Nov. 1953: Dr. Frank Olson’s body arrives at the NYC Medical Examiner’s office

Dr. Frank Olson was a high level civilian U.S. biological warfare scientist who worked with CIA’s Top Secret Special Operations Division (SO) which worked as a team with the Army Chemical Corps at Fort Detrick from 1943 until his death in 1953. The mysterious circumstances of his death continue to haunt the CIA as snippets of information surfaced over the next 60 years.

The Chemical Corps conducted a wide variety of covert chemical warfare experiments, including anthrax. His Top Secret work involved developing counter-biological weapons. The CIA sought a biochemical it could use to incapacitate or kil both individuals and large groups of people. The latter were called “field tests”, an example of a disastrous LSD field test is Pont- Saint-Esprit (1951); a small French village where 500 inhabitants suffered terrifying hallucinations; seven died and two committed suicide.

Olson travelled widely to places where these deadly chemicals were tested; he met surreptitiously with Albert Hofmann at Sandoz Chemical Co. in Basel. Between 1950 and 1953 he worked closely with British Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down. (Albarelli, 2009) Secret Chemical & Biological Experiments on U.S. Soldiers

Dr. Olson was involved in CIA’s Projects BLUEBIRD, MK-NAOMI and ARTICHOKE, the controversial interrogation programs first conducted at Camp King in Germany. In 1953, he travelled to Europe and visited biological research facilities in London, Paris, Norway and West Germany’s Camp King where he witnessed brutal interrogations in which the CIA committed murder using biological agents that he had developed. (Bloomberg News, 2012) What he witnessed reportedly horrified him. A colleague stated in a German documentary (in 2001) that Olson was morally distraught about what he had witnessed. He indicated that “the experiments at Camp King reminded him of what had been done to people in concentration camps.” (Jacobsen, Operation Paperclip, 2013). Olson considered leaving his job and contemplated a new career.

Upon his return from Germany, Olson and the other Special Operations scientists spent a week at a CIA retreat known as Creek Lake where Sidney Gottlieb, director of CIA’s Technical Services Division (TSD) laced their drinks with LSD to test whether the drug would produce the same results if given surreptitiously to CIA agents as those produced at Camp King. According to Albarelli, after ingesting LSD Olson was led to a separate building, where he was subjected to an intense interrogation for the next two days to determine whether he was a security risk. It seems that someone had reported that Olson breached security and talked about Pont-Saint-Esprit to several people. Pont-Saint-Esprit

Following his ingesting LSD and being subjected to an interrogation, Olson suffered a mental breakdown, whereupon CIA research scientist Dr. Robert Lashbrook escorted Olson to New York, ostensibly for treatment. Olson was seen three times by Dr. Harold Abramson, head of Mt. Sinai’s allergy clinic; and an assistant professor of Physiology at Columbia (until 1958) who was a major researcher and promoter for the CIA and Army from 1951 through to at least the late 1960s. Abramson “treated” Olson with bourbon and the sedative Nembutal — a known dangerous combination. Olson spent the last night in a New York hotel with CIA agent Robert Lashbrook. Abramson went on to organize six internal LSD conferences. (Manchurian Candidate, Ch. 5)

For twenty-two years, the Olson family was kept completely in the dark about the circumstances of Frank Olson’s death; they were told that he committed suicide by leaping from a window in his 13th floor hotel room in New York at 2:30 in the morning. His death was officially declared a suicide (but publicly kept secret). His family didn’t buy the “suicide” story. In 1975, twenty-two years after his death, the mystery would begin to unravel. But it would take another twenty years — forty years in all — after his death before the truth about Dr. Olson’s death would be revealed.

Olson’s death seems to have been achieved using the method recommended in CIA’s secret Assassination Manual issued in 1953, which recommended disguising murder as an accident or suicide; and it suggested drugging the person, hitting him in the temple with a blunt object and then causing “a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.” (Moreno. Undue Risk (2000) cited by Lederer; Bloomberg News, 2012)

In 1994, Olson’s sons took legal action alleging that the CIA murdered one of its own agents and then attempted to pass it off as a suicide. In 2013, a federal judge dismissed the family’s lawsuit while acknowledging that: “The public record supports many of the allegations that follow, farfetched as they may sound.” (Judge’s decision, 2013) University of Virginia bioethicist Jonathan Moreno quotes Eric Olsen:

The moral of my father’s murder is that a post-Nuremberg world places the experimenters as well as the research subjects (my father was both simultaneously) at risk in a new way, particularly in countries that claim the moral high ground. Maintenance of absolute secrecy in the new ethical context implies that potential whistle-blowers can neither be automatically discredited nor brought to trial for treason. Nor can casualties arising from experiments with unacknowledged weapons be publicly displayed. The only remaining option is some form of “disposal”. This places the architects of such experiments in a position more like that of the Mafia dons than traditional administrators of military research. The only organizational exit is a horizontal one. In the face of this implication the CIA enforcers of the early 1950s did not flinch, though historians along with the general public have continued to see the state decked out in all its finery. (Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans, 2001)