Midnight Climax: CIA's MK-ULTRA LSD experiments in San Francisco

Newly released documents shed light on the San Francisco edition of the CIA's notorious MK-ULTRA program (through which people were unwittingly given massive doses of LSD to see if the drug would be useful for brainwashing), which ran from 1953-1964. There's lots of detail about MK-ULTRA's work in NYC and Montreal, but the San Francisco operation has been shrouded in mystery. The newly declassified documents form the springboard for a good investigative piece in SF Weekly, in which Troy Hooper speaks to Wayne Ritchie, one of the survivors of MK-ULTRA's San Francisco operation.

There were at least three CIA safe houses in the Bay Area where experiments went on. Chief among them was 225 Chestnut on Telegraph Hill, which operated from 1955 to 1965. The L-shaped apartment boasted sweeping waterfront views, and was just a short trip up the hill from North Beach's rowdy saloons. Inside, prostitutes paid by the government to lure clients to the apartment served up acid-laced cocktails to unsuspecting johns, while martini-swilling secret agents observed their every move from behind a two-way mirror. Recording devices were installed, some disguised as electrical outlets.

To get the guys in the mood, the walls were adorned with photographs of tortured women in bondage and provocative posters from French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The agents grew fascinated with the kinky sex games that played out between the johns and the hookers. The two-way mirror in the bedroom gave the agents a close-up view of all the action.

The main man behind the mirror was burly, balding crime-buster George H. White, a Bureau of Narcotics maverick who made headlines breaking up opium and heroin rings in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and the U.S. Few knew he doubled as a CIA spook for Uncle Sam. He oversaw the San Francisco program, gleefully dubbing it Operation Midnight Climax.

"[White] was a real hard head," said Ritchie, who regularly ran into him in courtrooms and law enforcement offices in downtown San Francisco. "All of his agents were pretty much afraid to do anything without his full approval. White would turn on them, physically. He was a big tough guy."

American chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the brains behind White's brawn. It was the height of McCarthyism in the early '50s, and government intelligence leaders, claiming fear of communist regimes, were using hallucinogens to induce confessions from prisoners of war held in Korea, and brainwash spies into changing allegiances. What better way to examine the effects of LSD than to dose unsuspecting citizens in New York City and San Francisco?

Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed S.F. Citizens with LSD (Thanks, tyrsalvia!)


  1. The Search for the Manchurian Candidate and Acid Dreams were great books on this subject. I’d like to see the Coen brothers make a film adaptation.

    1. I have to second the recommendation of Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s 1986 book Acid Dreams, a lot of fascinating original research.

      1. Ah! A name I had almost forgotten from the London Psychogeographical Association (and the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, of course) and Anarchist squat parties in the nineties in Brixton. Never enough acid, though.

    1. The article is a mix of old and new (and newish) stuff on the subject.  Nothing in the BoingBoing summary is new, I guess it’s more of an intro.

    2.  RTFA. 

      Newly released documents shed light on the San Francisco edition of the CIA’s notorious MK-ULTRA program… There’s lots of detail about MK-ULTRA’s work in NYC and Montreal, but the San Francisco operation has been shrouded in mystery.

  2. Anyone still think waterboarding was the most creative thing Cheney’s ilk were doing to prisoners in “dark sites” on the other side of the world?

    1. On the topic of Cheney. That guy, and his partner in “crime” Rumsfeld, have been at this for a surprisingly long time. They actually show up in the article as operating under Ford. Between this and Putin being an old KGB i fear that things will stay its shaky course for quite some time yet…

      New blood, and new ideas, are in dire need in this world…

    2. It’s well documented that Guantanamo was a Govcorp breeding ground for MKULTRA terrorist alts to feed the military industrial complex. Release innocent muslims into the wild five to ten years later with programmed alts and the war on terror delivers all the psycho pentagon profits they plan.

       That’s why Gitmo didn’t shut down. Too profitable to govcorp.

  3. I would willingly participate in something like Kesey experienced at Stanford, but to be blindsided like that? Shit. Cruel and unusual.

  4. from the article:

    White wrote how he “served as a guinea pig from time to time. My personal observation was that the effect of all of these drugs was essentially the same, except for the degree or extent of the effect. THCA was more potent than marihuana [sic] and LSD more potent than THCA.

    I’m boggled that anyone could confuse the effects of acid and pot. And that such a person could be empowered to dose people with either, non-consensually, when both remain illegal.

     As long as the war on drugs remains in effect, those in government will be the only ones able to get away with drug usage.  That can’t last forever…

    1. Boggled huh? Both are hallucinogenics, both aim for the same part of the ol’ noggin. Sure, many pot smokers are daily users whereas most LSD types save it for high days and holidays (for cost reasons if nothing else). And as far as “being empowered to dose” I’m pretty sure the guys at my local cannabis dispensary are higher than the sun as they serve me my medical mary and I love them for that!

      1. Actually I believe MJ is generally considered a hypnotic, not a hallucinogen. There are similarities between the two experiences, but they are fundamentally different. And last I heard, nobody had worked out which part of the noggin either substances “aim for”.

      2.  Yeah, boggled.  As a daily user of marijuana and occasional user of LSD I’d have to say that they’re about as different as two drugs can be.  The only real similarity I can think of is that both can lead to paranoia.  From the inside, they seem (to me) to go in entirely different directions.  LSD pushes me out more towards pure sense experience (in the same way Huxley talks about Mescaline) whereas marijuana tends to push me inwards into discursive and tangly chains of thought.

        For a window into the phenomenological difference, here’s what I had to say about this on a previous trip:
        “You know you’re on LSD when you’re smoking marijuana to get less high.”

    1. Probably a lot of whining about how technology sucked the fun out of their jobs, man…

      “Damn, dude, we’ve been stuck in this converted shipping container watching Reaper footage for 26 hours now, waiting for a good chance for an extrajudicial targeted killing. Why are there no openings in the covert LSD/bondage dungeons?”

  5. So, someone went to the CIA honchos and said, “I want to dose unsuspecting American citizens with illegal hallucinogens, and then watch them have sex with prostitutes from behind a two-way mirror while I’m drinking martinis.  Oh, and we’ll have the walls decorated with photos of women in bondage being tortured.  And I want the CIA to pay me for doing this.”

    And the honchos said “Sure.  No problem.  Thank you for making America safer.”

    What the hell kind of drugs were THEY taking?

  6. I’m pretty sure that the coiners of the phrase “That’s mighty White of him.” did not have this application in mind…

  7. In a lot of ways, the CIA really fueled the counterculture with drugs and modern art (and the Internet, though that’s more Department of Defense than CIA).

    Glad you posted the article. I had known about this stuff before, but I thought this article had some new information and was a very well-written introduction for anyone hot already familiar with this piece of our history. 

  8. Charles Manson also seemed to use the drug to induce people to do his bidding,and come around to his way of thinking, and prostituting themselves also. Monsters making monsters??

  9. Its interesting to hear that these experiments were done on US citizens as well. Until now I had thought the only such experiments had been done by the CIA on Canadian citizens (in Montreal I believe). Its just as horrific and offensive regardless of whether it was done on their own citizen or unsuspecting foreigners mind you. Although here they appear to have lured their victims in using prostitutes, I believe in Canada they just used unsuspecting medical patients.
    Whatever the differences, the people who perpetrated this experiment should have been charged and thrown in prison. Its difficult to reconcile this sort of torture and punishment (up here in Canada that is) with the supposed superior morality claimed by the West.
    That said, I am sure the unsuspecting victims who got to have sex with prostitutes down in SF, had a much better time than the mental patients who got shock treatment, sensory depravation, medically induced comas and massive drug doses inflicted on them up here.

  10. if the government wanted to know so much about brainwashing…all they had to do is use religion…instead of LSD

    1. There is an entire body of lore concerning an alleged Jonestown/CIA link, largely on the premise that the feds did, indeed, give that a try…

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