Presidential Apologies for the CIA
Who else but the Central Intelligence Agency can reliably provoke contrition by the most powerful office on the planet?
On August 27, 2019, 19 year old Harry Dunn was riding his motorcycle just outside of Croughton, a village in Northamptonshire, England, when he saw an oncoming SUV in the wrong lane. Anne Sacoolas, an American driving an SUV with diplomatic plates on the wrong side of the road, was on her way back from the US Air Force communications station located at the British Royal Air Force in Croughton.
Sacoolas, initially characterized by all media outlets as the wife of a US diplomat, struck Dunn head on. According to British High Court documents, although Dunn sustained severe injuries, he was able to describe for police officers attending the scene what had happened prior to being taken to hospital. While conscious, Harry was in immense pain, having endured multiple open fractures with bones protruding from his skin after careening into and off of Sacoolas’s bloodied windshield.
Harry’s father, Tim Dunn, arrived soon after the police, shortly before an ambulance. He told his father that he couldn’t breathe. Tim Dunn, watching helplessly, tried to reassure his son as Harry was carried into the ambulance. It was the last time he would see him.
Because he was alive at the time of the incident, Anne Sacoolas was permitted to leave the scene of the crime after speaking with police. Sacoolas herself was initially cooperative with local authorities’ investigation of the incident, but within days, the US State Department was shielding her from any investigation by UK authorities.
Within two days of the accident, they asserted she had diplomatic immunity, a legally questionable assertion. Barely more than two weeks after Dunn’s death, the US State Department escorted her back to Virginia over the strong objections of British officials.
In its pursuit to stymie further investigation into the incident involving the diplomat’s wife, the US has deployed convoluted semantic loopholes, official statements by the Secretary of State, even an impromptu Oval Office meeting. New details, made public for the first time in recent weeks, helps to explain why.
As the name suggests, diplomatic immunity is typically reserved for diplomats and their families. Under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), this immunity is in effect from the moment the individuals enter the country, unless their country of origin waives this immunity for a specified reason. The immunity is generally understood to cover misdemeanor crimes, and most often is exercised for debt recovery related offenses, such as parking violations or shoplifting.
Anne Sacoolas is married to Jonathan Sacoolas, an employee for the US National Security Agency (NSA). He had been registered as a member of the staff at the Croughton Royal Air Force base in Northamptonshire, England. The Croughton base is, among other things, the epicenter of the NSA’s spying activities targeting both European Union private citizens and heads of state alike.
But in the context of the countries’ extradition agreement, Jonathan Sacoolas is considered a diplomat, due to a 1995 request submitted by the US that its NSA staff at Croughton be extended diplomatic immunity. As often the case for the American’s NATO allies, it appears ‘no’ would have been a politically inadvisable response from the UK. They granted the request over a series of letters, with one caveat—
on the understanding that the United States Government, by its reply to this letter waives the immunity from criminal jurisdiction of these employees in respect of acts performed outside the course of their duties.
The VCDR stipulates that any such waiver of immunity must clearly express the parties to whom the waiver applies. In their agreement, the US made no reference to extending the immunity to the family members of NSA staff, and the UK made no reference to this caveat applying to NSA staff members’ families. This left a gray area with respect to Anne Sacoolas’s diplomatic immunity status.
As initially understood by authorities, Anne herself had no diplomatic affiliation as the wife of a spy who had diplomatic immunity. But two weeks after Dunn’s death, she was escorted home to Virginia by US officials over the protest of British authorities.
Harry Dunn’s family’s first legal avenue in their quest to have Anne Sacoolas held accountable in some form for their son’s death was to seek her extradition from the US back to Britain.
Citing the 1995 agreement between the two nations, the British High Court would ultimately rule against the right of the UK to extradite Sacoolas, on the grounds that the agreement made no mention of diplomats’ family members. There was no implied waiver of immunity for Anne Sacoolas, the diplomat’s wife.
Whether or not the US was previously privy to this oversight in the extradition agreement, or they identified it only during their planning for Anne Sacoolas’s defense, it’s unclear why the US would go to such lengths in this case. At least as portrayed to the media, the UK—a preeminent ally to the United States— was in opposition to her return home. There are no material discrepancies between the parties’ statements retelling the events preceding and subsequent to Harry Dunn’s death.
The Crown Prosecution Service, the British prosecuting authority in the case, remains intent on securing a trial. The Dunn family meanwhile has an ongoing civil claim against Sacoolas in a separate arena—Sacoolas’s home state of Virginia. But the US government has likewise continued to exercise a remarkable level of involvement in the case, going to extraordinary lengths to insist upon the Dunn family that they forgive and forget.
So what horse does the United States government truly have in this race?
Donald Trump, Crisis Mediator
The Dunn family retained Mark Stephens, a veteran lawyer experienced in high profile and international cases, and hired Radd Seiger, a crisis management adviser to act as their spokesperson. Seiger joined the Dunn family in a trip to the US, where they sought to drum up support among the American people and to meet with American diplomats who might be able to advise them.
The same week they arrived, a member of the White House press staff called Seiger, asking that they come for a meeting. They were on a train to Washington, DC the next day.
Harry’s mother, Charlotte Charles, told The Guardian that on the train ride, they discussed what could possibly be in store for them upon their arrival at the White House—“We took it to the most bizarre situation that could have happened – which actually ended up playing out. We were very glad that we had discussed that it would be a possibility, although we actually didn’t think for one second that we would be placed in that position.”
In a scene bizarre even for the Donald Trump White House, the president of the United States hosted the parents of Harry Dunn in the Oval Office, on October 15, 2019, ostensibly to make amends for rejecting the UK’s request to extradite the diplomat Sacoolas’s wife. Among those in the room were Stephen Mnuchin, the Secretary of the Treasury, Robert O’Brien, the National Security Advisor, Mick Mulvaney, the Chief of Staff and several secret service agents.
Reminiscent of an episode of Maury, a few minutes after meeting the parents, Trump explained to them for the first time that in a neighboring room sat Anne Sacoolas, ready to make amends with Trump there to mediate. Aghast and bewildered, Seiger made clear that the couple would agree to meet with Sacoolas at some point, but not in a surprise meeting staged for reporters. Sitting feet away from the guests, Trump tried three or four times to convince them to reconsider, according to an interview with Seiger on the podcast Pushback with Aaron Mate on March 1, 2021.
As recounted by Harry Dunn’s father, Tim, they agreed to meet Sacoolas if she returned to the UK, but the US national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told them directly at the meeting that she was never coming back. “He was quite abrupt and sharp with his tone,” recounted Tim Dunn.
Of their time in the US, Tim Dunn told The Guardian, “We are bemused by all of it. We still can’t believe how the story is moving on. We come to the USA just to try and get our story across and then within two days, we’re in the White House.”
In the interview on Pushback, Seiger described the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look of the Dunn parents throughout the affair—
“Even for me as an American, that should’ve been the proudest day of my life. I don’t how many Americans get to go to the Oval Office let alone meet a president of the United States, because I am a proud American. Instead it’s one of the most depressing experiences of my life, and as you can tell 17 or 18 months later it’s still quite upsetting to me.”
Whatever the preferred outcome of the Oval Office meeting might have been, Trump’s mediation session was over in under an hour. As Seiger suggests, there is little precedent for common citizens being invited to the Oval Office for a direct apology from the President of the United States, on behalf of the United States government, for its actions causing the death of their immediate family member.
Indeed, most apologies from the US government as an entity take the form of House resolutions that merely acknowledge responsibility for inflicting harm upon a large group of people, such as that which was directed at Native American peoples or enslaved Africans. Even with the apologies that were accompanied by some form of reparation, like those directed towards interned Japanese citizens or Tuskegee experiment victims, the shear number of injured parties spared Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton from needing to look any one victim in the face with contrition.
Contrasted with these examples, the immediacy and intimacy of the presidential apology to Harry Dunn’s parents had much more of a “we’re sorry, now stop asking questions” flavor. In 1975, Americans saw perhaps the only other instance in recent US history of this genre of presidential apology. And as in the Dunn case, it was an apology by the president for the actions of US intelligence agents.
A Jump or a Fall
In 1975, then President Gerald Ford hosted the family of the late Frank Olson to deliver a presidential apology for the events leading to Olson’s ‘suicide.’
Olson, an accomplished biochemist, was recruited as a civilian into the US Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick in 1943. By the end of the decade, Olson had advanced through the ranks to be the acting head of its Special Operations Division, which was researching and developing biological agents to assist the US government with interrogation and warfare. Olson’s expertise was in airborne disease transmission.
As part of the work, Olson made a trip in 1953 to Porton Down, UK, to meet with the CIA of Britain, MI6. While there, he witnessed the gruesome death of soldiers who had volunteered to receive an experimental treatment for the common cold, but were in fact given Sarin nerve gas to establish for MI6 what the fatal dose of the gas was.
Later than year, he traveled to Berlin where he witnessed the use of drugs as a means of torture during interrogations. Deeply disturbed by this, Olson abruptly left the trip to go home. Shortly thereafter, he shared his disgust with the CIA’s actions to his colleague in confidence. This expression of human empathy set off alarm bells for his colleague, who reported the comments to their superiors.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had meanwhile begun collaborating on the US Army’s research with the help of former Nazi scientists they had plucked before they could face trial. The CIA’s focus was on studying psychoactive drugs as part of a series secret programs—Project BLUEBIRD, Project ARTICHOKE, and culminating in the 1953 start of Project MK-ULTRA.
MK-ULTRA’s expressed purpose was to research and develop drugs for mind control, justified under the guise of trying to catch up with foreign adversaries who had already discovered such drugs. The man in charge of the project, Sidney Gottlieb, was aware of Olson’s intellectual prowess, the extent of what he knew about the CIA’s projects, and his moral misgivings.
Author’s Note: The authenticity of the story of the remainder of Frank Olson’s life can only be verified by those who first told the story—individuals in and around US intelligence and defense agencies. The late Olson’s retelling may have been substantially different.
Under the pretext of a joint strategy meeting between Olson’s Special Operations Division and the CIA to discuss their research projects, Gottlieb invited Olson and several other scientists involved with the work for a weekend ‘rendezvous’ at a cabin in rural Maryland next to Deep Creek Lake. At the start of an evening of drinks, Gottlieb slipped 70 micrograms of LSD into Olson and several others’ drinks.
This infuriated Olson. Even after a few days, he had trouble thinking clearly, but was past the point of forgiving the actions of Gottleib. He decided to resign.
A day after first announcing his decision to his immediate supervisor, his supervisor talked him into first meeting with a ‘psychiatric doctor’ in New York City to talk through things. This doctor was Harold Abramson, who was in fact a pediatric allergist, although he moonlighted as a psychotropic researcher for the CIA.
Abramson, over the course of several meetings, convinced Olson that he needed psychiatric help. Olson agreed in the final session to be checked into a Maryland mental institution. That night, Olson stayed the night at the Hotel Statler in New York City, sharing a room with fellow chemist Robert Lashbrook. Olson hit the pavement at 2:30 AM.
The investigating police detective concluded that Olson had died from multiple fractures “subsequent upon a jump or fall.”
He had somehow gone — the choice of verb has always been the problem — out the window of Room 1018A
Erik Olson on his father’s death in a 2017 essay.
Only after The Washington Post published a series of revelations from the Rockefeller Commission investigation in June 1975 did the Olson family have any knowledge of the LSD. The most provocative (read: most viral) of these headlines described how “a civilian employee” scientist in the army had jumped to his death from a New York hotel window after being drugged with LSD during a CIA meeting.
The story matched the dates and facts of Frank Olson’s death, although the acting chief of the Army’s Special Operations Division, was much more than an army scientist.
The Olson family, quickly swarmed by the press, announced in a press conference from their backyard that they intended to sue the CIA for his death and coverup.
The US government’s intelligence apparatus scrambled to get their story straight. They resolved to share the information about Gottlieb’s actions, explain that the LSD caused Olson to lose his grip on reality, sent him into a depressive spiral, and eventually to his suicide.
Gerald Ford would host the surviving family the next month to apologize to the family on behalf of the US government.
It was all presented as if ‘we're in this for you.’ We had no idea what we were dealing with. I mean first of all if you get invited suddenly to the White House to get up an apology from the president which has never happened in the history of the country from George Washington to Donald Trump nobody has ever gotten an apology in the Oval Office from the president nobody not the American Indians who were subject to genocide not African Americans who were subjected to hundreds of years of slavery only us. Not the Japanese who were in internment camps—they got a rose garden apology; I don't know how many years later.
But only we have a press conference in a backyard, bam! Please come to the White House in the Oval Office which is a very sacred space. You don't get in there for an apology from the president lightly, but we didn't realize what was happening here— that this was so unique, and what it meant was that we had hit upon some kind of a central nerve in the whole construction of the state. We didn’t know what we were into.
They were apologizing. It was very unclear what they were apologizing for but the overall sense of it was, ‘your father got drugged, there wasn't proper medical supervision, this was part of an experiment… Oh my god they shouldn't have done this, if they did do it they should’ve taken better care of him, and they shouldn't have put him in a hotel on the 13th floor, and if they did put him on the 13th floor they should’ve kept watch of him…’
Eric Olson retelling the meeting in the Oval Office in a 2018 podcast
White House lawyers subsequently offered $750,000 to the family in exchange for dropping their pursuit of a lawsuit against the CIA, which after some deliberation, the family accepted.
Much of the evidence made public in the years since the meeting, including the exhumation of Frank Olson’s body in 1994 for a private autopsy that revealed major discrepancies from the original medical examiner’s report, suggests it was far more likely that Olson was murdered than that he took his own life. Olson was reckoning with the horrors of the disturbing biochemical weapons research he had been involved with, and the CIA certainly was considering the possibility that he might choose to reveal its actions to the public.
The Olson family posited in a August 2002 statement—
As indications accumulated that Frank Olson had been murdered, the question of motive became more pressing. Why would the government murder an “Army scientist” simply because he had been used as an unwitting guinea pig in a drug experiment?
One of his sons, Eric, has spent much of his life trying to get to the truth. In a 2018 podcast, he rose doubts that his father was even drugged at all, which is not much of a stretch. After all, it served the CIA’s narrative that Olson was portrayed as a mere army scientist—it would be far more dubious to assert that Sidney Gottlieb chose to conduct a secret LSD experiment on an acting chief of the US government’s primary biological warfare research entity and someone who knew countless state secrets.
Frank Olson knew as much as anyone alive about the US government’s ghoulish research into biological agents and its experiments exposing them unto unknowing innocent civilians. Whatever the agency’s involvement, the suicide of the compunctious biochemist solved major problems for the CIA.
Much of this section was informed by Eric Olson’s extensive work investigating the circumstances of his father’s death, which he offers free to the public at https://frankolsonproject.org. Eric also worked closely with the producers of the Netflix docuseries about his father, Wormwood, which I highly recommend as well.
Who is Anne Sacoolas?
As demonstrated once more in the Dunn Sacoolas affair, the US executive branch injects itself into any dispute between civilians and the US intelligence apparatus with remarkable speed and ferocity. Any measure— however grandiose, however performative, however disproportionate—is merited in pursuit of removing the CIA and NSA from public scrutiny.
In a February 2021 hearing regarding Anne Sacoolas’s application to dismiss the Dunn family’s federal case against her, one of her lawyers, John McGavin, was made to answer an inconvenient question. Why exactly did she make the decision to flee the UK abruptly, weeks after driving on the wrong side of the road and fatally colliding with the motorcycling teen?
Britain’s Press Association, which was given access to listen to the closed hearing, reported that McGavin replied, “I cannot be completely candid, I know the answer, but I cannot disclose it… Mr. and Mrs. Sacoolas were employed by an intelligence agency of the United States, and that’s why she left.”
The judge rejected their application to dismiss.
The rejection of her extradition was entirely hinged on her being the family member of a diplomat. It was the same justification used by the US to defend the decision to escort her home before facing trial.
For the first time, the public has been presented with the knowledge that both husband and wife were (if not still are) spooks at the time of Harry Dunn’s death.
The UK government could essentially comment on the development in one of two ways—to claim ignorance of any role Anne Sacoolas had working as an intelligence agent at Royal Air Force base, or to acknowledge that they knew of her role, thus undermining the basis of their prolonged diplomatic dispute with the US about her extradition. Thus far, they have chosen the former, claiming ignorance of what exactly the American spy Anne Sacoolas was doing for her employer in the UK. There is no available evidence to suggest otherwise.
After a couple weeks, the Sacoolas family lawyers had their statement ready to clarify things—
The ruling has no impact or bearing on Anne Sacoolas’s diplomatic immunity. ‘Anne Sacoolas’s employment status has never been relevant to her diplomatic immunity, which was based on her husband’s status as an accredited diplomat. The US and British Governments both concluded that Ms Sacoolas had diplomatic immunity by virtue of her husband’s role with the US embassy, and the UK High Court of Justice affirmed that conclusion in its ruling in November 2020.
On March 9th, 2021, Amy Jeffress, the personal lawyer to Anne Sacoolas, offered to Harry’s Dunn’s parents what any grieving parents is their situation would seek—an offer for her to perform community service (in the US) and to give a contribution in Harry Dunn’s memory. The Dunn’s, still plaintiffs in the US civil case against the diplomat’s wife, rejected the offer.