One of the best books about the world of secret intelligence in the past year is Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief, a biography of Sidney Gottlieb, the countercultural chemist who ran the CIA’s notorious MKULTRA program that experimented on unwitting subjects in search of ways to manipulate human behavior.
Kinzer recently spoke to Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman on Skullduggery, Yahoo News’ podcast which revels in conversation about “underhanded or unscrupulous behavior” in Washington. (You can subscribe to Skullduggey here.)
MKULTRA was the epitome of skullduggery. It was a CIA-sanctioned crime wave.
The latest development in the story from Skullduggery.
The program was recently back in the news when a juror in the case of one of those guinea pigs — the late Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, whom the CIA had injected with LSD when he was a young prison inmate — said she wouldn’t have voted to convict him of 11 murders had she known what the U.S. government had done to him. Bulger, who was given LSD over 50 times, would go on to terrorize South Boston as the notoriously violent leader of the Winter Hill Gang.
ISIKOFF: One of the most fascinating stories from your book is that of Whitey Bulger. Tell us how he became a subject of MK-Ultra.
KINZER: Whitey Bulger fits very much into the category that I was just discussing. So under Gottlieb’s supervision, a number of federal prisons began experiments with LSD using inmates. And, of course, that’s an ideal population because those people are totally dependent on the prison doctor and the prison warden.
During the mid-1950s when MK-Ultra was at its peak, Whitey Bulger, the famous Boston gangster, was in prison as a truck hijacker in Atlanta, Ga. He was approached by the prison doctor, who told him that the prison was going to be participating in a major project aimed at finding a cure for schizophrenia. And if Bulger would agree to take a certain drug that they were investigating, he might have some considerations [such as] shorter time in prison and better conditions.
So he was given LSD for months, at least 50 times, without being told what it was. He later wrote what a nightmarish experience this was and how … for his whole life, he never recovered from it. Years later, when he found out that this doctor was actually working on a CIA project and not trying to cure schizophrenia, he told other members of his gang, “I’m going back to Atlanta. I’m going to find that guy, and I’m going to kill him.”
He didn’t find that doctor, who died of apparently natural causes soon thereafter, but definitely Bulger is interesting because he’s one of the few MK-Ultra subjects who later came out and explained what had happened to him.