Journalist Kinzer (The Brothers) delivers a stranger-than-fiction account of the CIA’s efforts in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s at developing mind control and chemical-based espionage methods, and the chemist, Sidney Gottlieb, who spearheaded the effort. Surreal episodes, involving attempts to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out and efforts to create an “acoustic cat” that could be used as a clandestine listening device, sit alongside the extreme medical misdeeds of Gottlieb’s mind-control project, MK-Ultra , which included experimenting on unsuspecting members of his own research group, Chinese and Hungarian refugees, and medical patients. While the book nominally focuses on Gottlieb, he remains something of a cipher throughout, overshadowed by some of the larger-than-life characters in his orbit, like the drug-sampling narcotics agent turned agency contractor George Hunter White, who tested the effects of LSD and other drugs on unsuspecting subjects in New York and San Francisco as part of MK-Ultra. Gottlieb’s efforts to reinvent himself in his post-CIA career, becoming a speech therapist at the age of 60, and his unwillingness to revisit his past, even when called to testify before Congress in 1977 after the activities of MK-Ultra came to light, means his motivations are left largely unclear. In the end, “one of the most powerful unknown Americans” remains a mystery, but the nigh-unbelievable efforts he led are vividly and horrifically recreated in this fascinating history. (Sept.)
Winding through the spy-loving Eisenhower-Kennedy years, Kinzer’s book is a Tarantino movie yet to be made: it has the right combination of sick humor, pointless violence, weird tabloid characters, and sheer American waste. It is also frightening to read . . . [and] compelling, not least in the way it illustrates how the law of unintended consequences in covert action can work with an almost delirious vengeance.” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
“Absolutely riveting. Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief reads like a spy thrillerbut his revelations about the macabre career of the CIA’s Sidney Gottlieb are deeply disturbing. Kinzer’s work underscores once again the narrative power of biography to unearth our collective history.” Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning coauthor of American Prometheus, author of The Good Spy, and executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography
“Stephen Kinzer has done a great public service with this absorbing and informative portrait of the life and career of Sidney Gottlieb, a CIA scientist who was the Agency’s Dr. No in the Cold Wara producer of poison pills, poison darts, and leader of the hunt for the perfect killing machine, a la the Manchurian Candidate. It’s all in the bone-crunching detail, and Kinzer, a master of American perfidy, has done it again.” Seymour M. Hersh, author of Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib and Reporter: A Memoir
Kinzer’s retelling of the MK-ULTRA story is unsparing in its gruesome details, but not overwrought . . . Gottlieb has previously been treated as a historical footnote, but Kinzer elevates him to his proper place as one of the C.I.A.’s most influential and despicable characters. Sharon Weinberger, The New York Times
This [book] connects dots between former Nazi torturers, Oregon author Ken Kesey, Boston mobster Whitey Bulger and an obscure CIA chemist who qualifies as the ultimate James Bond villain. . . . Kinzer’s startling reportage on Gottlieb’s amok research in secret, international detention cells can’t help but evoke more recent memories of Abu Ghraib and the like. Seattle Times
“A stranger-than-fiction account of the CIA’s efforts in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s at developing mind control and chemical-based espionage methods, and the chemist, Sidney Gottlieb, who spearheaded the effort . . . The nigh-unbelievable efforts he led are vividly and horrifically recreated in this fascinating history.” Publishers Weekly
"It's an awful story, told fast and well . . . Kinzer has put together a revolting look at the champions of freedom in the USA." San Francisco Review of Books
"He’s been called Dr. Death, Washington’s 'official poisoner,' and a mad scientist. But Sidney Gottlieb never became a household name . . . Now, pulling together a trove of existing research, newly unearthed documents, and fresh interviews, Kinzer puts the fetid corpus of American Empire back under a microscope. It isn’t prettybut it is instructive." Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, The American Conservative
"The most powerful and important organs in the invisible government are the nation’s bloated and unaccountable intelligence agencies . . . The best window we have into this shadow world comes with historical accounts of its crimes, including those in Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control." Chris Hedges, Truthdig
"Stephen Kinzer tells the story of Gottlieb, a chemist obsessed with finding a way to control the human brain, no matter how many innocent minds he destroyed in the process." Larry Getlen, New York Post
“Stephen Kinzer takes the unusual approach of making Sidney Gottlieb, MK-Ultra’s program manager, the central figure of the story . . . Reflecting on Gottlieb’s culpability, Mr. Kinzer is careful to place his story in historical context . . . The reader will have to decide how far to venture into this dark thicket.” The Wall Street Journal
"Stephen Kinzer has written books about civil wars, terror attacks, and bloodycoups, but his latest might be his most alarming. . . . Though the events recounted in Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control took place a half-century ago, they’re scandalous in a way that transcends time." The Daily Beast
An accomplished journalist digs into the elusive and deeply troubling story behind the U.S. government's postwar search for the perfect mind-control drug.
In this intriguing study, Kinzer (The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, 2017, etc.) shows how U.S. officials drew on the findings of Nazi experiments on human "specimens" during World War II, which were exposed in the Nuremberg Trials, as well as notorious Japanese military trials that injected bacteria into and conducted lab tests on "expendable" humans. The U.S. enlisted many of these perpetrators to beef up postwar intelligence work. With the enemy now the Soviet Union and Red China, the U.S. needed to develop drugs that could be used as weapons of covert action. The 1947 National Security Act created the National Security Council and the CIA, and the new program to study chemical and biological agents was called Bluebird—supposedly to "make prisoners ‘sing like a bird.' " In the early 1950s, the program was taken over by Sidney Gottlieb, a Bronx-born scholar of agricultural biology who had been studying pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals at the Department of Agriculture when his academic mentors—e.g., Allen Dulles—lured him to the work of what Kinzer characterizes as "medical torture." This meant dosing unwilling patients with potent drugs like LSD and mescaline in an attempt to find some kind of "truth serum." Eventually renamed MK-ULTRA, the program was run strictly by Gottlieb, "America's mind control czar." The author engagingly examines various facets of this bizarre program, which led to LSD experimentation within the scientists' social circles, resulting in instances of overdose and even suicide. After a decade of research into mind control, Gottlieb and his colleagues were forced to "face their cosmic failure." Ultimately, readers will feel Kinzer's frustration that Gottlieb, after a late-life conversion and being hauled back to Washington, D.C., for two rounds of Senate hearings, maintained his "victimization" and never truly had to answer for the crime of "laying waste to other people's minds and bodies."
A valiantly researched study that resurrects a troubling episode in American history.
Is it best to know ugly truths about the past, especially if they hurt the American notion of democracy? These questions come to the forefront of Kinzer's (All the Shah's Men and The True Flag) exposé about chemist Sidney Gottlieb (1918–99). Kinzer dives into the CIA's dreadful secrets, many of which Gottlieb oversaw—secrets with direct links to the horrors of Nazi experiments—then describes how Gottlieb created the MK-ULTRA program, which devised techniques to break the human mind. These experiments used both unknowing and unwilling participants and occurred at sites in West Germany, Korea, and most disturbingly, the United States. Gottlieb had a particular fascination with LSD as a truth serum, and Kinzer does a thorough job of detailing how LSD affects the brain at the time of use and its aftereffects. This is not a light read and, at times, is infuriating. Exploring how hysteria fueled perverse policy decisions during the Cold War, Kinzer reveals how disturbing the ramifications of these policy decisions can be if left unchecked. VERDICT Highly recommended. This work sheds light on misdeeds done in the name of American democracy and should have wide appeal among general readers.—Jacob Sherman, John Peace Lib., Univ. of Texas at San Antonio