From mind control experiments to taxpayer-funded black magic to housing Nazi scientists in Boston Harbor, the Commonwealth has an unparalleled dark side to its noted innovation legacy—with many shadows leading to today’s technological titans.
Massachusetts, with its concentration of colleges and the presence of elite institutions like Harvard and MIT, has long been a research hub for what President Dwight Eisenhower notoriously dubbed the “military-industrial complex.”
In 2017, America continues pursuing unsustainably high levels of such spending alongside an aggressive foreign policy that has gone largely unchallenged since 2001. In these circumstances, many symbiotic and often secretive relationships between Boston’s academic world and those who plan and profit from America’s ambitious “national security” endeavors are thriving.
Navigating the convoluted alphabet soup of agencies and institutions that have contributed to this status quo is a confusing affair. Yet many key relationships can be traced to origins in the early Cold War period that informed Eisenhower’s thinking, when high-level policymakers such as the leaders of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency convinced themselves that largely imagined problems such as the “missile gap” and “mind-control gap” between us and the Soviets justified everything from cloak-and-dagger Nazi recruitment to brain mutilation.
Through a series of covert programs with codenames like Artichoke, Bluebird, and MK-Often, the CIA and other agencies devoted extensive resources to researching methods of behavior control beginning even before the 1950s. The most notorious of these, Operation MK-Ultra, was authorized in April 1953 by then-CIA Director Allen Dulles, whose brother John Foster Dulles had just become secretary of state.
By the 1970s, the CIA was destroying its own MK-Ultra files as it came under increasing public scrutiny over a wide range of misdeeds and as many areas of sensitive research were shifting to other agencies. Though largely forgotten, several horrifying anecdotes from the decades after World War II are worth revisiting today, as they shed both light and darkness on the current state of the military-industrial complex in the Commonwealth.
In a locked-down ward of Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, Leonard Kille sat surrounded by doctors and medical students, his shaved head locked into something called a stereotactic machine. A hole already drilled in his skull, a “slender, hollow, blunt-tipped needle” now plunged deep into his brain to implant the electrodes that would soon begin burning his amygdala.
Technically, Kille had “consented” to this operation—though he’d done so under the influence of the “stimoceiver,” a remote-controlled brain stimulation device invented by the eccentric Dr. Jose Delgado, an advocate for “physical control of the mind.” When Kille emerged from this altered state, he’d “turned wild and unmanageable” at the idea of further surgery, his doctors noted. He’d fled the hospital repeatedly but always returned, and in time was pressured into undergoing the procedure.
Kille’s doctors, Vernon Mark and Frank Ervin, described him as a “brilliant engineer.” Indeed, at 34 years old he could already claim some impressive accomplishments. He’d been awarded several patents for his work in the late 1950s and early ’60s on the Polaroid Land Camera, named after the company’s founding “doctor” Edwin Land. He’d also worked for a spinoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called EG&G, an enterprise that investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian Annie Jacobsen describes as “the most powerful defense contractor in the nation that no one had ever heard of.” Immediately prior to his hospitalization, Kille worked for the multinational defense contractor Honeywell. But because of his anger management issues—what his doctors called “the dyscontrol syndrome”—Kille found himself strapped to a chair in an isolated Mass hospital ward in October 1966, undergoing experimental psychosurgery.
Though he only met Kille after his operation, Dr. George Bach-y-Rita, a former colleague of Mark and Ervin, says Kille genuinely suffered from a form of epilepsy, and needed brain surgery. “He didn’t entirely need that procedure; he could’ve had a temporal lobectomy, which was the standard procedure at the time,” Bach-y-Rita says. “Was [the operation he received] standard procedure? No. It was an experimental procedure. It was the cutting edge.”
Kille’s procedure did not ultimately work out well. Noticeably deranged after being discharged from MGH, he drove across the country to Long Beach, California, where police found him wandering a grocery store parking lot late one night and forcibly hospitalized him. He was diagnosed “paranoid schizophrenic,” reportedly due largely to his unbelievable stories of having had his brain zapped and mutilated in Boston, and spent most of the rest of his life in mental institutions.
Though they weathered an unsuccessful lawsuit from Kille, his doctors Ervin and Mark had careers that weren’t otherwise free of controversy. In their 1970 book Violence and the Brain, which pseudonymously describes Kille’s case, they “suggested that brain stimulation or psychosurgery might quell the violent tendencies of blacks rioting in inner cities,” as Scientific American described their work years later. Following Kille’s operation, Mark “applied for a $2 million grant to resurrect the Violence Clinic at Boston City (Hospital) but was turned down due to pressure from black groups and radical scientists at the National Institutes of Health,” according to a 1974 Harvard Crimson article. “Ervin attempted to start a Violence Center at UCLA but the funding (was) held up by political and legal hassles.”
Mark and Ervin are now dead, but given the nature of their research and its funding through the National Institute of Mental Health—now known to have served as a conduit for the Central Intelligence Agency at the time—it’s likely their work was part of the CIA’s behavior control efforts. They also received funding through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, a short-lived agency within the Justice Department established in 1968 and abolished by 1982. The LEAA stopped funding psychosurgery in 1974 because, according to since-released government documents, “LEAA personnel generally do not possess the technical and professional skills required to evaluate and monitor projects employing such procedures.” Though intelligence brass quietly hoped to continue working with the LEAA, in 1973 Congress banned the Justice Department subsidiary from accepting any further CIA funding.
We may never know the full extent of Mark and Ervin’s dealings with intelligence agencies, but more pieces of the story continue to emerge. Bach-y-Rita maintains they were “good professors working in the context of their time” yet also acknowledges that they probably received clandestine funding.
“They might have been working for CIA, but the CIA wasn’t considered bad,” Bach-y-Rita says. At the time, he added, “people hadn’t learned to mistrust the Dulles brothers yet. They didn’t know how horrible the Dulles brothers were.”
Though intentionally obscured, Mark and Ervin’s troubled legacy continues today, as scientists from Boston’s most prestigious educational institutions compete for grant money and the glory of meeting whatever technological needs the government deems worthy of funding, often seemingly without considering the potential for their work to be misused.
In September 1945, a plane touched down at Naval Air Station Squantum in Quincy, where a park now sits, carrying a top secret cargo. Quincy residents would’ve been oblivious as sixteen Germans who had worked under Adolf Hitler—the first of many to arrive in America—were taken to an abandoned military installation on Long Island in Boston Harbor (more recently the site of Boston’s largest homeless shelter until its closure in 2014).
Boston war veterans returning from Europe were also likely unaware that, in addition to American GIs, there were former Nazis aboard their ships. The stop at “Devil’s Island,” as the Germans called Long Island, may have seemed inexplicable. Yet many troop transports made such a landing, unloading hundreds of Third Reich scientists at the previously-and-subsequently-abandoned Fort Strong, which became known as the “Operation Overcast Hotel.”
Operation Overcast, the original designation for the program that brought more than 1,600 Nazi scientists to America, eventually changed its codename to Project Paperclip. After an interim stay at their “hotel” in Boston Harbor, scientists and technicians were assigned to jobs across the country. Because much remains classified and many documents have also been lost and destroyed, it’s hard to say where many ended up. Some, however, did not have to travel far for employment.
Several Paperclip scientists found work at Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL) at Hanscom Air Force Base near Bedford, which had close relationships with Harvard and MIT. For many years, AFCRL presented an annual award named after a Paperclip scientist, Guenter Loeser, which was given at least once to a recipient, Hans Hinteregger, who himself came to the US under Paperclip. The labs also worked in “human engineering,” and reports suggest that a team from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories at AFCRL spun off to create the CIA’s Scientific Engineering Institute (SEI) in 1956.
Though some of its early work focused on things like radar and the U-2 spy plane, the SEI also engaged in a strange range of paranormal research, continuing in the tradition of AFCRL, which conducted “the most ambitious and careful attempt to verify the occurrence of telepathic phenomena” yet failed to find statistically significant evidence of ESP. Intent on harnessing the supernatural, SEI hired a small team of full-time astrologers; CIA agents traveled the country interviewing palm readers and county fair fortune-tellers, introducing themselves as SEI researchers.
“Working through conduits,” former BBC producer Gordon Thomas writes, the Institute “helped fund a course in sorcery at the University of South Carolina.” The CIA’s scientists “studied carefully the results of classes devoted to fertility and initiation rites and raising the dead.” SEI also funded studies closer to home, including those of hypnotism researcher Martin Orne at Harvard.
As for other Massachusetts ties, the institute’s first president was none other than Edwin Land, the CEO of the Cambridge-based Polaroid Corporation whose namesake camera Leonard Kille owned patents on. An enigmatic character, Land later claimed to be only a “figurehead” at SEI. In reality, he was a player behind the scenes in Boston’s military-academic complex; though Land never finished college, he received an honorary PhD from Harvard and, according to the New York Times, “the title of doctor came to be widely used with his name.”
Along with MIT President James Killian, Land was a “prime mover” behind the establishment of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T), according to National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson. That despite his questionable scientific credentials. While the SEI had “extensive supportive research services,” according to one contemporary account, training in experimental procedures was “at the subprofessional level.” Nonetheless, when the CIA’s Office of Research and Development was established within the DS&T in 1962, the SEI quickly became a focal point for the agency’s “life sciences” program. Among other things, the ORD inherited responsibility for previously ongoing research involving electrode implantation in brains of animals to remotely control behavior.
The SEI apparently continued this work, tinkering with frogs and cockroaches and, in one experiment, “stimulating the pleasure centers of crows’ brains in order to control their behavior,” according to John Marks, a former State Department official who first exposed much of the CIA’s covert human experimentation. Marks also notes that his confidential sources about SEI activities were somewhat tight-lipped. However, according to Thomas, the BBC producer, in an account written a decade later in 1989, the institute’s experimentation went shockingly further.
At the height of the Vietnam War in July 1968, according to Thomas, “a neurosurgeon and a neurologist” who had conducted initial research on animals at the SEI in Waltham traveled to Saigon with a CIA team. There, the neurosurgeon implanted electrodes in three Vietcong prisoners’ brains at Bien Hoa Hospital, “after he had hinged back a flap in their skulls,” and the team spent a week attempting to electronically instigate a knife fight amongst the unfortunate subjects. They were unsuccessful, and the CIA doctors flew home. “As previously arranged in the case of failure,” Thomas writes, “while the physicians were still in the air the prisoners were shot by Green Beret troopers and their bodies burned.”
By the time Errol Elshtain—perhaps the only living former SEI researcher—started working at the Institute in the late 1960s, he says, no paranormal research was underway and electronic brain stimulation research was winding down. Reached by phone for this story and asked about CIA funding of SEI, Elshtain said he had been unaware of it, noting that he hadn’t even needed a government security clearance. Still, he was not entirely surprised.
“It’s quite possible, given what some of those people were working on,” Elshtain says all these years later. “Funding for pure research was drying up.”
In the following decades, SEI ostensibly aimed at profitability. The company morphed into Searle Medidata Inc., a subsidiary of G.D. Searle, a pharmaceutical giant later chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
In 1985, Rumsfeld helped arrange the sale of Searle to the Monsanto Company.
On the skirt of Greater Boston in suburban Waltham, just a short drive from the national headquarters of Raytheon, America’s third largest defense contractor, sits a nondescript vacant parking lot. On a lucky day here, you might witness Boston Dynamics engineers testing sophisticated military-grade robots—the company’s latest being a wheeled model that its own creator describes as “nightmare-inducing.”
The history behind this Waltham tract matches its current dystopian aesthetic. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, this was the site of the SEI and its classified research into mind control and the paranormal. Much like SEI, Boston Dynamics has benefited enormously from cozy relationships with the federal government and collegiate partners. Between 2010 and 2014, the company secured more than $100 million in Pentagon contracts.
Boston Dynamics is a spinoff of MIT, an institution that has been heavily involved in military research and development since World War II. Feeding on widespread fears of nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War, the Russian military threat became justification for a wide range of excesses—including covertly bringing Nazi scientists to Boston to begin work on secret projects. More recently, if there is an apparent heir to operations where such research was conducted in a seemingly bizarre vein, it is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—another longtime ally of elite Cambridge institutions—which routinely publicizes some of its work, though much remains classified.
DARPA has advanced considerably since the CIA’s early brain stimulation research, moving toward melding man and machine. This effort to create the so-called “super soldier” was reportedly seen “as imperative to twenty-first century warfare” by Michael Goldblatt, the first director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), created in 1999. Goldblatt created a “Mechanically Dominant Soldier” program, and envisioned a future “24/7 soldier.” Some progress has been made on this front, as drone operators today reportedly receive “minor brain zaps” as a substitute for stimulant drugs to keep them awake for long shifts. DARPA also began work several years ago on a remote-controlled, flesh-and-blood rat. Known as robo-rat, this bizarre “biohybrid”—whose very existence brings up “some ethical issues,” as its creator admits—debuted in 2002.
DARPA has also helped fuel Boston Dynamics, a company perhaps best known for its YouTube videos of its quadrupedal, humanoid, and wheeled robots, which evoke visions of a fully automated future that viewers tend to find either intriguingly innovative or deeply disturbing. Founded in 1992, Boston Dynamics is the brainchild of Marc Raibert, formerly of MIT, and is presently owned by Google. The Waltham company has shifted away from government funding since being acquired by Google; nevertheless, its parent company Alphabet’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, continues to chair a “Defense Innovation Advisory Board” established last year, while Google’s engineering director, longtime Mass resident Ray Kurzweil, recently reiterated his prediction that “by the 2030s, we will connect our neocortex, the part of our brain where we do our thinking, to the cloud.”
Though Boston Dynamics hasn’t been in its hands long, Google is already reportedly looking to sell the company. It’s unclear if there are any takers, though. In an internal exchange that was leaked and published last year, a Google public relations operative seemingly tried to “distance” the company from a Boston Dynamics video of a new humanoid robot.
“There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,” one Google communications director wrote. “We’re not going to comment on this video because there’s really not a lot we can add, and we don’t want to answer most of the Qs it triggers.” She added, “We don’t want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google.”
Raibert, for his part, is more straightforward. “Obviously, people do find it creepy,” the leading brain behind Boston Dynamics said of his robots in a 2010 interview. “But the ingredient that affects us most strongly is a sense of pride that we’ve been able to come so close to what makes people and animals animate, to make something so lifelike.” Raibert elaborated, explaining that Boston Dynamics takes “broad inspiration from nature … but we can only take broad inspiration. We can’t replicate the microstructure of animals yet.”
Despite his helping to potentially design the robo-riot cops of tomorrow, Raibert doesn’t have strong views on ethics. “I’m an engineer who builds robots,” he said in that same interview. (Boston Dynamics did not respond to a request for comment on this article.) “I don’t know why people would be interested in my views on the ethical question. The big thing is that some people think the designer should be responsible for all possible uses of the system, and others think that the designer is just building a platform and someone else is responsible for the ethics of how it’s used. I look at our systems and I say they’re vehicles. You could put sacks of rice on them. You could put bullets on them.”
Raibert may genuinely not care how his robots are used. Why should he? Given the secrecy and compartmentalization of government research that took place in the lot beside Boston Dynamics—and across the entire region for generations—it’s unlikely that the public will ever know the extent of his company’s research and outcomes. All things considered, one can only hope that future engineers and scientists consider the things that transpired in the complex Greater Boston military industrial laboratory before their time.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING
Chorover, Stephan L. From Genesis to Genocide: The Meaning of Human Nature and the Power of Behavior Control. MIT Press, 1979.
Jacobsen, Annie. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that brought Nazi Scientists to America. Little, Brown and Company, 2014.
Jacobsen, Annie. The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency. Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
Marks, John. The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control. Times Books, 1979.
Richelson, Jeffrey T. The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. Westview Press, 2002.
Thomas, Gordon. Journey Into Madness: The True Story of Secret CIA Mind Control and Medical Abuse. Bantam Books, 1989.