The Secret Sharers: The CIA, the Bush Gang and the Killing of Frank Olson
There is a thread running through modern American history, a thin red
cord that weaves in and out of the shifting facades of reason and respectability that mask the brutal machinery of power.
August 28, 2002
The Secret Sharers: The CIA, the Bush Gang and
the Killing of Frank Olson
by Chris Floyd
There is a thread running through modern American history, a thin red
cord that weaves in and out of the shifting facades of reason and
respectability that mask the brutal machinery of power. At certain rare
moments the thread flashes into sight, emerging from the chaotic jumble
of unbearable truth and life-giving illusion that makes up human
reality. It appears, bears witness, then vanishes again, forgotten
behind the next facade.
It's a thread that runs from horrified young intelligence operatives
stumbling into the death camps of Nazi Germany to hardened agents
running assassination programs in the jungles of Vietnam to august men
of state building a shadow government with secret decrees authorizing
tyranny, murder, torture and deceit. It's a thread of moral corruption,
corruption by an idea, a temptation, a perversion of reason, the whisper
of evil that says: "The end justifies the means."
That thread fetched up briefly again earlier this month, then was
buried, literally, in a Maryland grave. The family of Frank Olson laid
his exhumed remains to rest, closing the book on their half-century of
struggle to find out why he died so violently in the hands of the
government he had served--and whose deepest secrets he had guarded.
Frank's son, Eric, believes he knows the answer now: his father was
murdered to keep the thread from sight, to "protect" the American people
from the knowledge that their own government had taken up and extended
Nazi experiments on mind control, psychological torture and chemical
warfare--and that it was conducting these experiments as the Nazis did,
on unwilling subjects, on captives and "expendables," even to the point
Frank Olson was a CIA scientist at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Army's
biological weapons research center. Ostensibly he was a civilian
employee of the Army; his family didn't know his true employer. Olson
worked on methods of spreading anthrax and other toxins; some of his
colleagues were involved in mind control drugs and torture techniques.
But his life within the charmed circle of the American intelligence
elite would unravel with dizzying speed in just a few months in 1953.
It began in the summer of that year, when Olson--increasingly troubled
by his own and his colleague's work--made several trips to Europe, to
investigate secret American-British research centers in Germany. There
he found the CIA was testing "truth serums" and other torture drugs on
"expendables," including captured Russian agents. He told a British
colleague that he had witnessed "horrors" there. And it called into
starkest question his own work on biochemical weapons.
He came home a changed man, troubled, morose. He told his wife he wanted
to leave government service.
But it was too late: the brutal machinery was already grinding. His
British colleague told his own superiors about Olson's concerns; they in
turn informed the CIA that Olson was now a "security risk." Not long
after his return, Olson was given the LSD. Then he was flown to New
York, ostensibly for psychiatric treatment, at the hands of a CIA
doctor--who prescribed whiskey and pills. Then he was taken to a CIA
magician--yes, a magician--who apparently tried to hypnotize him for
Finally he checked into a cheap hotel--with a CIA handler, Robert
Lashbrook, in tow. Olson called his wife, told her he was feeling better
and would be home the next day. But that night, he was found dead on the
street, 10 floors below. The handler said that Olson had apparently
thrown himself through the closed window in a suicidal fit. The
government told the family it was simply a tragic suicide. They didn't
mention the LSD--or the fact that Olson worked for the CIA.
It would take Eric Olson 49 years to piece together as much of the truth
as we are ever likely to know about what happened that night. But first
would come a false dawn, a cruel trick played on the family by cynical
operators in Ford Administration, who used a screen of half-truth and
deliberate falsehood to divert the Olsons--and the nation--from the
darkest tangles of the thread. Two of those operators would would work
the thread--play upon it, thrive on it, hold hard to its damp crimson
stain--to rise from the obscurity of White House functionaries to
positions of colossal, world-shaking power:
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
Keeping the Faith
Washington, 1975. It was a long hot summer of discontent in the White
House. The unelected president, Gerald Ford--who'd taken office after
the resignation of Richard Nixon--was raging. Every day seemed to bring
fresh horrors from the Congressional committees investigating America's
intelligence agencies. Assassination plots, terrorist acts, coups,
secret armies, subversion of allied governments, Mafia connections,
torture, press manipulation, domestic surveillance--the revelations were
endless, a bottomless pit of corruption and criminality being dredged up
by the House and Senate panels.
Where was their sense of duty, the code of omerta that had for so long
protected those who toil in the shadows, who do the dirty work to keep
America fat and safe and happy? What right did these mere senators and
representatives have to tell the people--the big dumb dazed mobocracy
out there--the truth about what their leaders were doing in their name?
They were like children, they could never understand the higher wisdom
that guided the elites. Oh, it was a far cry from the old days, back on
the Warren Commission, when a good soldier like Jerry Ford knew just
what to do: you accepted whatever the agencies told you, and you steered
investigations away from anything that might break the code and pierce
So Ford seethed. What the hell is wrong over there at the CIA, he
complained to his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld. Why couldn't Bill
Colby, the director, keep a lid on things? Colby had even come clean
about Operation Phoenix, for Christ's sake. More than 20,000 Vietnamese
murdered in the CIA-run program--did Joe Lunchbucket really need to know
What next? Are they going to find about Reinhard Gehlen, too: the Nazi
spy who joined the CIA and recruited thousands of Hitler's best and
brightest--including Klaus Barbie and a cadre of SS veterans--to work
for the Agency? Sure, it would look bad, but come on: Gehlen was
championed by Allen Dulles himself--the founding father of the CIA, the
hotshot lawyer who kept Prescott Bush's name out of the papers when Pres
was caught trading with the Nazis in 1942. Dulles and those Yale boys
knew what was best--but try explaining that to some poor schmuck whose
father got killed at Normandy or Auschwitz or some other godforsaken
As it happened, the "Gehlen Organization" stayed secret for another 26
years. But in July 1975, Ford had still more worries. A top White House
aide, Dick Cheney, sent a memo to Rumsfeld, warning him about an
upcoming lawsuit. The family of Frank Olson had found out--through the
Congressional investigations--that he had been secretly drugged by the
CIA not long before he took that fall from the hotel window. Now they
were suing the government for damages.
The lawsuit could be bad business, Cheney told Rumsfeld. "It might be
necessary to disclose highly classified national security information"
during the trial. That would include the truth about Olson: the CIA
connection, biochemical weapons, the mind-control and torture
experiments based on Nazi death-camp "research," and the Agency
fingerprints all over Olson's last days in New York City.
The case might even reveal the existence of special "CIA Assassination
Manuals," like the one issued in the year of Olson's death, 1953,
stating: "The most efficient accident, in simple assassinations, is a
fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface.
Elevator shafts, stairwells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve.
[In some cases], it will usually be necessary to stun or drug the
subject before dropping him."
Such revelations had to be avoided at all costs. Rumsfeld and Cheney
urged Ford to make a settlement before the trial started. To avoid the
courts entirely, they would arrange a private bill in Congress to give
the family some cash. The deal would be sweetened by private audiences
with both Ford and Colby, apologizing for the CIA's past "mistakes," and
promising "full disclosure" of all the facts, so the family could at
last find peace.
And so it was done. And it was all a lie--beyond the bare fact, already
unearthed by Congress, that Olson had been drugged by the CIA. The
family got 17 minutes in the Oval Office with Ford--who apologized for
the government's indirect involvement in Olson's death--that LSD test
Rogue elements, you know; unauthorized activity. Shouldn't have
happened; never happen again. This was followed by a meeting with Colby,
who handed over a thick file: the CIA's "complete" investigation of the
Olson affair--so complete that it forgot to mention that Olson was a CIA
official. Or that his colleagues considered him a "security risk."
Little things like that.
Thus began the second cover-up. It took Eric Olson another 27 years to
piece together the story, from obscure archives, through lucky
accidents, and strained meetings with old CIA hands, who let fall dribs
and drabs of the truth. He was even forced to exhume his father's body:
a gruesome process that revealed the original 1953 post-mortem had also
been a lie.
That examination had simply confirmed the cover story: poor sap had
flung himself through the glass and splattered on the sidewalk below. No
autopsy needed. Close the coffin--the body is too busted-up for the
family to see--and close the case. But the second examination, decades
later, carried out by forensic experts, revealed the truth. There were
no marks on the well-preserved cadaver consistent with a self-propelled
flight through the window: no cuts on the face or arms. There was,
however, a cranial injury entirely consistent with a blow to the
head--delivered before the fall.
Earlier this year, the Cheney-Rumsfeld memos came to light, confirming
that the Olsons had been deliberately lied to in 1975. It helped fill in
some of the remaining pieces of the scattered jigsaw puzzle that was his
father's death--and had become Eric's life. And although the centerpiece
of the puzzle--the fateful moments in that hotel room, before Frank
Olson went through the glass--remains forever absent, the picture was as
complete as it would ever be, Eric decided. And so he buried his father,
again, in the dark Maryland earth.
But Ford, Rumsfeld and Cheney had kept the faith back in those dangerous
days of 1975. They had honored omerta. Colby was not so lucky. For his
sins--his "weakness" in allowing a few spears of sunlight into the
shadows--he was summarily dismissed a few months later.
He was replaced by a man who also lived by the code, who would keep the
precious Agency--and all its Gehlens, its torturers, its dopers, its
shooters--safe from the mobocracy, the ignorant rabble with their
pathetic fairy-tale notions about democracy, justice, law and honor. He
would guard the shadow world so well that one day the headquarters of
the CIA would proudly bear his name:
George Herbert Walker Bush.
Chris Floyd is a columnist for the Moscow Times and a regular
contributor to CounterPunch. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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