IV. Central Intelligence

It’s all too easy to miss the forest for the trees, to remember the 1960s as a time of great social and cultural change, but to forget some of the foundational catalysts that caused it. And while ultimately LSD surged into the cultural rock bed, the fact that it did so at the time it did is important, even serendipitous.

But for now, the basics: The Cold War that gripped the world after WWII manifested itself in all aspects of culture, from the fear of nuclear bombs and the power games of nation states that brought them to the brink again and again. LSD was no different–after its discovery in 1943 the OSS, the precursors to the post-war CIA, soon became aware of it (the chemical formula was published in scientific journals in 1947) and like the power of the atom, the power of the molecule was seen as a weapon.

So, if the 50s was the era of the bomb, then LSD also gave off its fair share of psychic fallout. Underground tests on volunteers by the British and American military were common, and the powers of the time reported that if LSD could be fired in a rocket and released over the Soviet Union “it could at a stroke put the entire Red Army out of action”. There were fears–never confirmed but great to buoy the defence budgets­­–that the ergot fungus proliferated in Russia and that the Soviets were hoarding their supplies.

According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, authors of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, The Sixties, and Beyond, there was over a decade of legal and illegal testing of LSD by the CIA on it’s own men, from 1953-1966, when they dosed unsuspecting doctors and servicemen to see if the chemical would make an efficient brainwashing mechanism.

Lee examined over 20,000 pages of Freedom of Information (FOI) material about the CIA-LSD connection, and revealed that the CIA initiated their first tests of LSD in 1951 under the umbrella of Project ARTICHOKE. They had no qualms about testing it on unwitting civilians, as Lee relates: “the [ARTICHOKE] report [dated Oct 21, 1951] concluded by recommending that LSD be critically tested “under threat conditions beyond the scope of civilian experimentation.”

In 2009 investigative journalist Hank Albarelli used the FOI system to find a CIA document labeled: “Re: Pont-Saint-Esprit and F.Olson Files. SO Span/France Operation file, inclusive Olson. Intel files. Hand carry to Belin–tell him to see to it that these are buried.” Pont-Saint-Esprit was the small French village that suffered an outbreak of suspected ergot rye poisoning on 16 August 1951, where Time magazine described: “Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead.”

Mass hallucinations broke out across the town, causing citizens to jump out of windows, scream through the streets and be chained to beds whilst the fevered dreams of terrifying beasts and fire passed. The New York Times later reported that “more than 300 people [were] afflicted, [with] 7 to 10 dead, 46 detained in asylums, and many unable ever to hold jobs or lead normal lives.”

F. Olson was Frank Olson, a CIA scientist involved in early LSD research, which lead Arabelli to believe that the CIA dosed the small village with LSD as part of its expanding field operations with the chemical. A recent exhumation of the body of Dr. Frank Olson (who was thought to have jumped from a hotel window in 1953 whilst high on CIA-dosed LSD) has shown that he was in fact, murdered. Olson’s son hypothesised that Dr. Olson, who was involved in clandestine American chemical warfare testing, had wanted out and was silenced.

Another CIA document from 1954 obtained under FOI legislation by Arabelli recounts a CIA agent conversing with a member of Sandoz Laboratories–only a few hundred kilometers from the French village–who confessed: “The Pont-Saint-Esprit’ secret’ is that it was not the bread at all... It was not grain ergot.” The agent furthermore said it was not ‘at all’ caused by mold but by diethylamide, the D in LSD.” Sandoz was, of course, supplying both the U.S. Army and CIA with LSD at this time.

Now if the CIA were willing to do this to civilians outside America, they were soon to experiment in the homeland itself, on a scale previously unimaginable. ARTICHOKE gave way to Operation MK-ULTRA, which was authorized by the newly appointed CIA director Allen Dulles on April 13, 1953 but was proposed by Richard Helms, a high-ranking member of the ‘Clandestine Services’ department (and later CIA director from 1966 to 1973). The paper trail for over 150 CIA-funded MK-ULTRA ‘research projects’ into mind control, psychoactive drugs and and “methodologies to manipulate individual mental states and alter brain functions” was destroyed in 1972 under direct order from Helms.

“The central irony of LSD is that it has been used both as a weapon and a sacrament, a mind control drug and a mind-expanding chemical,” Martin Lee says. “Each of these possibilities generated a unique history: a covert history, on the one hand, rooted in CIA and military experimentation with hallucinogens, and a grassroots history of the drug counterculture that exploded into prominence in the 1960s. At key points the two histories converge and overlap, forming an interface between the ClA’s secret drug programs and the rise and fall of the psychedelic movement.”

For instance: Al Hubbard (nicknamed “Captain Trips”, the “Johnny Appleseed” of LSD) was a “rum-drinking, snake-oil-fundamentalist-Bible Belt salesman … a legendary behind-the-scenes operator” who had been a high-level OSS officer a generation before, and retained connections to the FBI and other government agencies (although he claimed the CIA were “lousy deceivers, sons of the devils themselves”).

He indoctrinated an estimated 6,000 people to LSD before it was effectively banned in 1966, sharing the sacrament with a prominent Monsignor of the Catholic Church in North America, plumbing the roots of alcoholism with AA founder Bill Wilson, and gate crashing the pearly gates with Aldous Huxley. It was through Hubbard (who was rumoured to have the biggest supply of LSD in the world after Sandoz themselves) that many of the Beverly Hills psychiatrists turned on actors Cary Grant, James Coburn, Jack Nicholson, novelist Anais Nin, and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, amongst hundreds of others.

The CIA’s front companies and “cutouts” included the Society for the Study of Human Ecology and the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, which funded medical research by extending grants for LSD research.

The Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, another CIA-extension, had partially paid for Gordon Wasson, the Vice President of J.P. Morgan’s unusual expedition to the highlands of Huautla de Jimenez, in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico, where he first encountered psilocybin mushrooms under the watchful eye of curandera Maria Sabina in 1955.

Similarly, the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park was a federally funded research program that in 1960 paid a budding young novelist named Ken Kesey to examine the effects of psychotomimetic drugs including LSD, mescaline, Ditran and more. Kesey went on to write the breakthrough novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest based on his experiences at the hospital when he was later employed there as a night attendant in the psychiatric ward, sometimes tripping on LSD while he leaned on his mop.

Helping himself to supplies of LSD he found at the hospital, he shared the drug with his bohemian friends on Perry Lane, where many Stanford college students resided. His notorious venison chili–dosed with LSD was a hit at his psychedelic dinner parties there, and Kesey himself was instrumental in turning on the West Coast scene with his band of Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests a few years later.

There is a cause and effect for everything, and while the CIA might not have directly planned the runaway excess of LSD revolution, they certainly researched, funded and facilitated the larger social uptake of psychedelics to explore the results.

The public record shows that the CIA’s covert drugs programs also presaged and laid the path for the later street appearance of these drugs.

As Martin Lee writes, “As it turns out, nearly every drug that appeared on the black market during the 1960s—marijuana, cocaine, heroin, PCP, amyl nitrate, mushrooms, DMT, barbiturates, laughing gas, speed, and many others—had previously been scrutinized, tested, and in some cases refined by CIA and army scientists.”

Statistically then, out of the thousands of people dosed in the CIA, someone had to have had a spiritual experience. And did that person facilitate and allow LSD use to permeate into the industrial machine and through it on to the culture at large? Did those who trip simply rely on the ‘national defense’ strategy, whilst grokking the cosmic play at work?

Martin Lee quotes in Acid Dreams that “there were times when CIA agents found themselves propelled into a visionary world and they were deeply moved by the experience. One MK-ULTRA veteran wept in front of his colleagues at the end of his first trip. ‘I didn’t want to leave it,’ he explained. ‘I felt I would be going back to a place where I wouldn’t be able to hold on to this kind of beauty.’ His colleagues assumed he was having a bad trip and wrote a report stating that the drug had made him psychotic.”

Was the CIA out to elevate the consciousness of America, or control it? Ted Kennedy, the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research unsuccessfully tried to find out in congressional hearings on MK-ULTRA in 1977. At the same time Allen Ginsberg wondered what that would mean to the hippies and the culture leaders than championed it back in the day:

“Am I, Allen Ginsberg, the product of one of the ClA’s lamentable, ill-advised, or triumphantly successful experiments in mind control?” he asked at the 1977 psychedelic conference, ‘LSD: A Generation Later.’ Could the CIA, “by conscious plan or inadvertent Pandora’s Box, let loose the whole LSD Fad on the U.S. & the World?” Actually, yes. With no street availability, Ginsberg’s virgin trip with LSD was at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, in 1959. One of the researchers involved in that institution was Dr. Charles Savage, who had been running hallucinogenic drug experiments for the US Navy in the early 1950s.

Tim Leary quipped that: “It [the LSD revolution] was no accident. It was all planned and scripted by the Central Intelligence, and I’m all in favor of Central Intelligence.”

Leary hits on a foundational tenet that Owsley was to expound upon at length–namely, that higher forces were at work guiding the dissemination of LSD itself and the unitary state of mind that it engendered. There is ample documentation regarding individuals like Hubbard, Hofmann, Owsley et.al and organizations like the CIA’s involvement with LSD as it travelled out from the labs and the medical establishment to the streets and into the minds of a generation. But at some stage a tipping point was reached and whatever agendas may have been involved quickly became overshadowed by the larger cultural metastasis.

The CIA managed the first wave of LSD like a boom and a bust in the economic cycle–funding and seeding it, and then curtailing it when their experiments failed to brainwash recipients, noting that sometimes dosing increased their psychic tenacity to not co-operate.

And whether they were originally aware of it or not, the LSD revolution would go on to spawn a slew of breakthroughs that helped American business. It birthed a creativity revolution that got the USA ahead in the ideas stakes, for one thing. For instance: there are reports of key figures in the information age that spawned the personal computer revolution using LSD as a creativity drug. As Wired magazine was to report from Albert Hofmann’s 100th birthday symposium in 2006:

The gathering included a discussion of how early computer pioneers used LSD for inspiration. Douglas Englebart, the inventor of the mouse, Myron Stolaroff, a former Ampex engineer and LSD researcher who was attending the symposium, and Apple-cofounder Steve Jobs were among them. In the 2005 book What the Dormouse Said, New York Times reporter John Markoff quotes Jobs describing his LSD experience as “one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life.” Or as one lecture topic had it–‘From Open Mind to Open Source’.

Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of the late 1980s virtual reality industry says: “almost to a person, the founders of the [personal] computer industry were psychedelic style hippies … Within the computer science community there’s a very strong connection with the 60s psychedelic tradition, absolutely no question about it.” And it didn’t stop in the 60s: Bob Jesse, once VP of Business Development at Oracle, once the third largest software company in the world after Microsoft, left the company to chair the Council on Spiritual Practices, a non-profit NGO that has advocated the responsible use of entheogens for religious purposes.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As LSD activated the mind and the spirit, parallel social movements that birthed the ecology, civil rights, anti-war, back-to-the-earth and many other modalities all sprang forth like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In short, the waves of change that were slowly anchored and disseminated from the acid revolution and all those it tested, literally made the bedrock of the social networks and the cultural milieu that we find in the 21st century.

Was it the times, or the LSD, or the LSD and the times synergizing together? And why then, since LSD had been percolating through the intelligentsia since its birth during the dark days of WWII? Just what level of Central Intelligence was running the show, anyway?

Could IT be working behind the scenes even now, birthing social networks and Google, non-linear data flows of information linking us together in mesh networks beyond the physical, data tribes webbed by silicon, all of it that other great alchemical miracle: the Internet?

In his book, Mycelium Running, author Paul Stamets makes direct allusion between the mushroom mycelium network, the dense network of information sharing systems that form the Internet, and the neuron networks in the brain.

All seem to be forms of nature expressing herself on different levels, or as Stamets says: “I believe that the mycelium operates at a level of complexity that exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputers. I see the mycelium as the Earth’s natural Internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate.”

If anyone could shed light on the matter, it was going to be Owsley.

Hyper-intelligent, cantankerous, a living relic of the first wave, the Alchemist to the hippie generation.

This is an extract from the free, non-commercial biography, White Lightning, available for PDF download here.

Bear Owsley’s writings can still be found on his website: http://www.thebear.org/ 

Support The Owsley Stanley Foundation – a 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of “Bear’s Sonic Journals,” Owsley’s archive of more than 1,300 live concert soundboard recordings from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s here: https://owsleystanleyfoundation.org