Frank Olson (July 17, 1910 – November 28, 1953) was a biological warfare specialist working for the U.S. government at Fort Detrick in Maryland. He was drugged with LSD by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and nine days later plunged to his death from the window of a New York hotel room, in what some term a suicide and others allege was an assassination by the CIA.
Frank Olson was a senior U.S. microbiologist at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. He was recruited from the University of Wisconsin, where his departmental advisor was Ira Baldwin, the civilian scientist who, along with industrial partners like George W. Merck and the U.S. military, established the U.S. bioweapons program in 1943, a time when interest in applying modern technology to warfare was at an all-time high.
He had been assigned as a contact with the CIA's Technical Services Staff, run by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb and his deputy Robert Lashbruck regarding experiments with bioweapons, toxins, and mind control drugs. This was the MKNAOMI - MKULTRA program, previously known as Project Artichoke and earlier, Project Bluebird. The CIA justified the program, in part, as a countermeasure to the claimed Soviet effort to create a "Manchurian Candidate."
Deep Creek Lake was three hours by car from Camp Detrick. On Wednesday morning, November 18, 1953, about a week before Thanksgiving, a group from the SO Division, including Vincent Ruwet, chief of the division, John Schwab, Frank Olson, Ben Wilson, Gerald Yonetz, and John Malinowski, drove out to the retreat... The Detrick group was met at the lodge by Sid Gottlieb, his deputy Robert Lashbrook, and a couple of others from the CIA....On the second day of the retreat, after dinner, Gottlieb spiked a bottle of Cointreau with a small quantity of a substance that he and his TSS colleagues privately referred to as "serunin" but which was in fact lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
According to the government's version of events, Olson subsequently suffered severe paranoia and a nervous breakdown. The CIA sent him to New York to see one of their psychiatrists, who recommended that Olson be placed into a mental institution for recovery. This all took place after Olson asked to quit the biowarfare program the week after the retreat:
Ruwet was surprised to see Olson at 7:30 in the morning, but asked him in. Olson told Ruwet that he was dissatisfied with his own performance at the retreat, that he was experiencing considerable self-doubts, and that in fact he had decided he would like to be out of the germ warfare business. He wanted to leave Camp Detrick and devote his life to something else.
The CIA claimed that on his last night in Manhattan, Olson purposely threw himself out of the window of his tenth-floor hotel room at the Hotel Pennsylvania, which he had been sharing with CIA agent Robert Lashbrook, dying shortly after impact.
A biological warfare programs and the chemical interrogation programs then remained almost completely hidden from the public, until Nixon's closure of the biowarfare program in 1969 and the Church Committee hearings of 1975.
His family had no knowledge of the details of the tragedy until the Rockefeller Commission started uncovering some of the CIA's MKULTRA activities. In 1975, the government admitted that Olson had been dosed with LSD without his knowledge. The government offered his family an out-of-court settlement of $750,000, which they accepted.
In 1994, Eric Olson had his father's body exhumed to be buried with his wife. The family decided to have a second autopsy performed. The 1953 medical report done immediately after Dr. Olson's death indicated that there were cuts and abrasions on the body. Theories sparked about Olson having been assassinated by the CIA. When the second autopsy was performed by James Starrs, Professor of Law and Forensic science at the National Law Center at George Washington University, his team searched the body for any cuts and abrasions and found none. Starrs found a large hematoma on the left side of Olson's head and a large injury on his chest. The team concluded that the blunt force trauma to the head and injury to the chest had not occurred during the fall but most likely in the room before the fall. The evidence was called "rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide." Based on his findings, in 1996 the Manhattan District Attorney opened a homicide investigation into Olson's death, but was unable to find enough evidence to bring charges.[unreliable source?]
On November 28, 2012, his sons Eric and Nils Olson filed suit in the US district court in Washington, D.C., seeking unspecified compensatory damages. They also want to see documents related to their father's death and other matters that they say the CIA has withheld from them. The case was dismissed in July 2013, due in part to the 1976 settlement between the family and government. In the decision dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg wrote, "While the court must limit its analysis to the four corners of the complaint, the skeptical reader may wish to know that the public record supports many of the allegations [in the family's suit], farfetched as they may sound.”
References in popular culture
- The 2004 book The Men Who Stare at Goats spends several chapters highlighting the events surrounding Olson's death, especially his son Eric's investigation into the case. A scene from the movie of the same name is a possible reference to the MKULTRA experiment.
- There was a segment on the show Unsolved Mysteries exploring the theories and rumors behind Frank Olson's death.
- An opera concerning the conspiracy theories behind Olson's death, Man: Biology of a Fall composed by Evan Hause on a libretto by Gary Heidt, premiered in Brooklyn, New York, at Kumble Theater on October 4, 2007.
- Olson is mentioned in the 2007 episode of the Fox TV show Bones, "Spaceman in a Crater" by Dr. Hodgins, a conspiracy theorist, in reference to theories that the government experiments on people and then abandons them.
- The 1998 Boards of Canada song Olson was apparently named so in reference to Frank Olson.
- Michael Ignatieff (April 1, 2001). "What did the C.I.A. do to Eric Olson's father?". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- Seymour Hersch (July 10, 1975). "Family Plans to Sue C.I.A. Over Suicide in Drug Test". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-16. "The widow and children of a researcher who committed suicide in 1953 after his participant in a Central intelligence Agency drug experiment said today that they planned to sue the agency over his "wrongful death.""
- Acid Dreams Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Grove Press, ISBN 978-0802130624, p 31
- Bob Coen and Eric Nadler, Dead Silence: Fear and Terror on the Anthrax Trail (Counterpoint Press, 2009) p97
- "The Olson File". Frankolsonproject.org. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- "Family Sues US Over Scientist's Mysterious Death". AP. Retrieved 29 November 2012.
- "CIA sued over 1950s 'murder' of government scientist plied with LSD". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved 12 January 2013.
- Gaines, Danielle (18 July 2013). "Lawsuit by family of drugged Detrick employee dismissed". Frederick News-Post. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
- Schoenberg, Tom (17 July 2013). "CIA Cover-Up Suit Over Scientist's Fatal Fall Dismissed". Bloomberg News. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
- John D. Marks (1979). The Search for the "Manchurian Candidate": The CIA and Mind Control. Times Books. ISBN 0-8129-0773-6.
- George Andrews (2001). MKULTRA : The CIA's Top Secret Program in Human Experimentation and Behavior Modification. Healthnet Press. ISBN 0-9616475-8-2.
- Jon Ronson (2005). The Men Who Stare At Goats. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-7060-6.
- H.P. Albarelli Jr. (2009). A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments. TrineDay Publishers. ISBN 0-9777953-7-3.
- "Son probes strange death of WMD worker" - Scott Shane writing for The Baltimore Sun (September 12, 2004)
- The Frank Olson Legacy Project - explores the circumstances of Frank Olson's death and the political and ethical issues embedded in them
- LSD A Go Go Short documentary about the Frank Olson case
- audio interview with Olson's sons, Part 1
- audio interview with Olson's sons, Part 2
- "Did the CIA Drug Paul Robeson? – a Look at the Secret Program Mk Ultra" Part 1. 23:16 minutes. Amy Goodman interviews Paul Robeson, Jr., Dr. Eric Olson, Martin Lee. Democracy Now!. Thursday, July 1, 1999. Retrieved August 22, 2010.