Project MKULTRA is one of the most famous undertakings relating to the CIA’s efforts toward mass mind control. There were many different tests conducted as a part of the project, including some conducted on volunteers, inmates, and unsuspecting targets. The project involved several different drugs—most famously LSD—and the participants involved had very different reactions to the testing, with some being inspired by it and others becoming terrified of just the notion of any possible future exposure. Some fatalities evem stemmed from Project MKULTRA, and what follows are 10 of the most interesting figures to have involvement with this CIA-sponsored testing.
10 Ken Kesey
Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a source of inspiration in the counterculture movement, was first exposed to LSD and other psychedelic drugs as a part of the MKULTRA project while still a graduate student at Stanford University. He came to be involved in the study almost by accident, as a neighbor of Kesey’s—a psychologist—signed up for the project but had to back out at the last minute. An outstanding athlete and a straitlaced individual up to that point, Kesey had never done any sort of drug and had never even tasted alcohol. At the time of the experiments, Kesey was in training for the 1960 Olympics, as he had earned a place on the wrestling team as an alternate.
Despite Allen Ginsberg’s insistence, Kesey did not believe that the project was sponsored by the CIA, and not until decades later did Kesey discover the program’s true intent: “[The testing] wasn’t being done to try to cure insane people, which is what we thought. It was being done to try to make people insane—to weaken people, and to be able to put them under the control of interrogators.”
Of course, the resulting effect of the LSD did not weaken Kesey, as psychedelics came to be a tool of enlightenment for the author and cultural icon. Kesey noted that the CIA experimentation helped in evoking the kind of epiphanies that ultimately served as the foundation for the counterculture movement that would soon follow: “We suddenly realized that there’s a lot more to this world than we previously thought . . . One of the things that I think came out of it is this, is that there’s room. We don’t all have to be the same. We don’t have to have Baptists coast to coast. We can throw in some Buddhists and some Christians, and people who are just thinking these totally strange thoughts about the Irish leprechauns—that there is room, spiritually, for everybody in this universe.”
While still undergoing the CIA testing, Kesey took a job at the project facility, noting that his status as an employee gave him access to several experimental drugs. While Kesey’s friends and many others were able to make LSD on their own after the testing, Kesey acknowledged that the government had the best LSD around, saying, “[The homemade LSD] never was anywhere as good as that good government stuff. That’s the government—the CIA always has the best stuff.”
9 Whitey Bulger
An infamous gangster who evaded capture for decades before finally being arrested in 2011, Bulger was exposed to LSD testing while in a federal prison in Atlanta in exchange for a lighter sentence. For 18 months, Bulger and other inmates were subjected to drug testing, which Bulger described in his notebook as “horrible LSD experiences followed by thoughts of suicide and deep depression.” He was so deeply and negatively affected by the project that Bulger compared the program’s doctor to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor responsible for the horrific human experimentation conducted at concentration camps.
Bulger’s anxiety was compounded by his inability to ask for help or disclose what he was experiencing, as he feared that telling anyone of his visual and auditory hallucinations would lead to lifelong commitment in an insane asylum. The effects of the LSD on Bulger were such that the mobster reflected on the irony of his situation in his notebook, writing, “I was in prison for committing a crime and feel they committed a worse crime on me.”
The gangster was apparently so enraged after learning of the program’s intent and the effects it had on other that he strongly considered tracking down Dr. Carl Pfeiffer, the pharmacologist who oversaw the program, with the goal of assassination.
8 Robert Hunter
Robert Hunter, a lyricist and longtime collaborator with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, was exposed to the same testing as Kesey, though he had no idea that it was a part of the MKULTRA project until many years later. Hunter had a very different experience from Bulger, saying the following in an interview with Reuters in 2013:
I couldn’t figure out why they were paying me to take these psychedelics. What they wanted to do was to check if I was more hypnotizable when I was on them. It was hard to pay attention to what the hell they were talking about, much less be hypnotized. It was the first time I had had any of this stuff, and the drugs in themselves were rather spectacular. Nobody had had my experiences, and it was at least two years before those drugs started getting out on the street. It was like a secret club of one.
As a songwriter, Hunter is responsible for some of the most cherished songs in the Dead’s expansive catalog, including “Ripple,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Dark Star,” and “Box of Rain,” and his talents will be honored in the summer of 2015 when he is scheduled for enshrinement into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Through the CIA testing, Hunter was the first of his social circle to try LSD by a few years, so when Garcia took LSD for the first time, it was Hunter who advised him, “Go home, put on a Ravi Shankar record, just listen to the music.”