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Poisoner in Chief

Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
Narrated by: James Linkin
Length: 12 hrs and 17 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (60 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The best-selling author of All the Shah’s Men and The Brothers tells the astonishing story of the man who oversaw the CIA’s secret drug and mind-control experiments of the 1950s and ’60s.

The visionary chemist Sidney Gottlieb was the CIA’s master magician and gentlehearted torturer - the agency’s “poisoner in chief.” As head of the MK-ULTRA mind control project, he directed brutal experiments at secret prisons on three continents. He made pills, powders, and potions that could kill or maim without a trace - including some intended for Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders. He paid prostitutes to lure clients to CIA-run bordellos, where they were secretly dosed with mind-altering drugs. His experiments spread LSD across the United States, making him a hidden godfather of the 1960s counterculture. For years he was the chief supplier of spy tools used by CIA officers around the world.

Stephen Kinzer, author of groundbreaking books about US clandestine operations, draws on new documentary research and original interviews to bring to life one of the most powerful unknown Americans of the 20th century. Gottlieb’s reckless experiments on “expendable” human subjects destroyed many lives, yet he considered himself deeply spiritual. He lived in a remote cabin without running water, meditated, and rose before dawn to milk his goats.

During his 22 years at the CIA, Gottlieb worked in the deepest secrecy. Only since his death has it become possible to piece together his astonishing career at the intersection of extreme science and covert action. Poisoner in Chief reveals him as a clandestine conjurer on an epic scale.

©2019 Stephen Kinzer (P)2019 Macmillan Audio

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Narration not great

I had to stop listening to this and just read the book, which is excellent. The narrator’s stilted, halting portray of Gottlieb’s stutter was completely unnecessary and, for me, rather annoying.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Important Topic, But Not Well Executed

Impressed with Kinzer's interview on NPR, I expected to enjoy this book. After ten minutes, I almost shut it off and returned it. The narration is nearly a satire of the over-the-top delivery of a low-quality cableTV documentary. I persevered because the broad story is interesting. Kinzer writes well, but transitions are marked by over-the-top narrative hooks that underscore the docu-hype style. Sourcing seems thin, and little new information is presented. Attention to detail is uneven (notorious Dr. Cameron is incorrectly identified as having been president of the "American Psychological Association" rather than the American Psychiatric Association......and yes, they're VERY different). The story has already been told by others. BUT Kinzer is a solid story teller, and this is an okay introduction to an important, complicated history.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Absolutely Essential History

It is almost beyond belief, and it is beyond belief for most people who only learned what they teach in middle school history class. It is such a savage portrait of institutional "evil," and I don't know any better example for this word than what the CIA has done in its covert and fantastically meglomeniachal quests to conquer and puppet the human mind. The book goes through our history developing and testing biological weapons, even testing (supposedly) benign bacteria mass delivery systems as aerosol spray clouds which were launched on San Franciso. The whole culture of the CIA is at times comically "fear and loathing", where they are surprise dosing eachother regularly and coming up with hair brain ideas of how to discredit Castro with serious plans to make his beard fall out by putting thaleum salts in in his shoes, or regularly conducting "experiments" involving lots of sex with hookers and LSD. and at other times their "work" or obsession is absolutely disturbing and defined by procuring people for prolonged torture and experimentation with electroshock and every other method of pharmacological and "interrogation technique" to try to utterly break and replace their very personality and mind and sense of reality as a tool of war. The book shows how in their mad search for this knowledge of ultimate power, to replace, implant and control another's mind, they kill thousands of "easily expendable" people both overseas, (in the korean war for example), as well as at home in the black prisons of Kentucky. This book does a great and thorough job putting this story together in a way that will make you excited, fascinated and morally disgusted all at once. It makes me reflective on just how deceitfully truncated the prescribed narrative of American history is to leave out this deeply revealing chapter of the American portrait.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Excellent and terrifying

Full of detail about the history of the CIA’s attempt to control the human mind. I left the experience of listening to this book much more informed and considerably more jaded about the nature of mankind. The writing is first rate, which is always true of Kinzer, and the performance fit the subject to a tee — strong, outraged voice.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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A fascinating tale of a dark time.

Terry Gross’ (from NPR/WHYY-Philadelphia) interview with Stephen Kinzer about this dark time in US history provoked my interest in the book — which did not disappoint. It is a well-written, well-constricted, and deeply thought provoking story of the post-WWII creation and massive expansion of CIA programs to develop non-atomic weapons of mass destruction.

Amidst the historical underpinnings are details about the personal lives of the players involved in these programs and some of the justifications they used to continue their work over many years.

My only critique has nothing to do the writing itself but of the delivery. In his attempt to add some dramatic flair - Mr. Linkin tries (somewhat unsuccessfully) to mimic a speech impediment of one of the central characters and on occasion (oddly) mis-pronounces some words. However, these slight flaws pale in comparison to the positives.

Would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a deeper dive into history as well as those who enjoy trying to understand the psychological composition of people who are able to justify human atrocities in service of what they believe is the greater good.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Another great, illuminating book from Kinzer!

Highly recommended! This wonderful, well-researched and properly contextualized book about an unknown and outrageous bit of American history. Kinzer is a terrific writer, and an independent and thorough thinker. His other books are all first rate, I've read or listened to them all. Just great.

As to the narrator, well... any narration job is tough so it's understandable, it's just a tough thing to get right. This fellow seems to be shouting the entire book, as if before a crowd without a microphone. It's strange but, again, it's a very tough thing to get right.

Great book!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Profile Image for Gail Seib
  • Gail Seib
  • 10-09-19

Quite Frightening

Even after having watched documentaries on MK Ultra this is still a frightening look at the experimentation on humanity of people who have no conscience. I think we all realize this is going on and that programmed assassins exist and people can be poisoned without a trace but this book explores the people who do these things to their fellow humans. Such a good job by Stephen Kinzer at opening our minds and it is very well read by the narrator. I highly recommend this book especially at this current time.