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I’m With Stupid – September 3, 2010

by Todd Hartley

You know how conspiracy theorists are always trying to convince us that our government does horrible secret things that nobody hears about, things we Americans think are only done by governments run by people like Josef Stalin, Pol Pot and Idi Amin?

Well, those conspiracy theorists are usually full of malarkey. No American leaders, with the possible exceptions of Dan Quayle and Tipper Gore, ever killed more than about 6,000 of their fellow countrymen. In fact, I believe Michael Dukakis holds the record with a confirmed body count of 5,962. Heck, Pol Pot used to order that many executions for breakfast.

Every now and then, though, a conspiracy theory comes along that is so preposterous there almost has to be an element of truth to it. Such is the case with a top-secret story I uncovered after much digging through the very public pages of one of the world’s most popular news websites. And yes, I do fear for my safety in revealing this information to you, but we hard-core investigative journalists are willing to take those risks.

The story concerns a town in France called Pont-Saint-Esprit and the disturbing events that took place there in August 1951. It seems that over the second half of that month the town was hit by an outbreak of wild hallucinations that affected dozens of people, leaving five dead and many others seriously ill.

At the time, the outbreak was blamed on bread from a bakery called the Roch Briand that had supposedly become contaminated with a psychedelic fungus called ergot, which occurs naturally on rye bread. In the last year, however, new information has surfaced that challenges that assertion and points the finger of blame directly at — you guessed it — the American government.

The theory, as espoused by a fellow American investigative journalist named Hank Albarelli, is that the CIA, which at the time was doing research into a newly invented drug called LSD, experimented on the people of Pont-Saint-Esprit by secretly dosing them with the drug.

You may be wondering what evidence Albarelli has to back up such an outrageous claim. First of all, there’s the testimony of 87-year-old Leon Armunier, who was a postman in Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951 and was one of the first people afflicted with the hallucinations.

“It was terrible,” he said. “I had the sensation of shrinking and shrinking, and the fire and serpents coiling around my arms.”

Now, I know that most accounts of LSD hallucinations refer to spiders crawling all over a person’s body, rather than serpents, but Armunier’s memory could be a little faulty regarding exactly which animal he thought he was being attacked by. And as for his claims of “shrinking and shrinking,” the man is 87 years old. He’s probably been shrinking for years at this point, so take his words with a grain of salt.

More damning, though, is a previously classified CIA document uncovered by Albarelli that refers to both Pont-Saint-Esprit and someone named Frank Olson, a CIA scientist who, in 1951, was the agency’s lead LSD researcher.

Another CIA report from 1954 that Albarelli obtained documents a conversation between an American field agent and a representative from the Sandoz Chemical company in Switzerland. After a few drinks, apparently the Sandoz guy blurted out: “The Pont-Saint-Esprit ‘secret’ is that it was not the bread at all. … It was not grain ergot.”

Why is this significant? Because in 1951, Sandoz, which is headquartered just a few hundred kilometers from Pont-Saint-Esprit, was the only place in the world where LSD was being produced.

So, let’s assume Albarelli is right, and the CIA did indeed dose an entire town with LSD. Why would the agency do such a thing? Were they taking drastic measures to see if they could make French people interesting? Was there a Grateful Dead concert in Pont-Saint-Esprit that month? Were CIA agents just trying to amuse themselves? We may never know.

One thing I think we can all agree on, however, is that it seems odd that the CIA would keep something so funny a secret for so long. Sure, five people died, but they were French. I’m not even sure that’s a crime. I’ll guarantee you that if Stalin had done something so hysterically imaginative, he would have told everyone he knew and laughed his ass off about it for years afterward.

I guess Harry Truman was just too modest to accept the credit for a scheme that brilliant.

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Todd Hartley

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09 2010

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