Gottlieb’s first government position was at the Department of Agriculture, where he researched the chemical structure of organic soils. He later transferred to the Food and Drug Administration, where he developed tests to measure the presences of drugs in the human body. Gottlieb grew bored of this work and sought a more challenging position. In 1948, he found a job at the National Research Council, where he described being “exposed to some interesting work concerning ergot alkaloids as vasoconstrictors and hallucinogens.” He soon relocated to the University of Maryland as a research associate dedicated to studying metabolisms of fungi.
On July 13, 1951, Gottlieb had his first day of work at CIA. Then-Deputy Director for Plans Allen Dulles hired him on Ira Baldwin’s recommendation. Baldwin had founded and run the biowarfare program at Fort Detrick years earlier, and had kept Gottlieb in his orbit throughout the years. This was the early days of the Cold War, and paranoia about Communist ideology overtaking the American way of life was rampant. CIA was ramping up its search for a way to control the human mind, falsely believing the Soviet Union and China had already mastered the process and would soon use it against them. This paranoia was a driving force of the early CIA and their forays into mind control operations, and they often dismissed the death and destruction caused by many of their experiments in the name of “national security”.
Project BLUEBIRD was already under way when Gottlieb was brought on board; it experimented with “Special Interrogation” techniques on captured prisoners overseas at black sites like Camp King, Fort Clayton, and Villa Schuster, using drugs to attempt to break their ego control and elicit information. But Bluebird lacked scientific knowledge and obedience; Dulles wanted Gottlieb to get it back on course. After going through training, he was named chief of the newly formed Chemical Division of the Technical Services Staff (TSS). On August 20, 1951, Dulles ordered Bluebird to be expanded and centralized, and renamed the Project Artichoke, which quickly became a power base for Gottlieb. Dulles was promoted to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence days after intensifying Artichoke’s scale. This assured protection and encouragement for all of Gottlieb’s future mind-control projects from the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Dulles and Gottlieb both believed there was a way to influence and control the human mind that could lead to global mastery. They also wanted a “truth serum”, something that had been investigated during the days of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) but never fully realized. Gottlieb conducted experiments using THC, cocaine, heroin, and mescaline before realizing LSD had not been properly tested or investigated by the agency. After trying LSD for the first time himself, Gottlieb accelerated LSD experiments at the agency, testing it on agents who agreed to be dosed under controlled environments and some who agreed to be dosed by surprise. LSD had been invented only a decade earlier, and few Americans knew it existed. After months of experimenting on agents and prisoners left Gottlieb unsatisfied, he sought help from the Special Operations Division at Detrick. With this agreement, the CIA acquired the knowledge and facilities of the Army to develop bioweapons suited for the CIA. Gottlieb’s first 18 months at the agency led to some frustrating discoveries. The drugs he was experimenting with were not the “truth serums” he wanted them to be, and often hindered interrogations rather than aiding them. He knew Dulles, now the Director of Central Intelligence under President Eisenhower, would approve anything he wanted to do, and this increased his ambitions. He hatched a new idea that consumed Artichoke and gave him authority over all CIA research into mind control, including the ability to test drugs on witting and unwitting Americans, which was not being done under Artichoke. Gottlieb and Richard Helms, then-Chief of Operations for Directorate of Plans, wrote a memorandum to send to Dulles.
Project MK-Ultra and Subprojects
Dulles formally approved Project MK-Ultra on April 13, 1953. His brother, John Foster Dulles, was tapped for Secretary of State, giving even further diplomatic cover to the project. On April 10, Dulles described the program and others like it in a speech to alumni at Princeton University, referencing the new battlefield of “brain warfare” and the battle for controlling the human mind. He disguised his program by describing it as something the Soviet Union was doing rather than something he was pioneering himself. Gottlieb selected multiple researchers, scientists, and ex-OSS members to work for him under MK-ULTRA “Subprojects.” Those contracted conducted experiments on Gottlieb’s behalf and reported their findings to him. He sponsored physicians such as Donald Ewen Cameron and Harris Isbell in controversial psychiatric research including nonconsensual human experiments.
Gottlieb administered LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs to unwitting subjects and financed psychiatric research and development of “techniques that would crush the human psyche to the point that it would admit anything”. He was named as the person who gave Army bacteriologist Frank Olson LSD at an MK-ULTRA retreat, leading to Olson’s mental spiral and death a week later.
Gottlieb was the liaison to the military subcontractor Lockheed, then working for the CIA on Project AQUATONE, later known as the U-2 spy plane. In 1953, he arranged a safe house for the Lockheed Aeronautics Services Division (LASD) with an easy and exclusive egress.
By 1955 Project MK-ULTRA had outgrown its government funding. At this point Subproject 27 (basic research of LSD) was a funding subproject that combined previous subprojects, including payment to Sandoz Pharmaceuticals for LSD, John Mulholland‘s The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception (subproject 15 magic support, Mulholland Supplement), and further procurement of LSD (subproject 18), but it grew to almost 150 documented subprojects, including a microwave gun and the search for alternatives to LSD, which led to later programs like Project MKCHICKWIT, most of which focused on South America.
In addition to working with subcontractors, the CIA worked with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense and the Office of Naval Intelligence, though it is unclear what role Gottlieb played in these affairs other than authorization.