The death in 1953 of a government scientist, Frank Olson, in a fall from a New York hotel window, is one of the most notorious cases in CIA history. Only in 1975 did Olson's family learn that the CIA had slipped LSD into his drink, days before his death. President Ford apologized for an experiment gone awry, and promised that the government would reveal everything about the case.
But newly obtained documents show that the Ford administration continued to conceal information about Olson -- particularly, his role in some of the CIA's most controversial research of the Cold War, on anthrax and other biological weapons.
The documents show that two of the key officials involved in the decision to withhold that information were White House aides Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, today the nation's vice president and secretary of Defense.
"These documents show the lengths to which the government was trying to cover up the truth," said the scientist's son, Eric Olson, who gave them to the Mercury News. "For 22 years there was a coverup. And then, under the guise of revealing everything, there was a new coverup."
Rumsfeld's office referred questions about the withholding of information to the CIA, where a media officer, Paul Nowack, said that CIA activities related to Frank Olson's death were investigated by the Rockefeller Commission as well as subsequent congressional committees.
"The CIA fully cooperated" in those investigations, he said, and "tens of thousands of documents were released." If anyone has new information, he said, "they should contact appropriate authorities."
Eric Olson has contended for years that his father was murdered to cover up his research for the CIA. At a news conference in Maryland today, he will reveal the results of his long inquiry into his father's death.
The new documents do not prove those allegations. But they do show that the White House officials were concerned about any public revelation of Eric Olson's work.
Contrary to the official explanation that Frank Olson was an Army scientist, Olson worked for the CIA, at the special operations division at Fort Detrick, the Maryland laboratory where biological weapons were tested.
Classified research Eric Olson said this week that a former colleague and friend of his father's contacted him last year and described some of the closely guarded work his father conducted.
He said the colleague told him his father was among scientists studying the use of LSD and other drugs to enhance interrogations, as Cold War tensions ran high and Americans feared that captured soldiers had been brainwashed in Korea.
In the months before his death, the colleague said, Frank Olson had gone to Europe, where he observed the interrogation of former Nazis and Soviet citizens at a secret U.S. base. And, the colleague said, Frank Olson had knowledge of the U.S. biological weapons program.
Eric Olson contends that in the final days of his life, his father became morally distraught over his work and decided to quit. Personnel records show that agency officials were concerned that he was a security risk. Eric Olson believes the thought of Frank Olson quitting was a motive for the government to want him dead.
In 1993, Eric Olson arranged for his father's body to be unearthed and examined by a forensic scientist, James Starrs. Starrs concluded that Frank Olson had probably been struck on the head and then thrown out of the hotel window.
Starrs' conclusion is one of the tantalizing pieces that Eric Olson has gathered to support his belief that his father was murdered. Friday, satisfied that he has accomplished what he could, Olson intends to rebury the remains of his father.
In late November 1953, Frank Olson, then 43, joined a group of government officials at a conference at Deep Creek Lodge in western Maryland. For days afterward, Olson was withdrawn. His son, Eric, says his father told his wife that he intended to quit his job.
But Frank Olson did not quit. And on Nov. 23 he went to New York with another government official, where he twice visited Harold A. Abramson, a doctor who was one of the first researchers to study the effects of LSD.
Olson returned to Washington, then went back to New York on Nov. 28 and checked into the Statler Hotel. He was scheduled to enter a sanitarium the next day.
But early in the morning of Nov. 29, Frank Olson went through the window of the hotel room he was sharing with a colleague, Robert Lashbrook. Lashbrook told police that he was awakened by the sound of breaking glass.
The Olson family knew little else. But in 1975, a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller issued a report on CIA abuses, and an account in the Washington Post included a mention of an Army scientist who jumped from a New York hotel room days after being slipped LSD in 1953.
"We realized they were talking about my father," Eric Olson recalled. Family members talked to reporters about their outrage and said they would sue the government. Days later, the family was invited to the White House to meet President Ford. He assured them that they would be given all information about what happened to Frank Olson.
Soon after, the family was invited to lunch with CIA Director William Colby, who gave them a file of documents that amounted to the CIA investigation into Olson's death. But the documents left many questions unanswered about both his work and the circumstances of his death.
The family was told that a lawsuit was unlikely to succeed. Instead, the administration promised to support a private bill in Congress, through which the family received $750,000 to resolve their claims.
"The express understanding was that the government had promised to give us all information, which clearly meant information about his work relationship with the CIA," the Olsons' attorney, David Rudovsky of Philadelphia, said this week. "It now appears that was not the case."
Son finds clues
Over the years Eric Olson turned up many clues, real or coincidental.
There was, for example, the assassination manual that the CIA declassified in connection with its Guatemala activities. The manual, created in the early 1950s, identified "the contrived accident" as "the most effective technique" of secret assassination.
"The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface," the manual stated. Only recently Eric Olson obtained files from a University of California-Davis history professor that showed White House officials had intentionally withheld details of Frank Olson's death from the family.
The professor, Kathryn Olmsted, came across the records at the Gerald Ford library. They included a memo from Dick Cheney, a White House assistant at the time, to Donald Rumsfeld, the chief of staff, on July 11, 1975, one day after the Olsons first held a news conference.
The memo warned that a lawsuit could involve "the possibility that it might be necessary to disclose highly classified national-security information in connection with any court suit or legislative hearings on a private bill."
The documents also include memos written by White House counsel Roderick Hills to the president that were routed through Cheney and other officials. "Dr. Olson's job is so sensitive that it is highly unlikely that we would submit relevant evidence" to a court, Hills wrote, regarding a potential suit by the Olson family.
"If there is a trial, it is apparent that the Olsons' lawyer will seek to explore all of the circumstances of Dr. Olson's employment as well as those concerning his death. Thus, in the trial it may become apparent that we are concealing evidence for national-security reasons and any settlement or judgment reached thereafter could be perceived as money paid to cover up the activities of the CIA." As a result, Hills urged settling the case out of court.