Operation Crossroads nuclear test | Image via Library of Congress
For some with personal connections to past mistakes, the consequences of unfettered ingenuity are no more easily ignored than mushroom clouds on the horizon
In early February, shortly before COVID-19 lockdowns swept the country, I traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, to cover the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. I took a short break from that coverage, though, to meet with Michael McKilen, the grandson of defense contractor and experimental brain surgery victim Leonard Kille.
McKilen had tracked me down after reading a 2017 article I wrote that linked doctors who operated on his grandfather to a Central Intelligence Agency front known as the Scientific Engineering Institute that once operated in Waltham, in conspicuously close proximity to what is now the headquarters of robotics company Boston Dynamics. He emailed me at my day job editing a small-town newspaper in Kansas just weeks before we serendipitously had a chance to meet in person.
Leading up to our meetup at the Shaskeen Pub in Manchester, McKilen shared some documents related to Kille’s case. In a corner booth of the dimly lit bar, as Irish drinking songs obscured our conversation from other parties within earshot, he handed me two packets of photocopied letters and medical records. Some appeared to offer even clearer evidence than I had previously seen of a CIA connection to Harvard-affiliated doctors Vernon Mark and Frank Ervin, who performed experimental psychosurgery on Kille in Boston more than 50 years ago.
“The C.I.A. also sponsored Drs. Mark and Ervin’s psychosurgery,” Kille’s mother, Helen Geis, wrote in a letter to psychiatrist Peter Breggin. “I am pondering whether to notify the Globe reporter, that the judge O’Connor in court would not let the C.I.A. information be known. It could not be used, ‘his orders.’”
I pointed out to McKilen that it was a seriously odd coincidence that he’d contacted me in researching the story of how his grandfather, an engineer who worked on numerous classified projects for the federal government, was apparently used in a gruesome and deeply unethical “mind control” experiment. I have personally spent the past several years discovering my own grandfather’s involvement—in a similar guinea pig role, arguably—in early atomic weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. As I learned from McKilen, Leonard Kille was also involved in nuclear testing in the Pacific more than a decade later with a program codenamed Operation Dominic.
By early 2020, my effort to tell my grandfather’s story had morphed into a broader exploration of Boston’s ties to development of some of the world’s deadliest weapons. From campuses providing research for corporate behemoths to the Commonwealth subsidizing big biotech, this region is a hotspot for the kinds of technological feats that the public applauds more than it actually understands. And like the subterranean counterterrorism bunker converted from abandoned train tunnels under the South Boston “Innovation District,” there is a lesser-known, darker world beneath the surface of this long-standing idea hub.
Boston’s collective memory tends to retain the glorious achievements. Years from now, Eastern Mass may even be remembered as the place where a COVID-19 vaccine that saved millions of lives was developed. And it only makes sense that those involved in such efforts prefer to focus on the benefits their work provides for society.
For others, including some people with personal connections to past mistakes and ambitions misplaced in pursuit of grand technological goals, the consequences of unfettered ingenuity are no more easily ignored than mushroom clouds on the horizon.
In early August, activists gathered in Cambridge to mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a protest against Raytheon, the world’s third-largest defense contractor and Massachusetts-based maker of missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
That same day, the group Ethics In Tech hosted an online event commemorating what it termed the “ignominious anniversary” to discuss the modern-day equivalents of the ethical issues raised by the use of nuclear arms against Japan. “Whether you’re talking about nuclear weapons or killer robots, technology takes the ability of humanity to be horrible to each other and increases it in a tremendous way,” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, during the event.
A few miles northwest of Boston, suburban Waltham is sometimes called Watch City due to its involvement in watchmaking (in the past, at least, when that was more of an actual thing). Nowadays, though, the city is still home to several companies in an industry that reliably makes money like clockwork.
One of those big players is Raytheon. In addition to its missile business, the company provides products such as the Active Denial System, a directed-energy weapon also known as the “pain ray.” Shipped to Afghanistan at one point, the ADS was returned after being deemed a public relations disaster waiting to happen. In the time since, the system has reportedly undergone a transformation into a handheld weapon for police use, an unsurprising development given the flow of military armaments to law enforcement agencies around the country. Recently, federal officials reportedly considered bringing the pain (ray) against protesters in Washington, DC.
A short drive from Raytheon’s offices, meanwhile, the robots built by Boston Dynamics take steps—whether on two legs or four, or a “nightmare-inducing” combination that might also involve wheels—toward the creation of fully autonomous weapons systems. Such weapons—also known as killer robots—represent what the Cambridge-based Future of Life Institute calls “the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.” As far as legacies go, Boston Dynamics is adjacent to or possibly on the former campus of the CIA’s Scientific Engineering Institute. The SEI was used for a wide range of questionable research and was eventually rebranded as Searle Medidata Inc., a subsidiary of G.D. Searle. A pharmaceutical corporation later chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, in 1985 Searle was sold to the Monsanto Company, a longtime leader in genetic engineering and maker of the widely used carcinogenic weed killer Roundup. Monsanto once maintained an office just off of Edwin H. Land Boulevard in Cambridge, a thoroughfare named for the first president of the SEI.
While still known as the SEI, the Waltham facility later put under the Searle umbrella served as a major center for the Office of Research and Development within the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology.
“We looked at the manipulation of genes,” a researcher with the secretive CIA division told author John Marks in the late 1970s. “We were interested in gene splintering. The rest of the world didn’t ask until 1976 the type of questions we were facing in 1965. … Everybody was afraid of building the super soldier who would take orders without questioning.”
[Further Reading: Lobotomass: From mind control experiments to taxpayer-funded black magic to housing Nazi scientists in Boston Harbor, the Commonwealth has an unparalleled dark side to its noted innovation legacy—with many shadows leading to today’s technological titans]
Blast from the past
The summer of 1946 was a period of great ambition but also uncertainty for US policymakers. Less than a year earlier, within weeks of World War II ending, Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun had arrived in Massachusetts under the auspices of Project Paperclip. Raytheon was still a few years away from proving the effectiveness of its first guided missiles.
It was against this backdrop that my grandfather became involved in a radioactive PR snafu with more than enough explosive potential to rival Raytheon’s pain ray display in Afghanistan.
After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world was terrified enough of nuclear weapons that the very first United Nations resolution called for atomic energy to be used only for “peaceful purposes,” along with the elimination of existing nuclear arms. The Soviet Union, not trusting that disarmament would be fairly enforced, countered America’s proposal known as the Baruch Plan—named after financier Bernard Baruch, who later also coined the phrase “cold war”—with its own. The US then drastically reduced chances for serious negotiations by detonating two more nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Having worked as a journalist before the US entered World War II and served in the Aleutian Islands Campaign once America joined the fray, my grandfather, Lt. Thomas Wyman Riley (he generally went by his middle name) was recalled to duty and assigned to these nuclear tests, codenamed Operation Crossroads, as a Navy press officer.
“From eight miles away, we saw the terrific flash, masked temporarily by a fog bubble which is peculiar to such explosions over water and then seconds later felt the heat and then the shock wave,” he wrote in a letter home. “The cloud billowed up into what looked like a giant column of whipped cream and butterscotch.”
My grandfather wrote Adm. William Blandy’s statements on the two detonations. He was sent into the blast zone after the first test, where he “toured the ships as soon as they were ‘cool’ and was impressed with the damage.”
The Navy apparently had a limited understanding of nuclear weaponry’s radioactive effects prior to Crossroads. Experts including “geophysicists, oceanographers, meteorologists, entomologists, biologists and others” were present at Bikini “with strange and complicated apparatus with which to test the reactions of goats, hogs, rats, tuna fish, fruit flies, microorganisms, rocks, wind currents and one another,” according to a contemporary Life magazine article.
“Ten percent of the animals were killed immediately and today, six days after the blast, they are beginning to show the effects of radioactivity,” my grandfather wrote in another account. “Their deaths will increase as time goes on. One goat was found alive on the Independence, two on the Nevada and a pig was found swimming two hours after the Sakawa went down,” he added, referring to target ships used in the test. “It’s horrible to think of its effect on human beings.”
Though he would live another four decades, T. Wyman Riley eventually died in 1988 at 73 years old from liver cancer—the same cancer later found to have “increased dramatically among males during the past 20 years, with a 2-fold increase in incidence in the past 10 years alone” in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to a 1994 study. “When I get back in civilian clothes I plan to write a couple of stories: one panning the press and the other the navy,” my grandfather wrote home from Bikini. He never followed through on those plans, and was likely just griping about the workload. Still, I thought his dreams were worth following up on.
Life expectancy was seemingly inversely correlated with rank among Crossroads participants. Adm. Blandy died in 1954, shortly before the navy returned to Bikini Atoll to detonate the even larger H-bomb. The top official at the 1946 nuclear tests, meanwhile, Navy Secretary James Forrestal—“a very nice guy” in my grandfather’s estimation—plunged to his death less than three years later from a 16th-floor window of the Bethesda Naval Hospital in what was initially reported in the media (but never confirmed in the “finding of facts” of an official report kept classified for more than half a century) as a suicide.
World War COVID
In 2020, the enemy is COVID, not some foreign power. And in that raging battle, Boston, a prominent hub for genetic modification and home to such establishments as the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, is a leading theater for medical exploration. As these hero narratives tend to go, their feats will be remembered for decades to come. Their faults, on the other hand, will likely be forgotten, at least until they’re dredged up by somebody’s nosy grandkid 50 years from now.
Since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, conspiracy theorists have attempted to link COVID-19 to virologists genetically engineering bioweapons. Yet beyond some activist circles, there is little outrage locally about Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory. Located in the South End, the lab hosts studies of some of the deadliest viruses on Earth, including Ebola.
In searching for lab rats to scapegoat, the internet has cornered the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China, the country where the outbreak was initially identified, rather than the BU facility. Still, the Commonwealth turns up in the shadowy side of the inoculation narrative via Dr. Charles Lieber, a pioneer of nanotechnology and the former chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department. Lieber was arrested early this year and indicted in June on charges related to his ties to the Wuhan University of Technology (the WUT is separate from the Wuhan Institute of Virology). As Reuters reported, “Lieber’s case is one of the highest-profile to emerge from a U.S. Justice Department crackdown on Chinese influence within universities amid concerns about spying and intellectual property theft by the Chinese government.”
A conspiratorial stretch? Perhaps. So what? you might ask. Not much, other than that in the small world of highly consequential and frequently government subsidized research, it’s but a mere hop, skip, and smoot between Lieber and what is potentially the most significant development in modern Mass-born medicine. In 2012, the professor, who is now suing Harvard over his legal expenses, led a research team to develop “macroporous nanowire nanoelectronic scaffolds for synthetic tissues” that included MIT professor Robert Langer. A co-founder of the Cambridge-based Moderna, the current favorite son of Main Street as well as Wall Street on the strength of its leading position in the race to produce an effective COVID-19 vaccine, Langer’s star has risen of late. Lieber, who is a leader in “syringe-injectable electronics,” described the work he did with Langer as being “about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.” His star is much duller these days.
Moderna was one of the companies backed by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed effort to fast-track a coronavirus fix, and was reportedly able to develop its vaccine in just two days earlier this year. Though not everything is transparent about what seeded the arrangement, there is a lot more background information about that relationship than there is about past federal experimentation, especially dating all the way back to my grandfather’s era. Before the company went public, Moderna was known to have “strategic agreements” with both the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. As their names imply, these two agencies have somewhat parallel missions, and each played a role in Operation Warp Speed, an initiative that reportedly had “vast military involvement.”
Though the Boston area is home to countless institutions with ties to intelligence agencies and the military-industrial complex, there are also watchdogs and skeptics, like those at the Future of Life Institute, a leader in the movement to ban killer robots. Well before COVID-19 was on the general public’s radar, the FLI was also sounding alarms about the risks of “weaponizing biology,” noting in late 2018 that although “researchers might see the engineering of a supercharged flu virus as a perfectly reasonable way to better understand and thus fight the flu, the public might see the drawbacks as equally obvious: the virus could escape, or someone could weaponize the research.”
Full speed ahead
“The bomb is everything they said it was and I hope that it never is used again in war,” my grandfather wrote home from Bikini Atoll.
The story of his participation in Operation Crossroads—enthusiastically at first, perhaps, and less so after seeing nuclear weapons’ destructive power firsthand—is a cautionary tale about embracing powerful new tech too quickly without adequately considering their downsides. But when it comes to truth being stranger than fiction, Lt. Thomas Wyman Riley’s story pales in comparison to what happened to Mike McKilen’s grandfather, Leonard Kille.
Among the letters referencing Kille’s CIA experience, McKilen’s files include notes about a trip to Vietnam in the late 1960s. This appears to be related to experiments that were done on animals at the Scientific Engineering Institute, and subsequently on Vietnamese prisoners, in which electrodes were implanted into the brains of subjects for the purpose of remotely controlling them. Such initiatives resulted in demonstrable failure and harm, with untold numbers of prisoners killed or maimed in the process.
Considering McKilen’s family’s experience, I feel comfortable making the leap between history and present-day developments, and between technology the SEI attempted to finesse but fumbled and the “brain-machine interfaces” fashioned by the likes of Lieber. Like a lot of other things, these brain machines have some beneficial uses, and on the other hand are also being tooled by DARPA for more belligerent purposes, like controlling drone swarms.
At the Shaskeen Pub, I asked McKilen what he would like to see come out of the documents he shared with me. He’d initially contacted me in an effort to locate an elderly doctor I’d interviewed, a colleague of the men who operated on his grandfather. At that point, he was already several years into adapting the literal truth of his grandfather’s story into the less constraining format of literary truth. That is to say, he was writing a play, aptly given the working title, Science Fiction.
A couple of months after we met in Manchester, with the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdowns by that point in full swing, I had the opportunity to watch a reading of McKilen’s play. It was conducted, of course, in appropriate 2020 fashion, remotely via Zoom.
“He’s modest, but Lenny is a very important engineer,” one character says fairly early into the play, referring to the thinly veiled stand-in for Leonard Kille. “He’s served his country on more than one occasion.”
Later, in an afterword, McKilen is blunt about the toll that his work looking into his grandfather’s story has taken not only on him, but also on others who are closely connected to it.
“My research uncovered many details either never known or willfully forgotten by my family,” McKilen writes. “A number of them can’t discuss it with me because it is still too near and too painful.”
I understand the feeling. Over 70 years ago, my grandfather embarked on a mission he likely viewed as his patriotic duty, an adventure and a way to pay the bills. As is now evident, though, he and practically everyone else involved had little comprehension of the true destructive potential of nuclear weapons. I recently got back in touch with McKilen and asked him what he thought was the most important message people could take from the story of what happened to his grandfather.
“I think one thing you can take is that people in authority who seem completely respectable and prestigious and legitimate can present a completely false reality when it suits them,” McKilen said. He also discussed the dangers of embracing new technologies too quickly, without considering what could go wrong.
“There’s an incredible amount of hubris in terms of scientific development. … I think perils follow, and I think we’re entering a period of time where technology is going to allow things to happen that are going to be very difficult to put back in the box once you take it out of the box,” he said.
“There’s just a mad rush because it’s possible. There’s very little consideration of whether it’s wise.”