A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments
H.P. Albarelli, Jr.,
Of all the ghosts that haunt U.S. history, few have more persistently stalked the conscience of this country than that of Frank Olson.
The subject of a sensational 1975 scandal, Olson has been the subject of numerous newspaper articles, essays, books, documentaries, and even an opera. Beginning with revelations from the Rockefeller Commission, Olson was identified as a civilian scientist working for the Department of Defense in the early 1950s, who had been secretly dosed by the CIA with LSD. The drug apparently resulted in disturbed behavior and his subsequent supposed suicide.
The government has stood by this story ever since, even though it was subsequently found to be riddled with inconsistencies and improbabilities. Investigative reporter and writer, H.P. Albarelli Jr., explores these in his terrific new book, “A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Cold War Experiments.” In the process, he provides a convincing solution to the mystery of Olson’s death.
Albarelli spent nine years researching his book. He carefully takes the reader on a long, twisting and fascinating voyage through the landscape in which Frank Olson moved. Olson’s journey, whose final chapter began at a CIA retreat at rural Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake, and ended with a push or plunge out the tenth floor window of a Manhattan hotel room on November 28, 1953, is also a map illuminating a carefully hidden part of this nation’s history.
As the book’s title suggests, Olson’s death was intricately tied up with the history of U.S. interrogation, torture, and mind control experiments. Many readers are no doubt familiar with the acronym MKULTRA. This CIA program, and others like it – Project Bluebird, Operation Artichoke, MKNAOMI, MKSEARCH, among others – were launched in part in reaction to fears within the government that communist countries were outstripping the West in their ability to manipulate prisoners’ minds, and even create, via hypnosis and drugs, Manchurian Candidate assassins. Hysteria over “brainwashing” was later discovered to be whipped up by CIA-linked journalists.
The CIA worked closely with academic and military researchers, including many doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists. The scientists’ results were later operationalized in the CIA’s 1960s KUBARK and other interrogation manuals.
Olson may have been typical of the many Americans swept up in this mammoth endeavor, which in the end spent untold millions of dollars and caused an unknown number of deaths and psychiatric casualties.
One of the many revelations in this well-researched and documented book, and a key element in the Olson murder mystery, is the LSD dosing of an entire small French town, Pont-St.-Esprit, in August 1951. Four people died, and hundreds were afflicted. It may have been an incautious slip regarding the Pont-St.-Esprit episode that constituted what Frank Olson explained to his wife before his death was “a terrible mistake.”
From the book (p. 690):
According to Albert and Neal [two CIA informants], several weeks before the meeting at Deep Creek Lake, Frank Olson had “broken security” and talked about the French experiment on at least two occasions. He had been specifically cautioned by [CIA agent] Vincent Ruwet and [Ft. Detrick Special Operations Division chief] John Schwab about the “high level of security and sensitivity involving the experiment”….
The question was posed to the two sources: “Was this, the incident in France at Pont-St.-Esprit, the ‘un-American activity’ referred to in the papers given to the Olsons by [CIA Director] William Colby?”
Not surprisingly, the answer was, “Yes.”
Was Pont-St.Esprit solely a SOD operation?
No. It was a pre-ARTICHOKE joint operation between SOD [Ft. Detrick’s Special Operations Division] and CIA’s security branch.
Did it involve any other intelligence agency such as the French?
Albarelli’s book also chronicles the wrenching story of Frank’s wife and three children, how devastated they were by his death, how they were kept in the dark for decades over its circumstances, and how they fought to get the truth out, at great emotional cost. Albarelli himself describes how he was swept up into an investigation of the case by the New York District Attorney’s office in the late 1990s.
Implicitly the book also asks, who was Frank Olson, this emblem of Cold War skulduggery, the first known American to die an LSD-related death? The son of Swedish immigrants, he was called to duty during World War II and quickly recruited into the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, where he worked at the Edgewood Arsenal. Criticized by some as “conceited” and a problem drinker, no one doubted he was a good husband and family man.
Despite any concerns about his character, Olson was considered reliable and promoted to the military’s new bio-weapons research center at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, where he joined the then-newly formed Special Operations Division in 1950. And thus began his association with the CIA, and most particularly Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a top official with the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, the precursor to today’s CIA Office of Technical Services. (The OTS was identified by the recent CIA Inspector General Report as having been central to the vetting of SERE torture techniques for the attorneys working on the torture memos for the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel).
No short summary can do justice to the amount of research and narrative substance Mr. Albarelli brings to his book. My hope is that readers here will be intrigued and read the book themselves, as it is one of the most amazing works of American history in recent memory.
H.P. Albarelli Jr. divides his time between Vermont, Florida, and London, England. He is a graduate of Antioch Law School, and worked in President Jimmy Carter’s White House. He also worked for the U.S. Department of Treasury, the National Consumer Cooperative Bank, and was on the senior policy staff of the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO. He has traveled widely throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa, and has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles on biological warfare and intelligence affairs. His novel The Heap was published in 2005. His biography of George Hunter White will be published by Trine Day in 2011. He can be contacted through his website: www.albarelli.net.