Washington in spring time is a many-splendoured thing. Swooping down from the air on a Wednesday morning, on an Air Canada flight from Montreal, one glimpses the Pentagon snuggling amid the lush greenery, only a stone’s throw from Arlington Cemetery where the brave and the dead lie permanently asleep. As my ears block and unblock, and the landing gear descends, I think “So this was what the hijackers saw on the morning of September 11,” and it is nothing like the grim wasteland I had imagined. The US military nerve centre nestles among stately homes and quiet lawns, hemmed in by ancient oaks and hedges, like the most mundane of next-door neighbours. Can evil lurk in such a paradise?
As we bank, I get a look at what I think must be McLean Manor, a well-known tourist attraction for those travelling to Virginia. I understand it’s not all that far from CIA headquarters in Langley, which I do not recognize. My family were McLeans, and some of us actually think our story began here in Virginia, 200 years ago and well before the time of Allen Dulles and Wild Bill Donovan, those early architects of American Cold War strategy. It’s didn’t, of course. It began in a coffin ship from Ireland making its way up the St. Laurence River to Kingston and beyond. Oh, but wouldn’t it be nice to lie in bed with wealth and power, just for once, instead of the wet planks at the bottom of one of James McGill’s immigrant ferries?
One can only dream.
On the ground at Ronald Reagan Airport, they tell me there are few hotel rooms available in Washington that weekend, as my visit coincides with the IMF conference, and thousands of demonstrators are already arriving, with their hotels pre-booked. I feel like a fool for coming down here on a moment’s notice, with my Aeroplan miles, and no hotel reservation. However, an hour later I am unpacking my knapsack in a room overlooking the White House lawn. It’s costing me US $ 200 for the night but I don’t care. Tonight I will be sleeping next to George W. Bush himself! A frightening thought. The War in Iraq is being masterminded from the building below my window. I snap a photo of the Shrub’s back yard with my disposable camera. As I gaze down at the thought control centre of the planet, everything feels suddenly small and manageable. Confidently, I change into sneakers, jeans, and a tee-shirt, and set out for my destination: The National Security Archives where 60,000 pages of de-classified CIA files are sitting in 17 boxes, thanks to an endowment from John Marks, who bequeathed the documents to the library so that future researchers, like myself, could benefit.
True to my taste for the spontaneous, I haven’t bothered to phone ahead and tell them I’m coming to poke thought the files on MKULTRA, the infamous and mainly illegal CIA-funded project on Mind Control which operated out of 80 US and Canadian universities, including McGill, in the 1950s and 60s. I simply show up at the Gelman Library of George Washington University. I have no badge or pass, and all the signs say I need one to enter, but once I say I have come to look at files upstairs in the National Security Archives. After a five-second phone call, I am allowed up to the 7th floor where the NSA occupies a modest office.
When I get there, I introduce myself, and ask if I can browse in the documents for a few hours. The secretary says there is no problem, as long as I stash my belongings, including pens and notebooks, in one of their lockers, and use only one of their pencils and foolscap. I have three hours before closing time. I sit down to work, going through files on what I believe are MKULTRA sub-projects that affected my family directly. Specifically, Subprojects 45 (relating to “Production and Control of the Stress Reaction in Human Beings), and Project 57 (Sleep). Missing from the 149 project files is the CIA’s best-known mind control project, MKULTRA Subproject 68, made famous due to the lawsuit by former victims of Dr. Ewen Cameron’s “psychic driving” experiments at the Allen Memorial Institute of McGill University. The victims won their case, after a drawn-out legal battle, during which all materials relating to Project 68 were subpoenaed, and now lie in another archive at the Library of Congress. (or National Archives).
What I learn that day is horrifying and sickening and can’t be described in one small article. Among other things I have long suspected, I find that Subproject 68 and Cameron’s loony “Psychic Driving” experiments, are just the tip of the iceberg. The other files — and I can only read a few in the two days I have available — map out a much larger program, the truth of which has never been disclosed. Cameron and his friends oversaw a large network of other CIA research projects, aimed at undermining and destroying individuals and families, physically, mentally, and psychically. Nothing like it had been seen before, and therefore no one at the time was really prepared to fathom the extent to which our “core values” had been overthrown by doctors and scientists operating under Cold War doctrines formulated by CIA operatives whose commitment to deception was absolute and unshakeable, amounting to almost a new religion.
I have 90 pages of photocopies of de-classified CIA documents describing a range of very disturbing research projects which happened at McGill under the cloak of national security. Many of the details I read in these pages bring back memories I would rather not awaken.
At the National Archives, a massive statue of naked Justice hails the visitor. Below her is a plaque with the inscription: “What is past is prologue.”
I am there the next day, with my disposable camera, and my knapsack, after a pleasant night at the Hotel Washington. At five a.m. I had been wakened by a single robin, singing in the dark outside my window.
What is past and prologue, for me, is my childhood, lived under the shadow of MKULTRA. Through my father’s Air Force background, our family became caught up in a nightmare which lasted from 1953 to 1963, the full length of the MKULTRA project. In the end, all of us were traumatized and ill — but no one talked about it. We went about our lives in silence, like survivors of a concentration camp, making the best of our situation. What is the use of speaking about the unthinkable and inexplicable? Only recently, thanks to the internet and the trickle-down effects of the Freedom of Information Act, has it become possible to think and explain what we experienced all those years ago.
My mother would have disagreed with my being in Washington to dig up our past: in her opinion, suffering was always best left buried. In the early 60s, she suffered a severe auto-immune collaose,, only weeks after my father came home from being electro-shocked at the Allen by one of Dr. Cameron’s most enthusiastic disciples. In later years, as her body crumbled under what doctors described as “the worst case of galloping rheumatoid arthritis ever seen”, my mother embraced a doctrine of forgetfulness and forgiveness. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” was her motto along with, “Forget the bad things that happen in life; remember the good.” Sane, helpful advice, especially when you are very, very ill and have no choice.
At the entrance to the National Archives, I declare my purpose. I am there to find CIA files relating to my father, a Canadian Air Force sergeant who may have worked for military intelligence during the Second World War and also later. The security staffer’s eyes widen as I explain this to him. He tells me I am in the wrong place, and need to catch the shuttle to the other National Archives and Records Management Building, in College Park, Maryland. That’s where all records relating to National Security are stored. I thank him and run out to the square, where the shuttle bus is about to leave. Traffic is heavy, due to the IMF conference that weekend, but an hour later I’m telling another security person the same story. I get the same wide-eyed look, and then I am told I need picture ID, e.g. a passport, which I produce. I fill out a form, get my photograph taken, and in minutes I have a pass which allows me upstairs to the files on National Security. I am led into an office where once again, I state my purpose, and get the same wide-eyed response from the agent in charge who picks up the phone and asks someone on the other end to send an escort for “2600.” I am given another badge, marked “2600”, and taken up in an elevator and down a long hallway by a nervous young man.
At the end of the hallway is a large, modern, air conditioned office space, built along lines of a rectangular labyrinth.
Ann Diamond is a Montreal-based writer whose most recent book is MY COLD WAR, about growing up in the shadow of secret government experiments conducted on children.