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Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control

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The bestselling author of All the Shah’s Men and The Brothers tells the astonishing story of the man who oversaw the CIA’s secret drug and mind-control experiments of the 1950s and ’60s. The visionary chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the CIA’s master magician and gentlehearted torturer—the agency’s “poisoner in chief.” As head of the MK-ULTRA mind control project, he directed brutal experim/>


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The bestselling author of All the Shah’s Men and The Brothers tells the astonishing story of the man who oversaw the CIA’s secret drug and mind-control experiments of the 1950s and ’60s. The visionary chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the CIA’s master magician and gentlehearted torturer—the agency’s “poisoner in chief.” As head of the MK-ULTRA mind control project, he directed brutal experim/>

30 review for Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control

  1. 5 out of 5

    David Wineberg

    One of the (many) problems with the CIA is who knows what. The less you know, the less you have to lie about and potentially get caught on. Or catch the agency on, which is worse. The result is illegal actions at will, from torture to drug experiments on the unwitting to assassinations of political leaders around the world. The extreme case, we can only hope, is the story of Sidney Gottlieb, the star of Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief. The title is the actual nickname Gottlieb had at the agen One of the (many) problems with the CIA is who knows what. The less you know, the less you have to lie about and potentially get caught on. Or catch the agency on, which is worse. The result is illegal actions at will, from torture to drug experiments on the unwitting to assassinations of political leaders around the world. The extreme case, we can only hope, is the story of Sidney Gottlieb, the star of Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief. The title is the actual nickname Gottlieb had at the agency. He had an incredibly broad mandate to find drugs that would be useful in the field, and fashion them into weapons in order to inject victims directly, or poison their food or their clothing. In order to test them, he routinely tortured unwitting victims both in the USA and around the world. International norms, treaties and laws were of no concern. The CIA reported to no one, dreamed up its own projects and acted on its own missions. All in the name of truth, justice and the American way, of course. Budgets could be unlimited, and scope was a wide as the imagination. In addition to all the torture, Kinzer gives the example Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who was about to be poisoned when the CIA’s Deputy Director Lucian Truscott Jr. found out about it. He dressed down his boss, CIA director Allen Dulles until he relented and canceled the operation. Otherwise we could have had a(nother) major war and distrust lasting decades. This was the world Sidney Gottlieb stepped into. It subsumed him. He went farther faster than anyone, relying on things like science fiction and paranoid news items to inspire his work. They led him to believe “the Communists” had mind control as a weapon. So the USA had to have it too. And better. The lengths he went to are astounding. He set up brothels in New York and San Francisco to test johns on the effects of LSD with sex. He dosed total strangers with LSD depending on what agents said were their weaknesses, from physical disabilities to depression. He got hospitals in Canada and the US to overdose patients with LSD to see if it would erase their memories. Same with prison inmates, who were lied to that it was a test of a schizophrenia drug cure. The results of all these things were all too often completely ruined lives, people who were admitted to get better and left mentally crippled. Thousands of people, all over the world. All so Gottlieb could find his holy grail, a drug weapon that could make a victim into an assassin, a traitor or an informant against his own will. Gottlieb used his MK-ULTRA project to fund all kinds of outside projects he did not personally lead. Neurologist Harold Wolff at Cornell Medical was given a million dollars (in 1950s money) to study “changes in behavior due to stress brought about by actual loss of cerebral tissue.” The patients in the study did not know they were in the study, what they were taking or why, which was typical. They were, in the CIA’s classification, “expendables”. “Expendables” were subjected to baking, freezing, constant light, constant dark, starvation, sleep deprivation, unbearable sounds and unbearable silence. They were sourced all over the world – prisoners, derelicts, hospital patients – anyone the country could do without, for cash. The CIA disposed of the bodies, guaranteed. It was all very reminiscent of the Nazis. In fact, the CIA secured the services of Nazi concentration camp doctors to learn from. If Joseph Mengele hadn’t escaped, he would have been offered a contract and moved into comfort for life in the USA courtesy of the CIA. Several others laundered their lives this way. Gottlieb also played Q to the CIA agents. He developed poisons no one in the world could identify. He invented pens and cameras and all the other accoutrements that spy pulp fiction wrote about. He even developed a hollow silver dollar chain. It contained a straight pin, the grooved tip of which had a poison so strong it would kill in seconds just rubbing it on the skin. Agents, including Francis Gary Powers, the CIA U-2 spy plane pilot, wore them around their necks in case of capture. With no limitations, Gottlieb’s organization just kept growing in all directions. He got cocky and secretly spiked a bottle of Cointreau so his own staff drank LSD at a retreat. One of them died as result, either jumping or being pushed from a 13th story hotel room window in Manhattan. As usual, fixers covered it up. And after all this, the result was nothing. “As of 1960 no effective knockout pill, truth serum, aphrodisiac, recruitment pill was known to exist…Years of MK-ULTRA experiments had failed,” Kinzer says. This marked the beginning of Gottlieb’s acknowledgement that his search had been in vain, though it cost thousands of lives interrupted or terminated. Incredibly, Gottlieb was a spiritual, positive family man, into solar and sustainable living decades before anyone had heard of them. He studied, practiced and taught folk dancing. Everyone thought the world of him, not knowing what he did for a living. When he retired, he and his wife sold everything, travelled the world and volunteered everywhere they went, in places like leper colonies. Then one day a subpoena caught up to him. He spent pretty much the rest of his life testifying before Congress and in court cases. He demanded and received immunity from Congress. But as private cases started to name him personally, he did his duty as a good spook one last time, and is assumed to have committed suicide rather than risk exposing or even denigrating his life’s work at the CIA. He was 80. It’s an awful story, told fast and well by Stephen Kinzer. Using numerous other biographies and public reporting, Kinzer has put together a revolting look at the champions of freedom in the USA. David Wineberg

  2. 4 out of 5

    doug bowman

    Thanks to Fresh Air As so often happens, most of the non- fiction works that I read come out of hearing an episode of the National Public radio show, Fresh Air. I have never been disappointed by a book presented on the show. This book was engrossing and horrific at the same time. It's subject is at once sinister and compelling.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Elisha Condie

    Holy smokes, this book is SO UPSETTING. I heard author Stephen Kinzer interviewed on Fresh Air (NPR) and could hardly believe the story he was telling, and went right home and got this book. This book is all about Sidney Gottlieb, the scientist who ran decades long experiments in the CIA to try and find mind control drugs. He basically had a endless budget and no supervision to do what he saw necessary to get the job done. And it just KILLED me. He's a family man at home, who believes in susta Holy smokes, this book is SO UPSETTING. I heard author Stephen Kinzer interviewed on Fresh Air (NPR) and could hardly believe the story he was telling, and went right home and got this book. This book is all about Sidney Gottlieb, the scientist who ran decades long experiments in the CIA to try and find mind control drugs. He basically had a endless budget and no supervision to do what he saw necessary to get the job done. And it just KILLED me. He's a family man at home, who believes in sustainable living and folk dancing but at work he lives in this morals free zone where anything goes. And seriously, anything goes. The U.S. started recruiting Nazi (NAZI!) doctors and scientists who, yeah, they are monsters, but we need to know what they know. After FDR died the US began the secretive Operation Paperclip which gave war criminals a free pass to the US and freedom from prosecution if they'd just come work for us. Because the US didn't have to abide by the rules established in the Nuremberg Convention, we basically had an open door for torture. I couldn't believe it. FDR and Captain America would be SO disappointed. And nothing was off limits to Gottlieb. They used LSD on anyone they could get their hands on. Especially prisoners, hospital residents, students, and at least once even on his own men. He gave them all punch at a party that was laced with LSD, and one man committed suicide after. There were secret experimental labs and houses all over the world where they took people (like German POWs) and gave them lethal doses of LSD over long periods of time to just SEE if any of it would turn out to be the mind control drug they were after. Gottlieb also had a James Bond Q side to him, where he packed poisons into innocuous things for agents to carry around and use - to assassinate world leaders, enemies, whatever. The whole time I read this I felt like the book might burst into flames I was so mad. I just couldn't believe it. But it was so interesting and I appreciate Kinzer bringing this whole thing to light. It really made me think about where we draw our own lines for what is wrong and right, and how so many people - SO many - could have erased those lines completely.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Llew

    Absolutely fascinating and authoritative history of MK-ULTRA. Something I always read about, maybe in comic books or wild-eyed conspiracy theory stories, and I imagined to be true. But I always assumed it to be a quirky thing, like how the CIA also funded goat hypnosis. No, MK ULTRA was not just a one-off oddball test but an extensive program that was part of the agency's heavy focus on psychological and chemical warfare in the post-war era. The book is just filled with stories within the narrat Absolutely fascinating and authoritative history of MK-ULTRA. Something I always read about, maybe in comic books or wild-eyed conspiracy theory stories, and I imagined to be true. But I always assumed it to be a quirky thing, like how the CIA also funded goat hypnosis. No, MK ULTRA was not just a one-off oddball test but an extensive program that was part of the agency's heavy focus on psychological and chemical warfare in the post-war era. The book is just filled with stories within the narrative that follows Gottlieb, the mastermind of the program: the LSD injection tests on prisoners like Whitey Bulger, the myriad CIA connections to the psychedelic movement, Operation Paperclip and the Nazi scientists that came to the U.S., the horrors of Japan's Unit 173, the CIA's LSD bordello in SF, Frank Olson's suicide (lots of great D.C. references there), and the story of James Kronthal. Kronthal isn't so much tied to MK Ultra, but what a crazy story that was, especially considering all the recent stories about Kompromat and the Russian investigation. Great read all around. Couldn't recommend higher.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    A disturbing portrait of Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA research into mind control. He believed as it the USA that there was a potential for communists to develop mind control drugs and experimented on the same. During the 50s and 60s, Gottlieb and his team lured homeless, prostitutes, criminals and people they decided would not attract attention if they disappeared and conducted experiments on them. Some were discredited, others permanently injured and a few died. Sidney Gottlieb told his stories A disturbing portrait of Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA research into mind control. He believed as it the USA that there was a potential for communists to develop mind control drugs and experimented on the same. During the 50s and 60s, Gottlieb and his team lured homeless, prostitutes, criminals and people they decided would not attract attention if they disappeared and conducted experiments on them. Some were discredited, others permanently injured and a few died. Sidney Gottlieb told his stories under immunity from prosecution in 1975 in front of Congress. World leaders such as Castro and Lumumba were targeted for assassination. Prisoners and college students were used as guinea pigs. His nickname was Dr. Death.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin

    Engrossing but also hard to read; not because of the writing, but because the subject is so frustrating. While much of the historical documents about the programs mentioned have been destroyed or are not yet declassified, this book has enough information to still horrify. Kinzer talks in circles sometimes, but the impression he leaves is nevertheless haunting – one of a young man joining the government for patriotic reasons, and rapidly turning into someone willing to push aside all morality to Engrossing but also hard to read; not because of the writing, but because the subject is so frustrating. While much of the historical documents about the programs mentioned have been destroyed or are not yet declassified, this book has enough information to still horrify. Kinzer talks in circles sometimes, but the impression he leaves is nevertheless haunting – one of a young man joining the government for patriotic reasons, and rapidly turning into someone willing to push aside all morality to try and discover how to control (or at least destroy) a human mind.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    What You Need To Know: After the United States spent billions heroically sacrificing and conquering the Nazi party in World War II we then turned around and hired a bunch of them (start by Googling “Project Paperclip”). The reason was to compete against the new threat known as the Soviet Union. Because of patriotism, we couldn’t let the Reds get to the advancements in technology before we did. The problem is the BEHAVIOR adapted. Example: this book. The stuff Sidney Gottlieb and his cronies did What You Need To Know: After the United States spent billions heroically sacrificing and conquering the Nazi party in World War II we then turned around and hired a bunch of them (start by Googling “Project Paperclip”). The reason was to compete against the new threat known as the Soviet Union. Because of patriotism, we couldn’t let the Reds get to the advancements in technology before we did. The problem is the BEHAVIOR adapted. Example: this book. The stuff Sidney Gottlieb and his cronies did was straight out of the Nazi playbook, their predecessors. Read this true story and prepare to be horrified. Today is October 31st. Happy Halloween.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Brendan

    Breezily written, stylishly articulated, wholly engaging, frequently startling.

  9. 5 out of 5

    SP

    Poisoner In Chief was a book I would consider hard to read. This is not because of the writing, the difficulty was caused by the frustrations I felt while reading on the topic of the CIA’s mind control experiments. This book gives you all the horrifying information on the top secret tasks of scientists the government and CIA hired. Although there is repetition throughout, Stephen Kinzer delivers the message of unethical people doing these tests. The book explains a situation where a man joining Poisoner In Chief was a book I would consider hard to read. This is not because of the writing, the difficulty was caused by the frustrations I felt while reading on the topic of the CIA’s mind control experiments. This book gives you all the horrifying information on the top secret tasks of scientists the government and CIA hired. Although there is repetition throughout, Stephen Kinzer delivers the message of unethical people doing these tests. The book explains a situation where a man joining the government for the country was easily manipulated and turned into someone who neglected morals to understand how the human mind can be controlled. The book focused on one main man that was very important to the CIA at the time, Sidney Gottlieb. Gottlieb has all the information and knowledge to test each chemical on victims. Not only did he torture victims from the USA, but he tortured humans all over the world with every resource he had. From describing the experiments given by Gottlieb, Kinzer found ways to include other examples of torture such as the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and the tests of LSD on innocent people. Using other biographies and public sightings, Kinzer created a book that was quick to read and gave the explanation of the CIA’s immoral testings.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Janet Uhlar

    Kinzer attempts to reveal the destructive experiments of the CIA post WWII. MKULTRA was a project using high doses of LSD and other hallucinogens on unsuspecting US Citizens. The purpose of the experiment? To modify behavior. What Kinzer doesn't fully explore is the lengths to which the CIA would go. The modification of behavior extended to the point of attempting to make an individual violent and homicidal. Whitey Bulger and Ted Kaczynski (Una Bomber) were used in this experiment -- a Kinzer attempts to reveal the destructive experiments of the CIA post WWII. MKULTRA was a project using high doses of LSD and other hallucinogens on unsuspecting US Citizens. The purpose of the experiment? To modify behavior. What Kinzer doesn't fully explore is the lengths to which the CIA would go. The modification of behavior extended to the point of attempting to make an individual violent and homicidal. Whitey Bulger and Ted Kaczynski (Una Bomber) were used in this experiment -- and possibly Charles Manson. I have numerous letters from Bulger in which he shares his experience in the CIA's MKULTRA modification behavior project. (Portions of these letters are shared in my book, The Truth Be Damned) These letters are filled with fascinating information which need to be fully investigated. Kinzer's book again attempts to open the door in exposing MKULTRA. (Books and material were written previously, which have been forgotten.)

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    While the book contains a significant amount of information regarding Sidney Gottlieb's life, focused on the 10 prime years of MK-ULTRA, there appears to be very little new information or insight, as almost all of the citations are to prior books, previously available documents made public several years ago, and other public sources. While the author cites a number of interview with unidentified former CIA employees, the information cited is almost entirely brief personal observations of Gottlie While the book contains a significant amount of information regarding Sidney Gottlieb's life, focused on the 10 prime years of MK-ULTRA, there appears to be very little new information or insight, as almost all of the citations are to prior books, previously available documents made public several years ago, and other public sources. While the author cites a number of interview with unidentified former CIA employees, the information cited is almost entirely brief personal observations of Gottlieb as a co-employee, rather than any factual revelation about his career. For me, the book is also marred by the frequent use of sensationalized wording such as "a phantasmagorical kind of science" or even titling the book "Poisoner in Chief." Disappointing.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Iuli

    I don't think anyone should be surprised that the CIA would stoop to these kinds of sadistic experiments. At the same time the events of this book were taking place they were giving lists of communists to death squads which were to be exterminated as part of the Indonesian Genocide. Nothing was too low, defeating Communism was the ultimate goal and if that required torturing who knows how many people then so be it. Keeping in mind that the majority of documents were destroyed in order to hide th I don't think anyone should be surprised that the CIA would stoop to these kinds of sadistic experiments. At the same time the events of this book were taking place they were giving lists of communists to death squads which were to be exterminated as part of the Indonesian Genocide. Nothing was too low, defeating Communism was the ultimate goal and if that required torturing who knows how many people then so be it. Keeping in mind that the majority of documents were destroyed in order to hide these crimes, we can only imagine the extent of the experiments that took place.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Rose

    Interesting story and book which does what it says it will do. Fine! But I listened to the audiobook and I regret to report that a choice was made to replicate Gottleib’s real life stutter in the narration. Unnecessary!! Very distracting. Most of the direct quotes are from written sources anyway and presumably he did not reproduce his stutter in official CIA memos or legal depositions so WHY bother gah.

  14. 4 out of 5

    K.T.

    A fascinating recount of one man working for the CIA during the Cold War. A man who went to great (and ultimately unsuccessful) lengths to find a substance that could create a “Manchuria Candidate”. Instead his actions and those of individuals under his charge irreparably altered lives of innocent civilians and their families forever. But was this man a patriot or no better than the Nazi doctors whose tortuous experiments fueled his early research?

  15. 4 out of 5

    Dana mostly reading books

    The story itself is shocking and I wanted to find out more about it. Gottliebs obsession of achieving mind control and the unbelievably shocking things he approved to get to his goal are something everyone should read about. Unfortunately I felt the book fell short and it ended up being repetitive and didn’t give enough insight for me. I did appreciate the research that went into this book but I often felt it was just a list of sources and facts found elsewhere.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tibor

    Limited hangout by an inside-the-tent propagandist who pretends to be a whistleblower, desperately trying to save at least some of the "official version" talking points we've been spoonfed as history.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Joe Spoto

    I learned about this book when I heard the author on an NPR program. It is a well-written book about an unpleasant subject. Some of the subject matter is disturbing, but it is history.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    Read informative (and freaky), but also a little repetitive at some points.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    Scary book to read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Loli Kizzy

    really feel like reading it a million more times

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jon Davids

    Stunning piece of historical investigative journalism...Gottlieb and his story had quietly slipped into the dustbin of history until Kinzer pulled them out and dusted them off...a most worthy read!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Doris Raines

    YES I WOULD BUY THIS BOOK

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    Very gruesome. Too graphic to continue.

  24. 4 out of 5

    EEveshelbyeva eva

    captivating

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tim Gillen

    Sickening the extent to which Gottlieb’ and his organization went beyond what conscience would allow in the sake of science and curiosity.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bobby Sullivan

    Absolutely horrific. Gottlieb was a monster, and Americans have no right to castigate Mengele.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ivy

  28. 4 out of 5

    Emma

  29. 5 out of 5

    Alexander Tague

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mary Moran

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