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A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA's Secret Cold War Experiments Paperback – January 1, 2011
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About the Author
H. P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications and newspapers across the nation and is the author of the novel The Heap. He lives in Tampa, Florida.
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Top Customer Reviews
The Olson case burst upon the public's consciousness in the mid-1970s, along with other revelations at the time concerning CIA and military domestic spying and medical experimentation upon unwitting victims, thanks in part to a landmark expose by then-New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh. Pursued by Olson's family, attorneys, government commissions, newspaper reporters, and even some CIA agents, the truth behind Olson's death after a hundred-foot fall from a Manhattan hotel window on November 28, 1953, has been obscured over the years by a combination of myth, government misdirection, amateurish or hack "research," and, crucially, a lack of access to essential documentation. Now, after almost a decade of research, writer and researcher Albarelli has produced his magnum opus on Olson's death, and it has been well worth the wait.
"A Terrible Mistake" is part history book, part biography, part memoir, and part mystery tale. In order to understand the story of Frank Olson's life and death, and the cover-up surrounding that death, Mr. Albarelli must take the reader on a journey into the history of Cold War experimentation on mind and behavioral control, implemented by a welter of CIA and military programs whose names have passed into the iconic nomenclature regarding the underworld of American covert activities: Project Bluebird, Project MKULTRA, Project Artichoke, MKNAOMI, and others. In addition, because Olson was a government scientist with top secret clearance working on biological weaponry programs for the Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick, the book also offers a peek into this very little reported corner of U.S. history.
The book is quite long, yet remains a page-turner. I won't reveal the mystery Albarelli solves, i.e., who killed Frank Olson and why, but the long build-up describing the various covert operations of the intelligence agencies, well-documented in the book, builds to a startling pay-off.
In the first half of the book, the author describes Olson's life, the government programs that touch upon his work, Olson's death and its aftermath. The latter part of the book picks up from the initial public revelations surrounding his death, coming over 20 years after it occurred, and the following investigations, including the reopening of the murder investigation by the New York City's District Attorney's office in 1996. Throughout, we are entertained by a kaleidoscopic sequence of characters, including former CIA chiefs Allen Dulles and William Colby, CIA psychiatrists, Watergate burglars (for instance, we learn James McCord was the CIA agent initially sent out to deal with Olson's death), former CIA agents, hotel managers, hired assassins, mobsters, high-priced attorneys, dubious informants, U.S. diplomats and generals, politicians (including a mid-1970s appearance by both Don Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney), and many, many more.
This is not just a book about a dusty, decades-old murder case. With the news of the past few years around U.S. use of torture, as well as recent revelations by Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Human Rights surrounding possible torture experimentation upon detainees held by the CIA, the history of similar activities by the same United States agencies, as narrated in Albarelli's book, has direct significance to crucial news events of our own day.
I strongly recommend this book. The author's honesty and willingness to look at the facts, rather than wishful thinking, or rely upon accepted wisdom, makes this investigatory journey well-worth the reader's time. The book has a fully-documented "Notes" section, which will satisfy the most avid researcher, or those who wish to double-check the author's assertions. Also included is a section with photographs of key documents.
It seems certain that "A Terrible Mistake" will take its place along other classics of its historical genre. But it is also the most fascinating and entertaining book you will purchase for a long time.
[Full disclosure: the author mentions me in his Acknowledgments section. I had no role in the writing of his book, and my earlier contact with the author amounted to literally a few e-mails. When I wrote the author later and wondered why I was included in the Acknowledgments section, it apparently was due to his appreciation of my own investigations into the current torture scandal, as published in various places online. I thank him for that, but wish to make it clear here that this review is solely based upon my own reading and reaction to this book.]
America learned about the abuse of power that the Intelligence agencies had previously enjoyed when the Church Committee, or as it is formally known as the United States Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities published its reports. To this day, intelligence agencies are held to a strict code forbidding collection and retention of information on American citizens by oversight reviews as a result of these investigations and the ensuing public outcry. The Rockefeller Commission was a Presidential Commission on CIA activities in the Untied States and more specifically the CIA mind control program MKULTRA, also held in the mid 1970's. It's because of these commission reports that the Olson family and eventually the public learned of a mysterious death as a result of LSD dosing by the CIA. Imagine the CIA was giving themselves and their friends LSD as they looked for ways to fight the communists and the cold war with the very same thing they took for fun. It was both a tool to use against the enemy and something that the MKULTRA program director gave himself two dozen times. Can you imagine the paranoia that must have existed within the intelligence communities when they learned that the Soviets had several tons of LSD while they were blowing their own brains out? This story is too good to miss.
The book reads like a mystery yet is non-fiction. It is so full of information that was undoubtedly hard to get with many declassified reports, FOIAs and interviews with principal characters spread through out the 900 some pages. It sometimes can make your head spin with the varied story threads of the CIA's secret cold war experiments the author delves into after stetting the stage with who was Frank Olson and why was he is so important to us. It does give a historical context to the book and central theme of whom and why did someone kill a government employee with Top Secret clearance working on the front line of the Cold War.
This country owes a great deal of gratitude to the Olson family for the pain and suffering they have endured as they struggled to find the truth behind the death they would later learn to be a murder. It's because of their struggle that we know what we do about the extremes this country took to fight the cold war. The family again struggled to have justice served with a murder indictment that never came. We also need to thank the extensive investigative journalism efforts of H.P. Albarelli.
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