Stephen Kinzer has written books about civil wars, terror attacks, and bloody coups, but his latest might be his most alarming. “I’m still in shock,” Kinzer says of what he learned about the appalling experiments conducted by a government scientist most Americans have never heard of. “I can’t believe that this happened.”
These aren’t the words of an author trying to fire up the hype machine. Though the events recounted in Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control took place a half-century ago, they’re scandalous in a way that transcends time.
For much of his 22-year CIA career, Gottlieb ran mind-control projects designed to help America defeat Communism. In the ’50s and ’60s, Kinzer writes, Gottlieb “directed the application of unknowable quantities and varieties of drugs into” countless people, searching for the narcotic recipe that might allow him to mold his human test subjects’ thoughts and actions.
Gottlieb and a network of medical professionals gave LSD and other drugs to prisoners, hospital patients, government employees, and others—many of whom had no idea they were being dosed. A CIA staffer died in highly suspicious fashion after Gottlieb had his drink spiked with LSD. Meanwhile, when his bosses considered killing a foreign leader, Gottlieb developed custom-made poisons. Numerous people were harmed by Gottlieb’s work, but because he destroyed his files on the eve of his 1973 retirement, it’s hard to quantify the carnage he wrought.
The broad outlines of Gottlieb’s story have been public for years. Major newspapers ran obituaries when he died in 1999. In 2017, he was portrayed by actor Tim Blake Nelson in Errol Morris’ Wormwood. But Kinzer’s book, the first proper Gottlieb biography, includes fascinating new facts about the end of his career and fresh details about disturbing episodes he orchestrated.
Poisoner in Chief describes Gottlieb’s little-known participation in torture sessions at U.S. military sites in foreign countries and reports that in at least one case a doctor who worked with Gottlieb gave LSD to children. Gottlieb was “the Josef Mengele of the United States,” Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter and the author of many books, told me in a recent interview.
How did Gottlieb, the Bronx-born son of Hungarian Jews, become a man who would earn comparisons to a ghoulish Nazi doctor?
After getting a doctorate in biochemistry from the California Institute of Technology, Gottlieb joined the CIA in 1951, a time of fear and uncertainty. Just six years after the end of World War II, American troops were fighting in Korea. Washington was increasingly worried about what many believed was the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union. Gottlieb was on the job for a few weeks, Kinzer writes, when he was tapped “to invigorate” what would be known as the Artichoke project.