ⓘ Frank Olson
Frank Rudolph Olson was an American bacteriologist, biological warfare scientist, and Central Intelligence Agency employee who worked at Camp Detrick in Maryland. At a meeting in rural Maryland, he was covertly dosed with LSD by his CIA supervisor and, nine days later, plunged to his death from the window of a 10th-story New York City hotel room. The U.S. government first described his death as a suicide, and then as misadventure, while others allege murder. The Rockefeller Commission report on the CIA in 1975 acknowledged their having conducted drug studies.
Olson was born in Hurley, Iron County, Wisconsin, and earned both B.S. and Ph.D. degrees Bacteriology, 1938 at the University of Wisconsin. He married and had three children: Eric, Nils, and Lisa. Olson worked for a time at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and then served as a captain in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps.
As a civilian, he was recruited to Camp Detrick, and to the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, by the distinguished UW scientist Ira Baldwin, the technical director there. Baldwin had been his departmental advisor at UW. At Camp Detrick, Baldwin worked with industrial partners such as George W. Merck and the U.S. military to establish the top secret U.S. bioweapons program beginning in 1943, during World War II, a time when interest in applying modern technology to warfare was high. Olsons duties included experiments with aerosolized anthrax. There were allegations that the US used biological warfare during the Korean War but the government denied this. After 10 years, Olson was a senior bacteriologist at the program.
At some point while assigned as a civilian U.S. Army contractor, Olson began working as a CIA employee with the CIAs Technical Services Staff TSS, run by Sidney Gottlieb and his deputy Robert Lashbrook. Some of his CIA colleagues were involved in the MKNAOMI-MKULTRA program, previously known as Project Artichoke and, earlier, Project Bluebird. It was a program to explore the possible espionage and military uses of psychotropic drugs.
The author Ed Regis reports that the meeting at which Olson was dosed with LSD took place at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland:
Deep Creek Lake was three hours by car from Camp Detrick. On Wednesday morning, November 18, 1953, about a week before Thanksgiving, a group from the SO Division, including Vincent Ruwet, chief of the division, John Schwab, Frank Olson, Ben Wilson, Gerald Yonetz, and John Malinowski, drove out to the retreat. The Detrick group was met at the lodge by Sid Gottlieb, his deputy Robert Lashbrook, and a couple of others from the CIA.On the second day of the retreat, after dinner, Gottlieb spiked a bottle of Cointreau with a small quantity of a substance that he and his TSS colleagues privately referred to as "serunin" but which was in fact lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
Olson asked to quit the biowarfare program the week after the retreat:
Ruwet was surprised to see Olson at 7:30 in the morning, but asked him in. Olson told Ruwet that he was dissatisfied with his own performance at the retreat, that he was experiencing considerable self-doubts, and that in fact he had decided he would like to be out of the germ warfare business. He wanted to leave Camp Detrick and devote his life to something else.
Olson subsequently suffered severe paranoia and a nervous breakdown. The CIA sent him to New York City to see one of their physicians, who recommended that Olson be placed into a mental institution for recovery. This was Harold Abramson, an allergist-pediatrician, who was assisting the CIA with the psychotropic research into the effects of the drug.
The ensuing police report said that on his last night in Manhattan, Olson purposely threw himself out of the window of his tenth-floor hotel room at the Hotel Statler, which he had been sharing with Lashbrook, and died shortly after impact.
2.1. Murder and wrongful death allegations 1975
Although Olsons family told friends that Olson had suffered "a fatal nervous breakdown" which resulted in the fall, the family had no knowledge of the specific details surrounding the tragedy until the Rockefeller Commission uncovered some of the CIAs MKULTRA activities in 1975. That year, the government admitted that Olson had been dosed with LSD, without his knowledge, nine days before his death. After the family announced they planned to sue the Agency over Olsons "wrongful death," the government offered them an out-of-court settlement of $1.250.000, later reduced to $750.000, which they accepted. The family received apologies from President Gerald Ford and then-CIA director William Colby.
2.2. Murder and wrongful death allegations 1994–1996
In 1994, Eric Olson had his fathers body exhumed to be buried with his mother. The family decided to have a second autopsy performed. The 1953 medical report completed immediately after Dr. Olsons death indicated that there were cuts and abrasions on the body. Theories sparked about Olson having been assassinated by the CIA. When the second autopsy was performed by James Starrs, Professor of Law and Forensic Science at the George Washington University National Law Center, his team searched the body for any cuts and abrasions and found none. Starrs found a large hematoma on the left side of Olsons head and a large injury on his chest. Most of the team concluded that the blunt-force trauma to the head and the injury to the chest had not occurred during the fall, but most likely in the room before the fall one team member dissented. Starrs called the evidence "rankly and starkly suggestive of homicide."
In 1996, Eric approached the U.S. District Attorney in Manhattan, Robert Morgenthau, to see if his office would open a new investigation. Stephen Saracco and Daniel Bibb of the offices "cold case" unit collected preliminary information, including a deposition of Lashbrook, but concluded that there was no compelling case to send to a grand jury. In 2001, Canadian historian Michael Ignatieff wrote an account of Erics decades-long campaign to clear his fathers name for The New York Times Magazine.
Eric Olson said the forensic evidence of death is suggestive of a method used by the CIA found in the first manual of assassination that says "The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface."
2.3. Murder and wrongful death allegations 2012–2013
On November 28, 2012, sons Eric and Nils Olson filed suit in the US District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking unspecified compensatory damages as well as access to documents related to their fathers death and other matters that they claimed the CIA had withheld from them. The case was dismissed in July 2013, due in part to the 1976 settlement between the family and government. In the decision dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg wrote, "While the court must limit its analysis to the four corners of the complaint, the skeptical reader may wish to know that the public record supports many of the allegations, farfetched as they may sound."
2.4. Murder and wrongful death allegations 2017–2018
Netflix released a documentary miniseries, entitled Wormwood 2017, based on the mystery of Olsons death; it was directed by Errol Morris. In the miniseries, journalist Seymour Hersh says the government had a security process to identify and execute domestic dissidents perceived to pose a risk. He said that Frank Olson was a victim of this and an ongoing cover-up after his death. However, Hersh explained that he cannot elaborate or publish on the facts because it would compromise his source.
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