Spiking the Christmas Punch

MK-ULTRA, the CIA's major drug and mind control program during the Cold War, was the brainchild of Richard Helms, a high-ranking member of the Clandestine Services --otherwise known as the "dirty tricks department" (see the Document Gallery --who championed such methods throughout his career as an intelligence officer. As Helms explained to CIA director Allen Dulles when he first proposed the MK-ULTRA project, "Aside from the offensive potential, the development of a comprehensive capability in this field...gives us a thorough knowledge of the enemy's theoretical potential, thus enabling us to defend ourselves against a foe who might not be as restrained in the use of these techniques as we are."

The supersecret MK-ULTRA program was run by a relatively small unit within the CIA known as the Technical Senrices Staff (TSS). For a while both the TSS and the Office of Security, which directed the ARTICHOKE project, were engaged in parallel LSD tests, and a heated rivalry developed between the two groups. Security officials were miffed because they had gotten into acid first and then this new clique started cutting in on what the ARTICHOKE crowd considered their rightful turf.

The internecine conflict grew to the point where the Office of Security decided to have one of its people spy on the TSS. This set off a flurry of memos between the Security informant and his superiors, who were dismayed when they learned that Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the chemist who ran the MK-ULTRA program, had approved a plan to give acid to unwitting American citizens.

The Office of Security had never attempted such a reckless gesture--although it had its own idiosyncrasies. ARTICHOKE operatives, for example, were attempting to have a hypnotized subject kill someone while in a trance. Whereas the Office of Security utilized LSD as an interrogation weapon, Dr. Gottlieb had other ideas about what to do with the drug. Because the effects of LSD were temporary (in contrast to the fatal nerve agents), Gottlieb saw important strategic advantages for its use in covert operations. For instance, a surreptitious dose of LSD might disrupt a person's thought process and cause him to act strangely or foolishly in public. A CIA document notes that administering LSD "to high officials would be a relatively simple matter and could have a significant effect at key meetings, speeches, etc." But Gottlieb realized there was a considerable difference between testing LSD in a laboratory and using the drug in clandestine operations. In an effort to bridge the gap, he and his TSS colleagues initiated a series of in-house experiments designed to find out what would happen if LSD was given to someone in a "normal" life setting without advance warning.

They approached the problem systematically, taking one step at a time, until they reached a point where outsiders were zapped with no explanation whatsoever. First everyone in Technical Services tried LSD. They tripped alone and in groups. A typical experiment involved two people pairing off in a closed room where they observed each other for hours at a time, took notes, and analyzed their experiences. As Gottlieb later explained, "There was an extensive amount of self-experimentation for the reason that we felt that a first hand knowledge of the subjective effects of these drugs [was] important to those of us who were involved in the program." When they finally learned the hallucinogenic ropes, so to speak, they agreed among themselves to slip LSD into each other's drinks. The target never knew when his turn would come, but as soon as the drug was ingested a TSS colleague would tell him so he could make the necessary preparations--which usually meant taking the rest of the day off. Initially the leaders of MK-ULTRA restricted the surprise acid tests to TSS members, but when this phase had run its course they started dosing other Agency personnel who had never tripped before. Nearly everyone was fair game, and surprise acid trips became something of an occupational hazard among CIA operatives. Such tests were considered necessary because foreknowledge would prejudice the results of the experiment.

Indeed, things were getting a bit raucous down at headquarters. When Security officials discovered what was going on, they began to have serious doubts about the wisdom of the TSS game plan. Moral reservations were not paramount; it was more a sense that the MK-ULTRA staff had become unhinged by the hallucinogen. The Office of Security felt that the TSS should exercise better judgment when dealing with such a powerful and dangerous chemical. The straw that broke the camel's back came when a Security informant got wind of a plan by a few TSS jokers to put LSD in the punch served at the annual CIA Christmas office party. A Security memo dated December 15, 1954, noted that acid could "produce serious insanity for periods of 8 to 18 hours and possibly for longer." The writer of this memo concluded indignantly and unequivocally that he did "not recommend testing in the Christmas punch bowls usually present at the Christmas office parties."

Back to the Trip Guide.

An excerpt from Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties and Beyond, by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain (Grove Press)
Copyright 1985 by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain
The Acid Dreams web site: http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/