For two decades, the CIA ran mind-control experiments in Montreal that later influenced modern “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as those used at Abu Ghraib. The CIA continues to skirt accountability for its actions.

The Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal, Canada, where Donald Ewen Cameron conducted mind-control experiments on behalf of the CIA. (Wikimedia Commons)

Since its foundation in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a long-standing reputation for meddling in the affairs of other countries. Known for its involvement in various cloak-and-dagger operations such as the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, drug trafficking in Central America, as well as elaborate and bizarre assassination plots, the CIA has become synonymous with a legacy of nefarious, clandestine activities.

The agency is also infamous for its involvement in mind-control experiments, although the specifics of these endeavors remain relatively obscure. What might come as a surprise is that one its most extensive mind-control operations didn’t occur in some remote country in the Global South with lax human rights protections; rather, they transpired within the borders of the large liberal democracy directly to the north of the United States. And these experiments didn’t take place in some bunker at the behest of ex-Nazi ghouls or sinister B-movie psychiatrists — they took place in Montreal, at one of Canada’s most prestigious universities.

The disturbing findings from the experiments would go on to serve as terribly effective psychological coercion methods, forming the basis for interrogation techniques and playing a significant role in the US Department of Justice’s infamous “torture memos.” These methods would exert a significant influence on the so-called counterintelligence practices employed during the Iraq War.

The experiments have not only crossed ethical boundaries but also raised profound questions of accountability and justice. This is particularly true in light of the ongoing class-action lawsuits initiated by those who suffered through the Montreal experiments. While the recent decision by Quebec’s Superior Court has brought this legal battle into focus, the elusive nature of justice in cases involving CIA black-ops continues to cloud the horizon, making a swift resolution seem far from certain.

Mind Control Experiments in Montreal

Established in 1940, the Allan Memorial Institute (known as “the Allan”) used to be a psychiatric institute and research facility. It now offers outpatient psychiatric services for the Montreal General Hospital, as part of the McGill University Health Centre.

The Allan was appropriate for the purposes to which it was put by the agency. A visitor might well feel a chill run down their spine as they take in the building’s gothic architecture, which feels straight out of a Dracula movie. Yet despite the many episodes broadcast by the CBC in the 1980s and ’90s that focused on the subject, most North Americans are still unaware of the horrendous experiments which took place at the Allan, starting in the early 1950s, for nearly 20 years. At the height of the Cold War, a leading researcher affiliated with McGill University received covert CIA money to test the boundaries of the human psyche, and his results would inform the development of the agency’s now-infamous MKUltra Program.

At the height of the Cold War, a leading researcher affiliated with McGill University received covert CIA money to test the boundaries of the human psyche.

The majority of the Montreal experiments were orchestrated and implemented by a man named Donald Ewen Cameron, who left his home in Scotland to become the first director of the Allan. Cameron received funds brokered by then CIA director Allen Dulles to subject his unwitting “patients” to high-voltage electroshock treatments, insulin-induced comas, sensory deprivation, and large doses of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD. To justify these treatments, Cameron touted his psychiatric techniques as innovative and experimental.

The CIA obtained their desired test results from Cameron, whose patients unknowingly paid for the operation with the loss of their memories and cognitive abilities. Even though countless individuals who left the Allan were reduced to childlike states and unable to recognize their own family members, the US government has yet to be held accountable for their involvement in experiments conducted on Canadian nationals on Canadian soil. The results of the Montreal Experiments were not, in the end, used to discover the magic of mind control. Instead, the findings have been allowed to molder in now-declassified memoranda regarding psychological coercion, and, to the extent that they receive agency attention, they are cited as advanced methods of “interrogation on resistant sources.”

Subproject 68

Born in Scotland in 1901, Donald Ewen Cameron spent the early days of his career making trips back and forth from Europe to North America, before taking on a research role in sensory deprivation at Albany Medical School in 1938. It was only a few years later — in 1943 — that Cameron settled down as the first director of McGill’s newly created psychiatric facility, the Allan Memorial Institute.

The exact timing of Allen Dulles and Donald Ewen Cameron’s initial meeting remains uncertain, but it likely occurred while Cameron was conducting research in Albany. At that time, Dulles was on the verge of assuming leadership of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor. By 1945, he had personally recruited Cameron to attend the Nuremberg trials and assess Rudolph Hess, a former Nazi whom he believed may have been brainwashed.

Cameron and Dulles clearly kept in touch well into the latter’s appointment as director of the CIA, and 1957 saw the creation of “Subproject 68,” McGill’s heavy-handed contribution to the CIA’s brainwashing and mind control program, MKUltra. Commuting from Lake Placid, New York, to Montreal every week, Cameron was paid over $500,000 from 1950 to 1965 to carry out mind-control experiments at the Allan. These experiments were sponsored by the American and Canadian governments alike. While the exact number of victims is not known, it is believed that around eighty patients were subjected to the experiments.

Cameron saw the human psyche not as something to be analyzed, but rather as a complex and multifaceted puzzle: something to be disassembled and rearranged in a completely new way. This belief resulted in Cameron’s creation of a process he referred to as “depatterning,” which entailed wiping the individual’s memory clean — through drug-induced comas, electroshock treatments, sensory deprivation, or a mix of all three — so that he could recover and reprogram their memory in such a way as to alter their outlook and behavior entirely.

Once he deemed a patient effectively “depatterned,” he began a rebuilding process he termed “psychic driving.” In this procedure, Cameron would force patients to listen to loops of personalized audio clips intended to reinforce specific ideas within the patient’s mind. Sometimes the patient would be forced to listen to the same message for days, weeks, or even months on end.

Torture Techniques

Following Cameron’s sudden departure from the Allan in 1964 due to escalating skepticism from colleagues in the medical field, his research has had a lasting impact on security services worldwide. Notably, this influence is evident in what is widely recognized as the CIA’s “torture manual”: the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Handbook.

Published in 1963 and now readily available online, this handbook references a “number of experiments conducted at McGill University” and frequently alludes to Dr. Cameron’s techniques. In one portion of the manual relating to the methods and capabilities of sensory deprivation, it is noted that results “produced only after weeks or months of imprisonment in an ordinary cell can be duplicated in hours or days in a cell which has no light, which is sound-proofed, in which odors are eliminated.”

In 2004, the actions of US Army and CIA personnel came under international scrutiny when CBS News published shocking and disturbing photographs of detainee torture at Iran’s Abu Ghraib prison. In the months leading up to the Iraq War, the US Department of Justice drafted a now-declassified document known as the “torture memos.” These memos were created to instruct US officials on the legal boundaries of interrogation techniques and how to avoid having their tactics classified as “torture” under established common law.

The torture memos emphasized the use of psychological coercion methods — such as those created by Dr. Cameron — as a means of allowing the US Army to fly under the radar and avoid legal scrutiny in foreign countries.

Officially known as the “Memorandum Regarding Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside The United States,” these documents argued that international humanitarian laws including the Geneva Convention did not apply to American interrogators overseas. The torture memos also emphasized the use of psychological coercion methods — such as those created by Dr. Cameron — as a means of allowing the US Army to fly under the radar and avoid legal scrutiny in foreign countries.

One section of the memorandum states, “In the context of interrogations, we believe that interrogation methods that do not involve physical contact will not support a charge of assault resulting in substantial injury or assault resulting in serious bodily injury or substantial bodily injury.” It concludes that, in essence, “reading the definition of torture as a whole, it is plain that the term encompasses only extreme acts.”

Canadian Class-Action Lawsuits

What began as research into psychological manipulation has led to findings still employed by US intelligence officials today as a means of exploiting gray zones in the laws of military conduct when it comes to inflicting nonphysical harm to extract information from persons of interest. Ultimately, the findings of the Montreal Experiments have contributed more to pushing the boundaries of ethical ambiguity within military regulations than to psychology.

Many Canadians suffered due to the experiments that underlie these changes to US intelligence methods of interrogation. Consequently, numerous class-action lawsuits have been ongoing in Canada for years. However, as is usually the case where CIA adventurism is concerned, the US government may never be held accountable for its role in funding the experiments conducted at the Allan.

Early October marked a major turning point for a class-action lawsuit filed against McGill University, the Royal Victoria Hospital, and the Canadian and US governments. The Quebec Superior Court delivered a unanimous 3–0 decision upholding a previous ruling that prevented the retroactive use of a 1982 Canadian law concerning the suing of foreign states within the country.

The plaintiffs, those who suffered during the Montreal Experiments, had argued that the trial judge’s decision to grant the US immunity at an early stage in the proceedings was a mistake. They contended that the US could be sued retroactively under Canada’s 1982 State Immunity Act, particularly in cases of bodily injury. Furthermore, the plaintiffs pointed out that there were exemptions for commercial lawsuits during the period that these atrocities took place.

However, lawyers representing the US attorney general maintained that the allegations in the class-action application did not pertain to a commercial agreement between the US and Canada. They emphasized that the US had benefited from immunity in Canada before the 1982 law was enacted and they argued that any lawsuit against the US government should be filed in a US court.

The central question that remains is this: If legal action against the US government is restricted to US soil, how can the CIA ever be held accountable for its international transgressions? Regrettably, it appears they won’t be. Holding the powerful to account is a herculean task and in instances such as the Montreal experiments, the quest for justice continues to be as elusive as ever.


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