The Bitter Secret of ‘Wormwood’Posted: January 19, 2018
Transparency and accountability are essential virtues in a democracy, but they’re clearly not as viscerally appealing or as thrilling as their opposites, secrecy and impunity. The intelligence operative—especially the rogue spy flouting the law, from James Bond to Jason Bourne—is one of the most glamorized figures in the fiction and movies of postwar America. In Errol Morris’s new series, Wormwood, which blends documentary with dramatic reconstructions, he sets out to explore an episode in the history of US intelligence that is irresistibly sensational, the CIA’s cold war “mind control” program of the 1950s and 1960s. Code-named MK-ULTRA, the program involved agents experimenting with methods for gaining full control of a person’s thoughts and behavior using LSD, hypnosis, electric shocks, and other bizarre means—the films The Ipcress File (1965) and The Parallax View (1974) show cool, stylized versions. The thesis offered by Wormwood’s principal subjects is that, during the same period, the CIA ran an authorized, extrajudicial execution program of dissenting agents who were active in the agency’s secret operations.