Among the Stanford Research Institute’s many classified research projects in the early 1970s was a contract supported by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Technical Service, a division headed by Sidney Gottlieb, perhaps the most notorious scientist ever to work for the spy agency. The secret program was testing different forms of parapsychology, such as whether humans had the ability to use their minds to visualize or even influence remote objects. Believing the work was showing promise, Gottlieb one day invited the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Stephen Lukasik, over to his CIA office to discuss it.
Gottlieb, a chemist by training, was both an unconventional thinker and an unwavering patriot, who believed his work served the good of the nation. “Friends and enemies alike say Mr. Gottlieb was a kind of genius, striving to explore the frontiers of the human mind for his country,” read the 1999 New York Times obituary of Gottlieb, “while searching for religious and spiritual meaning in his life.” In the end, however, Gottlieb would be remembered most for what looked like a willful contempt of common decency.
As the head of the Office of Technical Service, Gottlieb led a wing of the CIA whose failed innovations to assassinate the Cuban leader Fidel Castro included poison pens and exploding seashells. He also worked on one of the agency’s most notorious projects: the use of LSD as a mind-control drug. Under Gottlieb’s supervision, LSD was tested on unwitting human guinea pigs, including, among other unfortunate victims, the mentally ill, prostitutes, and even one army scientist who later committed suicide. When the program was first exposed in 1975 by the Rockefeller Commission, and then detailed by the congressional Church Committee, Gottlieb’s public legacy as some sort of mad scientist was all but assured.
The day Lukasik went to visit Gottlieb—in 1971, as Lukasik recalls it—the CIA scientist was in fine form. What Gottlieb wanted to discuss was bunny rabbits and nuclear Armageddon.