Early in the morning on November 28, 1953, an American war criminal named Frank Olson went flying out of a 10th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York City to his death on the sidewalk below. Olson, a bacteriologist who had developed biological weapons used in the Korean war, had become too much of a risk. Like Edward Snowden, he had threatened to “blow the whistle” on government secrets. Unlike Edward Snowden, who knew better than to trust his colleagues in the CIA, he confessed to his superiors that he was feeling remorse over the deadly germs he had helped develop. What’s more, in the early 1950s, the CIA had developed a “truth serum,” LSD, a drug that would eventually play a deceptive role in the investigation into Frank Olson’s death. Whether he had taken LSD voluntarily or if it had been slipped into his drink behind his back, by the time his superiors set him up for the kill, Olson was far too delusional and paranoid to defend himself.
When I first found out that Errol Morris, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, had made a six part, partly fictionalized documentary for Netflix about Frank Olson, I was skeptical. After all, it was 2017. Barack Obama had become heavily involved with Netflix, and after the election of Donald Trump as President, the CIA had “come out of the shadows,” and had gotten directly involved in electoral politics. In the 1970s, most people on the left saw the CIA a secretive, vaguely sinister, unelected government institution that was probably up to no good. In 2017, Democratic Party loyalists had elevated the CIA to the status of the heroic savior that would deliver us from the evil that is Donald Trump. So how much could a mainstream documentary really tell us? Surely Wormwood would be a “limited hangout,” an account that would effectively obscure more about the Olson murder than it revealed. But it turns out that Wormwood is not in fact a “limited hangout, but a meditation on the concept of the “limited hangout.”
According to former CIA operative Victor Marchetti a “limited hangout” is defined as “spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.” In 1975, when the Church Committee hearings and the Rockefeller Commission opened up investigations into Cointelpro and CIA covert action, Frank Olson’s son Eric, now a graduate student at Harvard, had an opportunity to discover what really happened to his father at the Statler Hotel in 1953. For decades, his family had been in such denial that when journalist Seymour Hirsch contacted them for an interview, the man who broke the story of the My Lai Massacre immediately expressed his disgust. “You people must be the most incurious family on earth.”
The Ford Administration, however, especially national security advisors Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, knew that if Eric Olson pressed his case the CIA would be in trouble. The Olson family had already filed suit, and the discovery process would mean that their lawyers would get to demand evidence that the agency simply wasn’t prepared to give. So the President himself invited Eric, his mother, his brother and sister into the White House. It was only later that the younger Olson realized that it had all been a trap, that in one moment he had not only given up the opportunity to find out what had really happened to his father, but had essentially ruined his life. After throwing on the charm, Gerald Ford laid his offer on the table. If the Olson family agreed to drop the lawsuit, and sign a non-disclosure agreement, they would get a court settlement in the amount of 1.2 million dollars and an official apology from the President of the United States. The Olson family accepted the offer and that was that. Eric Olson would spend the rest of his life regretting his decision. The Olson family had had the Ford Administration over a barrel. They let them escape.
Along with the Ford Administration’s apology, the CIA agreed to release an official explanation of among other things what had happened to Frank Olson, the “limited’ hangout that would reveal part of the truth, but obscure the fact that the CIA and the Army had been manufacturing biological weapons at Fort Detrick. Instead of admitting that the North Korean and Chinese governments had been right all along, that the United States had used biological weapons during the Korean War, the CIA misdirected the attention of the American people to “MK-Ultra,” a lurid series of experiments in mind control, hallucinogenic drugs, and torture that certainly did happen, but which also made for such compelling tabloid fodder that the war crimes committed against the Korean people were completely forgotten. Even today, if you listen to leftist radio programs like Democracy Now or even if you read some of the more extreme “conspiracy theory” sites on the Internet, very few people talk about Frank Olson as the victim of what had essentially been a mafia hit by the United States government. Having trained killers eliminate a potentially damaging witness is good cable TV episode about the WASP Sopranos in Langley, but compared to the idea that a paranoid, drugged up Frank Olson leapt through a plate glass window on his own volition twelve stories to his death, it’s boring. After all, MK-Ultra can be used to explain everything from the Kennedy Assassination to the Manson murders. It’s the gift to conspiracy theorists that keeps on giving.
If Wormwood managed to get distributed by Netflix in 2017, at the height of the CIA’s popularity among American liberals, then it’s partly because in the end it reads like a cautionary tale against asking too many questions for too long. Eric Olson had his chance in 1975. He blew it. He should have let it go. Instead, he continued, quite literally, to dig up more information about his father’s murder, exhuming Frank Olson’s body and having a medical examiner declare that the death was not a suicide but rather “of unknown causes.” He filed a second suit against the CIA, which was eventually dropped. He managed to push Seymour Hersch into another investigation, which eventually revealed that the US government has a “hit list” of political dissidents to eliminate in the event they become too dangerous, but couldn’t convince him to publish an article or burn his source. Eric Olson managed to build a compelling circumstantial case that his father was in fact murdered, one that would probably hold up in court, if any court were willing to take the case, and if the men responsible for Frank Olson’s murder were still alive.
While a fascinating docudrama, Wormwood is unlikely to convince any “resistance” liberals, let alone conservatives, that the CIA needs to be dismantled. Yes, they’ll argue, in the past, the CIA committed crimes, even against their own operatives, but that was in the past. You radicals, like Eric Olson should just “let it go” and get on with your lives. Needless to say, neither Frank Olson nor Errol Morris is particularly interested in what the Korean people have to say about a dead American war criminal. For them, Frank Olson seems to have been the only victim of the CIA’s biological warfare against North Korea. Another filmmaker might have portrayed Eric Olson the way they’d portray the son of a Nazi war criminal. Would anybody really care if Herman Goering threw Albert Speer out a window in Berlin? Morris, quite intentionally, doesn’t go there. But Wormwood, to use that old cliche, does “make you think.” Can a documentary about a limited hangout also be a limited hangout? It’s the question Errol Morris forces us to ask.