The Frederick sons of a Fort Detrick biological weapons researcher who plunged to his death 59 years ago have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government alleging that their father’s demise was part of a Central Intelligence Agency coverup of an illicit drug experiment.
The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 28 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., reads like a Cold War spy thriller, full of intelligence operatives, code-named projects and highly-classified experiments.
Eric and Nils Olson are seeking unspecified damages from the government in the 1953 death of their father, Dr. Frank Olson.
The lawsuit, which requests a jury trial, alleges that Olson, a CIA operative, was thrown from a New York City hotel room several days after being illegally dosed with lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD, a powerful hallucinogenic.
The Olsons are seeking damages from the U.S. government to compensate them for the “significant emotional harm” they’ve suffered as a result of their father’s death and what they claim is the CIA’s continued failure to disclose the facts surrounding it.
Olson was a bioweapons expert stationed at what was then known as Camp Detrick in Frederick. The base housed the Special Operations Division of the U.S. Army’s Biological Laboratory, where scientists researched and developed biological weapons and toxins.
A Detrick spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Scott Gilbert, the lawyer representing the Olsons in the lawsuit, said the family decided to go forward after it became clear that the government would not deal with the situation truthfully.
Although most of the principal players in the story are no longer living, Gilbert said there’s a lot of evidence that can corroborate the Olsons’ version of events.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office conducted an investigation into Olson’s death, he said. And although the CIA maintains it has turned over all documents related to the case, Gilbert said he believes there are more.
The district attorney’s office reopened the investigation into Olson’s death in 1996, and eventually changed the cause of death in the case from “suicide” to “unknown,” according to the lawsuit.
In the early days of the Cold War, the government did some terrible things in the name of national security, and the case has important implications for government accountability for the consequences of those actions, Gilbert said.
“This is a very important case for the American people,” he said.
Olson was an expert in aerobiology, studying how organic particles — including biological agents — move through the air, according to the lawsuit. He had a security clearance that allowed him access to “a wide range of extremely sensitive information concerning the use of biological weapons and mind control techniques,” the lawsuit said.
In 1953, CIA Director Allen W. Dulles approved a project code-named MK-ULTRA to test chemical, biological and radiological weapons to be used in secret operations.
“The CIA does not, as a rule, comment on matters pending before U.S. courts,” agency spokesman John Tomczyk wrote in an email Thursday.
Tomczyk said numerous congressional and other investigations were conducted into the actions of the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the 1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
“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. MK-ULTRA was investigated in 1975 by the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee, and in 1977 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research. In addition, tens of thousands of pages related to the program have been declassified and released to the public,” he wrote.
MK-ULTRA allowed the use of biological and chemical weapons, including LSD, on humans. The agency believed LSD could be used as a truth serum.
But CIA rules forbid testing LSD on humans without permission from a CIA senior official, according to the lawsuit.
Olson traveled to Europe for his CIA work, where he reportedly witnessed interrogations in which the CIA killed people using biological weapons, the lawsuit alleged.
A British psychiatrist who worked with Olson reported that he had serious objections to the interrogations, and recommended he no longer have access to classified British facilities.
On Nov. 18 and 19, 1953, Olson attended a meeting at Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake with nine other CIA operatives during which a supervisor secretly dosed several of them with LSD that had been placed in a bottle of Cointreau liqueur, without the proper permission from supervisors, the lawsuit alleged.
The drug, along with having witnessed the deadly interrogations, reportedly had an extreme psychological effect on Olson, leading him to tell a supervisor he was considering resigning.
Two CIA officials accompanied Olson to New York City to see a doctor they claimed was a psychiatrist, but was actually an allergist, the lawsuit alleged.
After meeting with the doctor for several days, Olson returned to Maryland but was quickly taken back to New York for further treatment.
Around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, 1953, Olson died after falling 13 stories from the room he was sharing with another CIA employee at the Statler Hotel.
The other man made no effort to check on Olson’s condition before making a series of phone calls to other CIA officials, according to the lawsuit.
In one of the calls, a person on one end of the line reported, “Well, he’s gone,” to which the person on the other end replied, ”That’s too bad,” the lawsuit alleged.
Olson’s death allegedly corresponds with assassination techniques in a CIA manual published the same year as his death, reporting that “for secret assassination ... the contrived accident is the most effective technique,” the lawsuit said.
Within two weeks of his death, the CIA’s general counsel provided a classified report that Olson’s death stemmed from the Deep Creek Lake experiment, the lawsuit said.
Following information that emerged about Olson’s death from the various investigations into CIA activities, the Olson family began to ask questions about Frank Olson’s death.
On July 11, 1975, then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Richard Cheney wrote a memorandum to Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld reporting that the circumstances of Olson’s death hadn’t been fully investigated by President Gerald Ford’s administration, and a lawsuit by the family could lead to the release of “high-level classified national security information,” according to the lawsuit.
Cheney later served as vice president under George W. Bush, while Rumsfeld served six years as secretary of defense in the Bush administration.
On July 21, 1975, the Olsons, their mother and sister met with Ford in the Oval Office to discuss Olson’s death. The family later accepted a settlement from the U.S. government in regards to the case.