Moral Low Ground


‘On This Day’ 1953: Frank Olson, Victim of Secret CIA LSD Experiment, Dies

Frank Olson

Frank Olson

In the early morning hours of November 28, 1953, Frank Olson fell from a tenth floor window of the Statler Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Police hurried to room 1018A and found one Robert Lashbrook sitting on the toilet with his head in his hands. When questioned, hotel operators said two calls had recently been made from 1018A. In one of the calls, a voice said “he’s gone,” to which another voice replied, “that’s too bad.”

Fast-forward to June 11, 1975. Splashed across the front page of the Washington Post was this headline: PANEL FINDS CIA BROKE LAW; SUICIDE REVEALED. The panel the Post was referring to was the Rockefeller Commission, led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and set up by President Gerald Ford to investigate CIA misdeeds. It found that “a civilian employee of the Department of the Army unwittingly took LSD as part of a CIA test” and had “developed serious side effects.” Serious as in jumping from a tenth floor hotel window.

The article did not mention Frank Olson by name, but his family immediately knew it was him. For 22 years they had been in the dark about Frank’s death. Now they knew that LSD was involved and they wanted answers. Daughter Lisa contacted Vincent Ruwet, who had been Frank’s boss at Ft. Dietrick, Maryland. Ruwet confirmed that the man in the Post story was indeed her father and that he had known about Frank Olson’s tragic tale all along.

Indeed, CIA director Allen Dulles had ordered Ruwet to maintain contact with Frank’s wife Alice following his death, which he faithfully did. He watched as Alice Olson spiraled downward into alcoholism and despair. Whenever Lisa’s brother Eric would ask Alice about Frank’s death she would inevitably reply that he would “never know what happened in that room.”

The Olson family meets President Ford at the White House

The Olson family meets President Ford at the White House

The Olson family decided to sue the government for Frank’s wrongful death. They held a news conference and very soon thereafter they were invited to the White House where President Ford personally apologized. But the whole truth was still not revealed. It turns out that Frank Olson was actually a CIA agent who was involved in some pretty sinister secret research like Project MK-ULTRA, a decades-long foray into mind control research that utilized human guinea pigs. MK-ULTRA test subjects were poisoned with radiation, subjected to maddening sensory deprivation and solitary confinement and physically and sexually abused. They were also sometimes unwittingly dosed with various drugs, including the hallucinogen LSD.

Declassified documents show that on November 19, 1953, MK-ULTRA chief Sidney Gottlieb drugged Frank Olson’s drink with LSD at a rural getaway in Maryland. Olson may have been interrogated while under the influence of the powerful hallucinogenic. But interrogated for what?

Frank Olson was a scientist. He knew that the US government had convicted Nazi scientists at the Nuremberg trials of carrying out unimaginably horrific experiments on living human beings. While he was doing MK-ULTRA research in Europe during the summer of 1953 it is highly likely that Olson witnessed CIA agents carrying out the same kinds of criminal experimentation and engaging in brutal interrogation techniques on captured communist agents and others. He expressed his strong reservations to William Sargant, a leading British psychiatrist in the field of brainwashing and mind control. But Olson was confiding in the wrong man. Sargant informed British intelligence that Olson was a security risk and it naturally wasn’t long before the CIA was paying very close attention to him.

Testing LSD on unsuspecting British troops:

By this time, Frank Olson wanted out of the CIA. He repeatedly visited Vincent Ruwet’s office and demanded that his resignation be accepted. Ruwet took Olson to New York along with another CIA agent named Robert Lashbrook, he of room 1018A fame. The purpose of the trip was ostensibly to have Olson examined by a psychiatrist. But Olson was taken to an allergist who prescribed him an unorthodox combination of bourbon and tranquilizers.

While in New York, Olson also met with John Mullholland, a CIA-employed magician. When Mullholland attempted to hypnotize Olson, the latter grew upset. He pleaded with them all to “just let me disappear.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t any kind of magic trick that John Mullholland could perform. The CIA had an entirely different trick up its sleeve and shortly thereafter, Frank Olson plunged to his death from his hotel window.

Around the same time that Frank Olson was dying to leave the CIA, the spy agency’s minds penned an assassination manual which listed ideal ways to kill people and make it look like an accident. It read, in part: “The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet of more onto a hard surface… un-screened windows will serve.” It further stated that “the subject may be stunned… blows should be directed to the temple.”

In 1994, Eric Olson exhumed his father’s body. When Frank died, his family was told that his face was badly cut and therefore the wake would have to be closed-casket. But Eric found his father to be in a remarkably preserved state and his face was free of lacerations. A forensic team led by James Starrs of George Washington University did, however, find that Frank had suffered a blow to his left temple just before he fell to his death. When Olson fell, he hit the ground feet-first and then fell backwards. This bruise above Frank’s temple, Eric Olson and James Starrs concluded, was caused when somebody delivered a stunning blow to Frank before pushing or throwing him from the tenth floor window.

Amazingly, Frank survived the initial fall, at least briefly. When Armand Pastore, night manager at the Statler Hotel, ran out into the street and saw Frank Olson lying horribly contorted on the sidewalk, the dying man tried to tell him something. “He was broken up something awful,” Pastore said, “he was trying to mumble something, but I couldn’t make it out.”

We may never know exactly what happened to Frank Olson. But his case, and the larger existence of secret projects like MK-ULTRA, serve as stark reminders that, at its worst, the United States is capable of evil every bit as sinister as that which is practiced by any of our enemies; and at its best is able to admit and apologize for its mistakes. As Alexis de Tocqueville said nearly 200 years ago, “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

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