Prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office have looked into possible connections between the 1953 death of CIA biochemist Dr. Frank Olson and the bizarre 1954 suicide of a Texas detective, WorldNetDaily has learned.
According to sources close to the recently completed grand jury inquiry into Olson’s death, investigators in District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office have examined top-secret CIA documents from a joint 1978 CIA-Department of Justice investigation related to the death of M.A. Billnitzer, who was a plainclothes investigator with the Houston, Texas, police department.
Informally dubbed the Victims Task Force, the joint investigation was initiated in 1979 after U.S. Attorney General Griffen B. Bell notified the CIA in the fall of 1978 of his opinion that “the government had a duty to seek out and notify persons who may have been harmed as a result of their having been used as unwitting subjects of [CIA] drug experiments.” Chief among the experimental programs of concern to the attorney general were projects Artichoke, MKULTRA, MKNAOMI, MKDELTA and MKSEARCH.
In response to Bell’s opinion, then-CIA director Stansfield Turner ordered David Brandwein, director of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services, to conduct a comprehensive search of agency records to locate the names of any unwitting victims. Four months later, Turner informed Bell that the search “confirmed earlier findings that no subjects of drug experimentation are identified in the available [CIA] files.” However, said Turner, in a January 1975 letter to Bell, “We have addressed correspondence to researchers and former employees considered most likely to be helpful” in identifying and locating unwitting subjects.
“As nearly as we can determine from records available,” Turner’s letter continued, “the CIA and the Bureau of Narcotics engaged in the operation of joint interest to the two agencies that may in some way have involved the administration of drugs to human subjects without their knowledge in safe houses in New York City and San Francisco.”
Turner’s letter then went on to make several astonishing admissions: “Exactly what took place in these facilities has not been determined, and neither our records nor the records of the Bureau of Narcotics (Drug Enforcement Administration) disclose any information that is useful in attempting to establish the persons who might have visited them for whatever purpose. Moreover, testimony before the Congress in the fall of 1977 by former employees of CIA and the Bureau of Narcotics revealed a distressing failure of recollections about CIA use of safe houses. The question of how the Bureau of Narcotics used them was never raised. While fragmentary records and amnesic recollections may render well nigh impossible the task of reconstructing the uses to which the safe houses were put by either Agency, and identifying any unwitting subjects there may have been, I consider it nonetheless incumbent upon us to make every reasonable effort to do so.”
Several weeks later, the Victims Task Force was formed. Its chief field investigators were Richard Selmi and John H. Laubinger. Selmi was a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who worked in the Far East and with the DEA’s internal security branch. Laubinger is a former CIA employee who joined the agency in early 1952 and worked as an analytical chemist in the Far East, Germany and France. Laubinger and Selmi reported to Robert H. Wiltse, a special assistant to John F. Blake, CIA deputy director of administration. A first-generation agency employee, Blake had been a former wartime OSS officer.
The common denominator between the deaths of Olson and Billnitzer is George Hunter White, a Federal Narcotics Bureau agent and also a former OSS officer. White, who died in 1975, worked surreptitiously from 1952 to 1967 for the CIA under several contracts related to drug experimentation and other matters. In his capacity as a CIA contractor, White also oversaw, and participated in, the operation of at least five CIA-funded safe houses in New York, Washington, D.C., and California. Three of these safe houses involved a sophisticated prostitution operation aimed at covertly eliciting information from targeted American citizens, foreign nationals, diplomats and drug traffickers.
Occasionally, the safe house prostitutes would carry out their assignments by using mind-altering substances, but, according to informed sources, they just as frequently operated along more conventional lines using sexual favors for information retrieval and extortion.
A Victims Task Force report on one of the New York safe houses reads: “The apartment had been used by visiting politicians, U.N. personnel, and senior FBN people. It had been used operationally in the [Victor] Stadter case and others, had been used as a command post in a case involving diplomats, had been used operationally while Castro was visiting the U.N., had been used during the ‘Single Convention’ as a convenient meeting/entertainment spot, had been used to meet newspaper people for interviews, etc., and had been used socially.”
A separate 1979 report on the Washington, D.C., safe house reads: “The three-story walk-up was used often during the afternoon hours and evening (after work) hours. It had been used by diplomats, politicians from the Hill and other visiting elected officials. It had also been used by various campaign people and on occasion by local law-enforcement personnel. An English basement apartment with separate front and rear entrances was used by technicians and other monitoring personnel.”
The Washington, D.C., safe house was located near the State Department in the Foggy Bottom section of the nation’s capital. The initial New York safe house – there were three – was composed of two adjoining ground-floor apartments located at the corner of Bedford and Barrow streets in Greenwich Village. The building, which was torn down in the late 1970s, that housed the apartments was owned by a “foreign national engaged in the import-export business,” according to CIA leasing documents. In 1959, another FBN safe house in New York, located in Greenwich Towers at 105 West 13th St., was funded by the CIA. In California, one of the safe houses was located in San Francisco at 225 Chestnut St. Another was a private home in Mill Valley, Marin County, located at 261 Green St.
Detective’s mysterious death
The story of White’s involvement in the Houston incident is a particularly odd saga. It is reconstructed here from extensive interviews conducted with persons close to the event, as well as from CIA and FBN documents.
George White was ordered to go to Houston, Texas, in May 1954 by FBN Commissioner Harry Anslinger. Just weeks prior, White had made a mysterious and unexpected trip to Havana, Cuba, following a secret two-day meeting at New York’s Belmont Plaza Hotel attended by five physicians who were surreptitiously under contract with the CIA and Army Chemical Corps. A little over 10 years earlier, White, as an OSS officer, had conducted a series of “truth-drug” experiments on unwitting Manhattan Project employees and others in the same hotel.
Ostensibly, White’s objective in Houston was to investigate confidential informer reports that members of the Houston Police Department were selling narcotics seized from drug traffickers. White was joined in Houston by fellow FBN agents Fred Douglas and Henry L. Giordano. Douglas came from the Washington, D.C., branch of the FBN. Giordano, a pharmacist by professional training, came from Kansas City. (Giordano was appointed head of the FBN in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy.)
In Houston, White’s investigation quickly led to his targeting vice-squad detective M.A. Billnitzer, whom White suspected of having detailed knowledge of the illegal dealings of other officers. White had been told by other Houston officers that “over $250,000 worth of heroin caps” had been siphoned off from a hidden stash belonging to a notorious dealer named Earl Voice.
According to White’s written reports to Commissioner Anslinger, “The heroin was then, a week later, sold back to Voice by the same detectives that discovered the stash.” White’s sources on the scheme were Voice himself and Houston police officer William Pool. According to White, “Pool had blown the whistle on the rotten apples in the department by sending word to [Anslinger] in Washington, D.C.” Pool, who had arrested Voice, told White, “Voice told me that he had bought back a big chunk of his own heroin within a week after it had been confiscated by the police. He said he bought it from a cop.”
Billnitzer had been the senior detective brought in on the discovery of Voice’s stash, so White called him in to give a statement. According to White, Billnitzer “was evasive and got his facts all jumbled.” Dissatisfied, a few days later White asked Billnitzer to return to his suite in Houston’s William Penn Hotel for a second interview. This time, reported White, Billnitzer changed his story and “admitted that there had been more heroin than officially reported.”
The next day, at around 11 a.m., a police officer working outside Billnitzer’s vice-squad office, was startled to hear a gunshot come from behind the detective’s closed door. As the officer jumped to his feet, he heard something heavy hitting the floor in the office. Then, after a moment, a second shot sounded. The officer attempted to enter Billnitzer’s office, but was unable to open the door. When other officers entered the office they found Billnitzer dead “with two bullet holes in his heart.”
The death was quickly ruled a suicide, and no autopsy was performed. Odd as it was, the ruling was supported by Houston Police Chief Leroy Morrison and his lead homicide investigator, who said there was “not the slightest doubt” that Billnitzer killed himself.
White disagreed. Said White, “If [Billnitzer] killed himself, he is probably the first man who ever killed himself twice.” Over the protestations of Houston law-enforcement officials, White conducted his own investigation into the detective’s death. He soon reported that “the first shot that hit Billnitzer was fired while he was standing upright.” That shot entered the detective’s heart.
“Billnitzer then fell to the floor,” reads White’s report. “While falling, his head struck a steel filing cabinet so hard that blood and hair were found on the metal.” It was then, White wrote, “after he had fallen that the second shot was fired into his heart.”
Less than a week after Billnitzer’s bizarre death, White was “astounded when I picked up a newspaper and saw a headline that accused me of driving Billnitzer out of his mind.” The accusation was not the idle speculation of a reporter but the claim of Houston’s city attorney, Will Sears. Outraged by White’s activities in his city, Sears formally fired off a series of heated telegrams to Anslinger in Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Secretary of Treasury George Humphrey and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.
Sears charged that White’s actions defied “proper description” and that the agent’s tactics “were absolutely ruthless and extremely unconventional.” He demanded an immediate federal investigation.
“I sincerely believe that agent White used tactics and threats against a law-enforcement officer that seriously disturbed the balance of the officer’s mind and lead to his ‘suicide,’” Sears wrote.
Joining the Houston city attorney in his call for an investigation and asking that White be expelled from Houston was Chief Morrison, who also called for a separate “FBI investigation of White’s Gestapo-type tactics.”
Rudolph Halley, a close friend of White’s and former head of the New York City Council, called White from Manhattan to report that the District Attorney’s Office there had informed him that the Houston police had dispatched a team to New York to investigate White. Warned Halley, “These Texas people are trying to dig up everything possible on you.”
Not surprisingly, White telephoned his CIA superior in Washington, D.C., Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, director of the agency’s Chemical Branch, to alert him to the investigation. Gottlieb responded that he had already been informed that efforts were under way to “discredit” and brand White “as an associate with communists.” The CIA official ordered White to temporarily suspend all New York safe house activities “until further notification.” Months later, the Greenwich Village safe house was shuttered and White was transferred to San Francisco. He made only one more trip to Houston, in early 1955, as part of an official inquiry related to the Billnitzer case. The evening before he departed for Texas he had a dinner meeting with Gottlieb.
Victims Task Force investigators Laubinger and Selmi learned of the strange Houston incident in August 1979 when they interviewed retired Federal Narcotics agent George Gaffney. According to a declassified CIA memorandum regarding the interview, Gaffney told Laubinger that he had been informed by the “resident FBN agent” in Houston, who was highly critical of White’s tactics, “that Billnitzer had no reason to commit suicide” and that “he suspected the suicide had been provoked by excessive threats and abuse by White.”
The memorandum goes on to state that Gaffney told Laubinger that he “remembered the LSD-provoked suicide by [Frank] Olson and after the recent revelations put two and two together and suggested the possibility that White had used a drug (possibly LSD) on Billnitzer, which had similarly provoked his suicide.”
A subsequent Task Force report to John Blake, CIA deputy administration director, and the attorney general’s office does not mention Frank Olson or his death. It reads: “Billnitzer was found on the floor, dead, with two bullet holes ‘through the heart.’ … According to press accounts, one shot was fired while he was standing and the other after he had hit the floor. There was no autopsy reported other than an examination of the externals of his chest.”
The report continues, “The speculation was offered during this investigation that Billnitzer’s ‘suicide’ may have resulted as an aftereffect of his having received an unwitting dose of LSD from White.” Laubinger and Selmi then explained that they had interviewed “the one remaining witness” to “the two interrogations of Billnitzer” by White. This was retired FBN Commissioner Henry Giordano. Giordano told the two that as he recalled, “no food or drink was served during or before the interrogation.” Said Giordano, “Even had White been inclined to have surreptitiously slipped LSD to Billnitzer” he did “not believe” that White “had the opportunity to have done so.”
Intrigue into Olson death grows
In other developments related to the Olson case, last month, on Aug. 9, the surviving sons of Frank Olson, Eric and Nils Olson, reburied their father’s remains in a Frederick, Md., cemetery. Olson’s body had been exhumed on June 2, 1994, and subjected to a thorough forensic examination conducted by a team of 15 experts, including several pathologists and toxicologists, overseen by professor James Starrs of George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
The results of the examination led Starrs to conclude in 1999, “It is highly likely that Frank Olson met with foul play.” Starrs said last month, “By the process of exclusion, [murder] is the only reasonable possibility. For the occurrence of this, the explanation is somebody got away with murder, literally.”
According to a highly controversial televised report broadcast by WJLA-TV, the Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate, the Olsons, at an Aug. 8 press conference, claimed “they can now prove Frank Olson worked for the CIA studying anthrax” and that “biological weapons were used during the Korean War.”
WJLA also reported that Eric Olson said that he has “never before seen home movies” that “reveal one of the places his father visited during [his] frequent trips to Europe was a top-secret CIA safe house” where experiments and interrogations resulted in “German POWs” and others being “tortured and killed.” According to the WJLA report, Olson said that the home movies also “show aerosol anthrax being sprayed from a crop duster during government experiments his father supervised.”
However, asked for comment on the claims made in the televised report, Eric Olson said, “I can’t vouch for any of that.” On the anthrax spraying charge, Olson said, “I have no way of knowing whether it was anthrax, etc., and never claimed to know. … There appears an image of a crop duster within my father’s movies. Where this is or what is being sprayed is not clear.” Olson added that the report concerning the safe house “was taken from” a German documentary recently aired in that country. “There are no images of a ‘safe house’ among my father’s slides or movies.” It wasn’t clear if Olson has seen the documentary.
Spokesmen for Fort Detrick, the U.S. Army facility where Frank Olson worked, flatly denied that the U.S. government ever used anthrax as a weapon during the Korean War.
“We would love to see those home movies that show anthrax spraying, but we aren’t holding our breath,” said one Army official who declined to be quoted by name.
Former Fort Detrick researchers who knew and worked with Frank Olson said they were “seriously troubled” and “deeply concerned” by reports of Olson’s home movies. Said one researcher, “I can’t imagine any such films existing. The Frank Olson I knew would have never done that. Besides, it simply makes no sense. Why would [Frank] Olson have such a film at home? That would be a very, very serious breach of security, both then and now.”
Said another former Detrick researcher, “This is so far out. I can’t believe anyone said that. [Frank] Olson never worked with anthrax. It wasn’t his thing.
“And we never used it in Korea.”
The Olson brothers said in a prepared statement read to the press on Aug. 9, “The death of Frank Olson on Nov. 28, 1953, was a murder, not a suicide. … He died because of concerns that he would divulge information concerning a highly classified CIA interrogation program called Artichoke … and [information] concerning the use of biological weapons by the United States in the Korean War.”
The issue that the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War has been hotly debated since the mid-1950s after the Chinese and North Koreans accused America of using infected insects to disseminate disease in Korea. The debate was heatedly renewed in 1998 when Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman published a book entitled, “The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets From the Early Cold War and Korea.” The book presents what many consider “hard evidence” that the U.S. military and intelligence communities lied to Congress and to the American people about their biological-warfare capabilities.
Endicott and Hagerman conclude in their book, “There is a long circumstantial trail of corroborative evidence that the United States experimented with biological weapons in Korea.” Most visible along that turning and twisting trail is the myriad of covert research and operational programs conducted by the Army at Fort Detrick. Endicott’s and Hagerman’s book, which is masterfully researched, contains little about specific projects conducted at Fort Detrick’s ultra-secret Special Operations Division, but through other sources and documents we are able to glimpse the dimensions of these projects.
Starvation as a weapon
That biochemist and program administrator Dr. Frank Olson worked developing new and better ways of biological destruction aimed at mass populations and targeted individuals is indisputable. A “Special Biological Department Report” prepared in 1950 by Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division (Olson’s section of employment) in conjunction with its Crops Division vividly portrays one project that Olson worked on. The “Top Secret” report was obtained from the Department of Defense by this writer after filing several Freedom of Information requests. The report concerns a Special Operations project involving the development of “feathers as carriers of biological-warfare agents.” The biological agent of particular interest in the report – one in a series of 18 such covert biological-warfare sub-projects listed under the codename ARCHON – was cereal rust spores.
Cereal rust spores produce rust infection. The infection is lethal, not to humans, but to edible plants that are grown in concentrations to sustain life. In the 1950s, Fort Detrick researchers considered the use of “plant pathogens” to produce various types of plant-killing fungus to be “a more humane way of eliminating enemy populations” – starvation.
Olson and several other Special Operations Division scientists, as detailed by other Defense Department documents, worked intently for about 18 months on the cereal rust project. The project report is lengthy and filled with technical jargon, but can be summarized in its own words.
Preliminary controlled tests conducted by Detrick’s SO Division “demonstrated that birds dusted with cereal rust spores will retain sufficient numbers of spores to initiate a cereal rust infection.” Initial tests to confirm this “were conducted at Camp Detrick [renamed Fort Detrick in 1954], consisted of dusting birds with cereal rust spores (Puccinia graminis avenae, Race 8) and releasing them for 1 1/2 to 24 hours in cages covering approximately 100 square feet of seedling Vicland oats.” The result: “A heavy rust infection resulted on all of the plots.”
The second test conducted by SO was quite dangerous, as infected birds were released from cages to fly “a 100-mile flight.” Used in the test were 10 “homing pigeons dusted with rust spores” and then released and “allowed to fly approximately 100 miles to their home barn” at Fort Detrick. The report states: “This test demonstrated that sufficient spores will be retained on birds after a 100-mile free flight to initiate primary infection; it was also shown that large numbers of viable spores will remain on these birds for at least 19 days.”
The third SO test was conducted “at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands,” using “four test plots covering 1,600 square feet of Vicland oats.” Again, birds were used and “heavy infection resulted in all plots, demonstrating that birds dusted with rust spores and released from aircraft will retain sufficient numbers of spores to initiate a cereal rust infection.”
But, the problems of collecting, training, controlling and tidying-up-after birds were not attractive to SO researchers. One of Olson’s areas of expertise was the airborne delivery of lethal micro-organisms. He asked, Why use birds when just their feathers will do? Olson and his colleagues soon devised an ingenious and diabolical scheme whereby large numbers of birds of multiple kinds were infected with spores and then their feathers were removed for placement in what were termed “MI6AI cluster adapters” – or in plain English, cluster or fragmentation bombs – normally used for dropping propaganda leaflets. WorldNetDaily found no evidence that these bombs were used as a weapon in Korea or anywhere else.
Asked by reporters for comment on the claims made at the Olsons’ press conference, the CIA was quick to respond.
“The CIA fully cooperated in [the Rockefeller Commission and related congressional investigations into Olson's death]. Tens of thousands of documents were released. If anyone has new information they should contact the appropriate authorities,” said CIA media officer Paul Novack. On any charges that the CIA murdered Frank Olson, Novack said, “It didn’t happen. We categorically deny that.”
A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the Billnitzer incident and Olson case, citing “the district attorney’s long-standing policy of not discussing active cases.”
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H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative reporter and writer who lives in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Albarelli’s forthcoming book on Frank Olson’s mysterious death will be available on ShopNetDaily early next year.