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

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

Stephen Kinzer. Holt, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-14043-2

Journalist Kinzer (The Brothers) delivers a stranger-than-fiction account of the CIA’s efforts in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s at developing mind control and chemical-based espionage methods, and the chemist, Sidney Gottlieb, who spearheaded the effort. Surreal episodes, involving attempts to make Fidel Castro’s beard fall out and efforts to create an “acoustic cat” that could be used as a clandestine listening device, sit alongside the extreme medical misdeeds of Gottlieb’s mind-control project, MK-Ultra , which included experimenting on unsuspecting members of his own research group, Chinese and Hungarian refugees, and medical patients. While the book nominally focuses on Gottlieb, he remains something of a cipher throughout, overshadowed by some of the larger-than-life characters in his orbit, like the drug-sampling narcotics agent turned agency contractor George Hunter White, who tested the effects of LSD and other drugs on unsuspecting subjects in New York and San Francisco as part of MK-Ultra. Gottlieb’s efforts to reinvent himself in his post-CIA career, becoming a speech therapist at the age of 60, and his unwillingness to revisit his past, even when called to testify before Congress in 1977 after the activities of MK-Ultra came to light, means his motivations are left largely unclear. In the end, “one of the most powerful unknown Americans” remains a mystery, but the nigh-unbelievable efforts he led are vividly and horrifically recreated in this fascinating history. (Sept.)