Thursday, January 2, 2020

UNWITTING: Finding Truth in an Invisible War

When Vermonter William Pierce’s troubles began he had no solid evidence that mind control projects were being pursued by the government. But once MKULTRA documents were declassified in 1977 his personal experiences —from the McCarthy era to the Cuban missile crisis — began to look uncannily close to the CIA’s experiments. And when he was involuntarily committed in 1962, he found himself in the care of Louis “Jolly” West. One of the leading MKULTRA doctors, West had just killed an elephant with LSD. 

Chapter Eight: End Games
(The Secret War on William Pierce)

After hours of interviews and a careful review of Pierce’s writing and documents, I concluded that he was certainly paranoid and in need of psychiatric help. And yet, his underlying complaint — that he had been the unwitting victim of a psychological attack — was supported by strong circumstantial evidence and a series of inexplicable coincidences. Something or someone did get him. 
Beginning in the mid-1950s, government agencies had indeed conducted top secret research on how to manipulate behavior, including the use of disorienting drugs and micro-transmitters. And Pierce had been harassed at various times for his liberal leanings and outbursts. But it was impossible to determine whether he was purposely drugged or harassed with a tiny transmitter. During the Cuban Missile crisis, however, he was involuntarily committed with a flimsy excuse, held for months under the supervision of an MKULTRA pioneer, and released despite an unchanged diagnosis, possibly because he was annoyingly rational and continued to make trouble. The entire experience had shattered him, and possibly induced psychosis.
Sure, he came across as unstable and defensive, and sometimes thought unnamed forces were still harassing him. But his story didn’t vary, the dates and most of the people checked out, and he had kept receipts in the form of documents and detailed accounts. Plus, his analysis of the threat, the thing that had driven him from the start, was on the mark. And chilling. One report, dated August 9, 1964, written while he was living at home in Lyndonville after his Oklahoma ordeal, was presciently titled “New Threats to Privacy and Civil Liberties.” It began:
“Modern science poses unusual new threats to the traditional privacy and freedom of Americans. Bugging and other snooping devices have come into widespread misuse… Psychological conditioning and organized scientific sociology have been used for political purposes in the academic establishment. In particular, ambitious opportunists have exploited the public concern about Communism to organize attacks on alleged Reds, subversives, and other “undesirables.” One of the most alarming developments had been the underground alliance between right-wing extremists and security personnel.”
He even had a basic action program: expose the facts, protect the rights of individuals, and develop legal safeguards to keep “Brave New Science” honest and safe. Armed with his sources, my research, and the available facts, it no longer sounded so delusional to me.

Hoping to discover more in government files, in early 1980 I composed letters for Pierce to eight federal agencies, requesting documents under the Freedom of Information Act. These notarized requests asked for anything related to his time on the faculty at four universities, as well as his work for the NSA in 1953. Not surprisingly, all the agencies claimed to have nothing in their files. But a brief reply from NSA was unintentionally revealing. Even though Pierce had worked there, Information Policy Chief Charles Sullivan claimed that they were “unable to locate any files listed under your name in this Agency’s systems or records or files.” It was less than convincing.
In 2013, when I conducted a follow up online search, one piece of correspondence between Pierce and the CIA did turn up. Dated August 1, 1960 and addressed to him at the Syracuse Math Department, it included this statement: “Mr. Dulles (CIA Director at the time) asked me to acknowledge and thank you for your letter of 9 July 1960 enclosing a message to Dr. Glennan of NASA and Mr. D.H. Lewis. The thoughtfulness in bringing our attention to your proposal is indeed appreciated.”
What was his proposal? Electronic mental telepathy, Pierce called it. “Though the technical requirements have already been met, the process and application are new,” he explained. It was really a fishing expedition, an attempt to discover whether his suspicions were true. In the referenced letter to NASA, he pointed to the work being done at the Aviation Medicine School in Texas, where tiny transmitters were being used for research, as well as cybernetic work underway to assist with space exploration, and “extensive use of various voice analyzers and signal separators.” 
Every agency we contacted in 1980, including NASA, NSA and CIA, denied ever hearing from Pierce or knowing anything about him. Nevertheless, he had clearly gotten their attention.
While studying the first amendment that summer in southern California under a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, I was able to verify most of Louis West’s career highlights. After his early assignments at Lackland AFB and posts in Oklahoma during the 1960s, he had moved to Los Angeles in 1969 and established himself as a leading figure in neuropsychiatry. He was also connected with the Brain Research Institute, Israeli Center for Psychobiology, National Academy of Religion and Mental Health, California Alcoholism Council, Pavlovian Society, and White House Conference on Civil Rights.  
But before I could share the new information and insights, along with some FOIA documents I obtained on Subproject 43, word arrived that Pierce was dead. At 59 years old, he passed away around October 12, 1980. His body wasn’t discovered until almost a week later. According to the medical examiner, the specific cause of death wasn’t clear. But he confirmed that Pierce had suffered from advanced cirrhosis of the liver and inflammation of the pancreas, both related to alcoholism, and coronary arteriosclerosis.
A few weeks earlier, Pierce had shared a final truth about himself, one that may help explain why he was targeted in the first place. He was gay and in the closet. His 1962 medical records revealed only hints about “predisposing factors.” The most obvious clue was this brief description: “Obese child who lived with widowed mother and who has functioned in a passive dependent manner.” During the 1950s discovery of such a secret, combined with his incessant letter-writing, could have placed an invisible target on his back.
His doctor lived another 18 years. But in late 1998, Jolly
Louis “Jolly” West, MKULTRA’s
LSD mind games doctor, was
in control until the end.   
West learned that he was dying of cancer and told his son. At 75 years old, hip pain had led to an X-ray. “It took me about ten seconds to register what I saw. There were metastases throughout my skeleteon. Cancer everywhere. I realized I was looking at a death sentence.”
As usual, he wanted to stay in control. And he had a plan. “If I knock off a little ahead of schedule, nobody’s going to know the difference,” he told his son, “and I’ll have saved myself a hell of a lot of pain.” Then he added, “But I’ll need you on board, to help me.” John West agreed.
On January 2, 1999, the two men followed through. After the younger West picked up a prescription for enough Seconal to do the job, the elder West combined them with assorted pills he had on hand — a bathroom pharmacy that included methadone, heptabarbital, Ambien, and morphine. From falling asleep to respiratory/cardiac arrest, it took only twenty minutes to die. “Mr. Totally in Control,” as his loving son sometimes called him, had done it again.
Less than six months later, on the same day Jolly West’s portrait was hung in the foyer of the Louis Joylon West Auditorium at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, John West’s mother Kathryn asked him to do her the same favor, assist with her suicide. Again he complied. 
As West explained in his bittersweet book about their final days, “I believe, as they did, in freedom of choice, the right to personal privacy and self-determination.” Unfortunately, the same rights were denied to William Pierce.

Previous chapters
OneWrong Turn
Four: Chung's Way
Seven: Bad Medicine

This and previous chapters will appear in the forthcoming book, Informed Dissent

Saturday, December 28, 2019

UNWITTING: When the Cure is Worse

When Vermonter William Pierce’s troubles began he had no solid evidence that mind control projects were being pursued by the government. But once MKULTRA documents were declassified in 1977 his personal experiences —from the McCarthy era to the Cuban missile crisis — began to look uncannily close to the CIA’s experiments. And when he was involuntarily committed in 1962, he found himself in the care of one of the leading MKULTRA doctors

Chapter Seven: Bad Medicine
(The Secret War on William Pierce)

     “For two weeks, I was a ‘patient’ at Coyne Hospital — denied telephone privileges and heavily doped,” Pierce recalled in 1964. “On November 14, 1962, I was admitted to the V.A. Hospital in Oklahoma City. My court record arrived there, enlarged from the original ‘delusions of persecution’ to include paranoia, schizophrenia, tendencies to suicide and violence, and moderate drinking. Another week elapsed before I was permitted to contact a lawyer.
     “The first reactions of the V.A. psychiatrists was that I probably had a persecution complex: ‘We can’t believe this stuff about extremists and their electrical gadgets. We feel you have an illness and we foresee long-term confinement’.”
     When Pierce brought up his Constitutional rights and “enforced commitment,” he claims that West replied, “We’re experts in psychiatry, not politics.” Yet a report on his intake examination confirms that West already had decided that the case “might represent a state of true paranoia.”
Pierce kept his hospital records in
hope of uncovering what happened.
     Based on what evidence? An examination summary filed one month after his admission noted that Pierce “felt that there was a ‘right-wing underground’ operating there (at Oklahoma State) among a few people including some of his students. He states that a type of ‘heckle’ was noted...Also he noted that at restaurants and cafes people would walk and stand near him and swing their arms back and forth. He states that when this occurred 5 or 6 times in a community it was more than just an incident and was part of an organized heckle.”
     In a sub-section on “Previous Personality Disorders or Psychiatric Illness,” the V.A. doctors acknowledged that Pierce had consistently asserted “he is not mentally ill,” but rather the victim of a “substantive situation.” It was not merely a feeling, he claimed, “I actually am a victim.” And he still remembered the original 1955 incident. “I have a political experience and not a mental illness,” he insisted. 
     For the next six week Pierce was confined in a closed ward, his phone calls monitored and mail censored. Among the drugs prescribed during this period were Chloral Hydrate “for bedtime sedation,” then Deriden as a replacement, plus Stelazine, Cogentin, Meprobamate and Thorazine. But then “an abrupt transformation occurred,” Pierce wrote, “not in me but in the psychiatrists. I was moved to an open ward, and was soon ‘very well’ — well enough to attend a mathematics conference in California, and to be almost completely unrestricted. A doctor alluded nervously to my ‘preoccupation’ with ‘telling the truth’.”
      What changed? To start, West allowed Pierce to play an electric organ on the 7th floor. “This was enjoyed by both patients and personnel, as this patient was quite capable,” according to his file. In December, Pierce began to talk about a transfer to the New York area “at his own expense for continued care.” A few weeks later West allowed him to attend an organ recital in town and attend a related meeting of musicians.
     He was still discussing potential legal moves, however, while pursuing “contacts with people about what has gone on.” In court, Pierce warned his doctors, “we might emphasize I was committed in a way that involved my political expression. Also we might go into the substantive things the extremists did.” 
     Asked whether he still believed a tiny tooth transmitter had been used to harass him, he responded cautiously. “My lawyer has recommended that I not expound on things for which I don’t have readily available evidence.”  
     On January 9, 1963, just a week after his transfer to the hospital’s open ward, Pierce was elected ward chairman. “He was in charge with other patients of writing a constitution for ward 7EW,” his records note, “handled this very well and also handled the ward meeting in a very proper and formal manner.” In February, the doctors let him begin day trips to the library, then allowed him to attend a math convention in California. After that, discussions proceeded quickly on “restoration of competency.”
     Oddly enough, his diagnosis was unchanged: “schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type, characterized by inappropriate affect, seven-year history of delusions, deeply fixed...history of auditory hallucinations and grandiose thinking... External Precipitating Stress: Unknown.” But confined for months he never acted out. Instead, he organized other patients when he had the chance. He also entertained many patients and even some staff.
     But even though Pierce was released from the hospital and judged to be competent again, his academic career was over. “On March 20, I left the hospital with a certificate of my ability to work. I so wrote President Willham and mathematics Chairman Johnson; but neither replied, thus further violating their promises.”
      It felt like another betrayal, since Willham had earlier agreed to let Pierce return. “Without delay,” he wrote, “I drove to the Missouri border and headed east.”
     The next 15 years were marked by frustration, marginal employment, incessant letter writing — in many cases to defend his theories, and a downward spiral into alcoholism. In the late 1960s he mailed more than 1000 letters to US leaders, mainly about the war in Vietnam. Most responses were polite but noncommittal.  
     While Pierce struggled with depression, failure and disorientation, his doctor thrived. Turning from hypnosis and hallucinations to group behavior, West began to study the psychodynamics of sit-ins and revolutions. In 1973, he proposed the Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence. The goal was to “alter undesirable behavior,” at first through inhibiting drugs but eventually with implanted electrodes that could control behavior by remote control. 
     Although not publicly embraced, the latter idea did inspire a Michael Crichton novel and film, The Terminal Man, in which the cure is worse than the violent tendencies it is supposed to short-circuit.

NEXT: End Games
Previous Chapters
OneWrong Turn
Four: Chung's Way

Friday, December 27, 2019

Informed Dissent — A Video Portfolio

During America’s revolutionary period the Bennington area was a center of rebellion. And it didn’t end there. Almost two centuries later it was home base for another kind of revolt. By the 1960s, the region had assimilated a small, energetic community of modern rebels —idealists, intellectuals, sculptors and painters. But that “Golden Age” was winding down by the end of the decade, and a conservative political backlash was brewing.

Like a rising tide that had reached its limit, the roaring sixties was crashing to a climax with a wrenching change of direction.

Informed Dissent - Video Portfolio

Coming to Vermont * Welcome to the Culture War
Moving toward Advocacy *  On the Edge

A photo portfolio for the forthcoming book, chapters 1 -4, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joni Mitchell, Ritchie Havens, Tina Turner, Phil Hoff and the people of Vermont. Photos and music by Greg Guma; Brecht on Brecht poster by Lon Wasco; photo descriptions for Bennington Museum exhibit by Jamie Franklin.