The Search for the Manchurian Candidate
No mind-control technique has more captured popular imaginationand
kindled fearsthan hypnosis. Men have long dreamed they could
use overwhelming hypnotic powers to compel others to do their
bidding. And when CIA officials institutionalized that dream in
the early Cold War Days, they tried, like modern-day Svengalis,
to use hypnosis to force their favors on unwitting victims.
One group of professional experts, as well as popular novelists,
argued that hypnosis would lead to major breakthroughs in spying.
Another body of experts believed the opposite. The Agency men,
who did not fully trust the academics anyway, listened to both
points of view and kept looking for applications which fit their
own special needs. To them, hypnosis offered too much promise
not to be pursued, but finding the answers was such an elusive
and dangerous process that 10 years after the program started
CIA officials were still searching for practical uses.
The CIA's first behavioral research czar, Morse Allen of ARTICHOKE,
was intrigued by hypnosis. He read everything he could get his
hands on, and in 1951 he went to New York for a four-day course
from a well-known stage hypnotist. This hypnotist had taken the
Svengali legend to heart, and he bombarded Allen with tales of
how he used hypnosis to seduce young women. He told the ARTICHOKE
chief that he had convinced one mesmerized lady that he was her
husband and that she desperately wanted him. That kind of deception
has a place in covert operations, and Morse Allen was sufficiently
impressed to report back to his bosses the hypnotist's claim that
"he spent approximately five nights a week away from home
engaging in sexual intercourse."
Apart from the bragging, the stage hypnotist did give Morse Allen
a short education in how to capture a subject's attention and
induce a trance. Allen returned to Washington more convinced than
ever of the benefits of working hypnosis into the ARTICHOKE repertory
and of the need to build a defense against it. With permission
from above, he decided to take his hypnosis studies further, right
in his own office. He asked young CIA secretaries to stay after
work and ran them through the hypnotic pacesproving to his
own satisfaction that he could make them do whatever he wanted.
He had secretaries steal SECRET files and pass them on to total
strangers, thus violating the most basic CIA security rules. He
got them to steal from each other and to start fires. He made
one of them report to the bedroom of a strange man and then go
into a deep sleep. "This activity clearly indicates that
individuals under hypnosis might be compromised and blackmailed,"
On February 19, 1954, Morse Allen simulated the ultimate experiment
in hypnosis: the creation of a "Manchurian Candidate,"
or programmed assassin. Allen's "victim" was a secretary
whom he put into a deep trance and told to keep sleeping until
he ordered otherwise. He then hypnotized a second secretary and
told her that if she could not wake up her friend, "her rage
would be so great that she would not hesitate to 'kill.' "
Allen left a pistol nearby, which the secretary had no way of
knowing was unloaded. Even though she had earlier expressed a
fear of firearms of any kind, she picked up the gun and "shot"
her sleeping friend. After Allen brought the "killer"
out of her trance, she had apparent amnesia for the event, denying
she would ever shoot anyone.
With this experiment, Morse Allen took the testing as far as he
could on a make-believe basis, but he was neither satisfied nor
convinced that hypnosis would produce such spectacular results
in an operational setting. All he felt he had proved was that
an impressionable young volunteer would accept a command from
a legitimate authority figure to take an action she may have sensed
would not end in tragedy. She presumably trusted the CIA enough
as an institution and Morse Allen as an individual to believe
he would not let her do anything wrong. The experimental setting,
in effect, legitimated her behavior and prevented it from being
Early in 1954, Allen almost got his chance to try the crucial
test. According to a CIA document, the subject was to be a 35-year-old,
well-educated foreigner who had once worked for a friendly secret
service, probably the CIA itself. He had now shifted his loyalty
to another government, and the CIA was quite upset with him. The
Agency plan was to hypnotize him and program him into making an
assassination attempt. He would then be arrested at the least
for attempted murder and "thereby disposed of." The
scenario had several holes in it, as the operators presented it
to the ARTICHOKE team. First, the subject was to be involuntary
and unwitting, and as yet no one had come up with a consistently
effective way of hypnotizing such people. Second, the ARTICHOKE
team would have only limited custody of the subject, who was to
be snatched from a social event. Allen understood that it would
probably take months of painstaking work to prepare the man for
a sophisticated covert operation. The subject was highly unlikely
to perform after just one command. Yet, so anxious were the ARTICHOKE
men to try the experiment that they were willing to go ahead even
under these unfavorable conditions: "The final answer was
that in view of the fact that successful completion of this proposed
act of attempted assassination was insignificant to the overall
project; to wit, whether it was even carried out or not, that
under 'crash conditions' and appropriate authority from Headquarters,
the ARTICHOKE team would undertake the problem in spite of the
This operation never took place. Eager to be unleashed, Morse
Allen kept requesting prolonged access to operational subjects,
such as the double agents and defectors on whom he was allowed
to work a day or two. Not every double agent would do. The candidate
had to be among the one person in five who made a good hypnotic
subject, and he needed to have a dissociative tendency to separate
part of his personality from the main body of his consciousness.
The hope was to take an existing ego statesuch as an imaginary
childhood playmateand build it into a separate personality,
unknown to the first. The hypnotist would communicate directly
with this schizophrenic offshoot and command it to carry out specific
deeds about which the main personality would know nothing. There
would be inevitable leakage between the two personalities, particularly
in dreams; but if the hypnotists were clever enough, he could
build in cover stories and safety valves which would prevent the
subject from acting inconsistently.
All during the spring and summer of 1954, Morse Allen lobbied
for permission to try what he called "terminal experiments"
in hypnosis, including one along the following scenario:
CIA officials would recruit an agent in a friendly foreign country
where the Agency could count on the cooperation of the local police
force. CIA case officers would train the agent to pose as a leftist
and report on the local communist party. During training, a skilled
hypnotist would hypnotize him under the guise of giving him medical
treatment (the favorite ARTICHOKE cover for hypnosis). The hypnotist
would then provide the agent with information and tell him to
forget it all when he snapped out of the trance. Once the agent
had been properly conditioned and prepared, he would be sent into
action as a CIA spy. Then Agency officials would tip off the local
police that the man was a dangerous communist agent, and he would
be arrested. Through their liaison arrangement with the police,
Agency case officers would be able to watch and even guide the
course of the interrogation. In this way, they could answer many
of their questions about hypnosis on a live guinea pig who believed
his life was in danger. Specifically, the men from ARTICHOKE wanted
to know how well hypnotic amnesia held up against torture. Could
the amnesia be broken with drugs? One document noted that the
Agency could even send in a new hypnotist to try his hand at cracking
through the commands of the first one. Perhaps the most cynical
part of the whole scheme came at the end of the proposal: "In
the event that the agent should break down and admit his connection
with US intelligence, we a) deny this absolutely and advise the
agent's disposal, or b) indicate that the agent may have been
dispatched by some other organ of US intelligence and that we
should thereafter run the agent jointly with [the local intelligence
An ARTICHOKE team was scheduled to carry out field tests along
these lines in the summer of 1954. The planning got to an advanced
stage, with the ARTICHOKE command center in Washington cabling
overseas for the "time, place, and bodies available for terminal
experiments." Then another cable complained of the "diminishing
numbers" of subjects available for these tests. At this point,
the available record becomes very fuzzy. The minutes of an ARTICHOKE
working group meeting indicate that a key Agency officialprobably
the station chief in the country where the experiments were going
to take placehad second thoughts. One participant at the meeting,
obviously rankled by the obstructionism, said if this nay-sayer
did not change his attitude, ARTICHOKE officials would have the
Director himself order the official to go along.
Although short-term interrogations of unwitting subjects with
drugs and hypnosis (the "A" treatment) continued, the
more complicated tests apparently never did get going under the
ARTICHOKE banner. By the end of the year, 1954, Allen Dulles took
the behavioral-research function away from Morse Allen and gave
it to Sid Gottlieb and the men from MKULTRA. Allen had directly
pursued the goal of creating a Manchurian Candidate, which he
clearly believed was possible. MKULTRA officials were just as
interested in finding ways to assert control over people, but
they had much less faith in the frontal-assault approach pushed
by Allen. For them, finding the Manchurian Candidate became a
figurative exercise. They did not give up the dream. They simply
pursued it in smaller steps, always hoping to increase the percentages
in their favor. John Gittinger, the MKULTRA case officer on hypnosis,
states, "Predictable absolute control is not possible on
a particular individual. Any psychologist, psychiatrist, or preacher
can get control over certain kinds of individuals, but that's
not a predictable, definite thing." Gittinger adds that despite
his belief to this effect, he felt he had to give "a fair
shake" to people who wanted to try out ideas to the contrary.
Gottlieb and his colleagues had already been doing hypnosis research
for two years. They did a few basic experiments in the office,
as Morse Allen did, but they farmed out most of the work to a
young Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, Alden Sears.
Sears, who later moved his CIA study project to the University
of Denver, worked with student subjects to define the nature of
hypnosis. Among many other things, he looked into several of the
areas that would be building blocks in the creation of a Manchurian
Candidate. Could a hypnotist induce a totally separate personality?
Could a subject be sent on missions he would not remember unless
cued by the hypnotist? Sears, who has since become a Methodist
minister, refused to talk about methods he experimented with to
build second identities.
By 1957, he wrote that the experiments that needed to be done
"could not be handled in the University situation."
Unlike Morse Allen, he did not want to perform the terminal experiments.
Milton Kline, a New York psychologist who says he also did not
want to cross the ethical line but is sure the intelligence agencies
have, served as an unpaid consultant to Sears and other CIA hypnosis
research. Nothing Sears or others found disabused him of the idea
that the Manchurian Candidate is possible. "It cannot be
done by everyone," says Kline, "It cannot be done consistently,
but it can be done."
A onetime president of the American Society for Clinical and Experimental
Hypnosis, Kline was one of many outside experts to whom Gittinger
and his colleagues talked. Other consultants, with equally impressive
credentials, rejected Kline's views. In no other area of the behavioral
sciences was there so little accord on basic questions. "You
could find an expert who would agree with everything," says
Gittinger. "Therefore, we tried to get everybody."
The MKULTRA men state that they got too many unsolicited suggestions
on how to use hypnosis in covert operations. "The operators
would ask us for easy solutions," recalls a veteran. "We
therefore kept a laundry list of why they couldn't have what they
wanted. We spent a lot of time telling some young kid whose idea
we had heard a hundred times why it wouldn't work. We would wind
up explaining why you couldn't have a free lunch." This veteran
mentions an example: CIA operators put a great deal of time and
money into servicing "dead drops" (covert mail pickup
points, such as a hollow tree) in the Soviet Union. If a collector
was captured, he was likely to give away the locations. Therefore
Agency men suggested that TSS find a way to hypnotize these secret
mailmen, so they could withstand interrogation and even torture
Morse Allen had wanted to perform the "terminal experiment"
to see if a hypnotically induced amnesia would stand up to torture.
Gittinger says that as far as he knows, this experiment was never
carried out. "I still like to think we were human beings
enough that this was not something we played with," says
Gittinger. Such an experiment could have been performed, as Allen
suggested, by friendly police in a country like Taiwan or Paraguay.
CIA men did at least discuss joint work in hypnosis with a foreign
secret service in 1962.
Whether they went further simply cannot be said.
Assuming the amnesia would hold, the MKULTRA veteran says the
problem was how to trigger it. Perhaps the Russian phrase meaning
"You're under arrest" could be used as a preprogrammed
cue, but what if the police did not use these words as they captured
the collector? Perhaps the physical sensation of handcuffs being
snapped on could do it, but a metal watchband could have the same
effect. According to the veteran, in the abstract, the scheme
sounded fine, but in practicality, a foolproof way of triggering
the amnesia could not be found. "You had to accept that when
someone is caught, they're going to tell some things," he
MKULTRA officials, including Gittinger, did recommend the use
of hypnosis in operational experiments on at least one occasion.
In 1959 an important double agent, operating outside his homeland,
told his Agency case officer that he was afraid to go home again
because he did not think he could withstand the tough interrogation
that his government used on returning overseas agents. In Washington,
the operators approached the TSS men about using hypnosis, backed
up with drugs, to change the agent's attitude. They hoped they
could instill in him the "ability or the necessary will"
to hold up under questioning.
An MKULTRA officialalmost certainly Gittingerheld a series
of meetings over a two-week period with the operators and wrote
that the agent was "a better than average" hypnotic
subject, but that his goal was to get out of intelligence work:
The agent "probably can be motivated to make at least one
return visit to his homeland by application of any one of a number
of techniques, including hypnosis, but he may redefect in the
process." The MKULTRA official continued that hypnosis probably
could not produce an "operationally useful" degree of
amnesia for the events of the recent past or for the hypnotic
treatment itself that the agent "probably has the native
ability to withstand ordinary interrogation . . . provided it
is to his advantage to do so."
The MKULTRA office recommended that despite the relatively negative
outlook for the hypnosis, the Agency should proceed anyway. The
operation had the advantage of having a "fail-safe"
mechanism because the level of hypnosis could be tested out before
the agent actually had to return. Moreover, the MKULTRA men felt
"that a considerable amount of useful experience can be gained
from this operation which could be used to improve Agency capability
in future applications." In effect, they would be using hypnosis
not as the linchpin of the operation, but as an adjunct to help
motivate the agent.
Since the proposed operation involved the use of hypnosis and
drugs, final approval could only be given by the high-level Clandestine
Services committee set up for this purpose and chaired by Richard
Helms. Permission was not forthcoming
In June 1960 TSS officials launched an expanded program of operational
experiments in hypnosis in cooperation with the Agency's Counterintelligence
Staff. The legendary James Angletonthe prototype for the title
character Saxonton in Aaron Latham's Orchids for Mother
and for Wellington in Victor Marchetti's The Rope Dancerheaded
Counterintelligence, which took on some of the CIA's most sensitive
missions (including the illegal Agency spying against domestic
dissidents). Counterintelligence officials wrote that the hypnosis
program could provide a "potential breakthrough in clandestine
technology." Their arrangement with TSS was that the MKULTRA
men would develop the technique in the laboratory, while they
took care of "field experimentation."
The Counterintelligence program had three goals: (1) to induce
hypnosis very rapidly in unwitting subjects; (2) to create durable
amnesia; and (3) to implant durable and operationally useful posthypnotic
suggestion. The Agency released no information on any "field
experimentation" of the latter two goals, which of course
are the building blocks of the Manchurian Candidate. Agency officials
provided only one heavily censored document on the first goal,
In October 1960 the MKULTRA program invested $9,000 in an outside
consultant to develop a way of quickly hypnotizing an unwitting
subject. John Gittinger says the process consisted of surprising
"somebody sitting in a chair, putting your hands on his forehead,
and telling the guy to go to sleep." The method worked "fantastically"
on certain people, including some on whom no other technique was
effective, and not on others. "It wasn't that predictable,"
notes Gittinger, who states he knows nothing about the field testing.
The test, noted in that one released document, did not take place
until July 1963a full three years after the Counterintelligence
experimental program began, during which interval the Agency is
claiming that no other field experiments took place. According
to a CIA man who participated in this test, the Counterintelligence
Staff in Washington asked the CIA station in Mexico City to find
a suitable candidate for a rapid induction experiment. The station
proposed a low-level agent, whom the Soviets had apparently doubled.
A Counterintelligence man flew in from Washington and a hypnotic
consultant arrived from California. Our source and a fellow case
officer brought the agent to a motel room on a pretext. "I
puffed him up with his importance," says the Agency man.
"I said the bosses wanted to see him and of course give him
more money." Waiting in an adjoining room was the hypnotic
consultant. At a prearranged time, the two case officers gently
grabbed hold of the agent and tipped his chair over until the
back was touching the floor. The consultant was supposed to rush
in at that precise moment and apply the technique. Nothing happened.
The consultant froze, unable to do the deed. "You can imagine
what we had to do to cover-up," says the official, who was
literally left holding the agent. "We explained we had heard
a noise, got excited, and tipped him down to protect him. He was
so grubby for money he would have believed any excuse."
There certainly is a huge difference between the limited aim of
this bungled operation and one aimed at building a Manchurian
Candidate. The MKULTRA veteran maintains that he and his colleagues
were not interested in a programmed assassin because they knew
in general it would not work and, specifically, that they could
not exert total control. "If you have one hundred percent
control, you have one hundred percent dependency," he says.
"If something happens and you haven't programmed it in, you've
got a problem. If you try to put flexibility in, you lose control.
To the extent you let the agent choose, you don't have control."
He admits that he and his colleagues spent hours running the arguments
on the Manchurian Candidate back and forth. "Castro was naturally
our discussion point," he declares. "Could you get somebody
gung-ho enough that they would go in and get him?" In the
end, he states, they decided there were more reliable ways to
kill people. "You can get exactly the same thing from people
who are hypnotizable by many other ways, and you can't get anything
out of people who are not hypnotizable, so it has no use,"
The only real gain in employing a hypnotized killer would be,
in theory, that he would not remember who ordered him to pull
the trigger. Yet, at least in the Castro case, the Cuban leader
already knew who was after him. Moreover, there were plenty of
people around willing to take on the Castro contract. "A
well-trained person could do it without all this mumbo-jumbo,"
says the MKULTRA veteran. By going to the Mafia for hitmen, CIA
officials in any case found killers who had a built-in amnesia
mechanism that had nothing to do with hypnosis.
The MKULTRA veteran gives many reasons why he believes the CIA
never actually tried a Manchurian Candidate operation, but he
acknowledges that he does not know.
If the ultimate experiments were performed, they would have been
handled with incredible secrecy. It would seem, however, that
the same kind of reasoning that impelled Sid Gottlieb to recommend
testing powerful drugs on unwitting subjects would have led to
experimentation along such lines, if not to create the Manchurian
Candidate itself, on some of the building blocks, or lesser antisocial
acts. Even if the MKULTRA men did not think hypnosis would work
operationally, they had not let that consideration prevent them
from trying out numerous other techniques. The MKULTRA chief could
even have used a defensive rationale: He had to find out if the
Russians could plant a "sleeper" killer in our midst,
just as Richard Condon's novel discussed.
If the assassin scenario seemed exaggerated, Gottlieb still would
have wanted to know what other uses the Russians might try. Certainly,
he could have found relatively "expendable" subjects,
as he and Morse Allen had for other behavior control experiments.
And even if the MKULTRA men really did restrain themselves, it
is unlikely that James Angleton and his counterintelligence crew
would have acted in such a limited fashion when they felt they
were on the verge of a "breakthrough in clandestine technology."
Morse Allen's training in hypnosis was described in Document #A/B,
V,28/1, 9 July 1951, Subject [Deleted]. His hypnosis experiments
in the office are described in a long series of memos. See especially
#A/B, III, 2/18, 10 February 1954, Hypnotic Experimentation and
Research and #A/B, II, 10/71, 19 August 1954, Subject: Operational/Security
[deleted] and unnumbered document, 5 May 1955, Subject: Hypnotism
and Covert Operations.
The quote on U.S. prisoners passing through Manchuria came from
document #19, 18 June 1953, ARTICHOKE Conference.
Alden Sears' hypnosis work was the subject of MKULTRA subprojects
5, 25, 29, and 49. See especially 49-28, undated, Proposal for
Research in Hypnosis at the [deleted], June 1, 1956 to May 31,
1957, 49-34, undated, Proposals for Research in Hypnosis at the
[deleted], June 1, 1956 to May 31, 1957; 5-11, 28 May 1953, Project
MKULTRA, Subproject 5 and 5-13,20 April 1954, Subject: [deleted].
See also Patrick Oster's article in the Chicago Sun-Times,
September 4, 1977, "How CIA 'Hid' Hypnosis Research."
General background on hypnosis came from interviews with Alden
Sears, Martin Orne, Milton Kline, Ernest Hilgard, Herbert Spiegel,
William Kroger, Jack Tracktir, John Watkins, and Harold Crasilneck.
See Orne's chapter on hypnosis in The Manipulation of Human
Behavior, edited by Albert Biderman and Herbert Zimmer (New
York: John Wiley & Sons; 1961), pp. 169-215.
The contemplated use of hypnosis in an operation involving a foreign
intelligence service is referred to in the Affidavit by Eloise
R. Page, in the case John D. Marks v. Central Intelligence
Agency et al., Civil Action no. 76-2073.
The 1959 proposed use of hypnosis that was approved by TSS is
described in documents #433, 21 August 1959, Possible Use of Drugs
and Hypnosis in [deleted] Operational Case; #434, 27 August 1959,
Comments on [deleted]; and #435, 15 September 1959, Possible Use
of Drugs and Hypnosis in [deleted] Operational Case.
MKULTRA Subproject 128 dealt with the rapid induction technique.
See especially 128-1, undated, Subject: To test a method of rapid
hypnotic induction in simulated and real operational settings
A long interview with John Gittinger added considerably to this
chapter. Mr. Gittinger had refused earlier to be interviewed directly
by me for this book. Our conversation was limited solely to hypnosis.
1. Sears still maintains the fiction that
he thought he was dealing only with a private foundation, the
Geschickter Fund, and that he knew nothing of the CIA involvement
in funding his work. Yet a CIA document in his MKULTRA subproject
says he was "aware of the real purpose" of the project."
Moreover, Sid Gottlieb brought him to Washington in 1954 to demonstrate
hypnosis to a select group of Agency officials. (back)
2. Under my Freedom of Information suit, the
CIA specifically denied access to the documents concerning the
testing of hypnosis and psychedelic drugs in cooperation with
foreign intelligence agencies. The justification given was that
releasing such documents would reveal intelligence sources and
methods, which are exempted by law. The hypnosis experiment was
never carried out, according to the generic description of the
document which the Agency had to provide in explaining why it
had to be withheld. (back)
3. Referring to this CIA-mob relationship,
author Robert Sam Anson has written, "It was inevitable:
Gentlemen wishing to be killers gravitated to killers wishing
to be gentlemen." (back)
4. The veteran admits that none of the arguments
he uses against a conditioned assassin would apply to a programmed
"patsy" whom a hypnotist could walk through a series
of seemingly unrelated eventsa visit to a store, a conversation
with a mailman, picking a fight at a political rally. The subject
would remember everything that happened to him and be amnesic
only for the fact the hypnotist ordered him to do these things.
There would be no gaping inconsistency in his life of the sort
that can ruin an attempt by a hypnotist to create a second personality.
The purpose of this exercise is to leave a circumstantial trail
that will make the authorities think the patsy committed a particular
crime. The weakness might well be that the amnesia would not hold
up under police interrogation, but that would not matter if the
police did not believe his preposterous story about being hypnotized
or if he were shot resisting arrest. Hypnosis expert Milton Kline
says he could create a patsy in three months- an assassin would
take him six. (back)
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