Did you ever hear the one about the CIA-employed sex workers who were trained to drug, bed and interrogate unsuspecting American citizens while they were unwittingly tripping on LSD as government agents secretly watched? You’d think you’d remember a story like that but Operation Midnight Climax has conveniently evaded the public consciousness for decades. We’re talking about tax payer-funded safe houses in the 1950s and 60s, moonlighting as brothels on American soil, where ordinary citizens were unknowingly drugged with LSD and experimented on for mind-control research. Under the covert surveillance of government agents, prostitutes were instructed to engage in post-coital questioning of the targets to explore how the combination of sex and drugs could be used together as the ultimate truth serum. The highly secretive nature of the program allowed it to go unchecked for years before it was shut down. Someone get Hollywood on the phone, we’ve got a twisted and shockingly overlooked American espionage story that’s gagging for some attention…
In the 1950s, America was in the grip of the ‘Red Peril’ Russia, putting the establishment in a state of paranoia and competitive overdrive for technological advancement during the Cold War years. MK Ultra began in 1953, when the CIA decided to pick up where some WII Nazi scientists had left off. Expanding on experiments that involved mescaline and torture to elicit confessions and explore mind control techniques, the CIA were now incorporating a range of their own unique modus operandi. The program would be backed by then CIA Director Allen Dulles and run by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a biochemist, and head of the chemical division of the CIA. You might say Gottlieb was the CIA’s answer to James Bond’s ‘Q’, something of a gadget man, mad scientist, and proto-hippy, with a passion for folk music and the great outdoors. He had moved his wife and two daughters to a remote cabin in Virginia in 1948 where he bred goats. But his real passion was chemistry and unethical mind control experiments; he was just what the CIA needed.
Gottlieb’s first order of business was to purchase the world’s supply of LSD, from Dr. Albert Hoffman, a Swiss chemist who, while experimenting with a fungus, had inadvertently produced a mind-altering substance that would soon reverberate through western culture. With the LSD stash procured for 240.000 dollars (LSD would still be legal in America until 1966), it was time to dose some test subjects, the first lucky participants turned out to be Gottlieb’s colleagues, and volunteers from the CIA. This progressed to him slipping the drug into the drinks of some other unaware co-workers, all in the name of science. In 1953, during a CIA retreat in Maryland, a room full of unsuspecting employees were spiked with LSD, a “potential truth serum”. A week later, one of those employees, a scientist who was actually part of the MK ultra was dead, having fallen from a window of a hotel in an apparent suicide.
Undeterred, Gottlieb continued his experiments and set up a system where it could be tested on willing participants in official medical trials; it was given to patients in hospitals, to soldiers in the United States army, to students at universities, and to inmates in prisons. Among the many participants of these trials in the late 1950s, some of the most notable names were, Ken Kesey author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Whitey Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Manson, notorious cult leader and mass murderer.
Not satisfied with his medical trials and covert experiments on unknowing participants, Gottlieb decided to try a new approach to elicit subconscious control and confessions from unsuspecting targets by using a combination of sex and drugs. A psychotropic honey pot if you will, this would be titled Operation Midnight Climax. In the world of espionage, the use of sex to obtain post-coital confessions wasn’t a new tactic. Gottlieb wanted to see what results LSD would procure when added to the scenario.
For this undercover operation George Hunter White was enlisted, described by some as a “rock-em, sock-em cop not overly carried away with playing spook,” White had been an investigative reporter for several newspapers; a lieutenant colonel during WW2 and a federal narcotics agent. This being sufficient experience, White was contracted as a CIA consultant and used the alias “Morgan Hall” to go about setting up an apartment first in Greenwich Village, New York and then in San Francisco. White had begun in New York by spiking his associates, their friends, then complete strangers he would meet in bars. But it wasn’t until the operation was moved to San Francisco that sex was added to the experiment. There, on the tax-payer’s dime, he set up an undercover operation under the guise of a brothel at 255 Telegraph Hill San Francisco. Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints of Paris sex workers hung in juxtaposition with photos of various women in bondage outfits, working bar was added to the safe house, as was faux leather furniture, and plenty of sex toys and pornographic paraphernalia in the bedroom. To finish off the assemblage two way mirrors were fitted and the whole place was ‘wired for sound’ to witness and record proceedings of the ‘Pad’ as it had been nicknamed.
White and his team recruited some of the local sex workers, with promises of cash and get-out-of-jail cards which could be traded in the next time they were picked up. They would be expected to entice targets back and use the combination of sex and LSD to conduct a range of experiments on the drugged and uninhibited men. Subliminal messages were used to influence the victim’s subconscious to induce them into uncharacteristic and involuntary actions. Motives for assault, assassination, and criminal activities were all fed into their post-cortile LSD-addled brains. While the amateur sex chemists went to work on their targets, the CIA were allegedly passing around chilled martinis behind the two-way mirrors. There were even later reports of the covert unit actually partaking in the LSD themselves. White would later write in his diary, “I did feel at times that I was having a ‘mind-expanding experience,’ but this vanished like a dream immediately after the session.”
The targets (or victims), suspected to have been in the hundreds, sufficiently examined and experimented on, were released into society, unaware of just what had fully transpired. “No one knows where they [human test subjects] are now, or what effects they may have suffered,” reported Time magazine in 1977 after the CIA’s operations began to unravel . It is not known just how many people were subjected to these trials but it could be in the 100s. Operation Midnight Climax would continue operating officially until 1963 when John Vance, inspector general of the CIA Shut down the experiments on ethical grounds. Two years earlier when Allen Dulles was fired as director general of the CIA in 1961, Gottlieb realised it was only a matter of time before his department would fall under scrutiny. He attempted to destroy all the records of Midnight Climax and MK-Ultra but still, some survived. Gottlieb retired from the CIA in 1973 and was celebrated with a medal for having such an influential carrier. A year later In 1974 Seymour Hersh an investigative reporter for the The New York Times exposed Operation Chaos, another clandestine CIA domestic program that had been spying against ordinary American citizens. This would lead to the investigation into MK-Ultra and Operation Midnight Climax. The members of Operation Climax were subpoenaed and those that did, all seemed to suffer from a sudden bout of amnesia, self-preservation, or the long-term effects of LSD – who can say?
Dr. Sidney Gottlieb in retirement would go on to become an exponent of peace and environmentalism, traveling to India and Africa to work in a leper colony. Gottlieb claimed to have taken LSD some two hundred times in the name of science, but also admitted it was ‘none effective’ as an intelligence tool.
Stephen Kinzer, author of “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” (a highly recommended read), claims that the program was so secretive, only a select few in the highest ranks of government knew Gottlieb even existed, let alone was conducting these experiments.
George Hunter White passed away in 1975, but his diaries and correspondence survived and would be used in the MK-Ultra hearings. He described his time as part of Operation Midnight Climax in a letter.
“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, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”
The CIA’s hidden agenda to dominate and influence the human mind would inadvertently alter their own reality. MK-Ultra and the introduction of LSD would start a chain of events that would influence a freethinking generation and threaten the very control they strived for. By 1966, when LSD was made illegal, the chemical recipe had become available and the youth were conducting their own experiments with sex and drugs, perhaps a fitting karmic conclusion to a government’s desire for control.