A Terrible Mistake is the true story of how the CIA drugged one of its own scientists and, when "the little bird" flew through a closed window on the 13th floor of the Statler Hotel in Manhattan, proceeded to publicly insist, for decades to come, that Dr. Frank Olson was mentally unstable and had committed suicide. Albarelli takes us with him as he investigates the question: did Frank Olson jump, or was he pitched?
This compelling tale not only reveals the wherefore and how of Frank Olson's murder, but looks behind the scenes at CIA and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, deliciously acquainting us with some of the Agency's darkest characters, including: Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, head of the notorious MKULTRA program, whose mind control techniques included extensive use of LSD; the evil psychiatrist Dr. Harold Abramson; various Corsican mafia kingpins; and the ultimate spy, Pierre Lafitte. Lafitte was not only glamorously descended from the famous pirate captain, Jean Lafitte, he was also a CIA assassin, who just happened to be working as a bellman at the Statler Hotel the night Frank Olson crashed through a closed window and dropped to his death.
A Terrible Mistake reads like the most gripping of spy novels, as it lays out the roadmap to the drug culture of the 1960s and beyond. Since the 1940s, CIA had been hell-bent on perfecting mind control techniques, including the creation of a "truth drug," for use in interrogation of captured enemy operatives and to root out the enemies within. These pursuits began with Project BLUEBIRD's creation of synthetic THC (the active ingredient in marijuana), evolving into Project MKULTRA, in which Agency scientists conducted human experiments with LSD and hypnosis (frequently on American citizens held captive in mental hospitals); and ultimately led the Agency into a close association with international heroin traffickers.
Dr. Frank Olson was a research scientist in the Chemical Branch of the CIA's Special Operations Division ("SOD") at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where he was involved in a wide variety of chemical warfare experiments. Some of these experiments took him to exotic destinations in the Caribbean, where the U.S. Army's Chemical Corps conducted tests resulting in the deaths of thousands of animals, not to mention the supposedly unintended consequences to the health of the residents of an island near the watery test site.
In the summer of 1951, Dr. Olson and other members of the SOD research team traveled to France, in particular, to the village of Pont St. Esprit, for an operation code named Project SPAN. On August 16th of that year, the entire town of Pont St. Esprit was stricken with a mysterious malady. One Parisian reporter described it as
Insanity was everywhere. A local politician stripped off his clothes and danced merrily naked in the town square; an elderly man ran about ranting,
Theories abounded as to the cause. Some said a defrocked priest had inflicted a curse on the town. Some believed that Satan himself had been released from the depths of hell. However, certain mysterious occurrences shortly before the calamity had not gone unnoticed by the townspeople: a low-flying, unmarked plane which had sprayed the town with an unknown substance; soldiers whose uniforms bore a strange insignia, who had silently swept through the outskirts of town, releasing colored vapors from odd hand-held devices.
What was in those odd devices? It was a newly discovered drug then being produced by the Sandoz Company of Switzerland. The chemical name was lysergic acid diethylamide. Sandoz called it LSD. Pont St. Esprit was tripping out of its mind. Alas, hallucinations were not the only results of the test. Many residents suffered epileptic convulsions, and four people died.
At a CIA retreat known as Deep Creek Lake, Frank Olson and the other SOD scientists participated in a voluntary trial of the new drug. LSD had been added to a bottle of Cointreau just prior to the scientists' arrival. As the Chief of SOD, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb explained that it was impractical to use the drug for interrogation purposes without a personal understanding of its effects. However, the agenda at Deep Creek for Frank Olson was somewhat different than the other scientists. Shortly after everyone had been dosed, Frank was led to a separate building, where he was subjected to an intense interrogation for the next two days. Dr. Olson, it seems, had committed the ultimate crime for a man with his level of security clearance. He had talked about Pont St. Esprit to several people. One of them was a man with whom he occasionally carpooled to work, and that man had reported him to security officials at Fort Detrick.
When Frank arrived home after this particular retreat he was a changed man. Gone was Alice Olson's affable and capable husband, and in his place was a disheveled, extremely anxious man, convinced that "they" were out to kill him. It didn't take long for Frank Olson to suffer a complete mental breakdown. However, rather than allowing him to be treated by any of the staff psychiatrists at Fort Detrick, who were qualified to work at this high security location, arrangements were made for Frank to be treated by Dr. Harold Abramson in New York.
This was not Olson's first meeting with Dr. Abramson. Abramson had been conducting his own experiments with LSD supplied by Sandoz and Eli Lilly and Company. Olson had met with him at least once prior to the Deep Creek Lake retreat. Oddly, this meeting was also attended by George Hunter White of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Pierre Lafitte.
George Hunter White was a graduate of Camp X. Camp X, sometimes known as the "school of mayhem and murder," was the first paramilitary school in North America. Located in Canada, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, by odd coincidence, it was established exactly one the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. There, students were treated to a full curriculum in techniques of guerilla warfare, covert action and assassination. Classes were conducted in such things as close combat, small and concealed weapons, silent killing, and "infiltration." The camp's motto was "Kill or be killed." According to one former student, "It turned our values upside down, and we wondered about making a world fit for terrorists."
The United States has always officially regarded assassination as aberrant. Nevertheless, assassination as a practice of the U.S. government (via its clandestine services), was first proposed by General William ("Wild Bill") Donovan, when he was head of the OSS in 1949. At that time, he requested of a "friend," whose name has been redacted from the records, to provide him with a set of assassination guidelines. The friend's response included the following "efficacious" protocols:
"I think that gross divisions in presenting this subject might be (1) bodies left with no hope of the cause of death being determined by the most complete autopsy and chemical examination, (2) bodies left in such circumstances as to simulate accidental death, (3) bodies left in such circumstances as to simulate suicidal death, and (4) bodies left with residua that simulate those caused by natural causes.
"... If an individual could be placed into a relatively tightly sealed small room with a block of CO2 ice, it is highly probable that his death would result and that there would be no chances of the circumstances being detected. It is highly probable, though, that there would be a period of hyperactivity in the course of such a death.
In this letter, Wild Bill's "friend" goes on to discuss various methods of strangulation and their detectability, then, in a second letter brings his recommendations to a close with the following passage:
Prior to his "fall," Frank Olson had been drinking bourbon for several hours, in combination with a sleeping aid, Nembutal, both of which had been given to him earlier that day by Dr. Abramson, despite the fact that many physicians considered it dangerous to take Nembutal in combination with alcohol.
According to Albarelli's inside sources at CIA, two men to whom he refers simply as "Albert" and "Neal," George White was originally supposed to "guard" Frank Olson that night, and to drive him safely back to Maryland. Unfortunately, White's mother became gravely ill, and he had gone to San Francisco to be with her. Thus, White asked Pierre Lafitte to attend to Frank in his place.
Lafitte agreed and brought along his friend, Francois Spirito, a French Mafioso also known as Le Grand Lydro. Lafitte and Spirito had both grown up on the mean streets of the French port city of Marseilles. While Spirito began to run his own gang at the ripe age of 14, Lafitte had actually gone on to pursue a lucrative, semi-legitimate career as a contractor for the CIA. According to Albert and Neal, when Lafitte and Spirito attempted to remove the subdued Olson from his hotel room to take him home, Olson resisted, and in the ensuing struggle, was "pitched" through the closed window. Eyewitnesses, who saw Olson's flight from the street below, described him as having his arms stretched out in front of him (in an obvious effort to block the inevitable), before turning to plunge feet first to the pavement.
One CIA official interviewed by Albarelli insisted,
Frank Olson and the townspeople of Pont St. Esprit were far from the only victims of Project MKULTRA. There were many, many more. One woman, an NSA computer specialist, whose only crime was being married to a man who worked with Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, lost more than a year of her life, after being secretly dosed with mind altering drugs and subsequently committed to a mental hospital where who knows what really went on.
Another casualty of MKULTRA was a young African American soldier, stationed in France in 1961 whose entire life was profoundly impacted. The soldier was in charge of filing, a task complicated by the fact that the officers who utilized the files under his care were very neglectful about returning them. When two file folders went missing one day, the soldier was imprisoned, tortured and heavily dosed with LSD and other chemicals. His tormenters kept him locked up for over six months, an experience from which he never quite recovered.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, and even into the 21st Century, the CIA has played God, knowingly imprisoning and torturing innocent people in the misguided belief that their struggle against the Nazis, the Communists, and in today's "War on Terror" justified their actions. In doing so, they have consistently demonstrated that they were/are no different than their enemy.