Six decades later, sons seek answers on death of Detrick scientist

Frank Olson planned to leave top-secret division before fall from N.Y. hotel

  • Eric Olson is the son of Army bioweapons scientist Frank Olson, who died in 1953 in a suspicious fall from a hotel window in New York, and lives in the same frederick home he did at the time of his father's death.
Eric Olson is the son of Army bioweapons scientist Frank Olson,… (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore…)
December 08, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

First, the Army told Frank Olson's sons that the Fort Detrick scientist's death in a fall from a 13th-floor window of a New York hotel had been an accident.

Then a presidential commission revealed that the CIA had given an unwitting Olson LSD as part of a mind-control experiment in remote Western Maryland only nine days before the fall, and concluded that his death had been a drug-related suicide.

Now Eric and Nils Olson believe their father — a bioweapons expert who had told colleagues before he died that he wanted to quit the top-secret Special Operations Division — was murdered.

"The evidence shows that our father was killed in [CIA] custody," said Eric Olson, 68, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist who still lives in Frederick. "They have lied to us ever since, withholding documents and information, and changing their story when convenient."

In a new lawsuit, filed six decades after their father's death, the Olsons seek to shine a light on the government's Cold War-era research into mind-control drugs, sensory deprivation, abuse and torture, to learn what happened during the predawn hours of Nov. 28, 1953, in Room 1018a of the Hotel Statler.

The revelation in 1975 that the CIA had used Frank Olson and other Army scientists as guinea pigs in the experiment at Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County was among the most explosive revelations of the post-Watergate investigations of intelligence excesses.

The probes by a presidential commission and three congressional committees led to sweeping changes in rules governing the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

But the Olsons, who received apologies in 1975 from President Gerald Ford and then-CIA Director William Colby, still don't believe they've been told the full story. They say they are holding the CIA accountable for the death of their father at age 43. They are seeking unspecified damages.

A CIA spokesman said the agency does not comment on matters pending before U.S. courts.

"Without commenting on this specific legal matter, CIA activities related to MK-ULTRA have been thoroughly investigated over the years, and the agency cooperated with each of those investigations," said spokesman John Tomczyk.

MK-ULTRA was the research program into mind control and other methods of behavioral engineering conducted at Fort Detrick and other sites during the 1950s and '60s.

"In addition," Tomczyk said, "tens of thousands of pages related to the program have been declassified and released to the public."

Eric Olson was 9 years old when his father died; Nils was 5. After his death, they say in the lawsuit, their mother descended into alcoholism, and they were sexually abused for years by a family acquaintance.

"We were just little boys and they took away our lives," Eric Olson said. "The CIA didn't kill only our father, they killed our entire family again and again and again."

Eric Olson has spent his adult life trying to understand his father's death. He once spent a sleepless night in the hotel room. He pressed his father's colleagues for answers. Forty years after Frank Olson was buried, Eric had his body exhumed and examined.

Waging a Cold War

The events at issue date to the early days of the Eisenhower administration, when fears that the Soviet Union and China were developing chemical and biological substances to use in interrogations, brainwashing and attacks against the United States drove the CIA in 1953 to launch a program of its own.

According to a Senate committee established in 1975 to investigate the government's intelligence activities — Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland was a member — MK-ULTRA initially was intended to help the United States understand Soviet and Chinese capabilities and how they might be defeated.

"But the defensive orientation soon became secondary," the so-called Church Committee reported. "Chemical and biological agents were to be studied in order 'to perfect techniques … for the abstraction of information from individuals whether willing or not' and in order to 'develop means for the control of the activities and mental capacities of individuals whether willing or not.' "

Frank Olson had joined the Special Operations Division of the Army's Biological Laboratory at Fort Detrick at its inception in 1950. He was issued a Q clearance, the civilian equivalent of the military's top secret clearance, and worked with the CIA on MK-ULTRA.

As part of that work, he traveled in 1953 to Britain, France and West Germany. At the secret British military research center at Porton Down, the sons say, Olson witnessed "extreme interrogations" in which "the CIA committed murder" using biological agents Olson had developed.

They say a psychiatrist there, William Sargent, grew concerned that Olson "had serious misgivings related to those murders and might therefore pose a security risk," and so recommended to his superiors that Olson no longer be granted access to classified research facilities in Britain.

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