The fun thing about conspiracy theories is that they’re mostly spouted with spittle-flecked enthusiasm by unwashed nutters with straggly beards, and have absolutely no grounding in reality. Everyone dreams up insane what-ifs when they’re smashed out of their brains on drugs (don’t they?), but it takes a special kind of fruitloop to go around telling people about them as if they were true; exponentially more so if they believe it themselves, put a lot of time and effort into convincing others of its validity, and put no effort at all into actually trying to prove that what they’re saying makes sense. (Or, if they do look into it and find that they can’t back it up, just say that the lack of evidence is all part of the scam/cover-up/conspiracy/etc.)
Some notable conspiracy theories that you may have registered amusement at include: that the 1969 moon landing was actually staged on a Hollywood film set, that the US authorities knew about 9/11 in advance but did nothing about it in order to win public support for the Iraq war, that various people who have been assassinated (JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, countless others) were actually body doubles, that Paul McCartney has been dead since 1966, that clean and workable electric cars have been around for decades but have been suppressed by oil companies, that the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was deliberately caused by a nuclear device, that subliminal advertising is rife on mainstream TV, that cures for cancer and AIDS are easily achievable but are being held back by pharma companies who’d lose billions in drug sales, that FDA guidelines in the US deliberately make people fat and unhealthy in order to prop up the drug industry, that the CIA added HIV to hepatitis vaccines in Nigeria, and so on and so forth. Load of old cobblers, of course – the sort of thing that might sound really deep and make you say ‘duuuuuuude!’ when you’re stoned, but seem absurd and juvenile in the cold light of day. The key forensic question to remember with much of this is ‘cui bono?’ – who benefits? There has to be a point to all of this, it’s a lot of effort for nothing otherwise. Does the massive effort of the cover-up balance out the gains of the subterfuge?
A particularly interesting one is the ‘theory of electronic conspiracy’. This follows six distinct stages, at the culmination of which a secret group would achieve world domination after putting in centuries of work to get there. The first stage is the substitution of precious metal coin-based currency for paper money, as began to happen during the Renaissance. The second stage is the appearance of virtual money – credit cards, for example – so that currency becomes intangible. Stage three is the proliferation of internet commerce, so that the credit cards etc are no longer physically required. Next comes the concentration of worldwide banking into fewer hands via international bank fusions. Stage five is the worldwide implementation of electronic identity cards linked to personal financial data. The sixth stage is ‘the great worldwide blackout’. Imagine the fiscal ramifications of 9/11 but on a much bigger scale, wiping out the world’s financial records in one fell swoop, sending everyone on the planet back to square one (aside from those holding the actual money/power, of course, the puppetmasters in the whole plan), leading to chaos, poverty, and the necessity of a slavery culture to survive. All hogwash, of course – what would be in it for the people who started it all off in the fifteenth century…? And how could they have predicted the technology that would make the plan possible?
Every now and then, however, a conspiracy theory surfaces that turns out to be completely true. One such revelation is MKUltra.
Project MKUltra was a covert research operation run by the CIA between the 1950s and the early ’70s, and fulfils all of the classic conspiracy theory criteria: mind control, absolute secrecy, manipulation of the public without their knowledge, copious violations of basic human rights… it could have been the plot of a far-fetched B-movie, but it actually happened.
Via the Office of Scientific Intelligence, the CIA sought to gain insight into the workings and malleability of the human psyche by conducting research in behavioural engineering. To achieve this, they had very specific programmes of administering drugs (in particular LSD), sensory deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, hypnosis, isolation, and many forms of physical and mental torture.
MKUltra was officially sanctioned in 1953, receiving 6% of the CIA’s total budget, and was carried out for two decades before being wound up, involving many unwitting citizens of the USA and Canada in its work.
The remit of the project was to develop mind-controlling substances to be used against the Soviets, in response to such substances that had allegedly been developed by the Chinese, Soviet and North Korean governments and used on US prisoners of war. It was a kind of tit-for-tat torture thing. The CIA also (and this bit is particularly far-fetched) wanted to use such substances to control the minds of various world leaders, and cooked up a variety of schemes to gain access to Fidel Castro’s brain.
Another aim was to develop a perfect truth drug, again for interrogating Soviets, and also to develop ‘perfect concussion’ whereby sub-aural blasts could be used to erase memories. Further treats outlined for development in MKUltra documentation included: substances to promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness that would lead to public discreditation, to increase the ageing process, to simulate the symptoms of recognised diseases in a reversible manner, to induce temporary brain damage, to increase the ability to withstand physical torture, to induce amnesia, to temporarily induce physical disabilities, to blister the skin on demand, to lower ambition, and to temporarily weaken eyesight and hearing.
All of these aims, with their varying degrees of plausibility and achievability, necessitated arduous and relentless testing, and this is where the real controversy came in. Obviously with some of their techniques it would be difficult to hide from the recipient – forced isolation, sexual torture, etc – but much of it was easily tested on unsuspecting members of the public who were then followed, observed and monitored; hypnotism, the administering of mind-altering drugs and what-have-you could be innocently disguised as experiments, therapies or medical trials by companies used as fronts by the CIA.
The mind-bending properties of LSD came under particular scrutiny. The bulk of their testing in this field was on ‘people who could not fight back’ – mental patients, drug addicts, prisoners and prostitutes, mainly. In one case, a mental patient in Kentucky was administered LSD for 174 consecutive days, just to see what would happen. Operation Midnight Climax set up a variety of brothels in San Francisco in order to test on men who would be too embarrassed to talk about it afterwards; rooms were equipped with two-way mirrors, and the men were dosed with LSD and interrogated under bright lights, with subjects told that the trips would last indefinitely if they didn’t give up all their secrets. In other cases, heroin addicts were bribed to take LSD with more heroin. Even the CIA operatives themselves found that surprise LSD trips were an occupational hazard, with seemingly everyone testing on everyone else to observe the results.
As much as MKUltra was a covert thing, it was remarkably widespread in its operation, taking place in eighty separate locations including universities, colleges, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and prisons. However, it didn’t reach the public consciousness on any believable scale until 1975; the Church Committee, chaired by Senator Frank Church, was set up post-Watergate to investigate illegal operations in intelligence by the US government and its subsidiaries, and sought to unpick the covert actions of Project MKUltra. Unfortunately for them, it was quite tricky to do as CIA director Richard Helms had ordered that all the records be destroyed when the op was closed down in ’73, meaning that much of it was hearsay. Handily, though, a Freedom of Information request in 1977 revealed some 20,000 documents that had survived the cull, while the remainder of what was left on file was declassified in 2001, so we can at least establish some of the facts with a degree of certainty.
Of course, this spirals us towards a conspiracy theory within a conspiracy theory. Some insiders maintain that certain records and chemicals vital to the research were separated from that which was destroyed, and were passed into the hands of private contractors to continue the research; the closure of the project in 1973 and investigation in ’75 were all just a smokescreen for a larger and more sophisticated project that continues to this day. But who can really say…?