On 24 February 2006, UK legal history was made. On that day, MI6 (UK Foreign Intelligence Service) agreed to pay three ex-servicemen £10,000 each in an out of court settlement having been accused of assaulting them. A spokesman for the Foreign Office, which oversees MI6, said: “The settlement offers were made to the government on behalf of the three claimants which, on legal advice, and in the particular circumstances of these cases, the government thinks it appropriate to accept.”
The secret story behind the case was that in 1953 and 1954 the men had volunteered to be “guinea pigs” at the government’s chemical warfare research base at Porton Down in Wiltshire. They had been told that scientists wanted to find a cure for the common cold. But in fact they were given LSD treatments in mind control tests that had been commissioned by MI6. The Service wanted to know if the drug could be used to make their agents talk – or if it could make enemy agents talk if they captured one. Far from helping to cure the common cold, the volunteers found themselves subject to confusion, paranoia and terrifying hallucinations.
The research was carried out in the 1950s after the British and American intelligence services began to suspect that the Soviet Union had developed a “truth drug” which could compel spies and captured servicemen to yield up important secrets. Scientists working for MI6 decided to test LSD, the closest thing they thought they had to a truth drug, on volunteers to see how they reacted. LSD had only been discovered ten years earlier in 1941 so its effects were still a bit of mystery. Some of the volunteers were from RAF Swanton Morlay.
But in fact this sort of research had been going on in the UK for many years. Experiments first began in 1916 soon after the German first used poison gas on the Western Front. The research was based around a “volunteers programme” using servicemen from the armed forces. Up to 20,000 people are believed to have taken part in various chemical and biological trials in the 70+ years up to 1989. Most did not know what was being done to them, only that they were “helping the war effort.” In the 1990s, when victims tried to find out exactly what had been done to them, the government hid behind the Official Secrets Act. This was despite the fact that the CIA experiments had been revealed in 1971. It sounded so awful that for many years they were not believed. The first indication that they were telling the truth was when the MI5 maverick Peter Wright referred to the experiments in his tell-all book “Spycatcher.” He had been a scientist for MI5 so knew all about them. Even so, it took an investigation by the British police to finally bring the truth to light.
Following the settlement, Don Webb, who was a 19-year-old airman at the time, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think they grudgingly acknowledged that they did something wrong. They stick to the old maxim: never apologise, never explain. But I think in this case they have decided to pay some money. I think that is as near to an apology or an explanation as I’ll get.” Both he and fellow serviceman Eric Gow, who was also just 19, reported that they had suffered terrible hallucinations after they were asked to drink a clear liquid. The third ex-serviceman did not wish to be named.
Alan Care, a lawyer who represented the three men, made it clear why this was a moment of history when he said: “As far as we are aware, these are the first settlements by the secret intelligence services for a personal injury action.” He added that a request that documents relating to the case be put into the public domain had been refused. Even after having, in effect, admitted liability, MI6 could still not face the public embarrassment of the full details of the operation.
Despite government secrecy, this was not the only “guinea pig” case that came to court (although it was the only one to involve the intelligence services.) In October 2005, the government was found guilty of breaching the human rights of former soldier Thomas Roche, who claimed he developed health problems as a result of mustard gas and nerve agent tests in 1962 and 1963. At the same time that the LSD experiments were being conducted, another RAF serviceman, Ronald Maddison, was killed at Porton Down in an experiment on the effects of Sarin nerve gas. He was just 20 years old. The 1950s inquest was held in complete secrecy and recorded a verdict of “death by misadventure”. But 51 years later that verdict was overturned and replaced with one of “unlawful killing by the British government.”