Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed S.F. Citizens with LSD

Illustration by Rick Sealock.

It's been over 50 years, but Wayne Ritchie says he can still remember how it felt to be dosed with acid.

He was drinking bourbon and soda with other federal officers at a holiday party in 1957 at the U.S. Post Office Building on Seventh and Mission streets. They were cracking jokes and swapping stories when, suddenly, the room began to spin. The red and green lights on the Christmas tree in the corner spiraled wildly. Ritchie's body temperature rose. His gaze fixed on the dizzying colors around him.

The deputy U.S. marshal excused himself and went upstairs to his office, where he sat down and drank a glass of water. He needed to compose himself. But instead he came unglued. Ritchie feared the other marshals didn't want him around anymore. Then he obsessed about the probation officers across the hall and how they didn't like him, either. Everyone was out to get him. Ritchie felt he had to escape.

He fled to his apartment and sought comfort from his live-in girlfriend. It didn't go as planned. His girlfriend was there, but an argument erupted. She told him she was growing tired of San Francisco and wanted to return to New York City. Ritchie couldn't handle the situation. Frantic, he ran away again, this time to the Vagabond Bar where he threw back more bourbon and sodas. From there, he hit a few more bars, further cranking up his buzz. As he drank his way back to Seventh and Mission, Ritchie concocted a plan that would change his life.

Now in his mid-eighties and living in San Jose, Ritchie may be among the last of the living victims of MK-ULTRA, a Central Intelligence Agency operation that covertly tested lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on unwitting Americans in San Francisco and New York City from 1953 to 1964.

“I remember that night very clearly, yes I do,” he said in a recent interview. “I was paranoid. I got down to where I thought everyone was against me. The whole world was against me.”

After the day had bled into night on Dec. 20, 1957, Ritchie returned to his office in the Post Office Building and retrieved two service revolvers from his locker. He was going rogue.

“I decided if they want to get rid of me, I'll help them. I'll just go out and get my guns from my office and hold up a bar,” Ritchie recalls. “I thought, 'I can get enough money to get my girlfriend an airline ticket back to New York, and I'll turn myself in.' But I was unsuccessful.”

Out of his skull on a hallucinogen and alcohol, Ritchie rolled into the Shady Grove in the Fillmore District, and ordered one final bourbon and soda. After swallowing down the final drops, he pointed his revolver at the bartender and demanded money. Before joining the marshals, Ritchie served five years in the Marines and spent a year as an Alcatraz prison guard. But the cop had suddenly become the robber.

It was over in a flash. A waitress came up behind him and asked Ritchie what he was doing. When Ritchie turned around, a patron hit him over the head and knocked him unconscious. He awoke to a pair of police officers standing over him.

Ritchie says he had expected to get caught or killed.

The judge went easy on him and Ritchie avoided prison. He resigned from the Marshals Service, pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery, paid a $500 fine, and was sentenced to five years' probation.

Ritchie's story is certainly peculiar, but not unique. Other San Franciscans were unsuspecting participants in a strange research program in which the government effectively broke the law in an effort to fight the Cold War.

Seymour Hersh first exposed MK-ULTRA in a New York Times article in 1974 that documented CIA illegalities, including the use of its own citizens as guinea pigs in games of war and espionage. John Marks expertly chronicled more of the operation in his 1979 book, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. There have been other reports on the CIA's doping of civilians, but they have mostly dished about activities in New York City. Accounts of what actually occurred in San Francisco have been sparse and sporadic. But newly declassified CIA records, recent interviews, and a personal diary of an operative at Stanford Special Collections shed more light on the breadth of the San Francisco operation.

There were at least three CIA safe houses in the Bay Area where experiments went on. Chief among them was 225 Chestnut on Telegraph Hill, which operated from 1955 to 1965. The L-shaped apartment boasted sweeping waterfront views, and was just a short trip up the hill from North Beach's rowdy saloons. Inside, prostitutes paid by the government to lure clients to the apartment served up acid-laced cocktails to unsuspecting johns, while martini-swilling secret agents observed their every move from behind a two-way mirror. Recording devices were installed, some disguised as electrical outlets.

To get the guys in the mood, the walls were adorned with photographs of tortured women in bondage and provocative posters from French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The agents grew fascinated with the kinky sex games that played out between the johns and the hookers. The two-way mirror in the bedroom gave the agents a close-up view of all the action.

The main man behind the mirror was burly, balding crime-buster George H. White, a Bureau of Narcotics maverick who made headlines breaking up opium and heroin rings in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and the U.S. Few knew he doubled as a CIA spook for Uncle Sam. He oversaw the San Francisco program, gleefully dubbing it Operation Midnight Climax.

“[White] was a real hard head,” said Ritchie, who regularly ran into him in courtrooms and law enforcement offices in downtown San Francisco. “All of his agents were pretty much afraid to do anything without his full approval. White would turn on them, physically. He was a big tough guy.”


American chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the brains behind White's brawn. It was the height of McCarthyism in the early '50s, and government intelligence leaders, claiming fear of communist regimes, were using hallucinogens to induce confessions from prisoners of war held in Korea, and brainwash spies into changing allegiances. What better way to examine the effects of LSD than to dose unsuspecting citizens in New York City and San Francisco?

The mind-bending laboratory on Telegraph Hill was called “the pad” in White's leather-bound journals. White's widow donated 10 boxes of his personal effects to Foothill College in Los Altos Hills after he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1975. Now warehoused at Stanford, the journals, letters, and photographs provide a window into the mischievous life of a secret agent during the Cold War.

Before White joined the narcotics bureau, he worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a World War II-era intelligence agency that preceded the CIA. In a quest for truth serums, White and other OSS agents slipped concentrated tetrahydrocannabinol acetate (THCA) into the food and cigarettes of suspected communists, conscientious objectors, and mobsters in the 1940s. The experience wasn't a prerequisite for working in MK-ULTRA, but it helped.

Dr. James Hamilton, a Stanford Medical School psychiatrist, knew White from their OSS days. He was among the small group of researchers who had clearance to the pad. Gottlieb visited, too, but Operation Midnight Climax had no regular medical supervision.

And that became problematic. The first CIA brothel that White and Gottlieb ran in New York City had already gone awry. U.S. biological warfare specialist Frank Olson either jumped or was pushed from a 10th-floor hotel window in 1953, nine days after the CIA gave him LSD. When a CIA chemist, who was sharing the hotel room with Olson, met with police, they found White's initials and the address of a Greenwich Village safe house on a piece of paper in his pocket. The New York City operation was temporarily suspended when police investigated Olson's death, and restarted later.

White, a native Californian and former San Francisco newspaper reporter, yearned to return home. In 1955, Gottlieb let him.

Aside from Gottlieb's scattershot visits, White, now a “CIA consultant,” had free rein over the S.F. safe houses. Ritchie says that White's right-hand man, Ike Feldman, ran around dressed like “a hot-shot drug dealer.” Ritchie adds: “He tried to act like Al Capone.” The pad quickly became something akin to a frat house for spies. “Eight-martini lunches” were enjoyed regularly, White noted in his journal. And on some occasions he watched the dubious research unfold while sitting on a portable toilet a friend donated to him. It was his “observational post.”

What went on in the pad, apparently stayed in the pad.

Dr. John Erskine has lived next door to the location since 1954. “I had a feeling that things went on there that were none of my business. It wasn't overt. People weren't screaming out the windows,” says Erskine, standing outside the acid house.

The property is undergoing renovation. Just a few months ago, a construction crew pulled microphones, wires, and recording instruments out of the walls.

Ruth Kelley was a singer at a San Francisco club called The Black Sheep. Her unexpected trip into another dimension happened to her onstage.

Young, attractive Kelley caught White's eye, though she rejected his advances. White or one of his men eventually dosed her with LSD just before she went onstage, according to a deposition of Frank Laubinger, a CIA official who led a program in the 1980s that made contact with victims of MK-ULTRA. “The LSD definitely took some effect during her act.” Kelley reportedly went to the hospital, but was fine … once the effects of the drug, that she didn't know she was on, wore off.

How test subjects were chosen by the agents varied. In the case of the Telegraph Hill safe house, working girls would pick up johns in North Beach bars and restaurants, then bring them back for experimentation and observation. Other times, White and his wife would host dinner parties where guests might get dosed with a hallucinogenic cocktail without their knowledge. And seemingly random San Franciscans like Kelley were victimized for no other reason than their paths crossed with White and his men at the wrong time. White wrote in his diary how he slipped acid to unsuspecting civilians at local beaches, and in city bars and restaurants.

There were two other Bay Area safe houses where the CIA researched LSD and other chemicals: Room 49 of the Plantation Inn at Lombard and Webster streets, and 261 Green St. in Mill Valley.

People from all walks of life were potential targets. From an internal CIA memo: “The effectiveness of the substances on individuals at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign is of great significance, and testing has been performed on a variety of individuals within these categories,” wrote CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick in 1963.

But, as a 1976 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities noted, there was no medical pre-screening. “Paradoxically, greater care seemed to have been taken for the safety of foreign nations against whom LSD was used abroad. In several cases [overseas] medical examinations were performed prior to the use of LSD,” the committee reported. “The [domestic] program … demonstrates a failure of the CIA's leadership to pay adequate attention to the rights of individuals and to provide effective guidance to CIA employees. Though it was known that the testing was dangerous, the lives of subjects were placed in jeopardy and their rights were ignored during the 10 years of testing that followed Dr. Olson's death.” Although it was clear that the laws of the United States were being violated, the testing continued.

CIA operatives also admitted to experimenting with LSD themselves. In a 1970 letter to UC Berkeley psychiatry professor Harvey Powelson, White wrote how he “served as a guinea pig from time to time. My personal observation was that the effect of all of these drugs was essentially the same, except for the degree or extent of the effect. THCA was more potent than marihuana [sic] and LSD more potent than THCA. So far as I was concerned, 'clear thinking' was non-existent while under the influence of any of these drugs. I did feel at times I was having a 'mind-expanding' experience but this vanished like a dream immediately after the session.”


By all accounts, White enjoyed the undercover work he was doing. Perhaps a little too much. He would write in a 1971 letter to Gottlieb, “Of course I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill and cheat, steal, deceive, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest? Pretty Good Stuff, Brudder!”

Few inside the CIA even knew about MK-ULTRA and its sub-projects. The domestic experiments escaped scrutiny for a decade, until President John F. Kennedy, smarting from the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, forced CIA director Allen Dulles, who first signed off on MK-ULTRA, to resign. The agency's activities in San Francisco were so secret that not even the CIA's new director, John McCone, was informed of them when he took over in 1963. But incoming CIA Inspector General John Earman didn't sugarcoat what he learned. “The concepts involved in manipulating human behavior are found by many people both within and outside the Agency to be distasteful and unethical,” he wrote, questioning whether the clandestine activities were even legal. “Public disclosure of some aspects of MKULTRA activity could induce serious adverse reaction in U.S. public opinion, as well as stimulate offensive and defensive action in this field on the part of foreign intelligence services.”

Earman noted numerous civilians grew ill from the effects of the psychoactive drugs they were secretly slipped, and it would be embarrassing if doctors were to discover what the government had been doing. He recommended closing the safe houses. Yet high-ranking intelligence officers called for the continuance of Midnight Climax. “While I share your uneasiness and distaste for any program which tends to intrude upon an individual's private and legal prerogatives, I believe it is necessary that the Agency maintain a central role in this activity,” wrote Richard Helms, then the CIA's deputy director of plans.

Testing of unwitting individuals was suspended in 1964, at least officially. Still, the CIA safe houses in San Francisco and New York City continued to operate for a year and a half longer. Scrutiny of the program intensified at CIA headquarters in Virginia, and subsequently the Bay Area safe houses shut down in 1965. New York City's operation stopped in 1966. Intelligence officers conceded that the drug-testing exposed the agency to a serious “moral problem.”

The fun was over. White retired from law enforcement in 1965 and became the fire marshal at Stinson Beach. He wrote a swashbuckling autobiography titled A Diet of Danger that crowed about his Bureau of Narcotics adventures. It conspicuously left out Operation Midnight Climax. Publishers rejected the book in 1971.

Lawmakers were incredulous when they learned of the CIA's secret plots. But specifics at the time were scant.

Helms, one of MK-ULTRA's original architects, succeeded McCone as CIA director in 1966. Before Helms and Gottlieb resigned in the early 1970s, they ordered all of the project's paperwork destroyed. A massive paper purge occurred in 1973, just as Washington found itself in the throes of the Watergate scandal. In an attempt to clean house, that same year new CIA Director James Schlesinger ordered agency employees to inform him of illegal government activities. That's when he learned of Olson's fatal plunge in New York City, and the acid tests.

It didn't take long before details leaked to Hersh. The investigative journalist's groundbreaking article in the New York Times exposed the CIA's vast illegal domestic surveillance programs. The government had been screening U.S. mail, wiretapping journalists' phones, and plotting assassinations. And, oh yeah, it had also been dosing hundreds of civilians with LSD, as well as significant military populations, in the name of defense. Americans demanded answers.

Donald Rumsfeld, then chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, and Rumsfeld's deputy, Dick Cheney, wanted Hersh prosecuted for revealing government secrets. But Ford didn't heed their advice. He appointed a committee chaired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to investigate the intelligence improprieties. U.S. Sen. Frank Church also headed a congressional investigation of CIA malfeasance in 1974, and Sen. Edward Kennedy held hearings on MK-ULTRA in the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research.

While most of the CIA's records detailing the top-secret programs were destroyed, bureaucratic bumbling spared a cache of 20,000 documents from the shredder. In 1977, Marks, author of The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which provided him with many redacted versions of the surviving MK-ULTRA records.

Then, in exchange for immunity from prosecution, Gottlieb answered questions before the Senate. To gain “firsthand knowledge,” he said, agents “extensively” experimented with LSD on themselves before giving it to the public.

Kennedy tried to put it in perspective. “There is a light side to it, but there is also an enormously serious side,” he said. “There are perhaps any number of Americans who are walking around today on the East Coast or West Coast who were given drugs, with all the kinds of physical and psychological damage that can be caused.”

CIA Director Adm. Stansfield Turner testified that 44 colleges and universities, 15 research foundations and pharmaceutical companies, 12 hospitals and clinics, and three penal institutions across the country were used for MK-ULTRA research that included LSD, painkillers, and other drugs.

Using a front organization, Gottlieb distributed millions of dollars in drug research grants to Stanford, UC Berkeley, and other institutions, which only later learned the money's source. Stanford acknowledged its faculty received close to $40,000 over eight years from the CIA's secret program. It had hosted several studies on the effects of drugs on interrogations, and also spent money developing miniature lie detectors and other spy equipment.


Lawmakers denounced the CIA's covert domestic activities, but ultimately no disciplinary action was taken. Gottlieb and the others behind the acid experiments were not prosecuted or punished.

But the innocent victims of these programs had to be notified, the Senate subcommittee concluded. Tracking down victims proved difficult, since so little of that data survived the CIA's paper-shredding.

A victim's taskforce was established, but despite estimates of hundreds, maybe thousands of people exposed to the CIA's mind-control program, records show only 14 of them were notified.

Dr. Olson's family sued the government, claiming the scientist's death was not actually connected to the LSD he took. They claimed a government operative pushed him out of the window so he wouldn't divulge information about a classified CIA interrogation program concerning the use of biological weapons in the Korean War. Olson's family ultimately accepted an out-of-court settlement from the U.S. government for $750,000. There have been other lawsuits, including a class-action from alleged victims of the CIA's programs in Canada, and other reparations have been paid.

The Vietnam Veterans of America filed suit in San Francisco federal court in 2009, claiming at least 7,800 soldiers were, without their knowledge, given as many as 400 types of drugs and chemicals, including sarin, amphetamines, barbiturates, mustard gas, and LSD by the Army and CIA. Just last month, the group filed a petition in San Francisco seeking class-action status. The suit does not ask for money but instead seeks to overturn a 1950 Supreme Court decision that effectively insulates the government from liability under the Federal Torts Claims Act. The vets also want to discover the substances and doses they received, and get care for any resulting health conditions.

In spring 1999, Ritchie opened a copy of the San Jose Mercury News and read Gottlieb's obituary. Then it hit him.

“I didn't know that name at all. I'd never heard of him,” Ritchie said. “But what caught my eye were LSD and George White. George White was a supervising narcotics officer in 1957 in San Francisco and I knew him. When I read the article, it said he was working with the CIA testing mind-control drugs with the help of drug-addicted prostitutes. I put it together. He was drugging people without their knowledge. I thought, 'My God, how could he have done that to me?'”

Ritchie began his own research into the CIA's drugging activity, and grew convinced the CIA dosed him. Ritchie brought a lawsuit against the United States and its agents, claiming his attempted armed robbery at the bar was set in motion when agents slipped LSD into his drink at the Christmas party.

White's journal puts him in the same place as Ritchie the day the dosing and robbery occurred. An entry in White's leather-bound book for Dec. 20, 1957, reads: “Xmas party Fed bldg Press Room.”

Ritchie's complaint leaned heavily on the deposition of Feldman, the former agent under White. Feldman's testimony was at times incriminating, contradictory, and combative. “I didn't do any follow-up, period, because it wasn't a very good thing to go and say 'How do you feel today?' You don't give them a tip. You just back away and let them worry, like this nitwit, Ritchie,” Feldman said in a deposition.

A district court ruled in 2005 that Ritchie failed to prove that an LSD-induced psychotic disorder triggered his failed robbery attempt. The judge called it “a troubling case and that if indeed true [Ritchie] has paid a terrible price in the name of national security.” Noting that federal agents in San Francisco were doing “things that were reprehensible,” the judge concluded “it was not clear by a preponderance of the evidence that Mr. Ritchie was administered LSD. It may be what happened. But we don't operate on hunches.” To this day, Ritchie says he is “absolutely shocked” he lost the case.

Now house-bound and suffering from emphysema and other ailments — all of which he attributes to old age — Ritchie isn't bitter about his long, strange trip. He simply chalks it up to the government doing the best it could during difficult times.

“They thought they were helping the country,” Ritchie said.

Correction: Due to an editor's error, the image accompanying an earlier version of this story was of 255 Chestnut rather than 225. SF Weekly regrets the error.

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