Did the CIA order the murder of one of its top scientists who knew too much about a super-secret biological warfare program that the United States reportedly used during the Korean War?
It’s an explosive charge that’s been enveloped in confusion and secrecy for decades. The CIA and a succession of presidential administrations have denied it.
But in a new book, former Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kinzer – author of one of the definitive accounts of the infamous CIA-engineered coup in Guatemala in 1954 — marshals compelling evidence that it’s true.
The CIA scientist, Frank Olson, died in 1953 after reportedly jumping from a Manhattan hotel room to his death. New York police never investigated the incident and at the behest of the CIA quickly closed the books on the case. But like many official government secrets, it refused to rest.
Over the years investigations conducted by independent forensic experts that examined Olson’s exhumed body as well as the hotel room where he was staying on the night of November 24 have strongly suggested that Olson’s death was not a result of suicide.
Instead, he was likely killed to a blow to the head and then thrown out his hotel room window to make it appear that he took his own life.
Who was Frank Olson? He was a key figure in the biological warfare program devised for use during the Korean War as well as another secret CIA program known as MK-Ultra, which tested LSD and other drugs for their potential utility as a mind-control weapon, ostensibly in the war against Communism.
Olson, it turns out, was deliberately dosed with LSD by his fellow scientists, including the Sidney Gottlieb, the head of MK-Ultra, to see whether he could be persuaded under the drug’s influence to reveal national security secrets. It was a reckless experiment that left Olson confused and paranoid and doubting his own sanity.
Within 5 days of his dosing, Olson was still suffering the same symptoms and was terrified about what to tell his family. His entire life seemed to be unraveling.
Gottlieb tried to calm him down and convince him that the effects would wear off but became afraid that Olson was becoming imbalanced, and might no longer be reliable.
Olson went to the Statler hotel on the evening of October 3 in preparation for a meeting with a CIA psychiatrist the next morning. He never made it. At 2:20 am his body was seen hurtling from a 10th-floor window to the sidewalk, where he died instantly.
Drawing on public records and his own interviews, Kinzer, has done a masterful job of piecing together the story of Olson’s life and death and makes a compelling case – if still largely circumstantial — that the scientist was murdered to keep him quiet about what he knew about CIA programs, especially its biological warfare program then underway in Korea.
The issue might never have come to light were it not for a 1975 Washington Post story that revealed the circumstances surrounding Olson’s death and the suspicions that he’d been working on something top-secret for the CIA. Olson’s family was besieged by reporters and decided to sue the federal government and the CIA for their alleged involvement in their father’s death.
Fear of exposure and the negative publicity became so great that President Ford and CIA director William Colby eventually agreed to meet with the family to try to head off a lawsuit. Eventually, agreed to pay the Olsons $750,000 if they dropped their suit and agreed not to speak about the matter further. The gambit worked. Reluctantly, it appears, the Olsons agreed to the settlement. Congress even passed special legislation to bless the whitewash.
But in the 1980s, armed with more evidence, the Olson children decided to go public again. They obtained a private meeting with Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA official who had supervised Olson’s work and who did his best to convince the family that Olson had indeed committed suicide.
Gottlieb even recommended that the family consider grief therapy to try to get over what had happened to their father. Olson‘s children were outraged, more convinced than ever that the agency was lying
Even if Olson did commit suicide, which seems highly unlikely, the Cold War secrets and machination that Kinzer reveals in his new book are damning. It’s clear from Kinzer’s investigation that the CIA was willing to turn anyone, including its own top scientists, into guinea pigs if it were deemed in the “interest of national security.” The agency never felt accountable for its actions and their consequences.
And despite Olson’s death, the CIA proceeded with its MK-Ultra mind control and drug experiments on other US citizens – and conducted brutal interrogation and torture sessions on captured spies under the influence — as if nothing untoward had ever happened.
Kinzer’s book contains another treat: it exposes the role of well-known figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney – top Ford aides and later architects of the Iraq War — in helping to orchestrate the Olson cover-up at the highest levels. Another key figure was James McCord, the FBI field agent who supervised the “clean up” of Olson’s hotel room at the Statler. McCord would later become famous as one of infamous “burglars” hired by Richard Nixon to gather evidence on the Democrats during the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
We may never really know whether Frank Olson was murdered. But thanks to Kinzer, we have fresh evidence that powerful forces in the Executive Branch exploited the Cold War to build their own bureaucratic empires, with terrible consequences for those that might get in their way. Inevitably, we’re also left with a question: In today’s fight against global terrorism, when official secrecy is still the norm, has anything really changed?
Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, published by Holt and Rinehart, was released on September 10.