The New York Times Magazine always delivers at least one great story, and last week it was an investigation into the claim that the CIA drugged and murdered scientist Frank Olson in 1953 to stop him from blowing the whistle on their secret experiments in mind control.
Kudos are in order for Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff, who was a wise choice to write the piece. He went to school with Olson’s son Eric, and as a human rights expert, he was able to build a credible case against the CIA from the son’s point of view.
Here are some of the facts, according to Ignatieff: By the early 1950s, the CIA had begun to study LSD as a truth serum for use in covert assassinations. In the summer of 1953, the CIA sent Olson to Sweden, Germany, and Britain on business. According to a British journalist, Olson became disturbed by something he witnessed at a research facility near Frankfurt and confided as much to a psychiatrist employed by British intelligence. Thereupon, someone at the CIA raised the issue that Olson had become a security risk.
Enter Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a/k/a the Timothy Leary of the CIA. At a meeting of CIA scientists in rural Maryland in November 1953, Gottlieb dropped a hit of LSD into Olson’s Cointreau. Nine days later in New York, Olson went out the window of a 10th floor hotel room, hit the sidewalk and died soon after. The CIA’s position was that he had either “fallen or jumped.”
Although Ignatieff approached the M-word carefully in the Times, waiting until about two-thirds of the way through the piece to suggest that dosing Olson was a “prelude to murder,” the allegation was clearly on his mind—as was the unstated conclusion that an aggressive investigation into Olson’s death is long overdue.
Instead, what the public has gotten so far is a whitewash, and long stretches of silence from the Times. According to a database search, the Olson story first surfaced in the Times in July 1975. Having learned 22 years after the fact that Frank Olson had been fed LSD, the dead man’s family gave an exclusive to the Times‘ Seymour Hersh. Through Hersh, the family announced its plans to file a wrongful-death suit against the U.S. government. (They later settled.)
The revelations about the CIA and LSD begat a flurry of stories in the Times in July 1975, and that month, even the editorial page weighed in, calling the agency’s experiment on Olson an example of “the arrogance and danger of unchecked power.” But for the next 26 years, the Times mentioned Olson only a few times in passing, as when his wife Alice died in 1993.
That’s when things got hairy. In 1994, Eric Olson had his father’s body exhumed and autopsied, a difficult choice that paid off when forensic experts concluded that Olson had been knocked out with a blow to the head, then thrown out the hotel window. So much for the theory that he had “jumped.”
Did the CIA deliberately kill Frank Olson? In the wake of the autopsy, the murder charge became credible enough to attract attention from the likes of the AP, CBS, CNN, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and smaller newspapers across the country. Regardie’s reported the story as a feature in 1994; the Daily Mail followed in 1998. But The New York Times was nowhere to be found.
When asked to comment on the omission, a Times Company spokesperson said, “We certainly can’t hope to reconstruct a 1994 news decision tonight.”
As for coverage of psychedelic experiments by Sidney Gottlieb, the Times‘ only significant story in 20 years appeared in 1999, when Tim Weiner wrote Gottlieb’s obituary. During the 1950s and 1960s, Weiner reported, the CIA secretly tested LSD on human guinea pigs, including U.S. prisoners, drug addicts, and prostitutes. A mental patient in Kentucky was dosed “continuously for 174 days.”
Oddly, Ignatieff’s story omitted this piece of context. But what’s important is that the Times is finally positioned to help bring an extraordinary case to justice. Eric Olson has besieged the Manhattan district attorney’s office to open a new investigation, and Ignatieff suggests that there might be hope yet. With the facts freshly laid out, the Times and other opinion leaders should demand that Frank Olson’s death be fully investigated before the few remaining witnesses drop out of sight altogether.
On March 29, the day after George W. Bush let on that he had absolutely no intention of signing the Kyoto treaty that would limit the emission of greenhouse gases, a roar was heard around the world. Here’s a sample of sound bites from the opposition:
“Bush is attacking the environment by land, water, and air.” —the Sierra Club
His decision is “scandalous” (a French official), “irresponsible” (China’s foreign ministry), “against the trend of the times” (a Finnish official), and “a catastrophe for the environment” (a Belgian official).
Bush’s decision is a “Taliban-style act of wanton destruction” —The Guardian of England
The U.S. president is not only “ignorant, shortsighted and selfish,” but “firmly jammed into the pockets of the oil lobby.” —Friends of the Earth International
Not signing the treaty is “equivalent to launching a nuclear attack whose missiles will land across the globe over the next 30 years.” —British Labour politician Alan Simpson
The U.S. is fostering “explosive diplomatic isolation.” —the French daily Libération
This is not “isolationism, it is in-your-face truculence.” —The Independent
It’s the “kiss of death.” —Bangkok Post
That certainly sounds like a consensus. But you wouldn’t know it from reading coverage of the treaty negotiations by Times reporter Douglas Jehl. For two days, Jehl pussyfooted around the backlash, using such euphemisms as “discord,” “dismay,” and “disappointment.” A March 30 Times editorial was tiptoeing too, calling Bush’s decision “ill-advised” and suggesting ever so deferentially that he “should try to improve the treaty, not kill it.”
The full litany of complaints finally appeared in the Times on April 1, in an A-3 news story by Edmund Andrews. Writing out of Frankfurt, Andrews framed the story with Timesian cynicism, arguing that European leaders don’t have much leverage to push forward with the Kyoto treaty. Because the U.S. produces more greenhouse gases than anyone else in the world, a treaty that lacks U.S. cooperation is doomed to cost the participating countries more while “American companies benefit from easier rules.”
Of course, the Times could become a source of political resistance any day now. An April 1 editorial noted that America finally seems to have woken up to “the breathtakingly open pro-wealth, pro-business bias that has dominated White House actions . . . for the past two months.” The question is, what are we going to do about it?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2001