For anybody familiar with fictional superspy James Bond, the character of ‘Q’ with his weird and wonderful gadgets is never far behind. Like his KGB opposite number Grigori Mairinovsky, the CIA’s Sidney Gottlieb was known for supplying some very weird (and decidedly far from wonderful) tools for agents in the field. He developed so dark a reputation within the CIA that he became known as the ‘Dirty Trickster’ and, with deeply sinister overtones, the ‘Black Sorceror.’
Like Mairanovsky, Gottlieb’s particular talent was for poisons, drugs and their covert administration to unsuspecting victims. Which, seeing as his products needed testing on human subjects and he didn’t have access to convicts and dissidents like Mairanovsky, meant testing them on American and Canadian citizens without even their knowledge, let alone their informed consent. Unsuspecting guinea pigs were simply dosed and the effects recorded. He did, to be fair, refrain from testing his lethal toxins on humans, preferring to test only hallucinogenic compounds like LSD on actual people. His lethal prototypes he tested on monkeys, to so great an extent that the lab began running out of them.
Born Joseph Scheider in New York on August 3, 1918, Gottlieb was intimately involved in a number of the CIA’s deniable operations known in the trade as ‘black ops’ or ‘black bag jobs.’ Blacks ops are illegal operations usually conducted without the knowledge or approval of the elected government concerned and, if exposed, the government will deny all knowledge. Diplomats and politicians may well be telling the truth when they say they didn’t know what their intelligence service has been caught doing and they don’t know for a very simple reason.
They don’t want to.
It’s what’s often referred to by spies, politicians and diplomats as the Eleventh Commandment:
‘Do what you want to, just don’t get caught.’
Of course, such operations may well involve assassination, a dark art widely discussed in public by pretty much everybody except the people who order them and those who carry them out. Gottlieb, having risen to a senior role within the CIA’s ominously-named ‘Technical Services Division’ spent much of time finding ever more weird ways for field agents to murder people effectively without being too obvious.
During his career he would be involved in ‘Project Bluebird’ (later renamed ‘MKULTRA,’ ‘MK’ being a standard CIA file designation). ‘MKULTRA’ began in 1953 and involved developing drugs for use in mind control experiments, what conspiracy theorists call the ‘Manchurian Candidates.’ The idea was simple, a concerted effort to produce assassins who, unaware of their impending role, would be ‘programmed’ to respond to a specific trigger phrase by assassinating their assigned targets.
‘MKULTRA’ was, in and of itself’ illegal. For starters the CIA is forbidden to operate within the United States. It’s also highly illegal and blatantly flouting medical ethics to perform any drug testing on human subjects without both their knowledge and consent, let alone on so large a scale, something that for obvious reasons Gottlieb and his paymasters utterly ignored. From its inception in 1953 to its final abandonment in 1973 ‘MKULTRA’ was entirely illegal, entirely defied medical ethics and without any real oversight except by the CIA themselves.
‘MKULTRA’ was a joint project between the CIA’s’ Technical Services Division’ and the ‘Special Operations Division’ of the US Army Chemical Corps based at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Fort Detrick wasn’t a novel venue for criminal scientists with dark pasts, employing as it did a number of war criminals formerly with the infamous ‘Unit 731’ of the Imperial Japanese Army. Despite having conducted all manner of hideous experiments testing chemical and biological weapons, mostly on Chinese POW’s, but also on Australian, British and American prisoners among others, these experts were shielded from arrest and prosecution in return for their specialist skills. Like the rocket scientists used in the American space program, they received protection and false identities instead of a date with the hangman. Gottlieb probably felt right at home in their company.
The mind control experiments were one part of ‘MKULTRA.’ Designing and illegally testing drugs to be used in interrogations and torture were also on Gottlieb’s agenda. Not surprisingly the program wasn’t without its share of destroyed lives, ruined minds and dead bodies. One of them was biological warfare expert Frank Olson, who was covertly administered an LSD compound in 1953 and promptly jumped or was thrown out of a hotel window a week later. Olson, who was well-known to suffer with suicidal tendencies and also suffered a crisis of conscience about his bioweapons research, was probably the last type of person who would have been considered safe to use as a guinea pig in hallucinogenic drug experiments but, as he neither consented to be a guinea pig or even knew he actually was one, the ‘Black Sorceror’ presumably wasn’t all that fussy.
The program finally ended in 1973 after Gottlieb’s retirement in 1972. It was publicly exposed in 1975 during the Congressional investigation known as the ‘Church Committee’ which also investigated many of the CIA’s other illegal operations. Olson’s family (who still maintain he was murdered in the name of secrecy) were later awarded $750,000 by a special Act of Congress. Then-President Gerald Ford and then-CIA Director William Colby also met his family to apologize for what the CIA had done to him. Further investigation into the program had been seriously hampered in 1973 when then-CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the closure of the program and the destruction of any data relating to it. It was a classic case of the Eleventh Commandment and ‘plausible deniability’ in action.
To put it bluntly – If we can destroy all the evidence then it didn’t happen.
Gottlieb was also involved with developing other lethal toys. Originally employed to revamp the old-style suicide capsule known to secret agents everywhere as the ‘L Pill’ or ‘lethal pill’ (actually a glass capsule filled with concentrated cyanide), he came up with something far quicker than cyanide. Heading up operation ‘MKNAOMI’ Gottlieb finally chose saxotoxin, a toxin commonly found in rancid shellfish and considerably faster-acting than cyanide. Gottlieb worked on the basis that, with death by cyanide being far slower and more painful than spy novels would suggest, that a virtually instantaneous and almost pain-free death might encourage more agents to actually use it than crack under torture.
U2 pilot Gary Powers was shot down on an illegal overflight of the Soviet Union in 1960. When captured, Soviet troops found among his possessions was a hollow coin containing a small needle and a deadly dose of saxotoxin. Given the resulting publicity from his capture, trial and exchange for KGB agent Colonel Rudolph Abel, his CIA masters might have far preferred him to have used.
Other aspects of ‘MKNAOMI’ were no less disturbing. Another of Gottlieb’s passions was designing delivery systems for his drugs and poisons. He designed handkerchiefs impregnated with poison to assassinate Iraqi dictator General Abdul Kassem. Kassem was later assassinated, but by a conventional hit squad including a young triggerman named Saddam Hussein. A dart gun resembling an ordinary .45 automatic pistol was designed with a dart intended to deliver an untraceable toxin before dissolving in the victim’s body. An ordinary walking stick looked perfectly ordinary, but was actually a covert rifle firing either darts or poisoned bullets. A cigarette case contained more than cigarettes, concealing a volley of six .22-caliber, razor-tipped bullets, each hollow and containing a dose of concentrated potassium cyanide. Fountain pens that looked and worked like fountain pens, but also contained either a poison dart or a bullet (nowadays known a ‘zip guns’) were developed. A gas sprayer small enough to hide in your palm, dispensing a lethal dose of cyanide at close range, was another of Gottlieb’s inventions.
The most widely-known of Gottlieb’s ideas was an umbrella designed to discretely inject a small metal ball containing ricin or some other toxin. If that sounds at all familiar it’s because the design was stolen by the KGB and issued to the Bulgarians to murder dissident journalist Georgi Markov in London on September 11, 1978. It was used by the Bulgarians, but supplied by the KGB along with an instructor to train the hitmen using it. Gottlieb was also involved in the CIA’s plans to assassinate Congolese Communist sympathizer Patrice Lumumba. Travelling out to the Congo, he personally delivered toothpaste laced with Blackleaf-40, a pesticide now largely banned in the USA. CIA Station Chief Larry Devlin, no fan of Gottlieb who he regarded as a dangerous oddball at the best of times, immediately disposed of the toothpaste after making sure Gottlieb was on the next plane home.
The CIA’s increasingly bizarre and desperate attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro are a matter of huge embarrassment for the CIA and almost farcical to everybody else. Except Castro himself, probably. When not acting like a cross between ‘Q’ and the Mad Scientist, Gottlieb spent much of his time devising new, bizarre and ever-more odd ways to kill him. Gottlieb came up with cigars laced with thallium and a diving suit impregnated with the same toxin. He investigated ways to put thallium in Castro’s shoes, to give him cigars laced with botulinum toxin and designed pills containing Blackleaf-40 to be slipped into his food and drink. As with the death of Frank Olson in 1953, the murders of mobsters Johnny Roselli and Chicago boss Sam ‘Momo’ Giancana have been laid at the door of CIA hitmen looking to hide the CIA’s having approached the Mafia to solve the Castro problem.
By the murders of Roselli and Giancana, Gottlieb himself had been retired for a couple of years. Curiously, with his retirement in 1972 and admitting that much of his ideas had been ineffective (probably because so many had proved utterly impractical), most of his programs were shut down and discretely buried by the CIA. Exposure of ‘MKULTRA,’ ‘MKNAOMI’ and the Castro plot codenamed ‘Operation Mongoose’ did little to ensure him a quiet and low-profile retirement. Despite his oddball status among his colleagues and the embarrassment some of his work later caused them, the CIA still awarded him the Distinguished Intelligence Medal on his departure from an organization he’d served with great loyalty, if not to any great practical use.
After years of increasing ill-health, he finally died at his home in Washington, Virginia on March 7, 1999. True to form for a retired shadow warrior, his wife declined to reveal the cause of the ‘Black Sorceror’s’ demise.