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?