Nine justices of the Supreme Court this week agreed that Congress gave the CIA broad powers to conceal information obtained from intelligence sources. Justices Brennan and Marshall, in a concurring opinion, would have defined "intelligence sources" more narrowly, so as to protect only those persons who supplied information with a promise of confidentiality. But even they agreed with the result in the case at issue.
It is reasonable that the CIA be given special exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act, and in principle the court's decision is understandable. However, this is more than a case of dry statutory interpretation. It involves real human beings who were severely injured and who need help.
In the '50s, the CIA embarked on a program, "MKULTRA," to experiment with forms of mind control in order to catch up with what was assumed to be dramatic Soviet and Chinese advances in this field. Eighty institutions and 185 private researchers had contracts with the CIA to perform this work. Many individuals became, without their consent, the subjects of psychiatric and drug experiments. With a few exceptions, it is not known who these people are or what has become of them. The plaintiffs in the case the Supreme Court decided this week tried to force the CIA to turn over records of the experiments so that the victims could be traced and informed. They were unsuccessful.
From the few known cases, the results of the experiments were horrible. Some subjects, given LSD, were permanently mentally impaired. Some committed suicide over drug-induced fears and depressions. Some research was carried out in Canada, where a private psychiatrist experimented on patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. A group of surviving victims, one the wife of a member of the Canadian Parliament, has sued the U.S. government for compensation; the CIA persists in denying liability, and the case has dragged on in court for more than four years. In another case involving an American whose family discovered the CIA's involvement in his suicide only years after the fact, compensation was awarded. But most of those who were the subjects of the MKULTRA experiments still do not know it.
These victims of government action must be found and cared for. The courts will not order the CIA to reveal the required information, but the agency, acting on its own, can trace many victims through its contractors. If this isn't done, Congress, which ultimately makes the rules governing CIA activity, can order a search and provide compensation for the Canadians as well as the Americans involved. It is the only just and honorable thing to do.