to paint a picture of the vast and shadowy tapestry that was the American intelligence apparatus at mid-century, using one of its most infamous henchmen, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, head of the Technical Services Division of the CIA, as its focal point. While the title would suggest that Kinzer has unearthed new biographical information about this sinister character, I found little that was not already available in other surveys of the field. Knowing the quotidian details of Sid’s family life, his habits, and his strange charm really did not advance a story, which was essentially a rehash of known facts repackaged as a biography of what Kinzer deems the CIA's “Poisoner in Chief.” While there is some survey value in this book regarding the technical perspective of how the CIA dreamt up its machinations of torture, mind-control, psychological warfare, and exotic poisons, its real strength is in Kinzer’s narrative flair. I read it in a single, very uncomfortable sitting. And for that, I feel it does play a valuable role in the historiography of this unsettling topic, one of which most Americans are barely aware, or at best, would rather forget, despite its present-day relevance.

Kinzer begins his book with a stark postwar vignette:

White flags hung from many windows as shell-shocked Germans measured the depth of their defeat. Hitler was dead. Unconditional surrender had sealed the collapse of the Third Reich. Munich, like many German cities, lay in ruins. With the guns finally silent, people began venturing out. On a wall near Odeonsplatz, someone painted:  “CONCENTRATION CAMPS DACHAU—BUCHENWALD—I AM ASHAMED TO BE GERMAN.” (p.13)

The Allies were faced with some of their most trying decisions after the Soviet Union’s capture of Berlin and the subsequent surrender of all Nazi forces in Europe. Many Allied officials knew that ideologies as entrenched, compelling, and destructive as fascism died hard. Just because their nation was in ruins, leaderless, and at the mercy of rampaging Red Army troops on one end and embittered, battle-weary Americans on the other, this did not necessarily mean the German people would go quietly into the night and embrace ideas like peaceful co-existence with their European brethren, or even American-style “democracy.” Some, like Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, wanted Germany reduced to an agricultural backwater with no future prospect of industrial production, military rearmament, or political clout in a world they had only years earlier sought to conquer and rule. Others had different ideas.

As the OSS would soon discover, clandestine warfare and the implied threat of biological warfare had played a major role in both the Japanese and German governments’ early chess moves. As new to the game, that spy agency was only beginning to understand these matters. While Roosevelt begrudgingly fulfilled Winston Churchill's 1944 request for half a million bomblets filled with anthrax, by the time the batch was coming off the production lines of a converted factory in Indiana, the Nazis had surrendered.

In the ensuing discoveries made in the wake of German capitulation, however, word soon spread that Nazi doctors like Kurt Blome had weaponized dozens of biological agents, diseases, and plagues. Further, that he had been in friendly competition with the sadistic Japanese scientist and biological researcher Shiro Ishii, whose Unit 731 committed human atrocities on captured Allied and Chinese soldiers and civilians that would have made Caligula wince. Much like in their technical advances in rocketry, jet propulsion, tanks, artillery, and submarines, the Nazis were apparently leaps and bounds ahead of the United States in this dark field too. OSS officers on the ground were curious and would soon make a choice that would color and shape the moral landscape of the newly formed CIA in the years to come. As Kinzer notes:

Nazi doctors had accumulated a unique store of knowledge. They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals, and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp inmates in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche. Much of their data was unique, because it could come only from experiments in which human beings were made to suffer or die. That made Blome a valuable target—but a target for what? Justice cried out for his punishment. From a U.S. Army base in Maryland, however, came an audaciously contrary idea:  instead of hanging Blome, let’s hire him. (p.14)

The author then continues:

For a core of Americans who served in the military and in intelligence agencies during World War II, the war never really ended. All that changed was the enemy. The role once played by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was assumed by the Soviet Union and, after 1949, “Red China.” In the new narrative, monolithic Communism, directed from the Kremlin, was a demonic force that mortally threatened the United States and all humanity. With the stakes so existentially high, no sacrifice in the fight against Communism—of money, morality, or human life—could be considered excessive. (p.25)

The psychic shock of totalitarian ideologies, unleashed in those roughly five and a half brutal years of WWII, was an enduring one for the case officers and assets that now made up the fledgling CIA. And with President Truman’s signing of the National Security Act in 1947, clandestine operations were essentially ratified in legal writ, with the stamp of the highest offices of government, a decision Truman would famously lament in his retirement. As Kinzer shows, the nebulous and ill-defined limits circumscribing this new shadow warfare were quickly pushed to their logical end by those who seemed to believe nothing was too extreme when the fate of the “free world,” as they understood it, was concerned. Given an unprecedented opportunity to play James Bond, an almost unlimited budget to fund new and exciting ways to overthrow governments, assassinate leaders, poison food supplies, and expose innocent people to mind-shattering substances in their search for mind control, they took the ball and ran with it. Things fell into place. Truman left office in 1953 and President Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, were all too willing to use the CIA to achieve political ends. With John’s brother, Allen Dulles, now appointed as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, the circle was complete:  foreign policy would be a spy’s game, with very real conventional wars interspersed for flavor, but essentially, a secret and enduring war in the shadows. And to play the game, they needed the tools.

Kinzer’s ability as a storyteller is pronounced in these early chapters. The book at this point reads like a John Le Carré novel, as much as it does a well-researched, thoroughly footnoted monograph of the early Cold War. Familiar names are given a face, a voice, a temper:  Wild Bill Donovan, Bill Harvey, Ira Baldwin, and of course, a young Jewish man from the Bronx named Sid with a club foot and a stammer who was studying biology back in the States.


Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, or “acid” on the street, plays a central role in Kinzer’s book, with many chapters devoted to the CIA's explorations into its potential to manipulate human beings for political and social engineering ends. Wilson Greene, an officer of the United States Chemical Corps, discovered scattered reports and rumors of a Swiss doctor named Albert Hoffmann, who Kinzer believes is the first person ever to have had an acid trip. Though Hoffmann, who worked for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, had taken this journey in 1943, it would not reach Washington until 1949. Kinzer describes the thesis of Greene’s paper to government officials, entitled:  “Psychochemical Warfare:  A New Concept of War:”

Their will to resist would be weakened greatly, if not entirely destroyed, by the mass hysteria and panic which would ensue. The symptoms which are considered to be of value in strategic and tactical operations include the following:  fits or seizures, dizziness, fear, panic, hysteria, hallucinations, migraine, delirium, extreme depression, notions of hopelessness, lack of initiative to do even simple things, suicidal mania. Greene proposed that America’s military scientists be given a new mission. At the outer edge of imagination, he suggested, beyond artillery and tanks, beyond chemicals, beyond germs, beyond even nuclear bombs, might lie an unimagined cosmos of new weaponry:  psychoactive drugs. Greene believed they could usher in a new era of humane warfare. (p.29)

This, along with reports of recently-returning soldiers from the Korean War who seemed to sympathize more with the enemy they were sent to kill than their American brethren, led some policy planners in Washington to suspect that the Reds were up to more than conventional propaganda. That, as Kinzer notes, none were actually “brainwashed” as Washington suspected, but simply critical of what they viewed as a hypocritical, unjust, capitalistic and segregated mid-century America, didn’t matter in the binary option set of hard line anti-communists like CIA officers Dulles, James Angleton, Richard Helms, and their colleagues. These were the same people who essentially green-lit what would eventually turn into the MK-ULTRA program, whose directive was to probe the limits of the human psyche, with the express aim to eventually discover how a fully functional person could be “depatterned” and remade, as it were, in the image of his or her handler for any number of field-deployable roles.

While that program is exhaustively detailed elsewhere, Kinzer does add some colorful vignettes to the story that seem like they jumped from the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel rather than the historical record:  secretly dosing colleagues at dinner parties, most famously Frank Olson, who of course “jumped or fell” from a 13-story Manhattan hotel room after having an acid-induced nervous breakdown and frantically seeking an exit from the intelligence field, paying crooked cops in cash to sit behind two-way mirrors in rented San Francisco brothels to watch prostitutes try to illicit sensitive information from acid-dosed patrons, injecting an elephant at an Oklahoma zoo with a lethal dose of LSD, releasing “benign” but actually toxic bacterial aerosols off the coast of California (Operation Seaspray) to test their dispersal pattern on an unaware American population getting their Sunday morning newspapers. The list goes on and only gets more absurd as it does.

What Kinzer accomplishes in Poisoner in Chief is to show just how unscientific so much of what we call MK-ULTRA and its hundred-plus “sub-projects” really were. With little oversight, and an actual legal license to kill, torture, abduct, and abscond, the early case officers and assets tasked to the CIA’s biological and mind-control initiatives were dangerously out of control, yet in some sense, legally justified, given the vague language and imperatives of the National Security Act which legitimized their activities. As George White, the crooked cop mentioned earlier, said years later in a grateful letter to his mentor and boss, Sidney Gottlieb, “… it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill and cheat, steal, deceive, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” (p.155)

Indeed. Where else but in the CIA?


Poisoner in Chief proceeds predictably enough through the sixties and seventies, with the major uses of Gottlieb’s Technical Services Division of the CIA highlighted against the backdrop of a given foreign policy episode. Crafting ever sillier ways to kill Fidel Castro—boots laced with thallium to make his mighty beard fall out, exploding ornate seashells to catch his eye on one of his frequent scuba dives, and botulin-laced cigars that only needed to be held between the lips for seconds to kill—Gottlieb and his junior staff of kids from local technical colleges and workshops were never out of ideas. Poisoned tubes of toothpaste for the first democratically elected leader of the Congo? No problem. “Joe from Paris” (Gottlieb's code-name in the Congo operation) will arrive in Leopoldville shortly. So will QJ/WIN, the backup shooter. Standby.

This is an exciting part of the book and provided a rare glimpse into the devil’s workshop that was TSS (Technical Services Staff). But, at the same time, it contains some critical oversights that must be addressed. Namely viewing President Kennedy as a younger, fresh-faced continuation of Eisenhower, and someone who laid the groundwork for Johnson, rather than as someone opposed to either of his executive bookends. A president who was rather unique in his conciliatory vision of peaceful coexistence; a president who, unbelievable as it may sound today, had genuine empathy for the developing nations of the world. This is not a debatable point in 2019, despite the MSM's dogged, fifty-five-year smear campaign against a most promising U.S. leader, as any reader at Kennedys and King should know by now.

Yet there is a real political vacuum in this section of the book. In his tracing of the Gottlieb attempts to poison Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, there is no mentioning of how these plots were hurried in late 1960 after John F. Kennedy won the election. Yet, there are authors who have come to this conclusion after reading the cable traffic. (John Morton Blum, Years of Discord, pp. 175-76) Almost everyone agrees today that Kennedy clearly favored Lumumba in his struggle to free Congo from European imperialism. And it appears that the CIA knew that.

As most authors also realize today, the CIA plots with the Mafia to assassination Fidel Castro did not have presidential sanction. This was the conclusion expressed by the Church Committee in 1975 and is fortified by the release by the Assassination Records Review Board of the CIA Inspector General Report on that subject. Yet, in the face of all this, plus the declassified files of the Assassination Records Review Board, former New York Times reporter Kinzer claims,

Plotting against Castro did not end when Eisenhower left office at the beginning of 1961. His successor, John F. Kennedy, turned out to be equally determined to “eliminate” Castro. The spectacular collapse of the CIA’s 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs intensified his determination. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his brother, relentlessly pressured the CIA to crush Castro and repeatedly demanded explanations of why it had not been accomplished. Samuel Halpern, who served at the top level of the covert action directorate during this period, asserted that “the Kennedys were on our back constantly … they were just absolutely obsessed with getting rid of Castro.” Richard Helms felt the pressure directly. “There was a flat-out effort ordered by the White House, the President, Bobby Kennedy—who was after all his man, his right-hand man in these matters—to unseat the Castro government, to do everything possible to get rid of it by whatever device could be found,” Helms later testified. “The Bay of Pigs was a part of this effort, and after the Bay of Pigs failed, there was even a greater push to try to get rid of this Communist influence 90 miles from United States shores … The principal driving force was the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. There isn’t any question about this.” (p.122)

First, to take the testimony of a practiced liar like Richard Helms regarding his sworn enemies, the Kennedy brothers, at face value, is almost comical. Richard Helms ordered Sidney Gottlieb to shred every accessible document pertaining to MK-ULTRA before congressional investigations discovered his illegal program’s dirty paper trail. Helms famously walked into the Oval office with a rifle, plopped it on JFK’s desk, and said the CIA had just discovered (through acid-based swaths), a Soviet serial number on the stock, and that the gun was from Cuba, strengthening, so he thought, his case that Kennedy should immediately invade the island before the Russians had time to reinforce Castro. Kennedy asked to see more proof, since Helms said the magic acid test only worked for a few seconds and then destroyed the numbers it allegedly revealed. Kennedy then waved him out of the office to finish opening his daily mail. Not exactly hell-bent, as Kinzer would have us believe.

Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell planned the Bay of Pigs to fail, stacking the initial invasion waves with the lowest quality, most poorly trained groups of the Cuban exiles slated for the assault. They did this anticipating that Kennedy would cave once reports got back to him that they could not get off the beach and capture strategic inland objectives without naval and air support (and, in all likelihood, the landing of U.S. Marines). Kennedy later understood this and complained about it. But the lie was fortified when Allen Dulles and E. Howard Hunt commissioned a ghost-written article in Fortune that created the narrative Kinzer and others have fraudulently promulgated:  JFK got cold feet and “called off” the air support, leaving those poor Cuban exiles stranded on the beach. Kennedy inherited the operation from Eisenhower, reluctantly green-lit it only because the CIA was lying to him at every step, and when he realized its quixotic goals were impossible without escalation and the commitment of non-clandestine U.S. forces, sat anxiously in his briefing room as it fell apart. He then quietly fired Dulles, Bissell, and Cabell.

Similarly, to say that Robert Kennedy was hell bent on killing Castro is to fail to acknowledge the declassification of the CIA’s Inspector General report on the CIA/Mafia plots. That long report states that Robert Kennedy had to be briefed about the plots by the CIA after the FBI accidentally discovered them. Obviously, if the Kennedys had been in on them, there would have been no briefing necessary. But making it worse, the CIA told Robert Kennedy that they would now put a halt to them, since RFK was very upset by the briefing. This was a lie. The plots continued along without his knowledge, pairing mobster John Roselli and CIA officer Bill Harvey. (The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, pp 327-28) The obvious question that Kinzer does not ask is:  Why would the CIA have to lie to RFK, if he was in agreement with the plots? Kinzer also overlooks the apparent understanding of Castro’s own feelings towards the matter. He ignores the fact that it was largely Robert Kennedy, through Soviet back channels during the Cuban Missile Crisis, who averted what looked almost certainly to be a nuclear Armageddon. That incident provided a perfect opportunity to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. Afterwards, Castro suggested a détente with Washington and JFK obliged him. It's easy to see why the CIA hated both of the brothers. And while this misreading of history is only a few paragraphs of an otherwise fairly well researched and engaging book, it provides a disappointing and misleading aspect that readers unfamiliar with the true history of the Kennedys’ views about the developing world. If anyone disagrees, it would be good for them to fact-check for themselves. Reading the IG report would be a good place to start. (Click here for that link)

Overall, while largely a repackaging of long-known facts, the book is an interesting introduction for those unacquainted with the dark side of the CIA at mid-century and into the latter years of the Cold War. Gottlieb remains a mysterious, infrequently quoted figure in the book, with a few interspersed interviews with his children and friends. Perhaps most interesting is Kinzer's chapters on Gottlieb’s attempted retirement and disappearance from the TSS, floating around abroad, in a leper colony in India and other exotic hideouts. His very face and name would have remained unknown to the general public and, likely, the research community had it not been for late 70s probes like the Church Committee. Kinzer does a fine job here and this probably represents the only unique aspect of the book, focusing as it does on their attempts to see how deep the CIA’s rabbit hole was when they stumbled upon the last surviving documents detailing projects like MK-ULTRA and MKNAOMI.

Last modified on Friday, 22 November 2019 03:29
Michael Le Flem

Michael Le Flem is an independent researcher, author, and musician. He was a professor of history and philosophy in Chicago for ten years and holds a Master's Degree in Western Intellectual History from Florida State University. He currently lives in Mexico.

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