Sunday, November 15, 2009

Important New Book Links the Murder of Frank Olson with CIA Cold War Experiments

The following is a review I wrote at for the newly published book, A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments

H.P. Albarelli, Jr. has written a fully detailed, compelling account of the murder of CIA-linked 1950s Army biochemist Frank Olson. The somewhat surprising death of an otherwise little-known Midwestern scientist would become for contemporary historians, journalists, and researchers -- years after the event -- a crucial nexus providing a gathering point for the multitudinous strands connecting a welter of secretive Cold War intelligence and military programs. 

The Olson case burst upon the public's consciousness in the mid-1970s, along with other revelations at the time concerning CIA and military domestic spying and medical experimentation upon unwitting victims, thanks in part to a landmark expose by then-New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh. Pursued by Olson's family, attorneys, government commissions, newspaper reporters, and even some CIA agents, the truth behind Olson's death after a hundred-foot fall from a Manhattan hotel window on November 28, 1953, has been obscured over the years by a combination of myth, government misdirection, amateurish or hack "research," and, crucially, a lack of access to essential documentation. Now, after almost a decade of research, writer and researcher Albarelli has produced his magnum opus on Olson's death, and it has been well worth the wait.

"A Terrible Mistake" is part history book, part biography, part memoir, and part mystery tale. In order to understand the story of Frank Olson's life and death, and the cover-up surrounding that death, Mr. Albarelli must take the reader on a journey into the history of Cold War experimentation on mind and behavioral control, implemented by a welter of CIA and military programs whose names have passed into the iconic nomenclature regarding the underworld of American covert activities: Project Bluebird, Project MKULTRA, Project Artichoke, MKNAOMI, and others. In addition, because Olson was a government scientist with top secret clearance working on biological weaponry programs for the Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, the book also offers a peek into this very little reported corner of U.S. history.

The book is quite long, yet remains a page-turner. I won't reveal the mystery Albarelli solves, i.e., who killed Frank Olson and why, but the long build-up describing the various covert operations of the intelligence agencies, well-documented in the book, builds to a startling pay-off.

In the first half of the book, the author describes Olson's life, the government programs that touch upon his work, Olson's death and its aftermath. The latter part of the book picks up from the initial public revelations surrounding his death, coming over 20 years after it occurred, and the following investigations, including the reopening of the murder investigation by the New York City's District Attorney's office in 1996. Throughout, we are entertained by a kaleidoscopic sequence of characters, including former CIA chiefs Allen Dulles and William Colby, CIA psychiatrists, Watergate burglars (for instance, we learn James McCord was the CIA agent initially sent out to deal with Olson's death), former CIA agents, hotel managers, hired assassins, mobsters, high-priced attorneys, dubious informants, U.S. diplomats and generals, politicians (including a mid-1970s appearance by both Don Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney), and many, many more.

This is not just a book about a dusty, decades-old murder case. With the news of the past few years around U.S. use of torture, as well as recent revelations by Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Human Rights surrounding possible torture experimentation upon detainees held by the CIA, the history of similar activities by the same United States agencies, as narrated in Albarelli's book, has direct significance to crucial news events of our own day.

I strongly recommend this book. The author's honesty and willingness to look at the facts, rather than wishful thinking, or rely upon accepted wisdom, makes this investigatory journey well-worth the reader's time. The book has a fully-documented "Notes" section, which will satisfy the most avid researcher, or those who wish to double-check the author's assertions. Also included is a section with photographs of key documents.

It seems certain that "A Terrible Mistake" will take its place along other classics of its historical genre. But it is also the most fascinating and entertaining book you will purchase for a long time.

[Full disclosure: the author mentions me in his Acknowledgments section. I had no role in the writing of his book, and my earlier contact with the author amounted to literally a few e-mails. When I wrote the author later and wondered why I was included in the Acknowledgments section, it apparently was due to his appreciation of my own investigations into the current torture scandal, as published in various places online. I thank him for that, but wish to make it clear here that this review is solely based upon my own reading and reaction to this book.]

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