Prompted by a new book release, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research has received a confidential inquiry from the office of Erard Corbin de Mangoux, head of the French intelligence agency, Directorate General for External Security (DGSE), concerning a recent account of American government complicity in a mysterious 1951 incident of mass insanity in France. The DGSE is the French counterpart of the CIA.
The incident took place in the village of Pont-Saint-Esprit in southern France, and is described in a recent book about the 1953 death of an American biochemist, A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments. The book, by investigative journalist H.P. Albarelli Jr., was published in late November 2009 by TrineDay, which specializes in books about “suppressed information.”
The strange outbreak severely affected nearly five hundred people, causing the deaths of at least five. For nearly 60 years the Pont-St.-Esprit incident has been attributed either to ergot poisoning, meaning that villagers consumed bread infected with a psychedelic mold, or to organic mercury poisoning. But Albarelli reports that the outbreak resulted from a covert LSD aerosol experiment directed by the US Army’s top-secret Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, Maryland. He notes that the scientists who produced both alternative explanations worked for the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, which was then secretly supplying both the Army and CIA with LSD.
The effect was devastating, as a contemporary French report made clear: “It is neither Shakespeare nor Edgar Poe. It is, alas, the sad reality all around Pont-St.-Esprit and its environs, where terrifying scenes of hallucinations are taking place. They are scenes straight out of the Middle Ages, scenes of horror and pathos, full of sinister shadows.” Even Time magazine took notice: “Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead. Pont-Saint-Esprit’s hospital reported four attempts at suicide.”
A Department of Justice website on the dangers of LSD states that in the early 1950s “the Sandoz Chemical Company went as far as promoting LSD as a potential secret chemical warfare weapon to the U.S. Government. Their main selling point in this was that a small amount in a main water supply or sprayed in the air could disorient and turn psychotic an entire company of soldiers leaving them harmless and unable to fight.” The CIA entertained a number of proposals from American scientists concerning placing a large amount of LSD into the reservoir of a medium-to-large city, but, according to former agency officials, “the experiment was never approved due to the unexpected number of deaths during the operation in France.”
Albarelli also describes a series of small, secret chemical attacks by the CIA on the New York City subway system during the 1950s. Recently, the Army has referred to these experiments as “simulated tests,” but contemporary documents make no reference to simulation. An August 1950 FBI memorandum refers to “planned BW (biological warfare) experiments in the New York Subway System in September, 1950,” expressing concerns about “poisoning the water supply of a large metropolitan area at the source … the poisoning of food … sold to the general public.”
In its quest to research LSD as an offensive weapon, Albarelli claims, the Army drugged over 5,700 unwitting American servicemen between the years 1953 and 1965, and, with the CIA, experimented widely with LSD and other drugs through secret contracts with over 325 colleges, universities and research institutions in the U.S., Canada and Europe, involving about 2,500 additional subjects, many of them hospital patients and college students.
According to an official with the DGSE, who declined to be identified, “If the details of this book’s revelations prove to be true, it will be very upsetting for the people of Pont-St.-Esprit, as well as all French citizens. That agencies of the United States government would deliberately target innocent foreign citizens for such an experiment is a violation of a number of international laws and treaties.”
February 3, 2010