Confessions, then and now


Two documentaries are critical for understanding the historic background to the ongoing debate over the use of torture to extract confessions. The question isn’t new, but much of the earlier discussion of “unconventional means” of extracting secrets took place behind closed doors, enshrouded by the cloak of national security.

These two videos examine one of the earliest programs to investigate the subject, the Central Intelligence Agency’s high classified Project ARTICHOKE. The research, conducted at scores of leading universities and research agencies—as well as two federal prisons and a pair of brothels—aimed at the development of a pharmaceutical arsenal of drugs and techniques to force confessions and erase memories.

Code Name: Artichoke

This documentary [53:48, 2002], focuses on Frank Olson, a CIA officer and army biowar specialist who died under mysterious circumstances in November, 1953, possibly murdered as a man who knew too much. Olson was at the heart of U.S. military bioweapons programs and of Project Artichoke, where suspected Soviet spies were dosed with a witches brew of chemicals along with the third degree. One such site of torture was Camp King in Germany, where a former Nazi medical experimenter [last experimental duty with human subjects at a place called Dachau] served as chief medical officer after being sprung from fate awaiting him at Nuremberg.

Less than four months before his death, Olson told a colleague he was troubled because he’d witnessed a gruesome experimental death. One theory offered by a former CIA colleague is that Olson may have been killed because of his knowledge of the use of biowar weapons during the Korean War. Olson was also the spook who loosed a supposedly innocuous bacterium on the population of San Francisco, and worked for the same CIA program which dosed San Francisco brothel customers with LSD aerosols and filmed the ensuing conversations of johns with the CIA-hired “sex workers” to see what spilled out of the lysergified brains in a bit of experimental theater dubbed “Operation MIDNIGHT CLIMAX.”

CIA Secret Experiments

A National Geographic special [45:38, 2007], this covers some of the same ground as the first, while adding more detail about Olson’s death, career, and the Artichoke experiments. A viewer discovers that the death Olson watched may have been the fatal sarin gas poisoning of a British soldier at Porton Down, England’s equivalent of the Army’s Ft. Fort Detrick, where Olson worked. One stunning claim is that Olson’s death was a hit, the fruit of an LSD-induced disclosure days before.

Secrets of the CIA

Finally, just because context is always helpful, here’s a surprisingly critical documentary from Rupert Murdoch’s Sky network examining some of the CIA’s spectacular failures as well as the horrendous “blowback” from some of their greatest successes.

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