You may not know it by name, but you’re probably familiar with MKULTRA.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s program of mind control and drug testing on human subjects has become one of the most reliable pop culture shortcuts into a narrative of deception and intrigue, a real world tether to a line straddling the psychedelia of LSD and secretive state operations.
The ability to laugh it off or treat the program as a convenient fictional plot device makes it seem but a remnant of a bygone time in American governance, firmly left behind in the two decades between 1953 and the mid-1970s, an outgrowth of Project Bluebird and Project Artichoke. Maybe casual familiarity makes it a bit easier to stomach the absurd reality that there were, indeed, many serious-men-in-suits indulging cloak-and-dagger fears and setting off global policies, the ripples of which everyone continues to feel today. One such ripple will be appearing on Netflix this week in the form of Eric Olson, whose father, government scientist Frank Olson died after a series of unpleasant experiences involving surreptitious dosing and his CIA bosses.
But for those looking to dig firsthand into the documents, there are currently as many resources online as there ever were, encompassing much of what was made available after the Church Committee in 1975 began its investigation in illegal intelligence activities, which covered an array of CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, and Internal Revenue Service activities, including “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders. ”
A substantial number of these are available on the CIA’s CREST database, spanning many of the 149 subprojects that comprised MKULTRA; an index is available on the Black Vault. Materials related to the Pike Commission (for a time, at its inception, known as the Nedzi Committee) and the Rockefeller Commission are also available, and the internal CIA document from 1973 listing the agency’s questionable activities, which became known as “The Family Jewels,” lives on CREST by the name.
Since then, FOIA has helped to release additional materials, the secrecy of which becomes harder to maintain as decades begin to separate us from the CIA concerns of the Cold War-era. In 1981, by Executive Order 12333, such clandestine human experimentation became prohibited. But as we continue to confront the skeletons in our closet - the ones that some would rather have left in the past, where they weren’t caught - such materials, such actions of accountability, remain important to investigations of where the U.S. has been and where its going.
Image via Warner Bros.