'America's Dr. Mengele': The Jewish Biochemist Backed by the CIA Who Experimented on Thousands

Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
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Sidney Gottlieb
Sidney Gottlieb. 'The first person ever to be drafted by the U.S. administration to find ways to control the human mind'Credit: AP
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

If Sidney Gottlieb’s parents hadn’t fled Hungary in the early 20th century, we can assume that his life, like that of millions of other European Jews, would have ended in one of the extermination camps built by Nazi Germany. Had he been deported to Auschwitz he might even have fallen into the hands of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.

During World War II, however, Gottlieb was living in quiet and safe New York City, to which his parents had emigrated. That didn’t stop him, later in life, from adopting some of Mengele’s methods of abuse or even hiring some of the same doctors and scientists who had worked in the service of the Nazi Party to the task force he assembled in his work for the CIA during the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Gottlieb is undoubtedly the closest thing to Mengele in the history of the United States,” asserts American journalist and researcher Stephen Kinzer, author of the new biography “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” (Henry Holt), in a phone interview with Haaretz.

As opposed to Mengele, Gottlieb, who passed away in 1999 at age 81, did not carry out his cruel experiments for the Nazi regime, but with the authority he received from the highest echelons of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He blinded, shook up, electrocuted and tortured thousands of World War II refugees from foreign countries, POWs and American prisoners in a series of cruel experiments that lasted over 20 years and claimed the lives of innocent people.

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Some of the experiments were conducted surreptitiously in hospitals, universities and prisons in the United States, others in secret detention facilities overseas, mainly in Germany, Japan and the Philippines, where he operated freely without fear of exposure.

“Gottlieb was able to ask his superiors to send him 10 people for the purpose of the experiment, and he would get them,” says Kinzer. “Who were those people? Prisoners of war from North Korea, Soviet agents or simply innocent refugees without family, whose absence would not be felt by anyone, according to CIA estimates.”

Adds the author, “When I visited Germany in order to work on the book I arrived at a place where the first secret CIA prison facility stood at the time, in an isolated area outside Frankfurt. People living nearby testified how prisoners who were kept in the facility run by Gottlieb were buried afterward in the nearby forests, which are now the site of residential buildings and shopping centers.”

Erasing information

Stephen Kinzer, author of the new biography “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” Credit: Deborah Donnelly

Gottlieb, who had a doctorate in biochemistry from the California Institute of Technology and was an expert in poisons, served in the CIA for 22 years, most of them as head of the special task force established by the United States government in order to create the largest and most advanced “thought police” in the world.

Kinzer: “Gottlieb had two main objectives. First, you had to blast away the existing mind the second part was to fill the vacuum that was created by creating a new mind. He succeeded in destroying the human mind, but was not successful in the second stage of the program.”

When he joined the CIA in 1951, he was “the first person ever to be drafted by the U.S. administration to find ways to control the human mind,” Kinzer notes. Two years later, the mind-control project that initially was called Artichoke but later renamed MK-Ultra got underway. It was inspired by the horrifying experiments conducted by the Nazis and by the Japanese military, and included, he writes, the “dosing (of) unwilling patients with potent drugs, subjecting them to extremes of temperature and sound (and) strapping them to electroshock machines.”

“Artichoke had become one of the most violently abusive projects ever sponsored by an agency of the United States government,” writes Kinzer in his book. He quotes a CIA description of the mission: “the investigation of drug effects on ego control and volitional activities, i.e., can willfully suppressed information be elicited through drugs affecting higher nervous systems? If so, which agents are better for this purpose?”

Just as the intelligence agency hoped to extract repressed information from the minds of foreign agents and others, it hoped, with those same drugs, to find the way to erase existing information from the consciousness. It even sought to erase information from the minds of CIA agents who, in the course of their work, were exposed to sensitive information and clandestine activities that could have embarrassed the United States had they become known.

There was no drug or disorienting substance that Gottlieb rejected in his pursuit of his objectives. “He was obsessive about LSD. He thought it was the ideal solution for destroying the existing mind and implanting a new one,” Kinzer tells Haaretz.

Gottlieb was the first one to bring to the United States the drug that years later became one of the symbols of America’s “flower power” generation and anti-war protest movement, the author says, adding, “His obsession was so great that in 1953 he convinced the CIA to invest $240,000 and to buy the entire world inventory of LSD, which was developed in the laboratories of the Sandoz pharmaceuticals company in Switzerland.”

Gottlieb (left) and his attorney Terry Lepsing, before a testimony in the Senate Health Affairs Subcommittee, 1977.Credit: AP

What did he do with such a massive quantity of the drug?

“One of the experiments was conducted on black prisoners from Kentucky who, without their knowledge, received a triple dose of the drug every day, for two and a half months. That’s how they examined whether it’s possible to destroy the human brain with LSD. The answer is yes.”

Another experiment was more scientific in nature, but with equally devastating effects: “Gottlieb wanted to examine how LSD affects people suffering from various medical problems. Since the CIA has no hospitals of its own, and since Gottlieb didn’t want the hospitals to know that he was turning to them on behalf of the CIA, he established several straw organizations that made contact with the various hospitals and offered them payment in exchange for participation in an experiment in which the effect of the drug was tested on patients. As a result, overnight there was a new market of civilians who had been exposed to the drug, become addicted to it, and distributed it to others.”

According to Kinzer, “Very few people, even in the CIA itself, knew about the MK-Ultra project. One of them was American scientist Frank Olson. But at a certain point, in 1953, Olson started to wonder about the ethics of the experiments he had been exposed to and even told his superiors that he was not willing to continue the work and was interested in leaving the agency. Shortly afterward he fell to his death from the window of his room on the 13th floor of a New York hotel.

The cover of Stephen Kinzer's new biography “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

“At the time the media described the incident as a suicide, but today there is considerable evidence that Olson did not jump to his death, but was murdered by Gottlieb and CIA agents, who saw him as too great a danger to the continuation of the program.”

Lessons for today

How could a Jewish scientist who grew up in a religious home, a family man with dreams of an academic career, approve, order and directly supervise a cruel system of torture that today is usually associated with dictatorships?

Kinzer: “Gottlieb is the classical version of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, he engaged in the most violent experiments ever conducted in the United States; on the other, he was a devoted family man, the father of four children, with great environmental awareness. A man who grew his own vegetables, and every morning before work got up to milk his goats.

“In his own eyes he was a great patriot and an outstanding humanist at one and the same time. In order to understand how that goes together you have to relate to his acts in the context of his time, during the early years of the Cold War, when the United States convinced itself that it was under a major existential threat.

“It’s an important lesson with implications for the present situation as well. Today we are once again convincing ourselves that we are under such a great threat that we must set aside our decency and morality in the name of defending the security of the homeland. Such thinking is a tremendous danger not only to us, but also to other countries that convince themselves that the danger confronting them is so great that it justifies terrible acts in order to defend themselves.”

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