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6 Things you didn't know about the CIA

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden
Gen. Michael Hayden, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

Over the years, the Central Intelligence Agency has been implicated in black ops (like helping to overthrow foreign governments) and lethal conspiracies (including the murder of JFK, depending on who you ask).

But there are some less well-known things about the CIA, from bizarre psychological experiments to the use of porn as propaganda. Here’s your essential briefing on the Agency’s strange and sometimes sinister history.

1) It had a shaky start

In its early years, the CIA was regarded as almost useless. Nobody even wanted to be CIA Director, which was seen as a dead-end job. But the fourth person to have the role thrust onto him changed all that. Walter Bedell Smith was a no-nonsense military chief who struck fear into everyone who knew him. According to one chap who knew Bedell, “his mood never changed, he was always angry”.  And he came into the CIA ready to shake things up.

“I expect the worst and I am sure I won’t be disappointed,” was one of the first things he said after getting the job. At a briefing meeting with his new colleagues, he told them: “It’s interesting to see all you fellows here.  It’ll be even more interesting to see how many of you are here a few months from now.” Bedell lived up this word, single-handedly transforming the Agency into a crucial tool of information-gathering and espionage.

2) It performed mind control experiments

The most notorious CIA project of all was known as MKUltra, which literally involved mind control experiments on US citizens, often without their consent. Starting in the 1950s, people were secretly dosed with LSD and subjected to psychological torture, to see how they’d react. The CIA even set up brothels in San Francisco, where unwitting men were given LSD by the sex workers while agents watched through one-way mirrors.  

Another MKUltra experiment involved psychiatric patients being put into drug-induced comas and played millions of looped messages, to “re-pattern” their brains. Senator Ted Kennedy described this as “the perversion and corruption of many of our outstanding research centres in this country, with CIA funds.”

3 Condoms were considered as a Cold War weapon

In the 1950s, the CIA helped fund an operation to send thousands of weather balloons into Soviet-controlled Europe, which would then rain down millions of anti-Communist pamphlets on random citizens.

But that wasn’t quite bold enough for one CIA operative, who drew up a plan to also have packets of extra-large condoms, labelled only “small” or “medium”, dropped on Communist nations. The idea literally was to lower their morale by implying the Capitalist Yanks were incredibly well-endowed. The plan never made it to the skies.

4 The CIA made a propaganda porn film

The CIA had a habit of undermining world leaders which the US didn’t like. One such leader was President Sukarno of Indonesia, whose growing ties with the Soviet Union made Washington nervous. So the CIA decided to ruin Sukarno’s image by leaking a film of the president in bed with a beautiful blonde. Which meant having to actually make the film. Which meant creating a Sukarno face mask and getting a Los Angeles porn actor to wear it while having sex on camera, or simply finding a suitably convincing lookalike porn star. Accounts vary on how it was made, but the film was apparently never distributed.

5 The CIA financed abstract art

The Agency took cultural propaganda very seriously, and secretly worked to fund and promote exhibitions by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and other iconic American painters. Their brand of abstract art was seen as “Capitalist painting” because it was wild and free-spirited, a far cry from the Soviet Union’s rigidly realist art.

Not that Americans necessarily approved – President Harry Truman had already dismissed abstract art as childish trash. Meanwhile, it’s a strange irony that rebellious outsiders like Jackson Pollock were unwittingly promoted by the very establishment they despised.

6 They dug a secret “Berlin Tunnel”

One of the CIA’s most audacious operations involved digging a long tunnel from the American-controlled side of Berlin into the Communist side, so agents could tap their phone calls. It took years of secret digging, but what they didn’t realise was the Soviets knew all about it from the start. A British mole called George Blake had informed the KGB it was happening.

To protect Blake’s cover, the Soviets actually allowed the tunnel to be built, pretending to know nothing about it, before “accidentally” discovering it and acting outraged, calling it a “gangster act” by the West. As for George Blake… he was eventually unmasked as a Soviet spy and given a huge jail sentence, only to escape from Wormwood Scrubs and flee to Russia, where he lived happily ever after.