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An extraordinary Danish Radio report exposed how scores of children in Denmark, many of them orphans, were subject to CIA-funded experiments for at least two decades.
The purpose of these activities remains unknown, as authorities continue to actively suppress the truth of what happened in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The startling exposé is based on the work of documentarian Per Wennick, who was one of 311 participants in the mysterious trials. The children never learned the objective of the tortuous assessments to which they were exposed, even after they ended.
Such trials are in conflict with the Nuremberg Code, which enforces the vital requirement of obtaining consent from human subjects in all medical research.
According to Wennick, when he was 11 years old, he was asked at an authoritarian orphanage in Copenhagen if he wanted to try something “fun” at the local municipal hospital. It was vaguely described as an examination of how children “feel”. Believing it would be a welcome diversion, he acquiesced and even received a small sum for his participation.
Wennick went on to undergo a series of regular tests, which included being forced to listen to recordings on headphones of loud noises, screams, and statements intended to scare him. Staff strapped him to a chair while electrodes were placed on his arms, legs, and chest, measuring his heart rate, temperature, and sweat levels.
These experiments continued until 1973, when Wennick was 24-years-old. However, a decade later, while in a hospital due to a skin complaint, he learned his visit—in fact, his every contact with healthcare services— was reported to the Danish Psychological Institute for reasons never made clear to him.
Fast forward to 2018. While at a film festival in the United States, he saw the documentary "Three Identical Strangers," which tells the story of triplets deliberately separated at birth and offered up for adoption to families of differing socioeconomic backgrounds, in a covert and highly unethical scientific “nature versus nurture” study.
It occurred to Wennick he too may have been unwittingly caught up in a similar experiment.
Diligent digging in local archives unearthed a number of papers revealing that the project in which Wennick became embroiled was the brainchild of Zarnoff A. Mednick, a U.S. psychologist interested in what distinguishes schizophrenic patients from neurotypical people and patients with other disorders.
Denmark was an attractive testing ground. Unlike the U.S., it boasted a central population register, meaning participants could be tracked over the course of many years.
Mednick collaborated with Danish professor Fini Schulsinger, constructing a study of 207 children with schizophrenic mothers, and a control group of 104 children without schizophrenic mothers, including Wennick. He sought to ascertain how many would develop schizophrenia and how it might manifest. Over a third of the participants were orphans.
In 1977, Schulsinger published a doctoral dissertation on the project. Denmark’s Ministry of Justice intervened to ensure, contrary to standard practice, he was not required to undertake a ‘viva,’ which is a public defence of his thesis. That kept the survey’s background a secret.
Having piqued his curiosity, Wennick went off in search of more records related to the experiments.
Eventually, he identified 36 boxes of material stored in the basement of a psychiatric center in a Copenhagen suburb. He asked Josef Parnas, a psychiatrist he interviewed for his documentary series, to assist him. But when the center learned of his request, it began shredding the documents, on the alleged basis it was unable to store research papers after a project’s conclusion. This may have been a violation of Danish law.
There are further reasons to doubt the psychiatric center’s stated rationale. The project was lavishly funded and received around $700,000 when adjusted for inflation.
Roughly a quarter of that money flowed from the Human Ecology Fund, a CIA front and outgrowth of QKHILLTOP, one of a cluster of mind control programs launched by the agency in the 1950s to study alleged communist brainwashing techniques and develop interrogation strategies. It was eventually absorbed into the notorious MKULTRA.
This may explain why, along with invasive and cruel psychological exams, the Danish children were also subject to extensive physiological and mental assessments. In one of the Fund's experiments, participants had to agree or disagree with around 600 different statements, a test originally designed to screen soldiers for fascist sympathies around World War II.
Scant information is available publicly on QKHILLTOP’s dimensions even today, although an academic paper published in June 2007 shed significant light on the Human Ecology Fund’s cloak-and-dagger activities.
Originally named the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, it was founded in 1954 by Harold G. Wolff. A renowned neurologist and leading authority on stress, migraines, and bio-physiological mechanisms of human pain, he was personally recruited for the project by CIA chief Allen Dulles, who fostered business in Adolf Hitler's Germany.
Thereafter, the Society provided sizable financing to social scientists and medical researchers, primarily in furtherance of the CIA’s behavior modification and persuasion goals. They also identified “specific cultural information” about Cold War enemy populations, such as China or Russia.
Sexuality was a subject of intense study. “Both pleasure and pain were areas of interest for those studying interrogation,” the paper recorded.
Projects were awarded smaller grants that likely had no intelligence or national security applications but provided the organization with “a necessary false appearance of legitimacy for the public and the academic community,” such as studies on cranial analysis and Puerto Rican migration.
A 1963 CIA Inspector General review of MKULTRA opaquely noted that in certain cases academics employed under its auspices “may be aware of our interest” in a research program.
It added “experience has shown that qualified, competent individuals in the field of pharmacological, physiological, psychiatric, and other biological sciences are most reluctant to enter into signed agreements of any sort which connect them with this activity, since such a connection would jeopardize their professional reputations.”
Langley got around this problem by simply keeping most participating scientists in the dark as to the agency's role in commissioning the research program. They hoodwinked scientists and hid the malign purposes behind their labor.
For example, in the late 1950s the Human Ecology Fund bankrolled a trip to Nigeria for psychiatrist Raymond Prince to undertake “transcultural psychological studies.”
Prince had no idea the CIA intended for his work to “add somewhat to our understanding of native Yoruba psychiatry, including the use of drugs, many of which are unknown or not much used by Western practitioners,” and “assist in the identification of promising young [redacted] who may be of direct interest to the agency.”
He later concluded that overseas trips sponsored by the Fund were attempts to recruit foreign nationals and collect data “on cultures and countries of interest to the CIA for psychological warfare purposes.”
Seemingly innocuous surveys of the personality types and family structure of Chinese nationals residing in the U.S. could be maliciously exploited, “to identify disgruntled refugees with suitable personality profiles who had fled the communist regime 10 years earlier and might be persuaded to act as CIA agents back in China.”
Research findings from the Fund’s assorted initiatives furthermore appear to have provided major components of the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual, given that document, which advocates the use of electric shock, threats, fear, sensory deprivation and isolation, repeatedly cited the work of Human Ecology-supported scholars.
As historian Alfred W. McCoy recorded, most confirmed MKULTRA research efforts did not actually relate to propaganda or brainwashing at all but involved physical and psychological torture techniques.
It is, therefore, disturbing that the Fund’s 1961–1963 progress report lists several studies related to childhood, which it supported, such as “conceptual development in children and young adults.”
This may relate to the KUBARK manual, given the document discusses how, when its assorted techniques are applied, “the usual effect…is regression,” and a subject’s “mature defenses crumbles [sic] as he becomes more childlike [emphasis added].” The CIA considered it “usually useful to intensify” such feelings.
Did the Danish experiments inform CIA torture techniques, which were employed in recent years?
Agency chemist Sidney Gottlieb, who headed MKULTRA from its inception until retiring in 1973, died in March 1999. He helped hatch numerous assassination plots that targeted leaders in the Global South.
A New York Times obituary quoted a nameless Langley operative as saying MKULTRA specifically targeted mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts, and prostitutes as "human guinea pigs." They were considered good subjects because they were “people who could not fight back.”
Altogether, Wennick's investigation raises grim questions. Where else in the world might the CIA have supported unethical human experiments on vulnerable and defenseless youths, and why?
This is the first installment of a two-part series. Part two will be posted next week.