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John K. Vance; Uncovered LSD Project at CIA

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005

John K. Vance, 89, a member of the Central Intelligence Agency inspector general's staff in the early 1960s who discovered that the agency was running a research project that included administering LSD and other drugs to unwitting human subjects, died May 27 of respiratory arrest.

He died at the Wilson Health Care Center of Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg.

Code-named MKULTRA (and pronounced m-k-ultra), the project Mr. Vance uncovered was the brainchild of CIA Director Allen Dulles, who was intrigued by reports of mind-control techniques allegedly conducted by Soviet, Chinese and North Korean agents on U.S. prisoners of war during the Korean War. The CIA wanted to use similar techniques on its own POWs and perhaps use LSD or other mind-bending substances on foreign leaders, including Cuba's Fidel Castro a few years after the project got underway in 1953.

Heading MKULTRA was a CIA chemist named Sidney Gottlieb. In congressional testimony, Gottlieb, who died in 1999, acknowledged that the agency had administered LSD to as many as 40 unwitting subjects, including prison inmates and patrons of brothels set up and run by the agency. At least one participant died when he jumped out of a 10th-floor window in a hotel; others claimed to have suffered serious psychological damage.

Mr. Vance learned about MKULTRA in the spring of 1963 during a wide-ranging inspector general survey of the agency's technical services division. The inspector general's report said: "The concepts involved in manipulating human behavior are found by many people both within and outside the agency to be distasteful and unethical."

As a result of Mr. Vance's discovery and the inspector general's report, the CIA halted the testing and began scaling back the project. It was terminated in the late 1960s.

MKULTRA came to public light in 1977 as a result of hearings conducted by a Senate committee on intelligence chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho). Mr. Vance gave several long phone interviews to committee staff members but never had to testify.

Mr. Vance was born in Seward, Neb., and graduated magna cum laude from Doane College in Crete, Neb., in 1936. He received a master's degree in economics from Columbia University in 1937 and a bachelor's degree in library science from Columbia in 1939.

He began working on his doctorate at Harvard University during World War II but soon was serving in the Army. He was sent to language school to learn German and worked as a military interpreter at the postwar Nuremberg trials. In Nuremberg, he met people in the intelligence world.

His CIA career began in 1947. He was on the inspector's general's staff from 1960 to 1963, and then became the director of central reference until his retirement in 1971.

A member of the Maryland Ornithological Society and the Maryland Nature Conservancy, Mr. Vance helped in bird banding and also enjoyed gardening, biking, tennis and travel. He was a member of the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Elizabeth E. Vance of Gaithersburg; three daughters, Sally Roman of Kensington, Julia Stewart of Columbus, Ohio, and Margie Kay of Timonium, Md.; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandsons.


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