Chapter 8 - Brainwashing
In September 1950, the Miami News published an article by Edward Hunter titled “‘Brain-Washing’ Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party.” It was the first printed use in any language of the term “brainwashing,” which quickly became a stock phrase in Cold War headlines. Hunter, a CIA propaganda operator who worked under cover as a journalist, turned out a steady stream of books and articles on the subject. He made up his coined word from the Chinese hsi-nao—“to cleanse the mind”—which had no political meaning in Chinese.
American public opinion reacted strongly to Hunter’s ideas, no doubt because of the hostility that prevailed toward communist foes, whose ways were perceived as mysterious and alien. Most Americans knew something about the famous trial of the Hungarian Josef Cardinal Mindszenty, at which the Cardinal appeared zombie-like, as though drugged or hypnotized. Other defendants at Soviet “show trials” had displayed similar symptoms as they recited unbelievable confessions in dull, cliché-ridden monotones. Americans were familiar with the idea that the communists had ways to control hapless people, and Hunter’s new word helped pull together the unsettling evidence into one sharp fear. The brainwashing controversy intensified during the heavy 1952 fighting in Korea, when the Chinese government launched a propaganda offensive that featured recorded statements by captured U.S. pilots, who “confessed” to a variety of war crimes including the use of germ warfare.
The official American position on prisoner confessions was that they were false and forced. As expressed in an Air Force Headquarters document, “Confessions can be of truthful details. . . . For purposes of this section, ‘confessions’ are considered as being the forced admission to a lie.” But if the military had understandable reasons to gloss over the truth or falsity of the confessions, this still did not address the fact that confessions had been made at all. Nor did it lay to rest the fears of those like Edward Hunter who saw the confessions as proof that the communists now had techniques “to put a man’s mind into a fog so that he will mistake what is true for what is untrue, what is right for what is wrong, and come to believe what did not happen actually had happened, until he ultimately becomes a robot for the Communist manipulator.”
By the end of the Korean War, 70 percent of the 7,190 U.S. prisoners held in China had either made confessions or signed petitions calling for an end to the American war effort in Asia. Fifteen percent collaborated fully with the Chinese, and only 5 percent steadfastly resisted. The American performance contrasted poorly with that of the British, Australian, Turkish, and other United Nations prisoners—among whom collaboration was rare, even though studies showed they were treated about as badly as the Americans. Worse, an alarming number of the prisoners stuck by their confessions after returning to the United States. They did not, as expected, recant as soon as they stepped on U.S. soil. Puzzled and dismayed by this wholesale collapse of morale among the POWs, American opinion leaders settled in on Edward Hunter’s explanation: The Chinese had somehow brainwashed our boys.
But how? At the height of the brainwashing furor, conservative spokesmen often seized upon the very mystery of it all to give a religious cast to the political debate. All communists have been, by definition, brainwashed through satanic forces, they argued—thereby making the enemy seem like robots completely devoid of ordinary human feelings and motivation. Liberals favored a more scientific view of the problem. Given the incontrovertible evidence that the Russians and the Chinese could, in a very short time and often under difficult circumstances, alter the basic belief and behavior patterns of both domestic and foreign captives, liberals argued that there must be a technique involved that would yield its secrets under objective investigation.
CIA Director Allen Dulles favored the scientific approach, although he naturally encouraged his propaganda experts to exploit the more emotional interpretations of brainwashing. Dulles and the heads of the other American security agencies became almost frantic in their efforts to find out more about the Soviet and Chinese successes in mind control. Under pressure for answers, Dulles turned to Dr. Harold Wolff, a world-famous neurologist with whom he had developed an intensely personal relationship. Wolff was then treating Dulles’ own son for brain damage suffered from a Korean War head wound. Together they shared the trauma of the younger Dulles’ fits and mental lapses. Wolff, a skinny little doctor with an overpowering personality, became fast friends with the tall, patrician CIA Director. Dulles may have seen brainwashing as an induced form of brain damage or mental illness. In any case, in late 1953, he asked Wolff to conduct an official study of communist brainwashing techniques for the CIA. Wolff, who had become fascinated by the Director’s tales of the clandestine world, eagerly accepted.
Harold Wolff was known primarily as an expert on migraine headaches and pain, but he had served on enough military and intelligence advisory panels that he knew how to pick up Dulles’ mandate and expand on it. He formed a working partnership with Lawrence Hinkle, his colleague at Cornell University Medical College in New York City. Hinkle handled the administrative part of the study and shared in the substance. Before going ahead, the two doctors made sure they had the approval of Cornell’s president, Deane W. Malott and other high university officials who checked with their contacts in Washington to make sure the project did indeed have the great importance that Allen Dulles stated. Hinkle recalls a key White House aide urging Cornell to cooperate. The university administration agreed, and soon Wolff and Hinkle were poring over the Agency’s classified files on brainwashing. CIA officials also helped arrange interviews with former communist interrogators and prisoners alike. “It was done with great secrecy,” recalls Hinkle. “We went through a great deal of hoop-de-do and signed secrecy agreements, which everyone took very seriously.”
The team of Wolff and Hinkle became the chief brainwashing studiers for the U.S. government, although the Air Force and Army ran parallel programs. Their secret report to Allen Dulles, later published in a declassified version, was considered the definitive U.S. Government work on the subject. In fact, if allowances are made for the Cold War rhetoric of the fifties, the Wolff-Hinkle report still remains one of the better accounts of the massive political re-education programs in China and the Soviet Union. It stated flatly that neither the Soviets nor the Chinese had any magical weapons—no drugs, exotic mental ray-guns, or other fanciful machines. Instead, the report pictured communist interrogation methods resting on skillful, if brutal, application of police methods. Its portrait of the Soviet system anticipates, in dry and scholarly form, the work of novelist Alexander Solzhenitzyn in The Gulag Archipelago. Hinkle and Wolff showed that the Soviet technique rested on the cumulative weight of intense psychological pressure and human weakness, and this thesis alone earned the two Cornell doctors the enmity of the more right-wing CIA officials such as Edward Hunter. Several of his former acquaintances remember that Hunter was fond of saying that the Soviets brainwashed people the way Pavlov had conditioned dogs.
In spite of some dissenters like Hunter, the Wolff-Hinkle model became, with later refinements, the best available description of extreme forms of political indoctrination. According to the general consensus, the Soviets started a new prisoner off by putting him in solitary confinement. A rotating corps of guards watched him constantly, humiliating and demeaning him at every opportunity and making it clear he was totally cut off from all outside support. The guards ordered him to stand for long periods, let him sit, told him exactly the position he could take to lie down, and woke him if he moved in the slightest while sleeping. They banned all outside stimuli—books, conversation, or news of the world.
After four to six weeks of this mind-deadening routine, the prisoner usually found the stress unbearable and broke down. “He weeps, he mutters, and prays aloud in his cell,” wrote Hinkle and Wolff. When the prisoner reached this stage, the interrogation began. Night after night, the guards brought him into a special room to face the interrogator. Far from confronting his captive with specific misdeeds, the interrogator told him that he knew his own crimes—all too well. In the most harrowing Kafkaesque way, the prisoner tried to prove his innocence to he knew not what. Together the interrogator and prisoner reviewed the prisoner’s life in detail. The interrogator seized on any inconsistency—no matter how minute—as further evidence of guilt, and he laughed at the prisoner’s efforts to justify himself. But at least the prisoner was getting a response of some sort. The long weeks of isolation and uncertainty had made him grateful for human contact even grateful that his case was moving toward resolution. True, it moved only as fast as he was willing to incriminate himself, but . . . Gradually, he came to see that he and his interrogator were working toward the same goal of wrapping up his case. In tandem, they ransacked his soul. The interrogator would periodically let up the pressure. He offered a cigarette, had a friendly chat, explained he had a job to do—making it all the more disappointing the next time he had to tell the prisoner that his confession was unsatisfactory.
As the charges against him began to take shape, the prisoner realized that he could end his ordeal only with a full confession. Otherwise the grueling sessions would go on forever. “The regimen of pressure has created an overall discomfort which is well nigh intolerable,” wrote Hinkle and Wolff. “The prisoner invariably feels that ‘something must be done to end this.’ He must find a way out.” A former KGB officer, one of many former interrogators and prisoners interviewed for the CIA study, said that more than 99 percent of all prisoners signed a confession at this stage.
In the Soviet system under Stalin, these confessions were the final step of the interrogation process, and the prisoners usually were shot or sent to a labor camp after sentencing. Today, Russian leaders seem much less insistent on exacting confessions before jailing their foes, but they still use the penal (and mental health) system to remove from the population classes of people hostile to their rule.
The Chinese took on the more ambitious task of re-educating their prisoners. For them, confession was only the beginning. Next, the Chinese authorities moved the prisoner into a group cell where his indoctrination began. From morning to night, he and his fellow prisoners studied Marx and Mao, listened to lectures, and engaged in self-criticism. Since the progress of each member depended on that of his cellmates, the group pounced on the slightest misconduct as an indication of backsliding. Prisoners demonstrated the zeal of their commitment by ferociously attacking deviations. Constant intimacy with people who reviled him pushed the resistant prisoner to the limits of his emotional endurance. Hinkle and Wolff found that “The prisoner must conform to the demands of the group sooner or later.” As the prisoner developed genuine changes of attitude, pressure on him relaxed. His cellmates rewarded him with increasing acceptance and esteem. Their acceptance, in turn, reinforced his commitment to the Party, for he learned that only this commitment allowed him to live successfully in the cell. In many cases, this process produced an exultant sense of mission in the prisoner—a feeling of having finally straightened out his life and come to the truth. To be sure, this experience, which was not so different from religious conversion, did not occur in all cases or always last after the prisoner returned to a social group that did not reinforce it.
From the first preliminary studies of Wolff and Hinkle, the U.S. intelligence community moved toward the conclusion that neither the Chinese nor the Russians made appreciable use of drugs or hypnosis, and they certainly did not possess the brainwashing equivalent of the atomic bomb (as many feared). Most of their techniques were rooted in age-old methods, and CIA brainwashing researchers like psychologist John Gittinger found themselves poring over ancient documents on the Spanish Inquisition. Furthermore, the communists used no psychiatrists or other behavioral scientists to devise their interrogation system. The differences between the Soviet and Chinese systems seemed to grow out of their respective national cultures. The Soviet brainwashing system resembled a heavy-handed cop whose job was to isolate, break, and then subdue all the troublemakers in the neighborhood. The Chinese system was more like thousands of skilled acupuncturists, working on each other and relying on group pressure, ideology, and repetition. To understand further the Soviet or Chinese control systems, one had to plunge into the subtle mysteries of national and individual character.
While CIA researchers looked into those questions, the main thrust of the Agency’s brainwashing studies veered off in a different direction. The logic behind the switch was familiar in the intelligence business. Just because the Soviets and the Chinese had not invented a brainwashing machine, officials reasoned, there was no reason to assume that the task was impossible. If such a machine were even remotely feasible, one had to assume the communists might discover it. And in that case, national security required that the United States invent the machine first. Therefore, the CIA built up its own elaborate brainwashing program, which, like the Soviet and Chinese versions, took its own special twist from our national character. It was a tiny replica of the Manhattan Project, grounded in the conviction that the keys to brainwashing lay in technology. Agency officials hoped to use old-fashioned American know-how to produce shortcuts and scientific breakthroughs. Instead of turning to tough cops, whose methods repelled American sensibilities, or the gurus of mass motivation, whose ideology Americans lacked, the Agency’s brainwashing experts gravitated to people more in the mold of the brilliant—and sometimes mad—scientist, obsessed by the wonders of the brain.
In 1953 CIA Director Allen Dulles made a rare public statement on communist brainwashing: “We in the West are somewhat handicapped in getting all the details,” Dulles declared. “There are few survivors, and we have no human guinea pigs to try these extraordinary techniques.” Even as Dulles spoke, however, CIA officials acting under his orders had begun to find the scientists and the guinea pigs. Some of their experiments would wander so far across the ethical borders of experimental psychiatry (which are hazy in their own right) that Agency officials thought it prudent to have much of the work done outside the United States.
Call her Lauren G. For 19 years, her mind has been blank about her experience. She remembers her husband’s driving her up to the old gray stone mansion that housed the hospital, Allan Memorial Institute, and putting her in the care of its director, Dr. D. Ewen Cameron. The next thing she recalls happened three weeks later:
“They gave me a dressing gown. It was way too big, and I was tripping all over it. I was mad. I asked why did I have to go round in this sloppy thing. I could hardly move because I was pretty weak. I remember trying to walk along the hall, and the walls were all slanted. It was then that I said, “Holy Smokes, what a ghastly thing.” I remember running out the door and going up the mountain in my long dressing gown.”
The mountain, named Mont Royal, loomed high above Montreal. She stumbled and staggered as she tried to climb higher and higher. Hospital staff members had no trouble catching her and dragging her back to the Institute. In short order, they shot her full of sedatives, attached electrodes to her temples, and gave her a dose of electroshock. Soon she slept like a baby.
Gradually, over the next few weeks, Lauren G. began to function like a normal person again. She took basket-weaving therapy and played bridge with her fellow patients. The hospital released her, and she returned to her husband in another Canadian city.
Before her mental collapse in 1959, Lauren G. seemed to have everything going for her. A refined, glamorous horsewoman of 30, whom people often said looked like Elizabeth Taylor, she had auditioned for the lead in National Velvet at 13 and married the rich boy next door at 20. But she had never loved her husband and had let her domineering mother push her into his arms. He drank heavily. “I was really unhappy,” she recalls. “I had a horrible marriage, and finally I had a nervous breakdown. It was a combination of my trying to lose weight, sleep loss, and my nerves.”
The family doctor recommended that her husband send her to Dr. Cameron, which seemed like a logical thing to do, considering his wide fame as a psychiatrist. He had headed Allan Memorial since 1943, when the Rockefeller Foundation had donated funds to set up a psychiatric facility at McGill University. With continuing help from the Rockefellers, McGill had built a hospital known far beyond Canada’s borders as innovative and exciting. Cameron was elected president of the American Psychiatric Association in 1953, and he became the first president of the World Psychiatric Association. His friends joked that they had run out of honors to give him.
Cameron’s passion lay in the more “objective” forms of therapy, with which he could more easily and swiftly bring about improvements in patients than with the notoriously slow Freudian methods. An impatient man, he dreamed of finding a cure for schizophrenia. No one could tell him he was not on the right track. Cameron’s supporter at the Rockefeller Foundation, Robert Morrison, recorded in his private papers that he found the psychiatrist tense and ill-at-ease, and Morrison ventured that this may account for “his lack of interest and effectiveness in psychotherapy and failure to establish warm personal relations with faculty members, both of which were mentioned repeatedly when I visited Montreal.” Another Rockefeller observer noted that Cameron “appears to suffer from deep insecurity and has a need for power which he nourishes by maintaining an extraordinary aloofness from his associates.”
When Lauren G.’s husband delivered her to Cameron, the psychiatrist told him she would receive some electroshock, a standard treatment at the time. Besides that, states her husband, “Cameron was not very communicative, but I didn’t think she was getting anything out of the ordinary.” The husband had no way of knowing that Cameron would use an unproved experimental technique on his wife—much less that the psychiatrist intended to “depattern” her. Nor did he realize that the CIA was supporting this work with about $19,000 a year in secret funds.
Cameron defined “depatterning” as breaking up existing patterns of behavior, both the normal and the schizophrenic, by means of particularly intensive electroshocks, usually combined with prolonged, drug-induced sleep. Here was a psychiatrist willing—indeed, eager—to wipe the human mind totally clean. Back in 1951, ARTICHOKE’s Morse Allen had likened the process to “creation of a vegetable.” Cameron justified this tabula rasa approach because he had a theory of “differential amnesia,” for which he provided no statistical evidence when he published it. He postulated that after he produced “complete amnesia” in a subject, the person would eventually recover memory of his normal but not his schizophrenic behavior. Thus, Cameron claimed he could generate “differential amnesia.” Creating such a state in which a man who knew too much could be made to forget had long been a prime objective of the ARTICHOKE and MKULTRA programs.
Needless to say, Lauren G. does not recall a thing today about those weeks when Cameron depatterned her. Afterward, unlike over half of the psychiatrist’s depatterning patients, Lauren G. gradually recovered full recall of her life before the treatment, but then, she remembered her mental problems, too. Her husband says she came out of the hospital much improved. She declares the treatment had no effect one way or another on her mental condition, which she believes resulted directly from her miserable marriage. She stopped seeing Cameron after about a month of outpatient electroshock treatments, which she despised. Her relationship with her husband further deteriorated, and two years later she walked out on him. “I just got up on my own hind legs,” she states. “I said the hell with it. I’m going to do what I want and take charge of my own life. I left and started over.” Now divorced and remarried, she feels she has been happy ever since.
Cameron’s depatterning, of which Lauren G. had a comparatively mild version, normally started with 15 to 30 days of “sleep therapy.” As the name implies, the patient slept almost the whole day and night. According to a doctor at the hospital who used to administer what he calls the “sleep cocktail,” a staff member woke up the patient three times a day for medication that consisted of a combination of 100 mg. Thorazine, 100 mg. Nembutal, 100 mg. Seconal, 150 mg. Veronal, and 10 mg. Phenergan. Another staff doctor would also awaken the patient two or sometimes three times daily for electroshock treatments. This doctor and his assistant wheeled a portable machine into the “sleep room” and gave the subject a local anesthetic and muscle relaxant, so as not to cause damage with the convulsions that were to come. After attaching electrodes soaked in saline solution, the attendant held the patient down and the doctor turned on the current. In standard, professional electroshock, doctors gave the subject a single dose of 110 volts, lasting a fraction of a second, once a day or every other day. By contrast, Cameron used a form 20 to 40 times more intense, two or three times daily, with the power turned up to 150 volts. Named the “Page-Russell” method after its British originators, this technique featured an initial one-second shock, which caused a major convulsion, and then five to nine additional shocks in the middle of the primary and follow-on convulsions. Even Drs. Page and Russell limited their treatment to once a day, and they always stopped as soon as their patient showed “pronounced confusion” and became “faulty in habits.” Cameron, however, welcomed this kind of impairment as a sign the treatment was taking effect and plowed ahead through his routine.
The frequent screams of patients that echoed through the hospital did not deter Cameron or most of his associates in their attempts to “depattern” their subjects completely. Other hospital patients report being petrified by the “sleep rooms,” where the treatment took place, and they would usually creep down the opposite side of the hall.
Cameron described this combined sleep-electroshock treatment as lasting between 15 to 30 days, with some subjects staying in up to 65 days (in which case, he reported, he awakened them for three days in the middle). Sometimes, as in the case of Lauren G., patients would try to escape when the sedatives wore thin, and the staff would have to chase after them. “It was a tremendous nursing job just to keep these people going during the treatment,” recalls a doctor intimately familiar with Cameron’s operation. This doctor paints a picture of dazed patients, incapable of taking care of themselves, often groping their way around the hospital and urinating on the floor.
Cameron wrote that his typical depatterning patient—usually a woman—moved through three distinct stages. In the first, the subject lost much of her memory. Yet she still knew where she was, why she was there, and who the people were who treated her. In the second phase, she lost her “space-time image,” but still wanted to remember. In fact, not being able to answer questions like, “Where am I?” and “How did I get here?” caused her considerable anxiety. In the third stage, all that anxiety disappeared. Cameron described the state as “an extremely interesting constriction of the range of recollections which one ordinarily brings in to modify and enrich one’s statements. Hence, what the patient talks about are only his sensations of the moment, and he talks about them almost exclusively in highly concrete terms. His remarks are entirely uninfluenced by previous recollections—nor are they governed in any way by his forward anticipations. He lives in the immediate present. All schizophrenic symptoms have disappeared. There is complete amnesia for all events in his life.”
Lauren G. and 52 other subjects at Allan Memorial received this level of depatterning in 1958 and 1959. Cameron had already developed the technique when the CIA funding started. The Agency sent the psychiatrist research money to take the treatment beyond this point. Agency officials wanted to know if, once Cameron had produced the blank mind, he could then program in new patterns of behavior, as he claimed he could. As early as 1953—the year he headed the American Psychiatric Association—Cameron conceived a technique he called “psychic driving,” by which he would bombard the subject with repeated verbal messages. From tape recordings based on interviews with the patient, he selected emotionally loaded “cue statements”—first negative ones to get rid of unwanted behavior and then positive to condition in desired personality traits. On the negative side, for example, the patient would hear this message as she lay in a stupor:
“Madeleine, you let your mother and father treat you as a child all through your single life. You let your mother check you up sexually after every date you had with a boy. You hadn’t enough determination to tell her to stop it. You never stood up for yourself against your mother or father but would run away from trouble. . . . They used to call you “crying Madeleine.” Now that you have two children, you don’t seem to be able to manage them and keep a good relationship with your husband. You are drifting apart. You don’t go out together. You have not been able to keep him interested sexually.”
Leonard Rubenstein, Cameron’s principal assistant, whose entire salary was paid from CIA-front funds, put the message on a continuous tape loop and played it for 16 hours every day for several weeks. An electronics technician, with no medical or psychological background, Rubenstein, an electrical whiz, designed a giant tape recorder that could play 8 loops for 8 patients at the same time. Cameron had the speakers installed literally under the pillows in the “sleep rooms.” “We made sure they heard it,” says a doctor who worked with Cameron. With some patients, Cameron intensified the negative effect by running wires to their legs and shocking them at the end of the message.
When Cameron thought the negative “psychic driving” had gone far enough, he switched the patient over to 2 to 5 weeks of positive tapes:
“ You mean to get well. To do this you must let your feelings come out. It is all right to express your anger. . . . You want to stop your mother bossing you around. Begin to assert yourself first in little things and soon you will be able to meet her on an equal basis. You will then be free to be a wife and mother just like other women.”
Cameron wrote that psychic driving provided a way to make “direct, controlled changes in personality,” without having to resolve the subject’s conflicts or make her relive past experiences. As far as is known, no present-day psychologist or psychiatrist accepts this view. Dr. Donald Hebb, who headed McGill’s psychology department at the time Cameron was in charge of psychiatry, minces no words when asked specifically about psychic driving: “That was an awful set of ideas Cameron was working with. It called for no intellectual respect. If you actually look at what he was doing and what he wrote, it would make you laugh. If I had a graduate student who talked like that, I’d throw him out.” Warming to his subject, Hebb continues: “Look, Cameron was no good as a researcher. . . . He was eminent because of politics.” Nobody said such things at the time, however. Cameron was a very powerful man.
The Scottish-born psychiatrist, who never lost the burr in his voice, kept searching for ways to perfect depatterning and psychic driving. He held out to the CIA front—the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology—that he could find more rapid and less damaging ways to break down behavior. He sent the Society a proposal that combined his two techniques with sensory deprivation and strong drugs. His smorgasbord approach brought together virtually all possible techniques of mind control, which he tested individually and together. When his Agency grant came through in 1957, Cameron began work on sensory deprivation.
For several years, Agency officials had been interested in the interrogation possibilities of this technique that Hebb himself had pioneered at McGill with Canadian defense and Rockefeller money. It consisted of putting a subject in a sealed environment—a small room or even a large box—and depriving him of all sensory input: eyes covered with goggles, ears either covered with muffs or exposed to a constant, monotonous sound, padding to prevent touching, no smells—with this empty regime interrupted only by meal and bathroom breaks. In 1955 Morse Allen of ARTICHOKE made contact at the National Institutes of Health with Dr. Maitland Baldwin who had done a rather gruesome experiment in which an Army volunteer had stayed in the “box” for 40 hours until he kicked his way out after, in Baldwin’s words, “an hour of crying loudly and sobbing in a most heartrending fashion.” The experiment convinced Baldwin that the isolation technique could break any man, no matter how intelligent or strong-willed. Hebb, who unlike Baldwin released his subjects when they wanted, had never left anyone in “the box” for more than six days. Baldwin told Morse Allen that beyond that sensory deprivation would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nevertheless, Baldwin agreed that if the Agency could provide the cover and the subjects, he would do, according to Allen’s report, “terminal type” experiments. After numerous meetings inside the CIA on how and where to fund Baldwin, an Agency medical officer finally shot down the project as being “immoral and inhuman,” suggesting that those pushing the experiments might want to “volunteer their heads for use in Dr. Baldwin’s ‘noble’ project.”
With Cameron, Agency officials not only had a doctor willing to perform terminal experiments in sensory deprivation, but one with his own source of subjects. As part of his CIA-funded research, he had a “box” built in the converted stables behind the hospital that housed Leonard Rubenstein and his behavioral laboratory. Undaunted by the limits set in Hebb’s work, Cameron left one woman in for 35 days, although he had so scrambled her mind with his other techniques that one cannot say, as Baldwin predicted to the Agency, if the prolonged deprivation did specific damage. This subject’s name was Mary C., and, try as he might, Cameron could not get through to her. As the aloof psychiatrist wrote in his notes: “Although the patient was prepared by both prolonged sensory isolation (35 days) and by repeated depatterning, and although she received 101 days of positive driving, no favorable results were obtained.” Before prescribing this treatment, Cameron had diagnosed the 52-year-old Mary C.: “Conversion reaction in a woman of the involutional age with mental anxiety; hypochondriatic.” In other words, Mary C. was going through menopause.
In his proposal to the CIA front, Cameron also said he would test curare, the South American arrow poison which, when liberally applied, kills by paralyzing internal body functions. In nonlethal doses, curare causes a limited paralysis which blocks but does not stop these functions. According to his papers, some of which wound up in the archives of the American Psychiatric Association, Cameron injected subjects with curare in conjunction with sensory deprivation, presumably to immobilize them further.
Cameron also tested LSD in combination with psychic driving and other techniques. In late 1956 and early 1957, one of his subjects was Val Orlikow, whose husband David has become a member of the Canadian parliament. Suffering from what she calls a “character neurosis that started with postpartum depression,” she entered Allan Memorial as one of Cameron’s personal patients. He soon put her under his version of LSD therapy. One to four times a week, he or another doctor would come into her room and give her a shot of LSD, mixed with either a stimulant or a depressant and then leave her alone with a tape recorder that played excerpts from her last session with him. As far as is known, no other LSD researcher ever subjected his patients to unsupervised trips—certainly not over the course of two months when her hospital records show she was given LSD 14 times. “It was terrifying,” Mrs. Orlikow recalls. “You’re afraid you’ve gone off somewhere and can’t come back.” She was supposed to write down on a pad whatever came into her head while listening to the tapes, but often she became so frightened that she could not write at all. “You become very small,” she says, as her voice quickens and starts to reflect some of her horror. “You’re going to fall off the step, and God, you’re going down into hell because it’s so far, and you are so little. Like Alice, where is the pill that makes you big, and you’re a squirrel, and you can’t get out of the cage, and somebody’s going to kill you.” Then, suddenly, Mrs. Orlikow pulls out of it and lucidly states, “Some very weird things happened.”
Mrs. Orlikow hated the LSD treatment. Several times she told Cameron she would take no more, and the psychiatrist would put his arm around her and ask, “Lassie,” which he called all his women patients, “don’t you want to get well, so you can go home and see your husband?” She remembers feeling guilty about not following the doctor’s orders, and the thought of disappointing Cameron, whom she idolized, crushed her. Finally, after Cameron talked her out of quitting the treatment several times, she had to end it. She left the hospital but stayed under his private care. In 1963 he put her back in the hospital for more intensive psychic driving. “I thought he was God,” she states. “I don’t know how I could have been so stupid. . . . A lot of us were naive. We thought psychiatrists had the answers. Here was the greatest in the world, with all these titles.”
In defense of Cameron, a former associate says the man truly cared about the welfare of his patients. He wanted to make them well. As his former staff psychologist wrote:
“He abhorred the waste of human potential, seen most dramatically in the young people whose minds were distorted by what was then considered to be schizophrenia. He felt equally strongly about the loss of wisdom in the aged through memory malfunction. For him, the end justified the means, and when one is dealing with the waste of human potential, it is easy to adopt this stance.”
Cameron retired abruptly in 1964, for unexplained reasons. His successor, Dr. Robert Cleghorn, made a virtually unprecedented move in the academic world of mutual back-scratching and praise. He commissioned a psychiatrist and a psychologist, unconnected to Cameron, to study his electroshock work. They found that 60 percent of Cameron’s depatterned patients complained they still had amnesia for the period 6 months to 10 years before the therapy. They could find no clinical proof that showed the treatment to be any more or less effective than other approaches. They concluded that “the incidence of physical complications and the anxiety generated in the patient because of real or imagined memory difficulty argue against” future use of the technique.
The study-team members couched their report in densely academic jargon, but one of them speaks more clearly now. He talks bitterly of one of Cameron’s former patients who needs to keep a list of her simplest household chores to remember how to do them. Then he repeats several times how powerful a man Cameron was, how he was “the godfather of Canadian psychiatry.” He continues, “I probably shouldn’t talk about this, but Cameron—for him to do what he did—he was a very schizophrenic guy, who totally detached himself from the human implications of his work . . . God, we talk about concentration camps. I don’t want to make this comparison, but God, you talk about ‘we didn’t know it was happening,’ and it was—right in our back yard.”
Cameron died in 1967, at age 66, while climbing a mountain. The American Journal of Psychiatry published a long and glowing obituary with a full-page picture of his not-unpleasant face.
D. Ewen Cameron did not need the CIA to corrupt him. He clearly had his mind set on doing unorthodox research long before the Agency front started to fund him. With his own hospital and source of subjects, he could have found elsewhere encouragement and money to replace the CIA’s contribution which never exceeded $20,000 a year. However, Agency officials knew exactly what they were paying for. They traveled periodically to Montreal to observe his work, and his proposal was chillingly explicit. In Cameron, they had a doctor, conveniently outside the United States, willing to do terminal experiments in electroshock, sensory deprivation, drug testing, and all of the above combined. By literally wiping the minds of his subjects clean by depatterning and then trying to program in new behavior, Cameron carried the process known as “brainwashing” to its logical extreme.
It cannot be said how many—if any—other Agency brainwashing projects reached the extremes of Cameron’s work. Details are scarce, since many of the principal witnesses have died, will not talk about what went on, or lie about it. In what ways the CIA applied work like Cameron’s is not known. What is known, however, is that the intelligence community, including the CIA, changed the face of the scientific community during the 1950s and early 1960s by its interest in such experiments. Nearly every scientist on the frontiers of brain research found men from the secret agencies looking over his shoulders, impinging on the research. The experience of Dr. John Lilly illustrates how this intrusion came about.
In 1953 Lilly worked at the National Institutes of Health, outside Washington, doing experimental studies in an effort to “map” the body functions controlled from various locations in the brain. He devised a method of pounding up to 600 tiny sections of hypodermic tubing into the skulls of monkeys, through which he could insert electrodes “into the brain to any desired distance and at any desired location from the cortex down to the bottom of the skull,” he later wrote. Using electric stimulation, Lilly discovered precise centers of the monkeys’ brains that caused pain, fear, anxiety, and anger. He also discovered precise, separate parts of the brain that controlled erection, ejaculation, and orgasm in male monkeys. Lilly found that a monkey, given access to a switch operating a correctly planted electrode, would reward himself with nearly continuous orgasms—at least once every 3 minutes—for up to 16 hours a day.
As Lilly refined his brain “maps,” officials of the CIA and other agencies descended upon him with a request for a briefing. Having a phobia against secrecy, Lilly agreed to the briefing only under the condition that it and his work remain unclassified, completely open to outsiders. The intelligence officials submitted to the conditions most reluctantly, since they knew that Lilly’s openness would not only ruin the spy value of anything they learned but could also reveal the identities and the interests of the intelligence officials to enemy agents. They considered Lilly annoying, uncooperative—possibly even suspicious.
Soon Lilly began to have trouble going to meetings and conferences with his colleagues. As part of the cooperation with the intelligence agencies, most of them had agreed to have their projects officially classified as SECRET, which meant that access to the information required a security clearance. Lilly’s security clearance was withdrawn for review, then tangled up and misplaced—all of which he took as pressure to cooperate with the CIA. Lilly, whose imagination needed no stimulation to conjure up pictures of CIA agents on deadly missions with remote-controlled electrodes strategically implanted in their brains, decided to withdraw from that field of research. He says he had decided that the physical intrusion of the electrodes did too much brain damage for him to tolerate.
In 1954 Lilly began trying to isolate the operations of the brain, free of outside stimulation, through sensory deprivation. He worked in an office next to Dr. Maitland Baldwin, who the following year agreed to perform terminal sensory deprivation experiments for ARTICHOKE’s Morse Allen but who never told Lilly he was working in the field. While Baldwin experimented with his sensory-deprivation “box,” Lilly invented a special “tank.” Subjects floated in a tank of body-temperature water wearing a face mask that provided air but cut off sight and sound. Inevitably, intelligence officials swooped down on Lilly again, interested in the use of his tank as an interrogation tool. Could involuntary subjects be placed in the tank and broken down to the point where their belief systems or personalities could be altered?
It was central to Lilly’s ethic that he himself be the first subject of any experiment, and, in the case of the consciousness-exploring tank work, he and one colleague were the only ones. Lilly realized that the intelligence agencies were not interested in sensory deprivation because of its positive benefits, and he finally concluded that it was impossible for him to work at the National Institutes of Health without compromising his principles. He quit in 1958.
Contrary to most people’s intuitive expectations, Lilly found sensory deprivation to be a profoundly integrating experience for himself personally. He considered himself to be a scientist who subjectively explored the far wanderings of the brain. In a series of private experiments, he pushed himself into the complete unknown by injecting pure Sandoz LSD into his thigh before climbing into the sensory-deprivation tank. When the counterculture sprang up, Lilly became something of a cult figure, with his unique approach to scientific inquiry—though he was considered more of an outcast by many in the professional research community.
For most of the outside world, Lilly became famous with the release of the popular film, The Day of the Dolphin, which the filmmakers acknowledged was based on Lilly’s work with dolphins after he left NIH. Actor George C. Scott portrayed a scientist, who, like Lilly, loved dolphins, did pioneering experiments on their intelligence, and tried to find ways to communicate with them. In the movie, Scott became dismayed when the government pounced on his breakthrough in talking to dolphins and turned it immediately to the service of war. In real life, Lilly was similarly dismayed when Navy and CIA scientists trained dolphins for special warfare in the waters off Vietnam.
A few scientists like Lilly made up their minds not to cross certain ethical lines in their experimental work, while others were prepared to go further even than their sponsors from ARTICHOKE and MKULTRA. Within the Agency itself, there was only one final question: Will a technique work? CIA officials zealously tracked every lead, sparing no expense to check each angle many times over.
By the time the MKULTRA program ended in 1963, Agency researchers had found no foolproof way to brainwash another person. “All experiments beyond a certain point always failed,” says the MKULTRA veteran, “because the subject jerked himself back for some reason or the subject got amnesiac or catatonic.” Agency officials found through work like Cameron’s that they could create “vegetables,” but such people served no operational use. People could be tortured into saying anything, but no science could guarantee that they would tell the truth.
The impotency of brainwashing techniques left the Agency in a difficult spot when Yuri Nosenko defected to the United States in February 1964. A ranking official of the Soviet KGB, Nosenko brought with him stunning information. He said the Russians had bugged the American embassy in Moscow, which turned out to be true. He named some Russian agents in the West. And he said that he had personally inspected the KGB file of Lee Harvey Oswald, who only a few months earlier had been murdered before he could be brought to trial for the assassination of President Kennedy. Nosenko said he learned that the KGB had had no interest in Oswald.
Was Nosenko telling the truth, or was he a KGB “plant” sent to throw the United States off track about Oswald? Was his information about penetration correct, or was Nosenko himself the penetration? Was he acting in good faith? Were the men within the CIA who believed he was acting in good faith themselves acting in good faith? These and a thousand other questions made up the classical trick deck for spies—each card having “true” on one side and “false” on the other.
Top CIA officials felt a desperate need to resolve the issue of Nosenko’s legitimacy. With numerous Agency counterintelligence operations hanging in the balance, Richard Helms, first as Deputy Director and then as Director, allowed CIA operators to work Nosenko over with the interrogation method in which Helms apparently had the most faith. It turned out to be not any truth serum or electroshock depatterning program or anything else from the Agency’s brainwashing search. Helms had Nosenko put through the tried-and-true Soviet method: isolate the prisoner, deaden his senses, break him. For more than three years—1,277 days, to be exact—Agency officers kept Nosenko in solitary confinement. As if they were using the Hinkle-Wolff study as their instruction manual and the Cardinal Mindszenty case as their success story, the CIA men had guards watch over Nosenko day and night, giving him not a moment of privacy. A light bulb burned continuously in his cell. He was allowed nothing to read—not even the labels on toothpaste boxes. When he tried to distract himself by making a chess set from pieces of lint in his cell, the guards discovered his game and swept the area clean. Nosenko had no window, and he was eventually put in a specially built 12’ X 12’ steel bank vault.
Nosenko broke down. He hallucinated. He talked his head off to his interrogators, who questioned him for 292 days, often while they had him strapped into a lie detector. If he told the truth, they did not believe him. While the Soviets and Chinese had shown that they could make a man admit anything, the CIA interrogators apparently lacked a clear idea of exactly what they wanted Nosenko to confess. When it was all over and Richard Helms ordered Nosenko freed after three and a half years of illegal detention, some key Agency officers still believed he was a KGB plant. Others thought he was on the level. Thus the big questions remained unresolved, and to this day, CIA men—past and present—are bitterly split over who Nosenko really is.
With the Nosenko case, the CIA’s brainwashing programs had come full circle. Spurred by the widespread alarm over communist tactics, Agency officials had investigated the field, started their own projects, and looked to the latest technology to make improvements. After 10 years of research, with some rather gruesome results, CIA officials had come up with no techniques on which they felt they could rely. Thus, when the operational crunch came, they fell back on the basic brutality of the Soviet system.