Weird, twisted and bizarre tales about the San Francisco Bay Area are so numerous some merely make us yawn. But if any one story stands out for its sheer audacity, moral depravity and utter madness—this is it.
Years ago I came across a magazine article about something called Operation Midnight Climax. I knew it had to be a joke. The CIA, with the blessing and full cooperation of both the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the SFPD sets up and runs an LSD brothel in San Francisco for ten solid years? Who do you think you’re kidding? Still, I dutifully dug for corroborative facts concerning this alleged operation.
Turns out Operation Midnight Climax was no joke.
Its story is particularly timely in light of revelations concerning secret Bush Administration memos green-lighting CIA and Army Intelligence torture techniques supposedly designed to obtain information from “detainees” and “enemy combatants”.
Back in the 1950’s and ’60’s CIA experiments aimed at obtaining information and controlling human behavior gravitated to covertly dispensing numerous powerful psychotropic drugs. The CIA’s original charter prohibited it from engaging in any domestic operations. Yet many of these drugs were given to U.S. citizens, on U.S. soil without their knowledge or consent. Anyone interested in this unseemly labyrinth can trot down to the the library or just google MK-ULTRA. If ever there was a reason to inform ourselves and hold political feet to the fire concerning our inalienable rights it’s MK-ULTRA. Its many programs had no external oversight and no accounting. For years fully 6% of the CIA’s entire budget went into MK-ULTRA programs that even Congress knew nothing about.
But I’m wandering from the story at hand, namely:
Operation Midnight Climax—a Bay Area baby born of MK-ULTRA.
He was a tough, fat, bald guy—a character right out of Hollywood central casting. Back in the early 1950’s an itinerant San Francisco journalist, former OSS operative and then Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent named George Hunter White, aka Morgan Hall, was assigned by his boss Harry Anslinger to team up with the CIA. Together they created Operation Midnight Climax. White’s assignment: explore and record how a new drug called LSD affects behavior when consumed by unsuspecting male johns in the company of drug addicted hookers. A great comedy scenario, if it weren’t so damn perverse.
By day George Hunter White continued to work the streets of San Francisco, ferreting out drug deals and drug dealers, setting them up and taking them down. By night he’d repair to the portable toilet his friend Leo Jones had provided him behind the two way mirror set into a wall of “the pad’s” Telegraph Hill bedroom. The L-shaped Chestnut Street duplex featured fantastic views of the San Francisco Bay. It was festooned with Toulouse-Lautrec posters, hidden microphones, tape recorders and a refrigerator stocked with pitchers of martinis. White was a notorious booze hound. He’d knock back a quart or more of gin nightly perched on the seat of his toilet scribbling notes on concurrent activities in the adjacent bedroom.
But dosing unwitting johns produced, well, wildly inconsistent results. White observed innumerable men behave in ways that suggested insanity. So White gave LSD the pet name “Stormy”. It fit. The “psychedelic revolution” was still years away. We can hardly imagine how the varied socio/ethnic/economic group of philanderers who wound up at “the pad” must have reacted when dosed. Most had never heard of, much less consumed any hallucinogenic substance before.
Richard Stratton interviewed George White’s last living Operation Midnight Climax associate for Spin Magazine in 1994. According White lieutenant Ira “Ike” Feldman:
“White was a son of a bitch, but he was a great cop. He made that fruitcake Hoover look like Nancy Drew. The LSD, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Write this down. Espionage. Assassinations. Dirty tricks. Drug experiments. Sexual encounters and the study of prostitutes for clandestine use. That’s what I was doing when I worked for George White and the CIA.”
George Hunter White continued operating his Telegraph Hill LSD brothel until 1965, when he retired from the service. He moved to Stinson Beach. Locals came to know him as Colonel White. He became the Stinson Beach Fire Marshall—and, after a few years on the wagon White died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1975.
Upon his death White’s widow gifted the Electronic Museum at Foothills Junior College, forty miles south of San Francisco, with his diaries. According to a Washington Post article dated September 5, 1977 these diaries:
“provide documentary evidence that White met to discuss drugs and safe houses with such CIA luminaries as Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, head of the Chemical Division of the Technical Services Division and the man who ran MK-ULTRA, and Dr. Robert V. Lashbrook, a CIA chemist who worked with LSD. Other high-ranking CIA officials mentioned prominently include James Angleton, C. P. Cabell and Stanley Lovell. Gottleib and Lashbrook have been subpoenaed to testify Sept. 20 (1977) before a Senate subcommittee investigating the MK-ULTRA project.”
Upon retirement George Hunter White wrote to Harry Anslinger, his old boss at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, reflecting on White’s many years of service:
“I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”
And so concludes yet another true San Francisco tale about your American taxpayer dollars working to protect you and yours.