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The Most Unbelievable Things the CIA Has Done

Written by Jehron Baggaley


              Just as the dust was settling from the Second World War, tensions were already rising between the world’s emerging superpowers: The United States and the Soviet Union. The US president at the time, Harry S. Truman, decided it was time to create a new group with the power to gather information, subdue foreign threats, and overall exert American influence wherever on the globe they pleased, and so, in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was born. Today, we’re all familiar with the CIA – they’re in every spy movie, dozens of video games, and, of course, there’s an ever-expanding list of conspiracy theories involving the department and its agents. But for today’s list, we don’t need any conspiracies. Thanks to heaps of declassified documents, many of which were released thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we know about plenty of absolutely insane operations that the CIA has carried out, both at home and abroad. These are a few of the craziest missions that they’ve set out on over the years, all in the name of democracy.

Project FF

              As the United States wrestled with the Soviet Union for global dominance, the CIA undertook dozens of operations around the world to ensure that American democracy would crush any communist movements that were gaining a little too much attention. This included propaganda campaigns, assassinations, and even setting up alleged terrorist attacks, but the agency’s most grandiose plans were those involving complete regime change. The CIA’s job, time and time again, was to incite a revolution or coup d’etat to overthrow a country’s leader who was getting a little too buddy-buddy with the USSR, and replace them with a more western-friendly leader, or at least a neutral one. The problem with this is that it needs to be done covertly, or else you’ll suddenly find yourself in the spotlight of an international scandal, which is why the CIA went to great lengths to pull off their schemes like a political puppet master operating from the shadows. One such instance took place in Egypt, in an operation codenamed Project FF.


              In the 1950s, befriending and stabilizing Egypt was considered a top priority for the United States. Not only would having them as an ally ensure that the Soviet government stayed away from the Great Pyramid of Giza, it was also a perfect foothold to secure other American interests in the Middle East. But a big problem with Egypt in the 1950s was that it was becoming seriously unstable. The country was under the rule of a monarch, Farouk I, alongside a prime minister, but there were several different groups vying for control over the country. One of these groups was the UK, who had troops stationed to protect the vital Suez Canal. In January 1952, these British troops were attacked several times by communist guerilla fighters, who were supported by Egypt’s Wafd Party. The violence continued to escalate, eventually resulting in a battle between British forces and the Egyptian police at a government building, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 50 policemen. The following day, riots erupted across Cairo, with mobs burning down restaurants, hotels, theatres, and night-clubs, in a day known as Black Saturday, with the majority of the arson targets being owned by foreign investors. Along with the fires were organized prison breaks and mass looting.

              King Farouk, following the advice of an American ambassador, brought in the Egyptian army to quell the riots, and while he was at it, he dismissed many of the anti-British politicians in his cabinet. This move proved to the US that Farouk would be loyal to western interests, and that he needed to be protected and stay in power at all costs because he could be trusted. The CIA decided that it would send agents to replace the corrupt Egyptian political system with just Farouk as a “progressive dictator”. The idea here was that a smaller, peaceful, controlled coup d’etat and subsequent political crackdown would prevent a massive revolution in the country and bring stability back to Egypt, and this time under American influence.


Kim Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, was the man for the job. He already had experience working as an intelligence agent for the US, and after several years as a businessman in the Middle East, now had the contacts to put together a plan to take down the Egyptian government. Kim and his colleague, Miles Copeland, finalized their plans to intervene and nicknamed the operation Project FF, which, unflatteringly, stands for Fat F*cker, in reference to King Farouk himself, who, as you can guess, was quite a rotund fellow. In fact, rumor has it that he ate as many as 600 oysters every single day.

              As the operation commenced, the first step was to get the king on board with the plan. Kim met with Farouk and laid out a list of reforms that needed to happen to consolidate his power, which included removing several politicians and dissolving their seats, bribing the Muslim Brotherhood to support him, and even creating a new heavy police brigade that would enforce his rule in Cairo. Initially, Farouk got to work on these, but pretty soon it became apparent that he was unwilling to do a lot of what the CIA was asking him to do, or at least couldn’t do it quietly. Along with the other politicians Farouk had removed from power, he was electing and dismissing a new prime minister every month, and it was becoming obvious to the public that he was trying to gain more power, and an angry public was the last thing the CIA wanted from the operation, in fact, it was the exact opposite.

              As Farouk listened to the CIA less and less, Kim and Copeland decided that making him the dictator was no longer in their best interest, and they began looking at other options for replacing the king, looking for a man who would be a stable leader, and, even if not a close friend to the US, they would settle for one that was at least not an ally of the USSR.

              But, then, the unexpected happened. While the CIA was busy backstabbing Farouk, Farouk was busy backstabbing the CIA! When the agents had told him to bribe the Muslim Brotherhood for political support, he had actually conspired with them to create his own revolutionary government, with himself, of course, as absolute dictator. He had already drawn up plans to turn the country into a fundamentalist state and was now even claiming heritage from the prophet Mohammed. But that’s not even the end of the treachery – The Brotherhood was already scheming with army officers to betray Farouk, creating a three-way betrayal that you’d expect in a soap opera.  

The soldiers that the Brotherhood had met with called themselves the Free Officers, a group within the Egyptian army that were angry at their superiors for their corruption, and also blamed them for the humiliating loss against Israel just a few years earlier. And they especially hated Farouk, whom they saw as the most corrupt of them all. After discovering all of this, the CIA met with the leaders of the Free Officers, and agreed to support their upcoming military coup, even promising to prevent the British from interfering as long as the new government maintained close ties with the US.

              The coup was planned to take place in August 1952, but the Free Officers suddenly had to jump ahead of schedule. An intelligence leak revealed that King Farouk had suddenly acquired a list of the revolutionaries, and was planning to track them down and arrest them. There was no time to waste, so two weeks ahead of schedule, the officers geared up and commenced the coup d’etat on the night of July 22, 1952. Led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Nasser, the men began capturing government buildings, military headquarters, and even took control of the skies with the Air Force. Crowds began cheering in the streets as they learned what was happened and at 7:30 the next morning, the revolutionaries broadcasted their first official announcement, stating that the time for change had arrived, promising to put an end to the bribery and corruption of the Egyptian government.

              The officers marched into Alexandria, where Farouk was hiding in his palace. He was captured as he tried to escape on his boat and sentenced to exile, all while he called for the British and American governments to interfere, but, of course, his cries fell on deaf ears. A new government was set up, with Farouk’s son as the new king and the Revolution Command Council in charge of government affairs, led by Naguib and Nasser who were now heroes of the revolution.

So, what were the consequences of Project FF? On one hand, the CIA achieved its goal of replacing the unstable Farouk, and replacing him with an anti-communist government. Sudan gained its independence, and the revolution also sparked a whole wave of Arab revolts that followed, such as in Algeria, where the country gained independence from France.

On the other hand, the new government also turned out to be a bit problematic. Nasser eventually became the president, and Egypt began increasing attacks on the British-held Suez canal, leading to the Suez Crisis in 1956. The government was still as corrupt as any other, and political parties opposing the leadership were completely prohibited. But, still, the Soviets never really got involved, so that’s a win in the CIA’s book.

CIA operative Copeland went on to be waist-deep in several more revolutions in the middle east, such as in Syria and Iran. When later asked about the controversy surrounding his career, he said, “Unlike The New York Times … my complaint has been that the CIA isn’t overthrowing enough anti-American governments or assassinating enough anti-American leaders, but I guess I’m getting old.”

While Project FF was considered a success by many, there were plenty of CIA operations that didn’t go nearly as well. Some of them even failed so miserably there was no way to spin the results into any kind of victory. A prime example of this takes us Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba.  

Invincible Castro


              As Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in the late 1950s, his growing admiration of communism worried the United States. He was growing closer to the Soviet Union with every passing day, and was even importing weapons from them to bolster his army and to fight the rebellion in his country. Along with his media censorship and imprisoning of political opponents, he also seized property from foreign businesses to use for Cuban production. US president John F. Kennedy had vowed to be harsh on communist nations when he was elected, and, true to his word, began allocating funds to the CIA to shake up Cuba.

              In 1961, the American organized-and-funded Bay of Pigs invasion into Cuba ended in a complete failure, with almost all the troops being killed or captured before being able to join up with the other rebels on the island. After this failure, President Kennedy authorized Operation Mongoose, a plan that had been in the making for years already. Mongoose covered a wide range of plans, but, mostly, it was centered around helping Cuban rebels overthrow the communist regime, returning Cuba to its former US-friendly glory, and the removal of Fidel Castro from power. At the same time, the most powerful people in the United States were also starting to warm up to the idea of a full-scale invasion of Cuba instead of just supporting rebels.

Then they could install whatever leader they wanted and not have to worry about having filthy communists in their backyard, but they couldn’t do something so drastic without sufficient justification. They needed a solid reason so that the Soviet Union wouldn’t interfere and, perhaps even more importantly, so that the US public would support a war effort. And, well, the CIA had the perfect recipe for cooking up some public support. This was Operation Northwoods.

A declassified document about Northwoods said:

              “…such a plan would enable a logical build-up of incidents to be combined with other seemingly unrelated events to camouflage the ultimate objective…to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere”

              So, what were these ‘incidents’ that would build up to a reasonable response from the United States? Well, there were 32 plans drawn up for the project, including propaganda, sabotage of Cuban farms and factories, and, shockingly, staging terrorist attacks on US citizens. The CIA would either fake or actually carry out deadly attacks on US citizens and allies, all while pinning the blame on Castro’s regime. Suggestions included bombing civilian buildings in Miami or Washington DC, hijacking or shooting down passenger planes, or even a false-flag attack in Jamaica, hoping to draw the United Kingdom into the war as well. After a sufficient period of terrorism and falsified threats, the US would provoke Cuba into aggression and then fake an attack on Guantanamo- which would give Kennedy the justification needed for a full-scale response.

              Remember, none of this is a conspiracy – the CIA was genuinely planning to bomb US citizens so that they could go to war with Cuba, it’s all been declassified and you can find many of the transcripts of the once top-secret meetings online to read for yourself.

              Thankfully, despite being approved by every other necessary authority, Operation Northwoods was rejected by Kennedy, and the CIA went back to focusing on Mongoose. So, while the plans for domestic terrorism were cancelled, it was still fair game to blow stuff up in Cuba.

               Along with the sabotage, there was an increasing urgency to erase Castro from the picture entirely, and a whole pile of government funds was immediately set aside for his assassination. What followed, over the next 40 years, was a series of over 600 supposed assassination attempts, some of which the CIA were directly involved in, and all of which ended in utter failure. Keep in mind, these were all supposed to look like an accident or like angry local Cuban had done it, so some of them were quite ridiculous to say the least.

 They tried lacing one of his cigars with a botulinum toxin, but it got lost on the way to Castro. They had an undercover agent give him a ballpoint pen that would inject the user with a hypodermic needle but it was discovered before it got to the target. They poisoned napkins hoping he would wipe his face with them, but he ended up never using them. When the CIA learned of his love for diving, they briefly discussed planting a colorful, exploding seashell in the water near his house, but settled instead on lacing a diving suit with a deadly fungus, but that never made it out of the laboratory. Gangsters from the FBI’s most wanted top 10 were hired, but they got cold feet, and the mafia screwed up while trying to poison his ice cream.

Perhaps the closest they got to getting the job done was when the CIA hired Castro’s lover, Marita Lorenz, to spike his drink with poison pills that she smuggled into his room. But when Castro discovered what she was up to, he wasn’t scared or even surprised. Later, she described the story to Vanity Fair:

“He leaned over, pulled out his .45, and handed it to me. He didn’t even flinch. And he said, ‘You can’t kill me. Nobody can kill me.’ And he kind of smiled and chewed on his cigar … I felt deflated. He was so sure of me. He just grabbed me. We made love.”

Along with the attempts to take his life, the CIA also tried to damage his public image. They laced his cigars with hallucinogens, with the idea that he would smoke them before a broadcast and then embarrass himself by tripping out on live TV, but that never panned out like they hoped. They tried putting thallium salts in his shoes to make his hair fall out, which would’ve taken away his iconic beard, but that also, like everything else, failed.

The attempts on Castro continued all the way through the end of the cold war, with the last one reportedly taking place in the 21st century, but none of them ever succeeded, and Castro stayed in power until he retired in 2008 after nearly five decades.

              Mental Espionage


              Our last CIA initiative takes us not to the middle east and not to a communist nation seen as a threat, but instead to the United States. The CIA conducted several operations in the land of the free, and not the kind where you show up, sign a waiver, and get compensated for time and travel. People were experimented on without their knowledge or consent, sometimes resulting in death. The most famous of these experiments, detailed by over 20,000 declassified documents, was MKUltra.

              MKUltra’s predecessor, Project Artichoke, began in the early 1950s. The broad goal of the project was perfectly outlined by one memo from 1952, which said, “Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?” Researchers tested various drugs on many different agents, including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, but noticed the best effects with LSD. Agents unknowingly ingested LSD to see how it would affect someone who wasn’t expecting the drug, and one man was kept on the hallucinogen for 77 straight days.

              Along with Artichoke, there were two more programs that briefly saw light, MKNaomi and MKOften. All three of these programs tested biological weapons, including viruses, on unsuspecting people, with one researcher’s note saying:

“Not all viruses have to be lethal… the objective includes those that act as short-term and long-term incapacitating agents”

In one of the experiments, specially designed aircraft released hundreds of thousands of mosquitos over a low-income neighborhood in Avon Park, Florida. The mosquitos were carrying Dengue Fever, which was seen as a potential interrogation tool because its symptoms usually aren’t lethal. Key word being usually. Hundreds of people were infected, and at least 6 people died as a result. The CIA was also accused of starting Dengue outbreaks in several other US states, Pakistan, Nicaragua, and Cuba.

 And that takes us to MKUltra, where researchers gathered their notes from the previous experiments and took it to the next level – attempting all-out mind control. The project officially began in 1953, under many different front companies posing as researchers across the nation. They administered LSD to mental patients, prostitutes, and the homeless. One patient at a mental asylum in Kentucky was held on LSD for 174 days, to see if he could have his mind wiped clean to become perfectly obedient to the researcher’s desires. Other drugs used on these people included DMT, cocaine, and psilocybin. In an experiment known as Operation Midnight Climax, the CIA set up brothels in San Francisco, where men were drugged and then viewed through one-way mirrors.

Really, anyone could become the sudden subject of an experiment, such as one CIA agent who’s morning coffee was laced with several drugs, causing him to run across the city screaming that there were monsters all around him. These secret doses didn’t even stop after chemist Frank Olsen, who had never before taken drugs, was unknowingly given a dangerously high dose of LSD, causing him to jump to his death from his New York City balcony nine days later due a deep depression brought on by the drug. It was officially ruled a suicide, but the researcher who caused his death got a slap on the wrist for messing with a man who had already been diagnosed with suicidal tendencies. The Olsen family, however, disputed the suicide claim, and asserted that he was instead murdered by the CIA because he had become too much of a liability and could leak state secrets.

Sadly, this turned out to be true. Olsen had quit his job just a few days before his death because of moral conflicts with developing biological weapons, and it seems the CIA decided that he knew too much to leave. When his body was exhumed in 1994, it was found that he had skull fractures indicating that he had been knocked unconscious prior to falling out the window, and the doctor who performed the autopsy ruled it a clear homicide. The Olsen family was given $750,000 in settlements and a personal apology from President Gerald Ford and the CIA director at the time.

              Overall, experiments were carried out at over 30 universities, and even made it into Canada. And, obviously, no profound academic results came of it. There was no magic mind-controlling drug that could turn any man into a robot soldier, ready to do the bidding of whoever commanded him, even when the participants were willing and informed, which was the case on occasion.

              One aspect of MKUltra that makes it even more controversial is the use of former Nazi scientists in the experiments. In fact, the CIA was even accused of outright continuing experiments that began in the holocaust, such as using mescaline for interrogation, a method first explored by Nazi doctors in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Former Nazi scientists instructed agents on how to use the deadly Sarin gas, and there are even reports that known war criminals were recruited. This is entirely within the realm of possibility, because after Germany surrendered, both the United States and the Soviet Union snatched up all the German scientists they could during Operation Paperclip, and used them for their own scientific advancements.

              Torture wasn’t out of the question either. During MKUltra some patients became subject to new forms of pain, such as one method where a barbiturate is injected into one arm, causing the person to start falling asleep, only to be brought back to the height of consciousness when an amphetamine is injected into the other arm. This would continue for several cycles, until the subject either surrendered the necessary information, passed out, or their heart gave out.

MKUltra is an incredibly deep rabbit hole of declassified documents, government cover-ups, and conspiracy theories, and there are some really weird connections to other events – like the fact that terrorist Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, spent 200 total hours in the study during his time at Harvard University, leading some to suspect that he was permanently damaged by what happened to him during the experiments.

              And we’re lucky to even know that such experiments took place – In 1973, during the Watergate scandal with Richard Nixon, every government agency was suddenly coming under intense scrutiny and accusations. During this time, the CIA director, Richard Helms, ordered that all documents regarding MKUltra be incinerated, destroying thousands of records of experiments that will never see the light of day. About 20,000 pages survived the file cleansing, and only because they were incorrectly stored with financial records.

              We will probably never know the full scope of MKUltra, and what’s even spookier is the fact that the KGB was running similar experiments in the Soviet Union at the time, so there’s really no telling what gruesome acts were committed in the name of science across the globe. Eventually, the CIA gave up on most of the drugs, citing that they were too unpredictable to be useful for mind control, and the project was eventually shut down.

Everything we mentioned in this post took place during or just after the cold war, with most of it not coming to light until years after the fact, which leaves us with a burning question – what on earth is the CIA up to today, and will we ever even know about it?

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