The conspiracy theorists convinced celebrities are under mind control
“When it’s easier to blame a conspiracy about mind control than it is to face our political differences then something is very wrong”
When rapper Cardi B unexpectedly stared into space during a red carpet interview at the 2018 Grammys, the internet didn’t blame it on exhaustion or nerves. No: according to some sections of the web, this lapse in concentration was a clear sign that she was the victim of the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind control program; the bizarre blank expression on her face was evidence of a “glitch” in her programming.
MK-Ultra is a wild conspiracy theory that has infiltrated certain corners of the internet. Its believers are convinced that whenever a celebrity or politician acts strangely on camera, they aren’t just nervous or butchering their lines, but are victims of a top secret mind control division of the US government.
The conspiracy theory extends to more sinister acts as well, and is often referenced in combination with other conspiracy theories: there are dozens of Reddit threads suggesting the gunmen behind attacks including Sandy Hook and Columbine were not terrorists or fanatics but rather “MK-Ultra puppets” conducted by sinister forces to carry out these atrocities.
Perhaps one of the reasons the MK-Ultra conspiracy theory is so compelling to its believers is that its roots are surprisingly grounded in reality. If I were to tell you the CIA carried out brain surgery on six dogs, putting electric chips in their craniums so they could be controlled by remote controls that made them run, turn and stop, or that it experimented on American citizens with high doses of LSD in a bid to see if they could “de-pattern” their thoughts and turn them into “robot agents” triggered by key words – an experiment which was disproportionately carried out on mental health patients, prisoners, drug addicts and sex workers as they were “people who could not fight back,” according to one government agent – you’d probably assume I’d been reading too much science fiction. But declassified CIA documents show these things really did happen under a program that was in fact called MK-Ultra, right up until the early 1970s when it was officially halted.
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Founded in 1953, MK-Ultra was seen by CIA director Allen W. Dulles as a way to study mind control, which he wanted to weaponise against the Soviet Union to gain a critical edge in the Cold War. With communism at its height, the CIA was disturbed by reports that American prisoners had been turned into communist allies, and believed this was evidence they had been manipulated or even hypnotised under questioning. The agency poured millions of dollars into studies examining ways to influence and control the mind and to enhance its ability to extract information from resistant subjects during interrogation. As part of this research, testing with psychedelic drugs such as LSD was common.
According to government scientist Dr Russell Monroe, who spoke to ABC news in 1979, the CIA was looking for “an incapacitating agent; an agent that would not harm permanently but incapacitate temporarily. [Mind control] was a humanistic way to wage a war.” But even if the CIA was convinced it was operating in the national interest, its methods were brutal. In one case, a mental health patient in Kentucky was dosed with LSD continuously for 174 days. In total, the agency conducted 149 separate mind control experiments, and as many as 25 involved unwitting subjects, according to the New York Times, which says documents show at least one participant died. Others suffered long-term health issues, including amnesia, as a result of these tests.
The government paid compensation to the family of Jean Steel, one of many MK-Ultra human guinea pigs that the infamous Dr. Ewen Cameron experimented on at the Allen Memorial Institute building at McGill University in Montreal, with a settlement of $100,000 in 2017. Her daughter, Alison, told the media: “My mother was never again able to really function as a healthy human being because of what they did to her.”
“MK-Ultra sounds so cartoonish, almost like the dastardly scheme of a Bond villain,” Michael Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester’s Department of Psychology, says, “but its origins are based on verifiable facts and that gives it an uncomfortable edge.”
Wood credits the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, which is about a soldier manipulated by mind control into killing a politician, for bringing MK-Ultra out of the shadows and into pop culture folklore. This, he says, has been further propagated by the internet and modern-day references in TV series such as Stranger Things (where it’s referenced by the scientists responsible for creating Eleven, a character with telekinetic abilities) and films such as the Jesse Eisenberg-starring American Ultra.
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“MK-Ultra is now used in a particular rhetorical way when you’re talking about something being an inside job,” says Wood. “It’s because MK-Ultra has shown the US government is not above committing horrible acts against its own people. Whenever something goes wrong, MK-Ultra is an easy thing to blame and an easy online buzzword to use.”
Marie D Jones, a US writer who co-authored the book Mind Wars: A History of Mind Control, Surveillance, and Social Engineering by the Government, Media, and Secret Societies, says she believes human beings have had a hunger for controlling the minds of others that dates back to the Ancient Egyptians, who were advocates of the use of coercive persuasion. Mind control, she says, is just a part of “human nature.”
When researching for the book, Jones spent months wading through declassified CIA documents around the MK-Ultra program. “At its core, MK-Ultra, particularly the LSD tests, were about mastering the art of erasing the subconscious of a victim and replacing this with a new way of thinking,” she says. However, Jones says the online conspiracies around MK-Ultra, particularly the ones based around video clips such as US weatherman Al Roker staring into space or Britney Spears stumbling during an interview, have become problematic.
“It’s important that the truth of MK-Ultra is known, but the way it’s become so well known in popular culture has also become a bit of a problem. We’ve gone from this intellectual probing of its origins to just believing in complete insanity such as it targeting celebrities and making them do weird things. It takes away from people seriously studying the history of MK-Ultra.”
What is it about MK-Ultra that makes it so appealing to online communities, particularly when trying to make sense of something weird or tragic? Scott Wark, a researcher in meme theory at the University of Warwick, says the internet has opened up a lot of alternative forms of information but at the same time it has introduced a lot of things into our lives that are hard to understand.
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“We live through extremely complicated devices that shoot packets at one another at speeds we can barely comprehend,” he explains. “Not many of us know how these things work. There are so many systems around us that we can’t explain. The world is burning, finance makes no sense to the layperson, institutional politics are fucked. The proliferation of the inexplicable and the polarisation of politics are the perfect conditions for a rise in conspiratorial thinking—and MK-Ultra.”
Wark believes conspiracy theories like MK-Ultra help us come to terms with tragic events by providing a convenient, pre-formed narrative about institutional agency and its ability to be corrupt – something that’s far easier to understand because it’s an idea with so much cultural capital, especially in recent years. He gives the example of Sandy Hook deniers entering into the mainstream thanks to controversial pundits such as Alex Jones.
“MK-Ultra is packaged in a narrative that’s a part of our popular cultural heritage,” he says. “We still tell these stories, in movies and TV shows and comics and books. So long as governments commit injustices and atrocities, conspiracy theories like MK-Ultra will translate these onto an individual scale. So long as politics are polarised, it’ll be all too easy to identify ‘them’, the other side, as this agency. MK-Ultra endures because it tells us a story about institutional power that we’re already primed to hear: ‘it was a cover-up.’”
The MK-Ultra program was officially a failure, with the CIA, embarrassed by its lack of concrete findings, shutting it down in 1973. The fact we’re still talking about it in 2019, suggests Jones, is the same reason we still share outlandish stories about a UFO crashing at Roswell. “With the internet, you have this free flow of information that has taken this nugget of our history and made it into this huge, huge entity,” she says.
“It’s really similar to how legends and folklore and myths are cultivated, where they have a nugget of truth at the core, but are made into something a lot bigger.” She wouldn’t be surprised if the 1950s mind control program continues to inspire future generations, likening it to enduring conspiracy theories such as the JFK assassination.
"When it’s easier to blame a conspiracy about mind control than it is to face our political differences then something is very wrong"
- The Cold War and Project MK-Ultra
- LSD and Sidney Gottlieb
- Operation Midnight Climax
- The Death of Frank Olson
- Ken Kesey and Other MK-Ultra Participants
- Church Committee
MK-Ultra was a top-secret CIA project in which the agency conducted hundreds of clandestine experiments—sometimes on unwitting U.S. citizens—to assess the potential use of LSD and other drugs for mind control, information gathering and psychological torture. Though Project MK-Ultra lasted from 1953 until about 1973, details of the illicit program didn’t become public until 1975, during a congressional investigation into widespread illegal CIA activities within the United States and around the world.
The Cold War and Project MK-Ultra
In the 1950s and 1960s—the height of the Cold War—the United States government feared that Soviet, Chinese and North Korean agents were using mind control to brainwash U.S. prisoners of war in Korea.
In response, Allan Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), approved Project MK-Ultra in 1953. The covert operation aimed to develop techniques that could be used against Soviet bloc enemies to control human behavior with drugs and other psychological manipulators.
The program involved more than 150 human experiments involving psychedelic drugs, paralytics and electroshock therapy. Sometimes the test subjects knew they were participating in a study—but at other times, they had no idea, even when the hallucinogens started taking effect.
Many of the tests were conducted at universities, hospitals or prisons in the United States and Canada. Most of these took place between 1953 and 1964, but it’s not clear how many people were involved in the tests—the agency kept notoriously poor records and destroyed most MK-Ultra documents when the program was officially halted in 1973.
LSD and Sidney Gottlieb
The CIA began to experiment with LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) under the direction of agency chemist and poison expert Sidney Gottlieb. He believed the agency could harness the drug’s mind-altering properties for brainwashing or psychological torture.
Under the auspices of Project MK-Ultra, the CIA began to fund studies at Columbia University, Stanford University and other colleges on the effects of the drug. After a series of tests, the drug was deemed too unpredictable for use in counterintelligence.
MK-Ultra also included experiments with MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline, heroin, barbiturates, methamphetamine and psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”).
Operation Midnight Climax
Operation Midnight Climax was an MK-Ultra project in which government-employed prostitutes lured unsuspecting men to CIA “safe houses” where drug experiments took place.
The CIA dosed the men with LSD and then—while at times drinking cocktails behind a two-way mirror—watched the drug’s effects on the men’s behavior. Recording devices were installed in the prostitutes’ rooms, disguised as electrical outlets.
Most of the Operation Midnight Climax experiments took place in San Francisco and Marin County, California, and in New York City. The program had little oversight and the CIA agents involved admitted that a freewheeling, party-like atmosphere prevailed.
An agent named George White wrote to Gottlieb in 1971: “Of course I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill and cheat, steal, deceive, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”
The Death of Frank Olson
Frank Olson was a scientist who worked for the CIA. At a 1953 CIA retreat, Olson drank a cocktail that had been secretly spiked with LSD.
A few days later, on November 28, 1953, Olson tumbled to his death from the window of a New York City hotel room in an alleged suicide.
The family of Frank Olson decided to have a second autopsy performed in 1994. A forensics team found injuries on the body that had likely occurred before the fall. The findings sparked conspiracy theories that Olson might have been assassinated by the CIA.
After prolonged legal proceedings, Olson’s family was awarded a settlement of $750,000, and received a personal apology from President Gerald Ford and then-CIA Director William Colby.
Ken Kesey and Other MK-Ultra Participants
Ken Kesey, author of the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, volunteered for MK-Ultra experiments with LSD while he was a college student at Stanford University.
Kesey later went on to promote the drug, hosting LSD-fueled parties that he called “Acid Tests.”
Acid Tests combined drug use with musical performances by bands including the Grateful Dead and psychedelic effects such as fluorescent paint and black lights. These parties influenced the early development of hippie culture and kick-started the 1960s psychedelic drug scene.
Other notable people who reportedly volunteered for CIA-backed experiments with LSD include Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead lyricist; Ted Kaczynski, better known as the “Unabomber”; and James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston mobster.
In 1974, New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh published a story about how the CIA had conducted non-consensual drug experiments and illegal spying operations on U.S. citizens. His report started the lengthy process of bringing long-suppressed details about MK-Ultra to light.
The following year, President Ford—in the wake of the Watergate scandal and amid growing distrust of the U.S. government—set up the United States President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States to investigate illegal CIA activities, including Project MK-Ultra and other experiments on unsuspecting citizens.
The Commission was led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and is commonly referred to as the Rockefeller Commission.
The Church Committee—helmed by Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church—was a larger investigation into the abuses of the CIA, FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies during and after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
The Church Committee delved into plots to assassinate foreign leaders, including Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. It also uncovered thousands of documents related to MK-Ultra.
These revelations resulted in Ford’s 1976 Executive Order on Intelligence Activities that prohibited “experimentation with drugs on human subjects, except with the informed consent, in writing and witnessed by a disinterested party, of each such human subject.”
MK-Ultra was a top-secret CIA project in which the agency conducted hundreds of clandestine experiments—sometimes on unwitting U.S. citizens—to assess the