Science  /  Antecedent

Before He Was the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski was a Mind-Control Test Subject

As a Harvard student, Kaczynski was part of an experiment backed by the Central Intelligence Agency that one author argued shaped his worldviews.

Ted Kaczynski, the anarchist and so-called Unabomber who died in a federal prison medical facility on Saturday, transformed from boy genius to terrorist, going from a star mathematics student to a feared assailant who targeted academics, scientists and industrialized society as a whole.

Kaczynski entered Harvard University as a 16-year-old on a scholarship, after skipping the sixth and 11th grades. It was there that he was subjected to an experiment run by Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray that was backed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Though he graduated with a mathematics degree, later completing a doctorate in the field before becoming a professor, questions remain over whether — or to what extent — he was affected by the experiment, which reportedly involved mock interrogations in which participants’ beliefs were harshly disparaged.

Murray’s study was widely reported to be part of a CIA program code-named Project MK-Ultra, inspired by the use of mind-control techniques on U.S. prisoners of war in Korea by the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. The program sought to understand how to control subjects’ minds, sometimes using substances such as LSD, according to a document the CIA made publicly available in 2018. (There has not been evidence to suggest LSD or similar substances were used at Harvard on Kaczynski.)

“The project attempted to produce a perfect truth drug for use in interrogating suspected Soviet spies during the Cold War,” the document says. “And generally to explore any other possibilities of mind control.”

CIA Director Richard Helms ordered the destruction of many files related to MK-Ultra in 1973. Nevertheless, Kaczynski disclosed some of his apparent involvement in the study in correspondence from prison with the professor Alston Chase, who later wrote a book about the Unabomber.

Chase argued in a June 2000 article in the Atlantic magazine that Kaczynski’s experiences at Harvard — his studies, overlapping with his roughly three-year participation in Murray’s experiment — helped create the Unabomber.

“Thus did Kaczynski’s Harvard experiences shape his anger and legitimize his wrath,” wrote Chase, who died in 2022. “By the time he graduated, all the elements that would ultimately transform him into the Unabomber were in place …”