Poisoner in Chief|Stephen Kinzer
Poisoner in Chief : Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
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The bestselling author of All the Shah's Men and The Brothers tells the astonishing story of the man who oversaw the CIA's secret drug and mind-control experiments of the 1950s and '60s.

The visionary chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the CIA's master magician and gentlehearted torturer--the agency's "poisoner in chief." As head of the MK-ULTRA mind control project, he directed brutal experiments at secret prisons on three continents. He made pills, powders, and potions that could kill or maim without a trace--including some intended for Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders. He paid prostitutes to lure clients to CIA-run bordellos, where they were secretly dosed with mind-altering drugs. His experiments spread LSD across the United States, making him a hidden godfather of the 1960s counterculture. For years he was the chief supplier of spy tools used by CIA officers around the world.

Stephen Kinzer, author of groundbreaking books about U.S. clandestine operations, draws on new documentary research and original interviews to bring to life one of the most powerful unknown Americans of the twentieth century. Gottlieb's reckless experiments on "expendable" human subjects destroyed many lives, yet he considered himself deeply spiritual. He lived in a remote cabin without running water, meditated, and rose before dawn to milk his goats.

During his twenty-two years at the CIA, Gottlieb worked in the deepest secrecy. Only since his death has it become possible to piece together his astonishing career at the intersection of extreme science and covert action. Poisoner in Chief reveals him as a clandestine conjurer on an epic scale.


  • ISBN-13: 9781250140432
  • ISBN-10: 1250140439
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
  • Publish Date: September 2019
  • Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Page Count: 368

Poisoner in Chief

Sidney Gottlieb was an odd fit for the CIA in 1951. Among the Company’s aristocratic Ivy Leaguers, he was a left-wing scientist and the Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants. But he and CIA chief Allen Dulles had at least one thing in common: Each had been born with deformed feet, though Dulles’ condition was less serious. Did that shared remembrance of early physical struggle form a bond? Whatever the reason, Dulles hired Gottlieb, and so began his astonishing career of killing, torture and lies.

The outlines of Gottlieb’s CIA tenure, as head of the MK-ULTRA mind-control research project and director of the spy-tools department, are well known. But renowned journalist Stephen Kinzer’s new biography of Gottlieb, Poisoner in Chief, is still shocking in its vivid detail.

Throughout the 1950s, under Gottlieb’s imaginative leadership, MK-ULTRA experimented with LSD and other dangerous drugs on unwitting or coerced subjects—mental patients, prisoners and just plain old everyday folks. Many were left mentally disabled for life; some were even killed. One fellow CIA scientist was likely thrown out of a window when he was deemed unreliable. And it was all done in a completely fruitless search for the ability to “brainwash” human minds. Nothing worked—ever.

In this masterful book, Kinzer demonstrates that the “research” done by Gottlieb’s team was as horrifically unethical as anything done by Nazi doctors later tried for war crimes. And yet, as Kinzer carefully documents, Gottlieb was a “nice guy” who loved his family and lived a proto-hippie lifestyle in rural Virginia. He spent his post-CIA years quietly, as a speech therapist who treated children—when he wasn’t destroying documents or stonewalling congressional committees.

During the years of investigations and lawsuits that began in the 1970s, Gottlieb never publicly repented; indeed, he believed himself to be a true patriot who had fought a justified war against communism. Kinzer’s chilling book reveals what can happen when morality is jettisoned in the name of national security—then and now.