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Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  967 ratings  ·  163 reviews
The bestselling author of All the Shah’s Men and The Brothers tells the astonishing story of the man who oversaw the CIA’s secret drug and mind-control experiments of the 1950s and ’60s.

The visionary chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the CIA’s master magician and gentlehearted torturer—the agency’s “poisoner in chief.” As head of the MK-ULTRA mind control project, he directed br
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published September 10th 2019 by Henry Holt and Co.
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Average rating 4.02  · 
Rating details
 ·  967 ratings  ·  163 reviews

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Dec 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
This is my fourth book by Stephen Kinzer. Like the others it is excellent. My notes follow.

As far as the U.S. intelligence service, the OSS, was concerned, war didn’t end with the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945. Just the enemy changed. Now it was Communism and the Soviet Union. Germany and Japan had scientific and intelligence resources the U.S. needed. Just as German rocket scientists were recruited so were German chemists and doctors who had studied poisons and conducted medical experimen
David Wineberg
Jul 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the (many) problems with the CIA is who knows what. The less you know, the less you have to lie about and potentially get caught on. Or catch the agency on, which is worse. The result is illegal actions at will, from torture to drug experiments on the unwitting to assassinations of political leaders around the world. The extreme case, we can only hope, is the story of Sidney Gottlieb, the star of Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief.

The title is the actual nickname Gottlieb had at the agen
Dec 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book began as research for a novel I'm writing, but then it evolved so far beyond that into one of the most interesting books I have ever read about the CIA. Mind-control research in the 1960s? LSD? Ken Kesey? Attempted assassinations of foreign leaders? Agents falling ten stories to their deaths from NYC hotels? This terrific account of the CIA's "poisoner-in-chief" has it all. Big props to Stephen Kinzer as a journalist and storyteller. ...more
Paquita Maria Sanchez
I know this sounds like a loonybook, but Kinzer isn't a loony. Gottlieb was very real, and this book contains nothing that stretches the bounds of reality. In fact, it's all so well-documented, and Kinzer is so certain that MKUltra not only was a major CIA op, but was ultimately a waste of time and resources and human health/lives (the latter being the thing he considers most egregious about the program: it was useless AND harmful) that he has by now definitely been accused of being a limited ha ...more
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: drugs, cia
Stephen Kinzer demonstrates his research skills by reconstructing MK-ULTRA and Sidney Gottlieb’s deep involvement. Good reviews of this book can be found through most media sources, so I will only comment on Kinzer’s portrayal of Gottleib and two points that deserve follow up for this story and others.

The bulk of the book is on Gottlieb’s work. He is portrayed as the consummate bureaucrat. The last chapters have information on him as a person.

Gottlieb had a well honed (or was it real?) image of
Nancy Oakes
Dec 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Between 4 and 4.5; full post here:

As the reviewer of this book for The San Francisco Review of Books wrote, Poisoner in Chief is an "awful story, told fast and well." I couldn't have said it better myself.

According to author Stephen Kinzer, the early years of the 1950s were a "fearful time for Americans," citing among other things the "ugly stalemate" of the Korean War and Senator McCarthy's warnings that "Communists had infiltrated the State Department."
Ross Blocher
Apr 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
MK-ULTRA, the notorious CIA mind control program, has always occupied a murky place in my own mind. Having heard about it alternately through factual and conspiratorial sources, I've never been fully sure just how broad its reach was and how successfully it discovered (or failed to discover) methods to control human behavior. In Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, Stephen Kinzer unpacks what is known about the program and the enigmatic, complicated figure who ...more
Steven Z.
Nov 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, POISONER IN CHIEF: SIDNEY GOTTLIEB AND THE CIA SEARCH FOR MIND CONTROL is a very troubling and disconcerting book. The fact that the United States government sanctioned a program designed to conduct what the author terms, “brain warfare” highlights a policy that allowed for torture, the use of chemicals to develop control of people’s thoughts, murder, and the disintegration of people and their quality of life making one want to question what these bureaucrats, the m ...more
Nov 18, 2019 rated it liked it
I won this book in a goodreads drawing.

In the early days of the cold war, the CIA rose from the ashes of the OSS. The higher ups were obsessed with the ideas of brain washing and mind control. They were convinced that the Russians led the way.

Sidney Gottlieb got a job experimenting with drugs and hypnosis techniques, and also untraceable poisons, and all the stuff we read about in spy novels, and quickly became head of the department.

The book examines Gottlieb's life, and the events that allowed
doug bowman
Sep 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Thanks to Fresh Air

As so often happens, most of the non- fiction works that I read come out of hearing an episode of the National Public radio show, Fresh Air. I have never been disappointed by a book presented on the show. This book was engrossing and horrific at the same time. It's subject is at once sinister and compelling.
Jun 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sidney Gottlieb was a complex guy. He didn’t come across to me as a psychopath, but he sure did psychopath type stuff. The man behind the MK-ULTRA mind control experiments. I think what drove him was patriotism and the terror that the Russians would get there first. None of that excuses what he did.

This is an important piece of history.
A disturbing portrait of Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA research into mind control. He believed as it the USA that there was a potential for communists to develop mind control drugs and experimented on the same. During the 50s and 60s, Gottlieb and his team lured homeless, prostitutes, criminals and people they decided would not attract attention if they disappeared and conducted experiments on them. Some were discredited, others permanently injured and a few died. Sidney Gottlieb told his stories ...more
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What You Need To Know: After the United States spent billions heroically sacrificing and conquering the Nazi party in World War II we then turned around and hired a bunch of them (start by Googling “Project Paperclip”). The reason was to compete against the new threat known as the Soviet Union. Because of patriotism, we couldn’t let the Reds get to the advancements in technology before we did. The problem is the BEHAVIOR adapted. Example: this book. The stuff Sidney Gottlieb and his cronies did ...more
Isabelle Bradbury
Absolutely mind-blowing. I was gripped from the start. I learned so much information that I was never meant to know and loved every second of it.
Dec 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
A thorough and well-researched work.

Kinzer doesn’t sensationalize the story, and doesn’t offer much new material. He looks at Gottlieb’s reputation as a kind humanist (he would later work with children who stuttered, and in a leper hospital in India) contrasting it with his later, more famous association with controversial CIA projects. His coverage of Gottlieb is pretty balanced overall.

Kinzer covers the CIA’s LSD research under the MKULTRA umbrella, and how Gottlieb used scientific methods to
Sami Eerola
Jan 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most well researched, well written and impartial book about the one of the most darkest figures of the US cold war

The author lets the facts speak for themself and rarely puts his personal opinion on them. He even writes about the CIA and Gotlieb own point of view, so the reader can make his own conclusions if he was just a patriot that was carried away by cold war paranoia or just a sadistic psychopath.

At the end of the book the author calls Gottlieb a monster and a sadist. T
Matt Vargo
Dec 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
I love a good story about the evils of the US government and this is a fun one! It turns out we hired all the evil Nazis and Japanese after WWII to help us torture people at CIA black sites in the 50's. How else were we going to figure out how to control people's minds? This book also features a nice chunk of material on Frank Olson and Fort Detrick so it has a nice Frederick local flair to it.

After watching Amazon's film The Report about CIA torture after 9/11 and then reading this book I have
Miebara Jato
A few days ago, my friend and I had a heated disagreement, it almost comes to blows, with a man that has this dogs-only restaurant close to a bar that we frequent. This man in question breeds dogs. When the dogs grow to maturity, he'll slaughter them in the most inhuman way. After he slaughters them, he'll cook them and sell. The day that my friend and I quarrelled him, he'd just brought about 7 pops because he'd slaughtered and sold all the adults that he previously had. Seeing those beautiful ...more
Elisha Condie
Oct 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Holy smokes, this book is SO UPSETTING. I heard author Stephen Kinzer interviewed on Fresh Air (NPR) and could hardly believe the story he was telling, and went right home and got this book.

This book is all about Sidney Gottlieb, the scientist who ran decades long experiments in the CIA to try and find mind control drugs. He basically had a endless budget and no supervision to do what he saw necessary to get the job done. And it just KILLED me. He's a family man at home, who believes in susta
Oct 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fascinating and authoritative history of MK-ULTRA. Something I always read about, maybe in comic books or wild-eyed conspiracy theory stories, and I imagined to be true. But I always assumed it to be a quirky thing, like how the CIA also funded goat hypnosis.

No, MK ULTRA was not just a one-off oddball test but an extensive program that was part of the agency's heavy focus on psychological and chemical warfare in the post-war era.

The book is just filled with stories within the narrat
A. Redact
Dec 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Bob Ryan
Oct 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A summary of the CIA's program of researching mind control in the 1950's. It follows the life of the the program's director, Sidney Gottlieb. Gorrlieb is born in Brooklyn with a physical deformity and a speech impediment. He overcomes those problems and ends up with advanced college degrees in agriculture and chemistry. Unable to enlist in the Army due to his physical problems he gets a position in the Army researching antitoxins and poisons. World War II is winding down and the US government is ...more
Nov 18, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Despite getting top billing, Gottlieb takes a back seat to his work in this breathless recounting of the CIA's immoral MKUltra program. If you ever need an example of how a false premise is going to lead to a false conclusion, this would be it. Based on the belief that the ONLY way U.S. trained soldiers would betray their country is if the enemy had developed mind-control capabilities, the CIA funded a 10-year project to research mind control techniques of their own. The good news is that at the ...more
Oct 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Engrossing but also hard to read; not because of the writing, but because the subject is so frustrating. While much of the historical documents about the programs mentioned have been destroyed or are not yet declassified, this book has enough information to still horrify. Kinzer talks in circles sometimes, but the impression he leaves is nevertheless haunting – one of a young man joining the government for patriotic reasons, and rapidly turning into someone willing to push aside all morality to ...more
Dan Solomon
Nov 05, 2020 rated it liked it
Real wild shit! Some of the “this really happened and it is fucking bonkers” stuff, you’d wish you could go deeper on, and writing a biography of someone who we barely know anything about it a tall order, so I didn’t learn as much as I was hoping to—but still super compelling and fascinating and depressing.
Phillip Harris
Feb 01, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Excellent. Well researched and we'll written. Does nothing for those of us who do not trust the government. Recommended. Not a conspiracy theory but something that actually happened
Goof Reeds
Hey I’m a stupid pervert, why am I not in the CIA?
Jan 21, 2021 rated it really liked it
Absolutely chilling and real.
May 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
The true story of MK-Ultra, the CIAs attempt at mind control in which many were tortured, killed, experimented on against their wills, etc. The nice thing about this book is the it's legitimately researched and is written well, not like all the stupid online conspiracy stuff. So many facts to point out, but I'll just include one. At least there was good karma when the CIA accidentally invented hippies by giving people like Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and Tim Leary mind-altering drugs. These dudes ...more
Nancy C
Dec 16, 2020 rated it liked it
It’s difficult to read this true account of “mind control” experiments conducted by the CIA in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s without becoming thoroughly disgusted with our government. Presents shocking information (well sourced) on overseas black site torture theaters that rivaled those run by the Nazis. Plus, even here at home, experiments were conducted on both volunteers and unsuspecting subjects using various poisons, gases, and hallucinogenic drugs. My 3 star rating for this book is basically a r ...more
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Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. His articles and books have led the Washington Post to place him "among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling." (source) ...more

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