If you haven’t read "A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments," by H.P. Albarelli Jr., I recommend doing so right away. Read every word, cover to cover. You will initially conclude that I, and Albarelli, are crazy. This is the story of one simple murder that asks who done it and doesn’t answer the question for over 700 pages, because every time a new character enters the story the author introduces him with background that includes how his grandparents were conceived and where his field of work originated. But there is method to the madness, trust me. Bear with it.
By the time you’ve finished, Albarelli will tell you who killed Olson, and you’ll grasp that who killed Olson is not really the point. This is a story of the CIA’s lawless rampages of murder and mayhem, which began when the CIA began and have continued to this day, with a possible minor let-up in the mid-1970s. What did occur for certain in the mid 1970s was an unusual fit of journalism by the U.S. media and of oversight by the U.S. Congress. Both freakish activities were short lived but produced most of what we know to this day about the goings-on in a major branch of our government, the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the absence of oversight or accountability, sadism and stupidity compete for domination. The CIA and the military in the 1950s invested heavily in researching every form of mystical mumbo-jumbo that could be found, and every form of drug. LSD was among the wonder drugs that were going to either prevent military violence or reveal people’s secrets, or both. And if we wanted to test the effects of something like LSD, what better way than to dose people with it, without their knowledge, and observe their behavior? We could use mental patients locked in hospitals, or prisoners, or soldiers. Sure, some would kill themselves or others, but this was science! We could put LSD into the air and the food of an entire French village, stand back, and watch the horror. Or how about testing anthrax on a U.S. factory? Would people suffer as a result of these experiments? Sure! Would people die? Sure, but what did that matter when God and Country were on the line? After all, we were poisoning people to protect their right to be poisoned by us!
There may be a tendency to take seriously claims that medical ethics had not evolved in the 1950s to the point of forbidding experimentation on people without their consent. That’s utter nonsense and ignores the Nuremberg Code of 1947. In fact, morality has DEVOLVED in U.S. political thinking since the 1950s. We would have been shocked in the 1950s in this country to learn that our government was developing biological and chemical weapons, that it was testing them on human beings including Americans, that it was torturing prisoners, and that it was killing people who got in the way or knew too much or presented an inconvenience. Now we consider all such activity an ordinary part of running a good old fashioned totalitarian democracy. In 1953 Frank Olson was a murder victim. In 2010 he would simply have been decreed an enemy combatant. He would have been cuffed, hooded, and locked away.
Nowadays we have so many Frank Olsons we don’t know what to do with them all. New innocent victims are ordered released from Guantanamo at least every week. We can’t be expected to write 800-page books about each of them. Can we? And why should we, when nothing illegal has been done? Habeas corpus is no more. Warrantless spying is routine. Torture is a respectable tool our rulers use if they see fit. And when we use white phosphorus to melt the skin off some children in one of our illegal wars, the loudest cry is to keep the war going. The CIA is now openly understood to run torture programs so gruesome that the idea of drugging people with any sort of drug is so mild by comparison as to seem immediately acceptable.
And the CIA’s new alchemic brew of stupidity and sadism does not involve crop-dusting villages with LSD. The brave new answer to war is drone strikes. Just as stupid. Just as sadistic. Just as illegal. But nowhere near as secret. We’re open about our crimes these days. Frank Olson’s murder is like a nuclear bomb in an 18th century naval battle. It stands out because of its context. If it had occurred last week, we’d have already forgotten it.