Ethical Dilemma in Project MKULTRA


This is an analysis of the case study of Project MKULTRA (1953-1973). It was a project taken up by the US CIA agents during the Cold War. It was an experiment taken up by CIA to defeat the other side, using the newly found drug LSD. This is a study of the ways Project MKULTRA has violated the basic principles of Ethical Principles of Psychology massively and misused the rights given to them. The study also shows how the Project had led to severe outcomes, and was also based on misunderstandings and improper knowledge of the consequences.

Case Report

With the discovery of LSD, a lot of scientists speculated its use for both legal and defense purposes. During the Cold War, America had continuous conflicts with the opposing nations. The country was facing severe threats to the national security. From the period of 1953 to around 1973, steps were taken by the CIA to find a way to manipulate human minds and use this technique against the strong enemy powers.

Studies and research took place privately, without any public knowledge. An entire mission was been made to go against the opposing powers using the methods of mind control and manipulation. Project MKULTRA was created as an operation to deal with behavioral modification during World War II.

The experiments conducted directly violated human rights and ethics. The main objectives of Project MKULTRA included testing the possibility of controlling people by special methods such as enhancing their memories, and creating a defensive means against control of Agency personnel.

The Intelligence agents, researchers, doctors and physicians involved in the experiments put the ethical codes of the Hippocratic Oath, U.S. Constitution and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights at risk. The project came into existence to protect United States national security, after a Hungarian trial. Thus the Director of Central Intelligence, Roscoe Hillenkoetter authorized funds, without any written proof, to be used in the field of these human experiments. The first and basic principle of ethics, beneficence is violated in Project MKULTRA. The project was not useful to the whole population in general. It was only conducted as a retaliating agent towards the opposing party, and as protection for the United States’ security. It was a very risky operation and targeted innocent subjects without their consent.

The first project, created in 1950, was named BLUEBIRD, whose primary objective was to discover a method by which no information could be prized out of the Agency personnel without authorization. One experiment conducted was dosing the suspected spy’s drink with chemical agents, and then observing how the individual’s body would react to that particular drug. (Linville, T. M., Project MKULTRA and the Search for Mind Control: Clandestine Use of LSD within the CIA, 2016)

Another vision was to create a utopian society where population could be controlled through brain electrodes implanted in them. Experiments related to this were conducted without any curative purpose. They were based on false, unproven diagnoses and took to unscientific methods of treatment. Ethics didn’t have any value during the execution of these tests.

In a lot of known cases, these experiments also led to permanent brain damage and many a times, caused brain infections, strokes and death. One of the objectives of MKULTRA was also the creation of Manchurian Candidates – individuals who could be used for completing certain tasks as the CIA required and later have their memories erased and replaced with false ones.

Studies have mentioned that there were never follow-ups of the subjects, neither were they asked for their consent. Criminals, orphans, drug addicts, prostitutes, psychiatric patients and irritable individuals were the victims of these experiments, as they could neither resist on their own, nor call for legal protection. The experiment included people from all areas, sex and race, occupational, economic and regional categories. (Stephenson, R., The CIA and the Professor: A Personal Account, 1978) Fidelity is the principle related to the relation between the researchers and their subjects. The CIA had no proper information of their subjects, and the subjects weren’t debriefed on the experiments and its risks. Fidelity was completely violated during the research.

Though the research included people from all backgrounds, there was no internal justice in their sample. The principle of Justice requires the researchers to ensure that boundaries and biases do not come in the way of the tests. It also mentions that they should not take to unjust practices. The CIA targeted only vulnerable groups of the population for the experiment. They also took to torturous ways of experimenting, which resulted in unfavorable damages to the subjects.

George Estabrooks, who was a psychologist and had the upper hand in hypnosis during World War II, was also known to mention the artificial creation of multiple personality disorder in the subjects using hypnosis. Though the success of this particular test was unclear, the main objective was to implant amnesia in them, then subject them to various identities for tasks such as courier, spy work, penetration, and assassination. (Ross, C. A., Ethics of CIA and Military Contracting by Psychiatrists and Psychologists. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 2007)

The project MKULTRA mainly focuses on testing the subjects with LSD and other drugs. Their reactions are monitored through one-way mirrors. However, testing of LSD has led to severe complications on the patients. One such incident was of Frank Olson, who had a bad LSD trip and ended up with chronic depression, anxiety and paranoia. After a few weeks, while visiting his CIA psychiatrist in New York, he crashed through his hotel’s tenth floor window and fell to his death. The CIA did not take any responsibility and tried to cover up the relation between Olson and the LSD experiment. Observationally, the motives of some successful operations were to induce mental illness in the subjects so that they are confined to psychiatric wards. (Mark Wheelis, The Use and Misuse of LSD by the U.S. Army and the CIA, 2010) Nonmaleficence, one of the basic principles of research requires that any research or experiment should not cause any harm to the subjects. As seen in the reports, the CIA experiments have caused severe harm to the subjects and did not bat an eye or take responsibility towards the loss of the subject.

When there are negative consequences of a test, Principle 2 of Ethics – Fidelity and Responsibility mentions that the researchers are obligated to remove or rectify the errors and see that the same doesn’t repeat again. However, CIA neither took to amending their ways not protected their subjects.

MKULTRA was operated in a clandestine way, not giving away its information to anyone in public, except the CIA officials. The details of the experiment, were for a long period, kept a secret and did not gather opinions of other professionals. The data monitored was used for personal purposes by the CIA without informed consent. This action violates the third principle of ethics – Integrity. The experiment was in no way fair to the purpose of the research as well as to the subjects.

Project MKULTRA was forced to stop all its activities in all the fields involved in 1973, after legal suspicions and proofs. Though it was only for a short period of time, MKULTRA had ruined a lot of lives by purposely inducing drugs and symptoms of mental illness in several subjects without their informed consent, though as per the Ethics Code, participation should be voluntary and must be informed of the nature of the experiment and its potential risk factors. The CIA ignored these restrictions and practiced abuse over time on the people. (Colin A. Ross, The CIA Doctors: Human Rights Violations by American Psychiatrists, 2006)

Project MKULTRA, as observed, has also ignored the basic Rights and Dignity of the people. Welfare of the groups who were vulnerable was not taken into account. Instead, their vulnerabilities served as a purpose for the experiments. The CIA intelligence knowingly picked on prejudices and stereotypes and used them for the purpose of MKULTRA. Lives of many individuals were risked during the project. The public had no knowledge of the operations and the officials did not take any action to protect or build a relationship with their subjects before performing the dangerous tests on them. Project MKULTRA was one of the biggest unethical operations during World War II and Cold War.

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