Frank Olson was a CIA scientist at Fort Detrick,
Maryland, the Army’s biological weapons research center. Ostensibly he
was a civilian employee of the Army; his family didn’t know his true
employer. Olson worked on methods of spreading anthrax and other
toxins; some of his colleagues were involved in mind control drugs and
torture techniques. But his life within the charmed circle of the
American intelligence elite would unravel with dizzying speed in just a
few months in 1953.

It began in the summer of that year, when
Olson made several trips to Europe, to investigate secret
American-British research centers in Germany. There he found the CIA
was testing “truth serums” and other torture drugs on “expendables,”
including captured Russian agents. He told a British colleague that he
had witnessed “horrors” there – horrors which called into starkest
question his own work on biochemical weapons. He came home a changed
man, troubled, morose. He told his wife he wanted to leave government

But it was too late: the brutal machinery was already
grinding. His British colleague told his own superiors about Olson’s
concerns; they in turn informed the CIA that Olson was now a “security
risk.” Not long after his return, Olson given LSD by one of his
colleagues – slipped into his drink as part of a covert “field
experiment.” A few days later, he was flown to New York, ostensibly for
psychiatric treatment at the hands of a CIA doctor – who prescribed
whiskey and pills. Then he was taken to a CIA magician – yes, a magician – who apparently tried to hypnotize him for interrogation.

he checked into a cheap hotel – with a CIA handler, Robert Lashbrook,
in tow. Olson called his wife, told her he was feeling better and would
be home the next day. But that night, he was found dead on the street,
10 floors below. The handler said that Olson had apparently thrown
himself through the closed window in a suicidal fit. The government
told the family it was simply a tragic suicide. They didn’t mention the
LSD – or the fact that Olson worked for the CIA.

It would take
Eric Olson 49 years to piece together as much of the truth as we are
ever likely to know about what happened that night. But first would
come a false dawn, a cruel trick played on the family by cynical
operators in Ford Administration, who used a screen of half-truth and
deliberate falsehood to divert the Olsons – and the nation – from the
darkest tangles of the thread. Two of those operators would would work
the thread – play upon it, thrive on it, hold hard to its damp crimson
stain – to rise from the obscurity of White House functionaries to
positions of colossal, world-shaking power:

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Part Two: Keeping the Faith
1975. It was a long hot summer of discontent in the White House. The
unelected president, Gerald Ford – who’d taken office after the
resignation of Richard Nixon – was raging. Every day seemed to bring
fresh horrors from the Congressional committees investigating America’s
intelligence agencies. Assassination plots, terrorist acts, coups,
secret armies, subversion of allied governments, Mafia connections,
torture, press manipulation, domestic surveillance – the revelations
were endless, a bottomless pit of corruption and criminality being
dredged up by the House and Senate panels.

Where was their
sense of duty, the code of omerta that had for so long protected those
who toil in the shadows, who do the dirty work to keep America fat and
safe and happy? What right did these mere senators and representatives
have to tell the people – the big dumb dazed mobocracy out there – the
truth about what their leaders were doing in their name? They were like
children, they could never understand the higher wisdom that guided the
elites. Oh, it was a far cry from the old days, back on the Warren
Commission, when a good soldier like Jerry Ford knew just what to do:
you accepted whatever the agencies told you, and you steered
investigations away from anything that might break the code and pierce
the shadows.

So Ford seethed. What the hell is wrong over
there at the CIA, he complained to his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld.
Why couldn’t Bill Colby, the director, keep a lid on things? Colby had
even come clean about Operation Phoenix, for Christ’s sake. More than
20,000 Vietnamese murdered in the CIA-run program – did Joe Lunchbucket
really need to know about that?

What next? Are they going to
find about Reinhard Gehlen, too: the Nazi spy who joined the CIA and
recruited thousands of Hitler’s best and brightest – including Klaus
Barbie and a cadre of SS veterans – to work for the Agency? Sure, it
would look bad, but come on: Gehlen was championed by Allen Dulles
himself – the founding father of the CIA, the hotshot lawyer who kept
Prescott Bush’s name out of the papers when Pres was caught trading
with the Nazis in 1942. Dulles and those Yale boys knew what was best –
but try explaining that to some poor schmuck whose father got killed at
Normandy or Auschwitz or some other godforsaken hole, eh?

it happened, the “Gehlen Organization” would stay secret for another 26
years. But in July 1975, Ford had still more worries. A top White House
aide, Dick Cheney, sent a memo to Rumsfeld, warning him about an
upcoming lawsuit. The family of Frank Olson had found out – through the
Congressional investigations – that he had been secretly drugged by the
CIA not long before he took that fall from the hotel window. Now they
were suing the government for damages.

The lawsuit could be
bad business, Cheney told Rumsfeld. “It might be necessary to disclose
highly classified national security information” during the trial,
Cheney wrote. That would include the truth about Olson: the CIA
connection, biochemical weapons, the mind-control and torture
experiments based on Nazi death-camp “research,” and the Agency
fingerprints all over Olson’s last days in New York City. The case
might even reveal the existence of special “CIA Assassination Manuals,”
like the one issued in the year of Olson’s death, 1953, stating: “The
most efficient accident, in simple assassinations, is a fall of 75 feet
or more onto a hard surface. Elevator shafts, stairwells, unscreened
windows and bridges will serve. [In some cases], it will usually be
necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him.”

revelations had to be avoided at all costs. Rumsfeld and Cheney urged
Ford to make a settlement before the trial started. To avoid the courts
entirely, they would arrange a private bill in Congress to give the
family some cash. The deal would be sweetened by private audiences with
both Ford and Colby, apologizing for the CIA’s past “mistakes,” and
promising “full disclosure” of all the facts, so the family could at
last find peace.

And so it was done. And it was all a lie –
beyond the bare fact, already unearthed by Congress, that Olson had
been drugged by the CIA. The family got 17 minutes in the Oval Office
with Ford – who apologized for the government’s indirect involvement in
Olson’s death: the LSD test gone awry. Rogue elements, you know;
unauthorized activity. Shouldn’t have happened; never happen again.
This was followed by a meeting with Colby, who handed over a thick
file: the CIA’s “complete” investigation of the Olson affair – so
complete that it forgot to mention that Olson was a CIA official. Or
that his colleagues considered him a “security risk.” Little things
like that.

Thus began the second cover-up. It took Eric Olson
another 27 years to piece together the story, from obscure archives,
through lucky accidents, and strained meetings with old CIA hands, who
let fall dribs and drabs of the truth. He was even forced to exhume his
father’s body: a gruesome process that revealed the original 1953
post-mortem had also been a lie.

That earlier examination had
simply confirmed the cover story: poor sap had flung himself through
the glass and splattered on the sidewalk below. No autopsy needed.
Close the coffin – the body is too busted-up for the family to see –
and close the case. But the second examination, decades later, carried
out by forensic experts, revealed the truth. There were no marks on the
well-preserved cadaver consistent with a self-propelled flight through
the window: no cuts on the face or arms. There was, however, a cranial
injury entirely consistent with a blow to the head – and clearly
delivered before the fall.

Earlier this year, the
Cheney-Rumsfeld memos came to light, confirming that the Olsons had
been deliberately deceived in 1975. It helped fill in some of the
remaining pieces of the scattered jigsaw puzzle that was his father’s
death – and had become Eric’s life. And although the centerpiece of the
puzzle – the fateful moments in that hotel room, before Frank Olson
went through the glass – remains forever absent, the picture was as
complete as it would ever be, Eric decided. And so he buried his
father, again, in the dark Maryland earth.

But Ford, Rumsfeld
and Cheney had kept the faith back in those dangerous days of 1975.
They had honored omerta. Colby was not so lucky. For his sins – his
“weakness” in allowing a few spears of sunlight into the shadows – he
was summarily dismissed a few months later. He was replaced by a man
who also lived by the code, who would keep the precious Agency – and
all its Gehlens, its torturers, its dopers, its shooters – safe from
the mobocracy, the ignorant rabble with their pathetic fairy-tale
notions about democracy, justice, law and honor. He would guard the
shadow world so well that one day the headquarters of the CIA would
proudly bear his name:

George Herbert Walker Bush.

(Some of these links are old, and might not be active any longer.)

“What Did the CIA Do to Eric Olson’s Father?”
New York Times Magazine, April 1, 2001 

“The Man Who Knew Too Much,”
GQ Magazine, January 2000

“Sex, Drugs and the CIA,”
Counterpunch, June 20, 2002

“US Official Poisoner Dies,”
Counterpunch, 1999

“Shocked Over Kerrey? It’s How We Fought the War,”
Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2001

“The Olson File,”
Sunday Mail, August 23, 1998

“Family Closes Door on Mystery Death,”
Associated Press, Aug. 9, 2002

“Scientist’s Death Haunts Family,”
San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 8, 2002

“Family in LSD Case Gets Ford Apology,”
New York Times, July 21, 1975

“CIA’s Files on LSD Death Found to be Contradictory,”
New York Times, Jan. 11, 1976

“Declassified Files Confirm US Collaboration With Nazis,”
San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 7, 2001

“The Coldest Warrior,”
Washington Post, Dec. 12, 2001

“Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,”
The Atlantic Monthly, June 2000

“Camps for Citizens: Ashcroft’s Hellish Vision,”
Los Angeles Times, Aug. 14, 2002

“Three Reasons: What Went Wrong With American Democracy,”, May 1, 2001

“The Pain of One: The War on Terror and Torture,”, Aug. 13, 2002

“US Plans Hit Squads to Target Al Qaeda Worldwide,”
The Independent, Aug. 13, 2002

CIA Takes on Major Military Role: ‘We’re Killing People!
Boston Globe, Jan. 20, 2002

Bush’s Death Squads, Jan. 31, 2002

Bush Has Widened Authority of CIA to Kill Terrorists New York Times, Dec. 15, 2002

Special Ops Get OK to Initiate Its Own Missions,

Washington Times, Jan. 8, 2003

Our Designated KillersVillage Voice, Feb. 14, 2003

A U.S. License to Kill
Village Voice, Feb. 21, 2003

“A Toxic Burden in Vietnam,”
Mother Jones, June 24, 2002

“William Colby, Head of CIA in Time of Upheaval, Dies at 76,”
New York Times, May 7, 1996

“History on the Ballot,”, Nov. 5, 2000

“George H.W. Bush, the CIA and a Case of State Terrorism,”, Sept. 23, 2000

“Heir to the Holocaust: Prescott Bush, $1.5 Million and Auschwitz,”
Clamor Magazine, May/June 2002

“The Threat to the Republic,”
New York Review of Books, May 27, 1976

“Dick Cheney, Project X, Drugs and Death Squads,”, 1997

“The Pike Committee Investigations and the CIA,”
Central Intelligence Agency, CSI Studies, Winter 1998-99

“CIA Censors Books, Bush Perfects the Cover-Up,”
Secrets: The CIA’s War at Home (excerpt), University of California Press, 1997

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