MI6 ordered LSD tests on servicemen
Volunteers fed hallucinogen in mind control experiments
Fifty years ago, Eric Gow had a baffling
and unexplained experience. As a 19-year-old sailor, he
remembers going to a clandestine military establishment,
where he was given something to drink in a sherry glass
and experienced vivid hallucinations. Other servicemen
also remember tripping: one thought he was seeing tigers
jumping out of a wall, while another recalls faces "with
eyes running down their cheeks, Salvador Dalí-style".
Mr Gow and another serviceman had volunteered
to take part in what they thought was research to find a
cure for the common cold. Mr Gow felt that the government
had never explained what happened to him. But now he has
received an official admission for the first time, confirmed
last night, that the intelligence agency MI6 tested LSD on
The Guardian has spoken to three servicemen who say that
they were not warned that they were being fed a hallucinogen
during experiments. One of the scientists involved at the
time suggested that the experiments were stopped because
it was feared that the acid could produce "suicidal
MI6, known formally as the Secret Intelligence
Service (SIS) and responsible for spying operations abroad,
carried out the tests in the cold war in an attempt to uncover
a "truth drug" which would make prisoners talk
against their will in interrogations. It appears that MI6
feared that the Russians had discovered their own "brainwashing"
chemical to control the minds of their enemies, fears triggered
by pictures of American servicemen who had been captured
during the Korean war confessing to their "crimes" and
calling for a US surrender. In 1949, a Hungarian dissident
had also "confessed"
robotically in a show trial without, it seemed, being in
control of himself.
In parallel experiments, the CIA infamously
tested LSD and other drugs on unwitting human subjects in
a 20-year search to uncover mind-manipulation techniques.
The trials were widely criticised when they came to light
in the 1970s.
Mr Gow and another man say that while serving in the military
they volunteered to take part in research. They were told
to go to the Porton Down chemical warfare establishment in
Wiltshire, where servicemen were regularly tested in experiments.
Mr Gow, then a radio operator in the Royal
Navy, says that scientists gave him the liquid to drink in
1954, a decade before the effects of LSD were popularized
by hippies. Soon he could not add up three figures. The radiator
started to go in and out
"like a squeezebox", while shoe marks on the floor
spun like a catherine wheel. He says he still seemed to be
tripping that evening, when he and a colleague went dancing
in nearby Salisbury, with wellies on. "I don't think
we got a date that night," he said yesterday.
He added that the scientists had been
"irresponsible", particularly as they had not kept
the men under close supervision. Now a magistrate, he submitted
an open government request to the Ministry of Defence seeking
more details of the experiments.
The MoD replied that "much of the information
concerning LSD involves research conducted at the behest
of the Secret Intelligence Service ... We are more than happy
to speak to them [SIS] on your behalf and will pursue the
question of downgrading the security classification of certain
documents to allow us to disclose them to you".
Last night, a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed
that in 1953 and 1954 Porton Down carried out SIS-commissioned
tests of LSD on service personnel.
Don Webb says that in 1953, when he was a 19-year-old
airman, scientists told him to take LSD several times in
a week. He experienced "walls melting, cracks appearing
in people's faces, you could see their skulls, eyes would
run down cheeks, Salvador Dalí-style faces".
Alan Care, a lawyer representing Mr Gow and
Mr Webb, has written to MI6 demanding more documents about
the trials and is threatening legal action. Yesterday he
said: "Clearly these men were duped and subjected to
unethical LSD thought control experiments. MI6 should release
all its documents about these trials - national secrets will
not be compromised."
A senior Porton Down official described the
LSD trials as "tentative and inadequately controlled",
according to a document made public in the National Archives.
One scientist involved was believed to be the late Harry
Cullumbine, who was in charge of human experiments at Porton
Down in the 1950s.
Extracts from his unpublished autobiography
were aired at the recent inquest into the death of the airman
Ronald Maddison after nerve gas trials in 1953. According
to the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, Cullumbine wrote: "We
stopped the trials ... when it was reported that in a few
people it might produce suicidal tendencies."
Mr Masters told the inquest: "MI6 was eager to try it
as a truth drug."
However, the quest came to nothing, because
the scientists discovered that LSD was useless for manipulating
the human mind.