by Cynthia Cotts, The Village Voice
The Times Digs Up Old CIA Death
LSD Story Causes Flashbacks
The New York Times Magazine always delivers at least one
great story, and last week it was an investigation into the
claim that the CIA drugged and murdered scientist Frank
Olson in 1953 to stop him from blowing the whistle on their
secret experiments in mind control.
Kudos are in order for Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff,
who was a wise choice to write the piece. He went to school
with Olson's son Eric, and as a human rights expert, he was
able to build a credible case against the CIA from the son's
point of view.
Here are some of the facts, according to Ignatieff: By the
early 1950s, the CIA had begun to study LSD as a truth serum
for use in covert assassinations. In the summer of 1953, the
CIA sent Olson to Sweden, Germany, and Britain on business.
According to a British journalist, Olson became disturbed by
something he witnessed at a research facility near Frankfurt
and confided as much to a psychiatrist employed by British
intelligence. Thereupon, someone at the CIA raised the issue
that Olson had become a security risk.
Enter Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a/k/a the Timothy Leary of the
CIA. At a meeting of CIA scientists in rural Maryland in
November 1953, Gottlieb dropped a hit of LSD into Olson's
Cointreau. Nine days later in New York, Olson went out the
window of a 10th floor hotel room, hit the sidewalk and died
soon after. The CIA's position was that he had either
"fallen or jumped."
Although Ignatieff approached the M-word carefully in the
Times, waiting until about two-thirds of the way through the
piece to suggest that dosing Olson was a "prelude to
murder," the allegation was clearly on his mindas was the
unstated conclusion that an aggressive investigation into
Olson's death is long overdue.
Instead, what the public has gotten so far is a whitewash,
and long stretches of silence from the Times. According to a
database search, the Olson story first surfaced in the Times
in July 1975. Having learned 22 years after the fact that
Frank Olson had been fed LSD, the dead man's family gave an
exclusive to the Times' Seymour Hersh. Through Hersh, the
family announced its plans to file a wrongful-death suit
against the U.S. government. (They later settled.)
The revelations about the CIA and LSD begat a flurry of
stories in the Times in July 1975, and that month, even the
editorial page weighed in, calling the agency's experiment
on Olson an example of "the arrogance and danger of
unchecked power." But for the next 26 years, the Times
mentioned Olson only a few times in passing, as when his
wife Alice died in 1993.
That's when things got hairy. In 1994, Eric Olson had his
father's body exhumed and autopsied, a difficult choice that
paid off when forensic experts concluded that Olson had been
knocked out with a blow to the head, then thrown out the
hotel window. So much for the theory that he had "jumped."
Did the CIA deliberately kill Frank Olson? In the wake of
the autopsy, the murder charge became credible enough to
attract attention from the likes of the AP, CBS, CNN, The
Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times,
and smaller newspapers across the country. Regardie's
reported the story as a feature in 1994; the Daily Mail
followed in 1998. But The New York Times was nowhere to be
When asked to comment on the omission, a Times Company
spokesperson said, "We certainly can't hope to reconstruct a
1994 news decision tonight."
As for coverage of psychedelic experiments by Sidney
Gottlieb, the Times' only significant story in 20 years
appeared in 1999, when Tim Weiner wrote Gottlieb's obituary.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Weiner reported, the CIA
secretly tested LSD on human guinea pigs, including U.S.
prisoners, drug addicts, and prostitutes. A mental patient
in Kentucky was dosed "continuously for 174 days."
Oddly, Ignatieff's story omitted this piece of context. But
what's important is that the Times is finally positioned to
help bring an extraordinary case to justice. Eric Olson has
besieged the Manhattan district attorney's office to open a
new investigation, and Ignatieff suggests that there might
be hope yet. With the facts freshly laid out, the Times and
other opinion leaders should demand that Frank Olson's death
be fully investigated before the few remaining witnesses
drop out of sight altogether.
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