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1999: CIA Dirty Trickster Dies

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Sidney Gottlieb.Credit: Screenshot

On March 7, 1999, Sidney Gottlieb, who over a period of some two decades oversaw much of the CIA’s research — and at times operations — involving “mind control” and poisons, died at the age of 80.

Gottlieb, born on August 3, 1918 in New York, was raised in an Orthodox home by Jewish immigrants from Hungary. He attended City College in New York, Arkansas Polytechnic, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1940. He completed his doctorate in biochemistry at California Institute of Technology. During his studies in California, Gottlieb met Margaret Moore, the India-born daughter of Christian missionaries, whom he married in 1942.

Gottlieb, who was born with a clubfoot, was rejected for military service during World War II. In 1951, he was recruited by the CIA, where he was appointed head of the technical services staff of the chemical division. The period was one of extreme fear – almost paranoia – among U.S. officials, from the double threat of the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and China. In particular, it was believed that both countries were developing methods of brainwashing or controlling the minds of human beings, a scenario depicted in the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Anxious to keep up, the CIA in 1953 initiated the “MK Ultra” program, with Gottlieb at its head, which over the next two decades undertook a total of 149 different studies intended to explore mind control. Subjects, who included prisoners, mental patients, and prostitutes and their customers, were exposed unwittingly to LSD, and observed for their reactions. CIA and armed service colleagues were also involuntarily subjected to acid, sometimes with lethal consequences. Gottlieb later acknowledged that he himself took LSD hundreds of times. He also told a Senate investigation after his retirement that none of the testing yielded practical results.

After President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave tacit approval, in March 1960 Gottlieb also got going on developing methods for surreptitiously assassinating Fidel Castro, head of the pro-Soviet regime dug in some 140 kilmometers off the coast of Florida. His brainstorms included a poisoned cigar, shoes infused with the highly toxic thallium, and a TV studio sprayed with LSD. The same year, Gottlieb concocted a blend of viruses to be injected into the toothpaste of Congo prime minister Patrice Lumumba, but by the time he delivered it personally to the CIA bureau in Kinshasa, the freedom fighter had already been deposed in a coup.

By the early 1970s, the CIA’s dirty tricks came under increasing press and congressional scrutiny, and in 1973 agency director Richard Helms gave the order to destroy most of the extant records of the MK Ultra program. A year earlier, however, Gottlieb had retired.

Shortly after he left the CIA, Gottlieb went to India, where for 18 months he managed a leper hospital. Later, back in Virginia, where he owned a 15-acre goat farm, he worked with dying people in a hospice, and tried to organize a commune. The man with the clubfoot also spent his time folk-dancing, and, having suffered his entire life from a bad stutter, also completed a master’s degree in speech therapy.

The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency is displayed in the foyer of the original headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, 2009.Credit: Bloomberg

Gottlieb’s death, on this date in 1999, was from unspecified causes.

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