By OLAV PHILLIPS
Special to the Tribune
In the annals of the strange and weird, the darkened streets of San Francisco possess some of the oddest stories out there. At one time or another, San Francisco has been the home to some true weirdness. From cults like Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, to the birth of the television, if you can imagine it, San Francisco has seen it – or rather, dealt with it. But there is one story which is a little stranger than the rest, not only for its sheer audacity of weirdness, but also for its truthfulness.
In the 1950s, in part reacting to the “Red Menace” and the fear of sleeper agents around every corner, and partially based on stories of the psychological conditioning of prisoners in North Korea to produce “Manchurian Candidates,” the Central Intelligence Agency embarked on a multi-decade research program called MK Ultra to experiment with mind control.
MK Ultra was comprised of multiple programs with such interesting names as Artichoke, and others, each with a different objective. Some dealt with conditioning subjects and programming assassins, while others dealt with interrogation and “truth serums.” These covert operations were passively sanctioned and carried out mostly with medical supervision on unsuspecting soldiers as well as normal citizens of the United States and other places.
One such program, with its roots firmly planted in San Francisco, was Operation Midnight Climax. Quite a name, I know, but well suited as you will learn.
Midnight Climax was the brainchild of a Federal Bureau of Narcotics Officer named George Hunter White (aka Morgan Hall), who was instructed by his superiors to work with the CIA to experiment with a new drug called LSD. The mission was to dose unsuspecting individuals with LSD, then record them and note how they handled the drug and eventually how well they stood up to interrogation. I know that sounds bad enough, but the delivery mechanism was far more perverse than simply drugging unsuspecting people, then interrogating them. At the time, the ends justified the means as the CIA searched for a “truth serum” which they could employ in their constant espionage chess match with the KGB (Soviet Foreign Intelligence Service – now known as the FSB).
The operations went something like this …
An unsuspecting man would meet a prostitute and they would adjourn back to the prostitute’s apartment to negotiate the night’s activities. Once in the apartment, the prostitute would offer the john a glass of water or a cocktail from the fridge (packed with martinis) which the john would usually take a drink from. Now here’s the stickler – the prostitute was on the CIA payroll, the water or martini was laced with LSD, and the mirror? Well, the mirror was a two-way mirror with CIA officers on the other side recording and taking notes of the interaction.
Once the john was well into his trip, a CIA officer would enter the room and begin to interrogate the john to ascertain if the LSD dosage was enough or if more was required to make the john more open to interrogation and programming.
The project was not without its own body count. On at least two occasions dosed patrons leapt to their deaths, which prompted a temporary shutdown while it was investigated by local authorities who deemed it as suicide, of course.
In one case, a former federal marshal named Wayne Ritchie was dosed and descended into a deep depression after drinking bourbon at a holiday party in the U.S. Postal Service building in San Francisco. As he started to trip out, he fled to his apartment where he got into an argument with his girlfriend about her dislike of San Francisco. Not able to handle the situation, he concocted a plan to rob a bank to buy tickets for him and his girlfriend to get back to New York. The plan failed and he was arrested.
The safe houses, or pads as they were referred to, were also a very interesting element to this operation. After careful psychological profiling, it was determined that to help the johns get into the proper frame of mind, the CIA covered the walls of the apartment with paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, depicting various sexually provocative images. This produced some very interesting results and the CIA officers started to become fascinated by the interactions of the prostitutes and the johns, which eventually lead a secondary objective of the program – the evaluation of the use of prostitutes in clandestine operations. At that point, the CIA officers stopped the interrogations and simply observed and noted the evening’s events till conclusion.
The end results were varied and lead the CIA officers involved to nickname it “Stormy,” since its results were varied and its use was unstable. It turns out that while some truth could be gathered from the subject, it was mostly unusable due to the subjects’ dissociation from reality and entrance into an extreme altered state.
The story would be completely unbelievable if it had not been exposed in the New York Times in 1974, but since then it has become the stuff of myth and legend, mostly fading into the darkness at this point.
If you would like to visit a fabled pad of Midnight Climax, one such pad has been exposed. It is an L shaped apartment at 225 Chestnut on Telegraph Hill and was in operation from 1955 to 1965. It is now a private residence, but you can still see it from street level.
So there you go – sex, drugs and the CIA.
Olav Phillips is a regular writer and the publisher of “PARANOIA Magazine,” Steamshovel Press, Mysterious Magazine and the author of “The Secret Space Age,” published by Adventures Unlimited. He’s also contributed to several other books on Fortean subjects.
Phillips has also written for “FATE” and served as executive producer and principle researcher for Ground Zero Radio with Clyde Lewis (Nationally Syndicated by Premiere Radio Networks). He has appeared on many popular radio shows as well as television presentations including: Ground Zero, Shadows In the Dark Radio, Coast to Coast AM, and Voyager (RAI Due). Phillips is also a long time contributor to Ground Zero Radio’s investigations, including the famous Tracy, California, UFO crash case featured on UFO Hunters; and contributed research on the East Bay Wall, which was seen on America Unearthed with Scott Wolter and Beyond Belief with George Noory.
Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.