Inside Operation Midnight Climax: CIA-Backed LSD-Fueled Brothels

Despite its goal of upholding national security, the CIA doesn’t have the cleanest track record, especially during the Cold War. Take, for example, MKUltra, a CIA-backed project that used dangerous doses of hallucinogen LSD on American citizens to determine whether or not the drug could be used for mind control.

A particularly bizarre MKUltra subproject called Operation Midnight Climax involved the administration of LSD to unwilling participants.

What Are the Origins of Operation Midnight Climax?

The US government’s quest to discover a mind control drug came in response to unsubstantiated rumors that the Soviet Union was using such drugs on American prisoners. Established by chemist and spy Sidney Gottlieb, Operation Midnight Climax began in 1954 and was finally halted in 1965. 

Operation Midnight Climax’s Unusual Method of Luring Victims

Source: Alexander Grey via Unsplash

Operation Midnight Climax consisted of a series of “safehouses” disguised as brothels in San Francisco, Mill City, and New York City. Sex workers were given a get-out-of-jail-free card by the CIA in exchange for luring unsuspecting clients to these safehouses.

There, the clients would be fed a range of substances, most notably LSD. The sex workers were instructed to question their clients in an attempt to have them involuntarily reveal secrets about themselves.

Their answers would be observed by agents on the other side of a one-way mirror.

What Was the Legality of Operation Midnight Climax?

Simply put, Operation Midnight Climax—as well as the whole of MKUltra—was an illegal operation. When the Truman administration established the CIA in 1947, it was barred from spying on American citizens, which was the central function of Operation Midnight Climax.

MKUltra led to the permanent mental scarring of many of its unwilling subjects. In one case, it even led to death

In 1953, Frank Olson, a CIA-employed scientist committed suicide by jumping out his New York City hotel window. While on a CIA retreat, his cocktail had been secretly spiked with LSD, inducing hallucinations that influenced his final action.

The End of Operation Midnight Climax

Thankfully, Operation Midnight Climax did not last long. In 1963, John Vance, a member of the CIA Inspector General’s staff, learned of the project and swiftly brought an end to all programs testing on non-consenting volunteers. 

Because paper records of the experiments were destroyed, no convictions were ever made against the CIA agents who propagated the barbaric operation. When questioned about the project years later, offending agents simply claimed that they could not recall any incriminating details.

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