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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Poisoner in Chief

Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control

Stephen Kinzer

Henry Holt and Co.



I Needed More of a Challenge

Years of wandering through distant lands, never knowing who or what lies around the next bend! It is a prospect to stir any adventurous soul. During the second half of the twentieth century, few American souls were as restless as that of Sidney Gottlieb. He spent his career deep inside Washington’s secret world. No one knew what he did, but he seemed to have earned a fulfilling retirement.

A more ordinary man might have been happy to spend his later years relaxing, reminiscing, or playing with grandchildren. Gottlieb, however, was a psychic voyager, far from anyone’s stereotype of the career civil servant. His home was an eco-lodge in the woods with outdoor toilets and a vegetable garden. He meditated, wrote poetry, and raised goats.

Gottlieb was just fifty-four years old when he retired. His career ended well, with a ceremony at which he was awarded a medal for distinguished service. Soon afterward, he and his wife sold their home and almost everything else they owned. In the autumn of 1973 they set off to seek humanitarian adventure and spiritual fulfillment. Their plan was marvelously vague: board a freighter in San Francisco and go wherever it was going. They had little interest in sightseeing or conventional tourism. The Gottliebs wanted to spend their older years serving the world’s neediest people.

Australia was their first stop. After a while there, they booked passage onward. A year of wandering led them to India. They learned of a hospital where victims of leprosy were treated and made their way there to volunteer. Living among the patients, they embraced the work of caring for society’s castoffs. Then, on a summer day in 1975, a message from Washington shattered Gottlieb’s world. Someone had discovered who he was. The United States Senate wanted to question him.

In two decades at the Central Intelligence Agency, Gottlieb had directed history’s most systematic search for techniques of mind control. He was also the CIA’s chief poison maker. His work had been shrouded in secrecy so complete as to render him invisible. Now he was being summoned home. He would be expected to account for his deeds, possibly even to appear in public. Never could he have imagined such a twist of fortune.

Soon after Gottlieb arrived in Washington, friends told him he needed a lawyer. One suggested Terry Lenzner, who had worked for the Senate Watergate Committee. Gottlieb called him. After they met, Lenzner wrote: “I was in contact with Dr. Death himself.”

For years Gottlieb had overseen medical experiments and “special interrogation” projects in which hundreds of people were tormented and many minds were permanently shattered. No one had ever plunged into this kind of work with more ambition or enthusiasm. Gottlieb justified it all in the name of science and patriotism—until the end, when his conscience finally broke through.

In the years after Gottlieb reluctantly returned to Washington, bits of information about his work began to emerge. He testified at two rounds of Senate hearings. Later he was forced to defend himself against lawsuits filed by people who had come to suspect that they were among his victims. He revealed almost nothing beyond the fact that before leaving the CIA he had destroyed all records of what he did. He was never convicted of a crime. His funeral in 1999 was private.

Enough had become known about Gottlieb to tantalize obituary writers. The New York Times published its obituary under the circumspect headline SIDNEY GOTTLIEB, 80, DIES; TOOK LSD TO C.I.A. It called Gottlieb “a kind of genius, striving to explore the frontiers of the human mind for his country while searching for religious and spiritual meaning in his life … He served two decades as the senior scientist presiding over some of the CIA’s darkest secrets.” The Los Angeles Times obituary began: “James Bond had Q, the wizard who supplied 007 with dazzling gadgets to deploy against enemy agents. The CIA had Sidney Gottlieb.”

Others were sharper. The iconoclastic website Counterpunch headlined its obituary PUSHER, ASSASSIN & PIMP: US OFFICIAL POISONER DIES. Another writer concluded that Gottlieb “takes his place among the Jekyll and Hydes of the American 20th century. Whether homesteading in Virginia’s verdant hills or safeguarding national security with another experimental torture session, Gottlieb stayed loyal to the positivist credo that rational exploration and productive discipline will lead to good.”

In Britain, where obituaries are famously unrestrained, the tone was biting. The Guardian called Gottlieb “everything you have dreamed of in a mad scientist in a pulp novel about the CIA—except that he was real.” The Independent said he was “living vindication for conspiracy theorists that there is nothing, however evil, pointless or even lunatic, that unaccountable intelligence agencies will not get up to in the pursuit of their secret wars.” The Times was even more vivid:

When Churchill spoke of a world “made darker by the dark lights of perverted science,” he was referring to the revolting experiments conducted on human beings by Nazi doctors in the concentration camps. But his remarks might with equal justice have been applied to the activities of the CIA’s Sidney Gottlieb … Indeed, what Gottlieb and his CIA henchmen did was only in degree different from the activities which had sent a number of Nazi scientists to the gallows at Nuremberg in 1946 … Drugs were not Gottlieb’s only weapon against the CIA’s enemies. He was also involved in assassination plots which at this distance read like something out of a Jacobean revenge play.

After the ripple of notoriety that followed his death, Gottlieb faded back into obscurity. A few historical studies mention his name. One reports that he was “known to some as the ‘dark sorcerer’ for his conjuring in the most sinister recesses of the CIA … With his club foot, he was perhaps too easy to caricature as a cross between a Bond villain and Dr. Strangelove, a scientist who always wanted to push further without worrying about the morality of where it all led.” In a book called The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Most Disgusting, Hideous, Inept and Dangerous People, Places, and Things on Earth, Gottlieb is named “the maddest mad scientist.” The author gives him grudging credit “for being smart enough to work for an organization that would not only allow him to poison and murder people with such aplomb, but would also protect him from the consequences awaiting any other sociopath.”

Gottlieb also turns up briefly in two modern American novels. Barbara Kingsolver’s portrait of life in the Congo, The Poisonwood Bible, refers to his role in the CIA plot to assassinate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. She writes that “a scientist named Dr. Gottlieb was hired to make a poison that would produce such a dreadful disease (the good doctor later testified at the hearings), if it didn’t kill Lumumba outright it would leave him so disfigured that he couldn’t possibly be a leader of men.” A character in Norman Mailer’s fevered history of American covert action, Harlot’s Ghost, discovers a letter from a fictional CIA officer who raves about Gottlieb and calls him “cosmic in scope, interested in everything.”

In the 1960s Gottlieb rose to the top of the Technical Services Division, which makes the tools that CIA officers use. Gottlieb ran a bustling gadget shop in Washington and directed the work of several hundred scientists and technicians scattered around the world. They crafted a mind-boggling array of spyware, from a rubber airplane to an escape kit concealed in a rectal suppository. Gottlieb and his team supplied tools of the trade to CIA officers operating in the Soviet Union and dozens of other countries.

“Under Gottlieb’s leadership, TSD built worldwide technical capacities critical to virtually all significant U.S. clandestine operations in the last third of the twentieth century,” one of his successors wrote. “Yet regardless of Gottlieb’s public service and personal charity, his name will always be inextricably linked to the ten-year MK-ULTRA program and the sinister implications of associated words such as drugs, LSD, assassination, and mind control.”

* * *

NEARLY EVERY DAY for the first twenty years of his life, Sidney Gottlieb passed the side entrance to James Monroe High School in the Bronx. He couldn’t avoid it. The hulking school stands directly across the street from the brick row house where he and his family lived. Every time he left home, he saw the stern maxim chiseled into a triangular stone pediment above the side entrance. It is a warning from the British statesman William Pitt: WHERE LAW ENDS, TYRANNY BEGINS.

Many who lived nearby felt that truth deeply. The neighborhood was home to a jumble of immigrants, most of them Jews who had come to America seeking refuge from oppression. Fanny and Louis Gottlieb were typical. They were Orthodox Jews of Hungarian extraction who left central Europe early in the twentieth century. In New York, Louis Gottlieb found work in the garment industry, opened a sweatshop, and made enough money to rent half of a two-family home at 1333 Boynton Avenue. Sidney was the youngest of four children, born on August 3, 1918. He grew up in a vibrant community. The busy main drag, Westchester Avenue, is just two blocks away and was as full of activity then as it is today. Many of Sidney’s classmates were like him: smart kids from observant Jewish homes, barely removed from the immigrant experience, who sensed the opportunity America offered and clamored to seize it. Like most of them, he learned Hebrew, had a bar mitzvah, and studied hard.

In two important ways, though, young Sidney stood apart from his friends. First, he was born with deformed feet. According to one relative, his mother screamed when she first saw them. For most of his childhood he was unable to walk. His mother carried him everywhere. The family’s sweatshop brought in enough money to pay for three operations. They were at least partly successful. At the age of twelve, the boy walked without braces for the first time. He never needed them again, but the ordeal left him with a lifelong limp.

The other challenge that afflicted Sidney was stuttering. It may have been in part a reaction to schoolmates who, by one account, “viciously harassed” him for his disability. During his high school years, the young man was ostracized, physically scarred, and unable to either walk or speak normally. These handicaps might have led another teenager to withdraw into frustration or self-pity, but Sidney emerged resolute and determined to excel.

After graduating from James Monroe in 1936, Sidney, like many other ambitious sons and daughters of immigrants in New York, enrolled at City College, then known as “the Harvard of the proletariat” for the excellent education it provided free of charge. He studied advanced German and won high grades in math, physics, and chemistry. He also took two courses in public speaking, evidently aimed at helping him overcome his stutter: “Exposition and Rudiments of Speech” and “Declamation and Oration.” He took a music course as well—the beginning of a lifelong interest in folk dancing, which he cultivated as a hobby despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he was born with clubfeet.

City College did not offer courses in agricultural biology, the field Sidney wished to pursue. He decided to transfer to a school where it was taught seriously. The University of Wisconsin had a well-reputed program, and he wrote to inquire. He received a short but cordial reply that ended, “I shall be glad to help you in any way that I can.” It was signed by Ira Baldwin, assistant dean of the College of Agriculture. That letter, dated February 24, 1937, marked the beginning of a relationship that would shape secret history.

In order to take specialized courses that would qualify him for admission to the University of Wisconsin, Gottlieb enrolled at Arkansas Polytechnic College, now Arkansas Tech University. The little town of Russellville was nothing like the teeming Bronx streets of his childhood, and his new campus had none of City College’s intensity, but he was able to take the courses he wanted: General Botany, Organic Chemistry, Soil Conservation, Elements of Forestry, and Principles of Dairying. He sang in the Glee Club. The yearbook called him “a Yankee who pleases the southerners.” According to a campus gossip columnist, he kept company with a fellow student named Lera Van Harmon. The columnist wrote: “Harmon and Gottlieb seem to have a nice affair started. But wait, New York’s a fur piece, Harmon.” Gottlieb was already reaching beyond the confines of his experience.

“I have been keeping up an A average without too much difficulty,” he wrote to Ira Baldwin halfway through the school year, “and am consequently prepared to work so much harder.”

Gottlieb’s success at Arkansas won him the prize he had sought, admission to the University of Wisconsin. Baldwin welcomed him, became his mentor, and guided him through two successful academic years. He majored in chemistry. Moved by conditions he had seen in New York sweatshops, including the one his father owned, he joined the campus chapter of the Young People’s Socialist League. His senior thesis was entitled “Studies on Ascorbic Acid in Cowpeas.” In 1940 he graduated magna cum laude. Baldwin gave him a glowing recommendation, mentioning his “slight speech impediment” but praising his intellect and character.

“Mr. Gottlieb is a very high type of Jewish boy,” he wrote. “He has easily fit into the situations which he finds here, and is, I think, generally liked and respected by his classmates. He has a brilliant mind, is thoroughly honest and reliable, and is modest and unassuming.”

Gottlieb’s academic achievement and Baldwin’s recommendation combined to secure the young man admission to graduate school at California Institute of Technology. He spent three years there, and on June 11, 1943, he was awarded a doctorate in biochemistry. During those years his life changed in two important ways.

First, he met a woman vastly different from anyone he could have known in the Bronx. Margaret Moore was the daughter of a Presbyterian preacher. She had been born and raised in India, where her father was spreading Christian gospel, but had rebelled against the missionary ethos from an early age. When Gottlieb met her, she was studying preschool education at Broadoaks School in Pasadena, a branch of Whittier College where prospective teachers were schooled in the progressive education theories of Maria Montessori and other innovators. The two had little apparent in common, and might even be seen as polar opposites. Yet they shared a spiritual restlessness. Gottlieb had become estranged from the Judaism he absorbed as a child. Margaret Moore tormented her father with sharp questions about Christianity. Both yearned for an understanding of life beyond what traditional religion offers. In 1942, with World War II raging, they resolved to make their spirit quest together.

“Grad students were not supposed to get married but we did it anyway,” Margaret told her parents in a brief note. The wedding was a sign of the couple’s disregard for convention: a bare-bones civil ceremony, with no guests or festivities. “Getting married is between two people and not a whole crowd,” Margaret wrote. Later she sent an addendum: “Sid’s folks want us to have a Jewish wedding, which we are going to do so we will have one fancy wedding anyway. And we most certainly will be married then.”

The bride’s parents, accustomed to her independent ways, happily accepted the match. “We were very excited to get the cable, Sept. 17th, saying that our Margaret married her Sidney Gottlieb on Sept. 16th in Pasadena,” her mother wrote to relatives after hearing the news. “If she has to teach and he to do work for the government, they can undoubtedly get better food by doing it together. How many arrangements have been altered for the duration! And if they have Each Other, they are indeed fortunate in this world full of sorrow.”

The other formative event that shaped Gottlieb during his years in California was his rejection by the Selective Service System. He was halfway through graduate school when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. Other students quit school and volunteered for military service, but Gottlieb remained at Caltech until completing his PhD in 1943. He then sought to enlist, having convinced himself that his limp would not disqualify him. When the army turned him down, he was crushed.

“I wanted to do my share in the war effort,” he said later. “I felt I had a duty to serve, yet I couldn’t convince anyone that I would not be hampered in my performance.”

Denied the chance to wear a military uniform, Gottlieb resolved to find another way to serve. In the fall of 1943 he and Margaret moved to Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. He found a job researching the chemical structure of organic soil for the Department of Agriculture. Later he transferred to the Food and Drug Administration, where he developed tests to measure the presence of drugs in the human body. He became prominent enough to be called as an expert witness in several court cases.

“I enjoyed my FDA time, but the work became mostly repetitive and sometimes pretty monotonous,” he later recalled. “I needed more of a challenge.”

He sought it actively. In 1948 he found a new job at the National Research Council, part of the non-profit National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. There he studied plant diseases and fungicides and was also, as he later recalled, “exposed to some interesting work concerning ergot alkaloids as vasoconstrictors and hallucinogens.” Soon afterward he changed jobs again, becoming a research associate at the University of Maryland devoted to studying the metabolism of fungi.

“By this time we had found a very old and primitive cabin near Vienna, Virginia,” Margaret wrote years later. “It had no electricity or water or any of that fancy stuff but it sat under three very magnificent oak trees, and when I saw it, I said, ‘This will be my home.’ Sid, having grown up in New York City, thought I was nuts, but I persuaded him that I knew how to live this way and it was possible, so we borrowed money from all our friends to make a down payment and we moved in our two babies and our few possessions.”

A relative who spent four days with the young family during this period wrote a glowing account of their life in a letter to her parents. “Margaret’s whole situation is most unusual and interesting—15 acres of pine forest in Virginia with a little log cabin in the midst thereof, about 20 miles from Washington DC,” he reported. “Sid is a grand man, full of energy and initiative and brains, and a perfect gentleman and host, with never a dull moment. He has just taken a job with the University of Maryland as a research chemist—his own boss and his own lab with a special assignment to work out a problem with wood for the navy. Penny (4) and Rachel (1) are beautiful and angelic children. They have an interesting group of friends, and the future looks rosy for them. Margaret seemed very natural, and is obviously very happy. She is just as keen on country life as Sid is, so no one needs to feel sorry for her one bit, but only glad.”

The Gottliebs had two more children, both boys. “There are so many nice names that we can’t use because Sid’s folks are Jewish and they would be hurt if we chose something like John or Mary,” Margaret wrote to her mother. The boys were named Peter and Stephen. Gottlieb settled comfortably into family life.

“Sid is pitching in more than he ever has before and he’s wonderful,” Margaret wrote while she was nursing one of her infants. “I feel guilty sleeping when he has to milk the goats.”

Despite his satisfying family life, Gottlieb was frustrated. He had no clear path out of his mid-level research on pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals. His mentor from the University of Wisconsin, Ira Baldwin, had guided other former students into exciting work during the war, but Gottlieb had been too young. Everything suggested that he was headed for a career as a government scientist. So he was—but he could not have imagined what a phantasmagorical kind of science he would be called to practice.

Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Stephen Kinzer