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The Bitter Secret of ‘Wormwood’

Mark Schafer/Netflix
Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson undergoing psychological tests in Errol Morris’s Wormwood, 2017

Transparency and accountability are essential virtues in a democracy, but they’re clearly not as viscerally appealing or as thrilling as their opposites, secrecy and impunity. The intelligence operative—especially the rogue spy flouting the law, from James Bond to Jason Bourne—is one of the most glamorized figures in the fiction and movies of postwar America. In Errol Morris’s new series, Wormwood, which blends documentary with dramatic reconstructions, he sets out to explore an episode in the history of US intelligence that is irresistibly sensational, the CIA’s cold war “mind control” program of the 1950s and 1960s. Code-named MK-ULTRA, the program involved agents experimenting with methods for gaining full control of a person’s thoughts and behavior using LSD, hypnosis, electric shocks, and other bizarre means—the films The Ipcress File (1965) and The Parallax View (1974) show cool, stylized versions. The thesis offered by Wormwood’s principal subjects is that, during the same period, the CIA ran an authorized, extrajudicial execution program of dissenting agents who were active in the agency’s secret operations.

If Morris had simply recounted the facts, even in a way that emphasized the real suffering of the victims, that would have shocked nobody. They are the stuff of every spy movie, a genre that has successfully turned state surveillance and assassinations into seductive excitement. But unlike that genre, Wormwood—a word for a bitter poison, used by Hamlet to describe bitter truths—doesn’t produce dramatic tension by exploiting our desire to be in on the secret. It exposes us to the baser side of that desire: the narcissism, mean-spiritedness, and contempt that are so often the psychological realities of secrecy.

The six-part series focuses on the death of Frank Olson, an army scientist who worked on biological weapons research at Camp Detrick, a US army camp in Maryland, but who subsequently became a CIA operative involved in Project ARTICHOKE, a predecessor to MK-ULTRA that focused, with brutal rigor, on interrogation methods. When the Rockefeller Commission (established by President Gerald Ford in 1975 to investigate potentially illegal CIA programs, and led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller) examined records of his death, which occurred in November 1953, it reported that Olson had been secretly dosed with LSD by the CIA several days beforehand. The existing CIA documents (many had been destroyed) created the impression that Olson had then sunk into a severe depression before jumping not just out of, but directly through, his New York hotel room’s thirteenth-floor window, smashing its glass pane.

After the commission’s report was released on June 6, 1975, the Olson family called the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, whose reporting on illegal CIA domestic spying had instigated the Rockefeller Commission’s investigations. Hersh walked into their home saying bluntly, “You must be the most goddamned incurious family in the United States. How you could have lived with this bullshit story for twenty-two years is beyond me.” He then published an account of what he took to be the true suicide story in The New York Times. The family held a press conference. President Ford apologized to them in person at the White House (Morris shows us black-and-white stills of the family members smiling gratefully in the Oval Office).

While the series contains noirish fictionalized recreations of the events (starring Peter Sarsgaard, whose affect as Frank Olson is pitched, with perfect ambiguity, between being mortally afraid, or tripping, or both), most of Morris’s footage is of interviews with Olson’s son Eric, an aggrieved and disappointed man. His life has been entirely consumed with trying to pry open the mystery of his father’s death; he has finally, painfully, concluded, by the time Morris interviews him, that it was an execution.

Surprisingly, though, the most jarring and psychologically revealing interviews are not with Olson’s son, but with Hersh. More than forty years after Hersh broke the story, Eric Olson confronted him in 2016 (the year before Morris made the documentary) with fresh evidence, including a new autopsy report that, he claimed, demonstrated the suicide story was false; it was a murder. Eric also insisted that Hersh had been taken in, by the CIA, that he had “swallowed the cover story” about LSD, when, in fact, his father was silenced because of his involvement in Project ARTICHOKE and in bioweapons research, about which he had loudly expressed serious moral qualms. After initially dismissing Olson’s theory, Hersh went back to a CIA source, someone he describes as a trusted friend, to investigate further.

This is the heart of the matter of Morris’s interview with him in Wormwood. At this point in the documentary, the subdued tone of quiet confession we generally expect from Morris’s interviews—a style employed extremely effectively in his interviews with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War—and to which we’ve become accustomed in the lengthy interviews with Eric, is abruptly broken. Hersh is clearly annoyed at having been fooled in 1975. Morris has already shown us, in episode one, the young Hersh, in a 1975 interview, taking credit for instigating the investigations conducted by Rockefeller Commission by breaking the story of a “massive” domestic spying operation being conducted by the CIA. With a faint smirk, Hersh says he hopes the previously skeptical journalists in the Washington press corps are now “eating crow.” In the 2017 interview, a terse and impatient Hersh says of Olson’s death:

If you have a dissident in the system you have a procedure. And maybe some of the people who wrote the reports were involved in the procedure. Maybe it was all one big frantic cover-up.

The Rockefeller Commission report had promulgated the CIA’s brilliantly distracting cover story about a drug-induced suicide occurring in the context of secret government research into LSD. But a defiant Hersh was not going to settle for being shut out from the secret knowledge.

His CIA friend had extraordinary access—by some means that Hersh can’t disclose—to highly classified materials. So, Hersh now claims to be in possession of the truth, at last. But he can’t publish it, he says, because it would “finger people”; it would “turn someone into a Snowden.” At first, he refused to tell even Eric, then he relented. When Eric asked why his CIA contact had told him, knowing that he couldn’t publish the story, Hersh replied bluntly, “Because I asked.” It’s hard not to share Eric’s outrage at the idea of CIA officials and journalists passing this secret around between themselves as if it were their personal property.

Hersh warns Morris, “Don’t make this a big deal about journalism.” But, by the end of the final episode, it seems like a big deal: the apparent symbiosis of the spies and the investigative journalists who are close to them, the way in which they each use state secrets as a form of power. Hersh boasts to Morris: “I do operate at a different level than other people because I can get information. People trust me.” Later, when Morris asks Hersh what Frank Olson did to deserve execution, Hersh responds with a faint trace of that smirk: “Guess what? I probably know, but I can’t tell you.” And he probably can’t, but we’re reminded of the younger man who took pleasure in the idea of his fellow journalists’ eating crow.

The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in Morris’s Wormwood, 2017

Even though Morris’s documentary does eventually recount the outlines of the story Hersh has purportedly discovered—the execution of internal dissidents by the CIA’s “Office of Security”—the feeling Morris leaves us with is not the familiar satisfaction of the spy movie in which we’re finally let in on the secret, but rather a queasiness at the way in which the whole business of state secrecy is exploited in American culture. We feel this partly through empathy for Eric’s point of view, as a son who can’t bear living with the secret now pointlessly disclosed to him. 

But we also have to see it from our own point of view, as citizens of a democracy. Toward the end of Hersh’s interview, the journalist smiles at Morris and tells him:

The fact that you can’t get closure in this thing will be of great satisfaction to the CIA—the old-timers, they’ll love it. They’ll love it. The tradecraft won. They got away with one. Even though a few people may know what happened, so what? Nobody else does. It’s a victory for them. You can mark up one for them, zero for us on this one.

In reality, it’s nearly always zero for us. We may get glimpses of the truth, but for the most part, the secrets remain hidden. And the “old-timers” are gloating about it. What gives them the right? Without comprehensive congressional oversight, we can never be sure that we’re being duped for the sake of national security, only that we’re dupes.

All modern states have intelligence agencies, and all of them have to keep secrets. In democracies, foreign espionage and surveillance are broadly considered legitimate, within certain bounds, as are some secret activities necessary for defense purposes. But the United States has only had standing intelligence agencies since World War II, and has struggled to draw the lines clearly. Maintaining secrets often requires active deception. At a certain point, this deception can undermine democracy, so lines need to be drawn carefully and policed rigorously.

To date, the Senate’s Church Committee reports and the White House’s Rockefeller Commission report on the US intelligence agencies have been by far the most comprehensive studies holding these agencies to account that have yet been made public; they came out now more than forty years ago. The House Committee that investigated the same affairs, chaired by the Long Island Democrat Otis Pike, didn’t release its report because of congressional opposition. The published reports contained lurid and shocking information, including CIA drug experiments and assassination plots, FBI harassment of dissidents, the deliberate incitement of violence (including murder) in the black community, and the manipulation of elections in democratic countries. These were dark times for the agencies. The story of Frank Olson’s supposedly LSD-induced suicide was one of the episodes that dominated coverage, shedding light on the sinister mind-control program, which captured the public imagination. But if Wormwood’s claims are true, this public reckoning was itself tainted by lies, elaborately concocted cover stories, and forged documents.

The forces that had been set in motion after the war by the new Central Intelligence Agency (established in 1947) could not entirely be reined in. Nelson Rockefeller already had some experience of this independent momentum. He had been an early proponent of psychological operations, targeting Latin American populations that were subjected to Nazi propaganda during World War II. Serving under Eisenhower as Special Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs, he tried to establish institutions for coordinating security policies—and this was broadly understood to mean psychological operations—from the White House, by creating boards that included representatives from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA. But Rockefeller couldn’t secure the cooperation of either John Foster Dulles, then secretary of state, or Allen Dulles, the CIA director.

It is unsurprising that such coordination was difficult given the widely differing rules concerning popular deception established for these bodies after the war. In 1948, under Truman, the Smith-Mundt Act permitted the State Department to disseminate pro-American (and therefore anti-communist) propaganda abroad, but prohibited it from subjecting US citizens to propaganda. In doing so, the act established a norm that, even in the midst of the intense information wars of the cold war, the American people should not be deceived by their own government. That same year, though, Truman published a National Security Committee paper that essentially legitimized the doctrine of “plausible deniability” for the CIA, specifying their role in covert operations with effect that “any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” This gave the CIA (and any other parties involved in such covert operations) broad license to deceive Americans.

Allen Dulles was unrestrained in his cultivation of behavioral science initiatives that would assist in the manipulation of individuals and societies. The dramatic term “brainwashing” became popular in describing this attempt to discover fundamental mechanisms through which human thought and behavior could be controlled. Many of America’s most distinguished behavioral scientists, who had served in the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) during the war, competing with the Nazis to develop techniques of manipulation, then transitioned seamlessly into this new cold war effort. (The Americans prosecuted Dachau’s doctors at Nuremberg—but not before they had plundered Dachau for the results of the Nazis’ studies on the use of mescaline and other drugs for mind control.)

In a 1949 study for the US Air Force, Yale’s Irving Janis claimed that the Soviets were using hypnosis, drugs, electroshock, and other means to extract false confessions. He thereby helped to lay out the program followed in the CIA’s mind-control research. This program was funded primarily via the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, and, under various pretexts, the most prominent social psychologists at America’s Ivy League universities experimented very freely with those methods.

Social psychologists also studied mind control on a societal scale. During the war, Janis and MIT’s Ithiel de Sola Pool had already begun comparing Nazi and Soviet propaganda and conducting systematic content analysis of Soviet publications. Propaganda researchers naturally continued to receive lavish CIA funding afterwards. Hadley Cantril’s Institute for International Social Research at Princeton, for example, received at least $1 million from the CIA via the Rockefeller Foundation (Cantril’s reports on the social psychology of the Soviets were sent directly to Eisenhower). Harvard’s Herbert Kelman described his work as part of a social-psychological effort to develop “general principles of social influence and socially induced behavior change,” inspired, in his own case, by Chinese Communist methods of “thought reform.”

John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
Laurence Harvey as a brainwashed soldier commanded, under hypnosis, to strangle a comrade, in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962

But mind-control research was not confined to the attempted manufacture of “Manchurian candidate” obedient spies and the spread of propaganda in Communist countries. The cold war, it was thought, could be won abroad through the capturing of hearts and minds, but it could equally be lost at home if the American people lacked commitment or resilience. There was a great deal of concern within the national security community that Americans were not as psychologically resilient as the Soviets and would therefore be less able to cope with the threat of a nuclear strike, or to absorb a first strike by the USSR. Janis authored an important RAND report on this topic, entitled Air War and Emotional Stress: Psychological Studies of Bombing and Civilian Defense, in which he used data collected from interviews conducted after air attacks during World War II in order to outline research proposals addressing “the problem of providing adequate psychological preparation for the American population so as to prevent inappropriate and disruptive behavior.” The study of large-scale psychological manipulation was intended to find ways of producing conformity to norms of “appropriate” behavior during a thermonuclear war.

The precise extent to which active deception was necessary to acclimate the American public to the horrifying absurdities of the cold war is still unknown. In Wormwood, we are told that Frank Olson came to believe that the American public was being elaborately deceived about the US use of biological weapons in the Korean War. Morris shows footage of articulate but apparently “brainwashed” prisoners making “false confessions” to using germ warfare. Eric Olson feels certain that his father, who had worked in the bioweapons program at Camp Detrick, discovered that these weapons actually were being used in Korea and that this discovery instigated his outspoken dissent. In his view, the CIA claims of brainwashing were part of a cover story invented to discredit what were, in fact, true confessions. No evidence has been found that the American prisoners of war were subjected to any special methods of psychological manipulation, such as hypnosis, drugs, or shocks. Equally, though, no evidence that is not circumstantial has been found to corroborate the Korean claims about air-drops of infected insects used to spread deadly pathogens.

We do know that the cold war bequeathed a branch of behavioral science built around the desire to discover universal psychological mechanisms through which human beings could be manipulated. The most famous experiments of mind-control research from the era are the shock experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1961–1962. (Peter Sarsgaard, as it happens, played Milgram in a 2015 movie about these tests called Experimenter.) Milgram led his subjects to believe that they were administering electric shocks to a man in an adjacent room whenever he got an answer wrong on a quiz, but the man apparently screaming in pain was a hired actor. In one study, 65 percent of the subjects were prepared to turn the shocks up to the maximum level, labeled “Danger. Severe Shock.” Both the Office of Naval Research and the National Science foundation were interested in funding this research into “action conformity” in which Milgram aimed to compel people to act “in violation of deeply rooted standards of behavior.” His research proposal claimed that he would shed light on the techniques used by “the red Chinese in trying to extract compliance from our troops in POW camps” (later, in the press, he would represent the experiments to the public as attempts to understand obedience to the Nazis).

In Experimenter, and in Milgram’s own films of the experiments, we can watch in horror and fascination as the duped subjects, anxious and perspiring, obey. Sarsgaard’s Milgram keeps a very straight face (Milgram himself confessed to being inspired in his experimental designs by the TV show Candid Camera), but we can smirk as we watch. The real secret Milgram hid, though, was that his work was intended to confer on America’s intelligence community superior knowledge of how to control people’s minds. He was part of a profession that claimed to know us better than we know ourselves.

Even so, we keep indulging the fantasy of being in on the secret, and experiencing vicariously the sense of superiority that secrets confer. Most of us are, apparently, bored by transparency and accountability, and demand very little of the elected representatives appointed to oversight committees. Errol Morris’s documentary might go a little way toward persuading its audience that secrecy and impunity, in the real world, have a bitter taste.

Wormwood, a six-part docudrama directed by Errol Morris, is a Netflix Original.