Bloomberg News

CIA Sued Over Alleged 1953 Murder of Military Scientist

November 29, 2012

Central Intelligence Agency employees murdered military scientist Frank Olson in 1953 after he raised concerns about testing chemical and biological weapons on human subjects without their consent, according to a lawsuit brought by his two sons.

Eric and Nils Olson, in a complaint filed against the U.S. yesterday in Washington, said the agency has covered up the cause of their father’s death for 59 years. Frank Olson, who the CIA admitted was given LSD a few days before his death, didn’t jump from a 13th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York City, but rather was pushed, they claim.

“The circumstances surrounding the death mirrored those detailed in an assassination manual that, upon information and belief, the CIA had drafted that same year,” Scott Gilbert, a lawyer for the Olsons, wrote in the complaint.

Olson’s family has tried to piece together how Frank Olson died and the circumstances surrounding his death ever since a 1975 government report on CIA activities in the U.S. said that he committed suicide after being given LSD without his knowledge.

The family’s lawsuit includes one claim of negligent supervision by the agency and requests that damages be decided at trial.

Covert Research

Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that the agency doesn’t comment on pending court cases. He said that the agency’s covert behavioral research program known as 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.

“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,” Golson said in the statement. “In addition, tens of thousands of pages related to the program have been declassified and released to the public.”

Olson’s sons said in the suit they have asked repeatedly “to be told the truth” about their father’s death.

“Each time, the government has responded with falsehoods,” they said.

Bioweapons Expert

Frank Olson was a bioweapons expert with a special operations division of the Army’s biological laboratory who specialized in aerobiology. Since 1950, Olson’s division worked closely with the CIA, according to the lawsuit.

In 1953 Olson travelled to Europe visiting biological research facilities in London, Paris, Norway and West Germany.

During the trip he witnessed “extreme interrogations in which the CIA committed murder using biological agents that Dr. Olson had developed,” according to the lawsuit, which cites statements from Williams Sargent, a psychiatrist who consulted for the British intelligence agency MI6 and worked with Olson in Europe.

“Concerned that Dr. Olson had serious misgivings related to those murders and might therefore pose a security risk, Dr. Sargent recommended to his superiors that Dr. Olson no longer have access to classified research facilities in Britain,” according to the complaint.

Someone at the CIA also placed a memorandum in Olson’s file claiming he may have violated security restrictions in connection with his trip, the sons allege.

The complaint lays out an alleged chronology of the nine days preceding his demise.

LSD Drink

In November 1953, Olson allegedly attended a meeting in Deep Creek, Maryland, involving men from his division and the CIA. At dinner, Olson was one of several men who unwittingly drank from a bottle of Cointreau that had been laced with LSD.

Two CIA scientists in attendance -- Sidney Gottlieb and Robert Lashbrook -- were responsible for the drugging and did it as an experiment, according to the complaint.

Five days later, Olson told a colleague, Vincent Ruwet, that he was considering resigning.

“Upon information and belief, Dr. Olson’s statement was based on his ethical concerns regarding the CIA’s conduct,” according to the complaint.

That same day, Ruwet along with CIA scientist Lashbrook took Olson to New York, explaining to Olson’s wife that it was for psychiatric treatment because Olson might be dangerous to his family, the sons allege.

The ‘Allergist’

In New York, Olson was examined by an “allergist,” Harold Abramson, who gave him sedatives and recommended Olson be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, according to the complaint.

On Nov. 27, Olson and Lashbrook checked into the Statler Hotel. The men had two martinis each before going to bed in the same room. At about 2:30 a.m., Olson fell from the window.

Lashbrook didn’t call police. Instead, the CIA scientist called his supervisor Gottlieb and then Abramson, Olson’s sons claim.

“During one of these calls, the hotel operator overheard one party, likely Dr. Lashbrook, say, ’Well he’s gone.’ The person on the other end of the call responded, ’That’s too bad’,” according to the complaint.

Olson’s death is “substantially similar” to an assassination technique described in a CIA manual published in 1953, which recommends disguising the murder as an accident and suggests drugging the person, hitting them in the temple with a blunt object and then causing them to fall more than 75 feet onto a hard surface, according to the complaint.

Closed Casket

A closed casket funeral concealed that Olson had been hit in the head prior to his fall, the sons alleged.

At the time of his death, Eric Olson was nine years old and Nils Olson was five.

The CIA determined that Olson died in the course of his official duties and that his family would receive death benefits.

Twenty-three years later, after the report linking LSD to their father’s death, the Olsons threatened to sue the government unless they received answers and a financial settlement, according to the complaint.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, then deputy chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, wrote a memorandum to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s chief of staff at the time, noting that the administration had not fully investigated Olson’s death and saying he was concerned that a lawsuit could result in the disclosure of classified information, according to the complaint.

Ford ‘Distressed’

The family then met with Ford who told them that he was “distressed that the family had not previously been told the truth,” according to the complaint. They later met with then- CIA Director William Colby, who apologized for any role the agency played in the suicide. Colby later said in a memoir that Olson was a CIA agent.

Each member of Olson’s family was paid $187,500 as part of a settlement.

“The family’s acceptance of those funds was induced by the CIA’s false representation that it had disclosed all relevant information regarding the circumstances of Dr. Olson’s death,” the sons said in ther complaint.

In 1994, the sons had their father’s body exhumed. An autopsy revealed a hematoma on Olson’s temple, according to the complaint.

Based in part on the autopsy, the New York District Attorney’s Office sent a letter to the CIA in 1996 stating it planned to reopen the investigation into Olson’s death. The investigation was closed a year later with the official cause of death changed from “suicide” to “unknown,” according to the complaint.

The case is Olson v. U.S., 12-cv-01924, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

To contact the reporter on this story: Tom Schoenberg in Washington at tschoenberg@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.


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