Project MKULTRA, or MK-ULTRA, was the code name for a covert, illegal CIA human research program, run by the Office of Scientific Intelligence. This official U.S. government program began in the early 1950s, continuing at least through the late 1960s, and it used U.S. and Canadian citizens as its test subjects.
The published evidence indicates that Project MKULTRA involved the use of many methodologies to manipulate individual mental states and alter brain functions, including the surreptitious administration of drugs and other chemicals, sensory deprivation, isolation, and verbal and sexual abuse.
Project MKULTRA was first brought to wide public attention in 1975 by the U.S. Congress, through investigations by the Church Committee, and by a presidential commission known as the Rockefeller Commission. Investigative efforts were hampered by the fact that CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MKULTRA files destroyed in 1973; the Church Committee and Rockefeller Commission investigations relied on the sworn testimony of direct participants and on the relatively small number of documents that survived Helms' destruction order.
In 1977, a FOIA request uncovered a cache of 20,000 documents relating to project MKULTRA, which led to the Senate Hearings of 1977. In recent times most information regarding MKULTRA has been officially declassified.
Although the CIA insists that MKULTRA-type experiments have been abandoned, 14-year CIA veteran Victor Marchetti has stated in various interviews that the CIA routinely conducts disinformation campaigns and that CIA mind control research continued. In a 1977 interview, Marchetti specifically called the CIA claim that MKULTRA was abandoned a "cover story."
On the Senate floor in 1977, Senator Ted Kennedy said:
The Deputy Director of the CIA revealed that over thirty universities and institutions were involved in an "extensive testing and experimentation" program which included covert drug tests on unwitting citizens "at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign." Several of these tests involved the administration of LSD to "unwitting subjects in social situations." At least one death, that of Dr. Olson, resulted from these activities. The Agency itself acknowledged that these tests made little scientific sense. The agents doing the monitoring were not qualified scientific observers.
The project's intentionally oblique CIA cryptonym is made up of the digraph MK, meaning that the project was sponsored by the agency's Technical Services Division, followed by the word ULTRA (which had previously been used to designate the most secret classification of World War II intelligence). Other related cryptonyms include MKNAOMI and MKDELTA.
A precursor of the MKULTRA program began in 1945 when the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency was established and given direct responsibility for Operation Paperclip. Operation Paperclip was a program to recruit former Nazi scientists. Some of these scientists studied torture and brainwashing, and several had just been identified and prosecuted as war criminals during the Nuremberg Trials.
Several secret U.S. government projects grew out of Operation Paperclip. These projects included Project CHATTER (established 1947), and Project BLUEBIRD (established 1950), which was renamed Project ARTICHOKE in 1951. Their purpose was to study mind-control, interrogation, behavior modification and related topics.
Headed by Sidney Gottlieb, the MKULTRA project was started on the order of CIA director Allen Dulles on April 13, 1953, largely in response to alleged Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean use of mind-control techniques on U.S. prisoners of war in Korea. The CIA wanted to use similar methods on their own captives. The CIA was also interested in being able to manipulate foreign leaders with such techniques, and would later invent several schemes to drug Fidel Castro.
Experiments were often conducted without the subjects' knowledge or consent. In some cases, academic researchers being funded through grants from CIA front organizations were unaware that their work was being used for these purposes.