The CIA’s Operation ‘Midnight Climax’ Was Exactly What It Sounded Like

Cocaine Import Agency Seal


On April 13, 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles authorized Project MKULTRA, the controversial series of experiments aimed at developing mind control techniques and discovering a “truth drug.”

Agents dosed subjects with LSD and other psychotropic narcotics, hypnotized them, and exposed them to radiation and electroshock therapy. Some of the participants volunteered, but others did so unwillingly and unwittingly.

The CIA attempted to destroy all records of the program, leaving behind only seven boxes of official files overlooked during the document purge. But a few stories survived. One of the strangest revolves around a series of uncontrolled experiments named Operation Midnight Climax.

CIA operatives involved with Midnight Climax hired prostitutes in San Francisco to lure clients back to brothels. Once there, the agents secretly drugged their targets and watched them engage in sexual activities from behind a two-way mirror.

America’s spies began searching for mind-control substances during World War II. As the conflict raged, the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, implemented a truth-drug program in hopes of discovering a means to coerce prisoners-of-war to reveal their secrets during interrogations.

The OSS initially toyed with a concentrated liquid form of marijuana rather than the newly discovered LSD, according to journalist Gary Kamiya writing in the San Francisco Chronicle. George White, an OSS captain and ex-federal narcotics agent, gave the first dose to a New York mobster in 1943.

“Every (subject) but one — and he didn’t smoke — gave us more information than we had before,” one of White’s colleagues recalled. However, the results were ultimately deemed “inconclusive,” Kamiya wrote.

As World War II ended and the Korean War intensified, the CIA and the Pentagon grew concerned over reports that foreign intelligence agencies had developed brainwashing methods of their own. These rumors inspired the classic Cold War film The Manchurian Candidate.

MKULTRA was, at least in part, a response to this perceived threat.

Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the Chemical Division of the CIA’s Technical Services Division, urged Dulles to approve testing LSD as a potential mind-control or brainwashing substance.

Dulles agreed.

Gottlieb brought White, a “rock-em, sock-em cop not overly carried away with playing spook” into the program as a “consultant,” according to one account.

White started in Greenwich Village, where he administered “LSD, knockout drops and marijuana to his unwitting ‘guests’ using food, drinks and cigarettes, then tried to get them to talk,” Kamiya wrote.

It didn’t take White long to veer the experiments in the direction of illicit sex. He transferred to San Francisco in 1955 and set up a brothel in the city’s Telegraph Hill neighborhood. He wanted the spot to have “a French-whorehouse look,” Kamiya added.

The operative decorated the walls with Toulouse-Lautrec prints, photos of can-can dancers, and images of women in bondage and S&M scenarios. To complete the setup, he installed two-way mirrors for agents to sit behind and watch.

“It was supposed to look rich, but it was furnished like crap,” one narcotics agent who frequented the location told John Marks, author of The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate:” The CIA and Mind Control.

The prostitutes picked up the johns at local bars and brought them back to the makeshift brothel. White his fellow agents preferred men from working class or financially disadvantaged backgrounds. The idea was that subjects with limited social status would attract the least attention, and be less likely to cause any issues.

“An unsuspecting john would think he had bought a night of pleasure, go back to a strange apartment, and wind up zonked,” Marks wrote.


Read More: