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A Guide to the People, Places, and CIA Mind-Control Programs of Wormwood

Photo: Netflix

Wormwood, the six-part Errol Morris mini-series that premiered on Netflix last weekend, can be a confusing experience. It’s certainly an overwhelming one: Wormwood intercuts interview footage with semi-fictional re-creations of key events with actors, including Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, and Tim Blake Nelson, to tell a complex story about the CIA, LSD, biological weapons, and an alleged murder. If you’ve started watching — or if you’d like a helping hand before you get started — here’s a guide to the key people, places, and projects at the core of the story. The death of Frank Olson has drawn quite a few conspiracy theories and conflicting accounts, so it can be hard to keep track of what’s true, what isn’t, and what’s simply unknown. Here are seven key questions to help guide the way.

Who was Frank Olson?

A Wisconsin-born captain in the U.S. Army, Frank Olson was recruited to Camp Detrick in the ’40s, working with Ira Baldwin on a bioweapons program for the U.S. government, one that gained prominence as the Korean War heated up. On November 28, 1953, he fell from the window of his room on the 13th floor of the Statler Hotel, dying on impact. Wormwood investigates exactly what happened to Olson that night, starting with the 1975 revelation that he had been dosed with LSD by his CIA colleagues nine days before his death. Admitting that the dosage could have led to the nervous breakdown that resulted in his alleged suicide, the federal government paid the Olson family $750,000 in settlement money and President Ford apologized to them during a visit to the Oval Office. Of course, as Wormwood makes clear, that was nowhere the end of the story.

What was Project MKUltra?

For those who traffic in conspiracies about men in black doing highly immoral and illegal things, Project MKUltra is basically catnip. As revealed by the the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission in 1975, MKUltra was an officially sanctioned CIA program that conducted mind-control experiments on unwitting subjects. After the dropping of the atomic bomb to end World War II, government officials began to worry about techniques that could be used by enemies. Under what circumstances might a POW give up crucial military information? MKUltra was designed to find out. Scientists, chemists, and agents used drugs, hypnosis, interrogation, and outright torture in their search for mind-control techniques — of course, it was highly illegal, but it nevertheless officially ran from 1953 to 1973.

What is Camp Detrick?

Frank Olson was stationed at Maryland’s Camp Detrick, the Army base that was the center of the U.S. biological weapons program from 1943 through the 1960s (and the biological defense program since then and to this day). Wormwood theorizes that Olson held strong moral opposition to some of the bioweapons developed at that base, and his son Eric argues that could be why he was killed. The research into biological weapons that started at Camp Detrick in 1943 continues in some form to this day. It was renamed to Fort Detrick in 1956.

What was Project Artichoke?

Started in 1951, this was the first code name for the project that would become MKUltra. It arose from the CIA’s Project Bluebird and focused on mind control and other non-lethal techniques that the enemy could use during interrogations. Project Artichoke involved quite a bit of human testing, including hypnosis and the administration of drugs to see if subjects would become vulnerable enough to reveal confidential information. It even allegedly delved into mind control, à la The Manchurian Candidate, to see if people could be controlled in a way that would make them betray their country.

What happened at Deep Creek Lake?

About three hours from Camp Detrick was a retreat on Deep Creek Lake, where a select group of biochemists and their superiors met in November of 1953. According to the story revealed in the ’70s, this is where Frank Olson was dosed with LSD, dropped into a bottle of Cointreau by Sidney Gottlieb, head of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff. Exactly what happened at Deep Creek Lake is an open question in Wormwood, but the government has admitted to the dosing. Shortly after the retreat, Olson asked to leave the bioweapons program. He reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to New York to see a CIA physician, where he fell, jumped, or was pushed from his hotel window.

Who is Seymour Hersh?

By the end of Wormwood, the journalist Seymour “Sy” Hersh becomes a major player. He reportedly knows the truth about what happened to Frank Olson in that hotel room, but cannot reveal it or risk implicating his source. So, who is Sy Hersh? He’s one of the world’s most important investigative journalists, first gaining international prominence for revealing the truth behind the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, a story for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He also reported on the horrors at the Abu Ghraib prison, as well as many other major stories. Hersh has done essential reporting on everything from Watergate to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but his reporting methods have been called into question. Still, he may be one of the only people in the world to know the truth about what happened to Frank Olson.

What does “wormwood” mean?

You might go into Wormwood presuming that the title refers to a government program like Artichoke or Bluebird, but that’s not the case. The title is a reference to two things, and not just the plant. First, the series quotes a Bible verse from the Book of Revelation, which calls to mind the use of biological weapons: “The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water — the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.” Second, it’s a word repeated by Hamlet in the Shakespeare play, a work that mirrors Wormwood in its story of a son obsessed with his father’s murder.

7 Key Questions to Help You Understand Wormwood