When U.S. attacked itself
By David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor
As scientists in the United States seek new ways to prevent more
bioterrorist attacks, there's an important thing to keep in mind:
Experiments to defend us from the enemy could backfire -- and even prove
At least three times in the past, San Franciscans and other Americans
have been inadvertent victims of efforts designed to help shield
citizens against attacks:
These secret research projects were supposed to help the military and
other federal agencies prepare defenses against biological warfare,
nuclear terror and mass brainwashing.
- In 1950, the Army secretly used a Navy ship cruising just
outside the Golden Gate to spray supposedly harmless bacteria over the
entire city and its outskirts. Eleven people were sickened by the germs
in San Francisco, and one of them died.
- From 1956 to 1961, the CIA, in a secret behavior modification
program called MK-ULTRA, dispatched agents to test the effects of
mind-altering drugs such as LSD and synthetic mescaline on unsuspecting
people in San Francisco, Mill Valley and other cities across the
country. Many of the victims hallucinated, many became sick and at
least two deaths resulted from the experiments.
- And from 1944 to 1974, both the Defense Department and the Atomic
Energy Commission conducted hundreds of secret experiments in San
Francisco and around the country that exposed unsuspecting patients to
dangerous doses of radiation, including injections of plutonium.
The most dramatic of the biological warfare experiments was the one in
San Francisco, where, in S8eptember 1950, a Navy auxiliary mine-laying
vessel pumped out billions of supposedly harmless bacteria called
Serratia marcescens. Winds from the sea carried the microbes over 117
square miles of the Bay Area.
Eleven patients who inhaled the bacteria were hospitalized for severe
urinary and respiratory infections in San Francisco, and one died of
In testimony before a Senate committee in 1994, Leonard Cole, a
specialist in biological terorism who teachers at Rutgers University,
said that for more than 20 years, the Army continued releasing clouds of
"simulant" microbes and chemicals over hundreds of populated
The Army's purpose, Cole testified, was "to assess the nation's
vulnerability to attack with biological weapons." But by the 1970s,
Serratia marcescens was removed from the Army's list of "simulant"
agents because of its dangers, Cole said, and less harmful ones were
The CIA's MK-ULTRA program 40 years ago was presumably designed to learn
how to defend against enemy use of drugs to brainwash American prisoners
of war or citizens at home being held by terrorists -- as well as to
develop effective methods of interrogating enemies.
Hearings before a Senate Intelligence Committee in 1977 revealed some
astonishing experiments, including one run out of a CIA safe house in
San Francisco where agents infiltrated parties and dances to spike the
drinks of guests with LSD and other hallucinogens and observe their
One of the victims of the CIA experiments with LSD was Dr. Frank Olson,
a civilian working for the army who unwittingly drank the hallucinogen
after dinner in a glass of Cointreau handed to him by a CIA
While being treated for violent episodes of paranoid schizophrenia,
Olson jumped to his death at New York's Statler Hotel.
Ironically, Olson's job at Ford Detrick in Maryland was to assess the
vulnerability of American installations to biological terror.
Early in the 1990s, reporters began learning about secret radiation
experiements conducted during and after World War II when people in
scores of hospitals, universities and military bases were exposed to
various levels of radiation without their consent and often without
Finally, in 1995, a committee named by President Bill Clinton to
investigate the "murky record" of the incidents reported there had been
more than 4000 such experiments. In one, conducted at the University of
California at San Francisco, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in
Tennessee and the universities of Chicago and Rochester, 18 people were
injected with plutonium without their knowledge or consent.
The investigating panel said that while most of the experiments wer
conducted "to advance biomedical science," many were intended to
"advance national interests in defense or space exploration," and the
investigators identified several studies in which patients died from
"acute radiation effects."
San Francisco Chronicle, October 29, 2001
1800 Cedar Street
noon til six, Monday thru Saturday