Hypnosis and Psychoactive Drugs in Intelligence Operations

     There is a long history of military exploration of hypnosis in the United States. For example, in 1961 Martin Orne published  “The Potential Uses of Hypnosis in Interrogation” in The Manipulation of Human Behavior (Biderman & Zimmer, 1961). Although the edited book was largely written under U.S. Air Force contract, Orne acknowledged separate support from the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, Inc., a CIA front-funding agency. Orne reported on both “the potential use of hypnosis in the interrogation of captured personnel” and “the defensive uses of hypnosis,” including “posthypnotic suggestions to induce amnesia on capture for sensitive information” and “posthypnotic suggestions to make captured personnel more resistant to stress” (Orne, 1961, pp. 169-170). Orne was both a psychiatrist (MD, Tufts University) and a psychologist (PhD, Harvard University). He established and directed the Unit for Experimental Psychiatry in the University of Pennsylvania  School of Medicine  (Dinges, 2000).

     Hypnosis was often employed in combination with, or in contrast to, psychoactive drugs. For example, as documented in a 1977 U.S. Senate hearing, in 1958 the CIA sought to recruit a psychologist and two psychiatrists for an interrogation experiment on incarcerated “psychopaths on whom there is an adequate previous investigation including police reports, physical, psychiatric and psychological examinations and social histories” (U.S. Senate, 1977, p. 146). In a three-group experiment, “One team working with the selected group of patients [would] use straight interrogation, hypnosis and hypnosis and LSD and hypnosis and a tetrahydrocannobinol acetate derivation. The other two teams would use straight interrogation, hypnosis, and different drugs (U.S. Senate, 1977, p. 148).

     Although hypnosis, LSD, and other psychoactive drugs may be dismissed by scientists nowadays, historically they figured in the military quest for scientific control of behavior. Against this background we consider the case of veteran intelligence operative “Mr. J.” 

Mr. J

     In 2002, the Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies published a case of delayed-onset post-traumatic stress in a World War II veteran that incidentally describes use of posthypnotic suggestion on intelligence agents (Cassiday & Lyons, 2002). “Mr. J” had worked in intelligence in the Pacific Theater from 1945 to 1947. He reenlisted in 1950 and served in the Far East until 1951, a stint that ended in capture, torture, escape, and a medical discharge. “He had no history of precombat psychopathology, and he had maintained a successful career” as an engineer, gunsmith, and forensics expert. He was “asymptomatic for PTSD for more than 37 years following the trauma” (p. 627).

     In 1987, following a cerebral vascular accident (CVA), “Mr. J experienced intrusive thoughts, recalled forgotten war memories, began avoiding reminders of war (e.g., stopped teaching marksmanship), and experienced dissociative episodes in which he felt as though he was in hand-to-hand combat” (p.627). “He assumed they were hallucinatory phenomena” (628). Additional CVAs in 1988 and 1989 further debilitated him and greatly increased his PTSD symptoms  (pp. 629-630):

     Mr. J also recalled more details of his capture and imprisonment. He recalled his escape and military debriefing in which he underwent hypnotic procedures to help him forget his combat experiences. Although his recall of these procedures is sketchy, he remembers that these hypnotic sessions occurred almost daily for several weeks during which time he was also given medications. These procedures focused upon helping him develop an identity and personal history that excluded intelligence service and traumatic events.

Attempts to verify Mr. J’s intelligence work were unsuccessful since, predictably, no public documentation of these aspects of his service was contained in his military records. However, we feel confident that Mr. J’s self-report was bona fide. Mr. J was not seeking compensation and was financially independent.... Verification of his civilian history indicates that self-report for his civilian years was accurate. Furthermore, he did not demonstrate the characteristics typical of factitious PTSD.... Additionally, while hospitalized, he had a flashback in which he mistook IV apparatus for being bayonetted. An Asian physician observed Mr. J speaking a Asian dialect during this flashback. Collectively, these data led us to conclude that military events occurred as reported and cannot be dismissed as delusions or fabrications.

Issue #1:  On the presumption that amnesia can be induced through hypnosis and/or psychoactive drugs, under what conditions (e.g., voluntariness of subject) is this ethical in military intelligence operations or other national security contexts?   If believed conducive to the success of operations, under what institutional arrangements could induction of amnesia be monitored or curtailed?

Issue #2:  On the presumption that amnesia cannot be induced through hypnosis and/or psychoactive drugs (without brain damage), some mind control researchers may have exploited the military for career opportunities. What protection do defense agencies have against opportunistic research into mind control technologies in settings where secrecy prevents peer review of research?

Issue #3:  Although operational applications of hypnosis and psychoactive drugs may have waned, there are many new suggestive technologies of the mind, including brainwave detection of deception, interrogation techniques derived from the theory of learned helplessness, and neuroweapons. (See the case narrative “Human Experimentation with Neuroweapons.”  Are psychologists researching these technologies for defense applications justified in disregarding ethical issues in the historical uses of mind control technologies?  On what institutional basis could an ethics component be worked into program evaluation?

Issue #4:  Clinical psychologists Karen Cassiday and Judith Lyons took an unusual step in assessing the validity of Mr. J’s flashbacks through external evidence and in publishing their findings. How does psychological ethics bear on their taking this step or not?  What conditions of employment would enable psychologists to take such a step without risk of career damage?


Biderman, Albert D., &  Zimmer, Herbert (Eds.). (1961). The manipulation of human behavior. New York:  Wiley.

Cassiday, Karen L., & Lyons, Judith A. (1992). Recall of traumatic memories following cerebral vascular accident. Journal of Traumatic Stress Studies, 5 (4), 867-877.

Dinges, David. (2000, May/June). In memory of Dr. Orne. The Pennsylvania Gazette, 100 (5): 91. [Available on-line:].

Orne, Martin T. (1961). The potential uses of hypnosis in interrogation. In A.D. Biderman & H. Zimmer (Eds.),  The manipulation of human behavior, pp. 169-215. New York:  Wiley.