Hypnosis in interrogation

by Jon Elliston

Dossier Editor


"The control over a person's behavior ostensibly achieved in hypnosis obviously nominates it for use in the difficult process of interrogation." So begins a CIA study of "Hypnosis in Interrogation" which appeared in the agency's classified journal Studies in Intelligence. Could placing interrogatees under trance help loosen their lips? That was one of many operational uses of hypnosis that the CIA pondered and tested.

The Studies in Intelligence article, which was written in 1960 by Edward F. Deshere, sheds some light on the CIA's interest in hypnosis, but it tells only a tiny, incomplete part of the story. Given the potential power of hypnosis to unlock the secrets of the mind, Deshere found it "surprising that nobody... seems to have used it in this way." He searched the literature and consulted top experts, but found no intelligence agency that "admits to familiarity with applications of the process [of hypnosis] to interrogation."

In fact, such applications had already been tested by the CIA and others, but it appears that Deshere -- like most CIA officers at the time -- was not privy to information about MKULTRA, the agency's super-secret program of mind and behavior control research. The program, launched in 1953 to expand on previous CIA investigations of related topics, would last until 1963.

In the mid-1970s, congressional committees investigating MKULTRA discovered that the CIA had become involved with a startling array of brainwashing techniques. The methods studied under MKULTRA included electroshock, subliminal communication, sensory deprivation and stimulation, the use of drugs (from "truth serum" to hard narcotics to LSD), and yes, even hypnosis. Many of these experiments were conducted on unwitting human subjects, and several MKULTRA projects are listed among the most appalling CIA abuses on record. (See Dossier's documented feature on MKULTRA for more information.)

Hypnosis, in fact, had attracted the interest of military and intelligence agencies years before MKULTRA. In The Search for the "Manchurian Candidate," a thorough history of the CIA's mind control work, author John Marks devoted an entire chapter to the study and use hypnosis. "No mind-control technique has more captured popular imagination -- and kindled fears -- than hypnosis," Marks noted. For the CIA officials tasked with turning mental abilities (and vulnerabilities) into Cold War weapons, "hypnosis offered too much promise not to be pursued."

The CIA's first major involvement with hypnosis originated in the Office of Security, which in 1950 formed special interrogation squads -- each of which was staffed with an expert hypnotist -- for the purpose of evaluating potential foreign agents and defectors from enemy countries. Code-named BLUEBIRD, the program was put under the command of Morse Allen, a former officer of both Naval Intelligence and the State Department, who developed an avid interest in hypnosis when he joined the CIA's Office of Security. (Shortly thereafter, BLUEBIRD took on the new code-name ARTICHOKE, the project that directly preceded MKULTRA.)

According to Marks, not only did Allen consult with and employ some of the top academic experts on hypnosis, he also conducted his own experiments:

"He asked young CIA secretaries to stay after work and ran them through the hypnotic paces -- proving to his own satisfaction that he could make them do whatever he wanted. He had secretaries steal SECRET files and pass them on to total strangers, thus violating the most basic CIA security rules. He got them to steal from each other and start fires. He made one of them report to the bedroom of a strange man and then go into a deep sleep."

Allen recorded the observation that "this activity clearly indicates that individuals under hypnosis might be compromised and blackmailed." Those were helpful abilities for a spy agency, to be sure, but Allen later envisioned a more extreme use of hypnosis. In 1954 he hypnotized another secretary, and convinced her while in the trance to pick up and shoot an (unloaded) gun at another secretary.

The implications were serious: agents could conceivably be induced to assassinate a target without knowing what they were doing. However, Allen had learned enough about hypnosis to be skeptical that such an operation could actually be pulled off. No one could be sure that such experimental successes could be carried over into the operational realm. Hypnosis was surely attractive, but it was also unreliable; there were simply too many variables in how subjects might act under hypnosis or under the power of post-hypnotic suggestion.

One CIA psychologist who was heavily involved in later hypnosis research, John Gittinger, saw promise but pratfalls with the technique. "Predictable absolute control is not possible on a particular individual," he concluded, and absolute control, after all, was the objective. The pre-programmed assassin remained an elusive goal.

Still, the CIA would do everything in its power to identify intelligence uses of hypnosis. In 1977, the agency informed Congress that of the 149 subprojects that were launched under MKULTRA, eight dealt with hypnosis -- including two that studied "hypnosis and drugs in combination." Hypnosis research was conducted by several renowned scientists whose funding would later be traced to the CIA. At major universities and top research institutes, as well as military bases and prisons, subjects were put into trance in experiments that were intended first and foremost to advance the CIA's ability to operationalize hypnosis. (To see a declassified document on MKULTRA hypnosis experiments, click here.)

In 1960, the CIA's counterintelligence (CI) staff became involved in the effort. Intent on discovering and improving on the Soviet Union's mind games, the CI officers saw hypnosis as a "potential breakthrough in clandestine technology," as it was described in one CIA document.

For the CI staff, interest in hypnotism went beyond the theoretical into the operational. In July 1963, the CIA issued a 128-page "Counterintelligence Interrogation" manual, a document that was not made public until 1997. Among the tactics described for "coercive" interrogation of "resistant sources" was hypnosis. (ParaScope has made available both an online and a print version of this startling document.)

"The problem of overcoming the resistance of an uncooperative interrogatee is essentially a problem of inducing regression to a level at which the resistance can no longer be sustained," the manual said. "Hypnosis is one way of regressing people."

The manual cited the work of Martin Orne, a famous psychologist who received several CIA subsidies under MKULTRA for his research on hypnosis and interrogation. Like other experts, Orne concluded that hypnosis would probably be of marginal use for this purpose. To the CI staff, Orne's generally skeptical view of the technique was "somewhat too cautious or pessimistic."

The manual suggested, for example, that a CIA interrogator "could tell a suspect double agent in trance that the KGB is conducting the questioning, and thus invert the whole frame of reference" for the interrogatee. "[O]nce the subject is tricked into believing that he is talking to friend rather than foe, or that divulging the truth is the best way to suit his own purposes, his resistance will be replaced with cooperation. The value of hypnotic trance is not that it permits the interrogator to impose his will but rather that it can be used to convince the interrogatee that there is not valid reason not to be forthcoming."

The manual added that hypnosis "offers one advantage not inherent in other interrogation techniques or aides: the post-hypnotic suggestion." In certain cases, the manual instructed:

"[I]t should be possible to administer a silent drug to a resistant source, persuade him as the drug takes effect that he is slipping into a hypnotic trance, place him under actual hypnosis as consciousness is returning, shift his frame of reference so that his reasons for resistance become reasons for cooperation, interrogate him, and conclude the session by implanting the suggestion that when he emerges from trance he will not remember anything about what has happened."

Although the CIA's hypnosis work had advanced considerably by the early 1960s, you wouldn't know it from reading Deshere's report for Studies in Intelligence. At the same time, Deshere does have plenty to say about potential roles for hypnosis in the spy trade, exploring several crucial questions about the utility of the technique. Can interrogatees under trance be made to tell the truth and nothing but the truth? Can they be hypnotized without their quiescence or their knowledge? Can they, though post-hypnotic suggestion, be turned into virtual spy-robots to do the CIA's bidding? Can amnesia be induced by the hypno-handlers to erase memories of spy missions?

After conducting a lengthy analysis, Deshere concluded that there was probably some use for hypnosis in interrogations, of a very limited nature. He wrote that "the hypnotic situation, rather than hypnosis itself, could be used to relieve a person of any sense of guilt for his behavior, giving him the notion that he is helpless to prevent his manipulation by the interrogator." Deshere described how such an operation could work:

"A captive's anxiety could be heightened, for example, by rumors that the interrogator possesses semi-magical techniques of extracting information. A group of collaborating captives could verify that interrogees lose all control over their actions, and so on. After such preliminary conditioning, a 'trance' could be induced with drugs in a setting described by Orne [the MKULTRA researcher discussed above] as the 'magic room,' where a number of devices could be used to convince the subject that he is responding to suggestions."

Once the interrogatee was persuaded that he was under the control of his handlers, Deshere reasoned, "the individual could legitimately renounce responsibility for divulging information, much as if he had done it in delirium."

Deshere's elaborate plan was pretty dry stuff, when compared to some of the more grandiose CIA hypnosis schemes hatched during the early years of the Cold War. Just how far did the CIA take its investigation of the uses of hypnosis? We may never know all of the answers, but this once-secret report offers more clues as to why the trance technique was added to the CIA's arsenal of mind-control weapons.

Copyright 1998 ParaScope, Inc.