Quantum Cold War: The University and the CIA

From hypnosis research to quantum computing, the CIA has long had a relationship with USyd.

Art by Maxim Adams

Since the Cold War, America’s foreign intelligence agency, the CIA, has kept tabs on the latest research and development being conducted at universities around the world, in the hopes of gaining the upper hand in a technological arms race with its rivals. In the 1960s, the CIA’s endeavours led them to a major hypnosis research lab at the University of Sydney, where they secretly funded a mind control experiment overseen by one of their most trusted scientific advisers. In the present day, with increased cyberattacks against industry and government, the CIA has returned to the University, exploiting scientific breakthroughs in quantum computing and artificial intelligence for military purposes. 


Part I: Mind control and psychological warfare

CIA-funded hypnosis research conducted at the University in 1960 by renowned American psychologist Martin Orne was referenced in an interrogation manual for CIA agents operating in countries engulfed by proxy wars. The findings of his experiment subsequently informed a document which laid the basis for the American military’s interrogation techniques for the next forty years. 

Academic papers recently retrieved by the ABC establish a link between this research and Project MKUltra, an infamous experimental mind control program created by chemist and CIA spymaster Sidney Gottlieb. The program ran from the early 1950s to the early 1960s and was developed in response to reports of captured American soldiers defecting to the Communist side during the Korean War, leading the CIA to believe that the Communists had developed mind control techniques, and that they needed to do the same. MKUltra often subjected unwitting participants to psychological torture, sometimes using electroshock and lethal doses of LSD. Due to the top-secret nature of the program, the number of people who died or were incapacitated by the program is unknown.

Experiments were shrouded in secrecy, with some being covertly funded at universities and research centres, and others in American prisons and in detention centres in Japan, Germany, and the Philippines. To obscure their intentions, the CIA would fund academics whose research was thought to be valuable to MKUltra through “research foundations” which were, in truth, front organisations. This meant that most academics were unaware of the program, except for a select few.

Professor Orne was one of the few academics who knew about MKUltra throughout the program’s existence and was regularly consulted by the Agency. His research at the University of Sydney was funded by the Human Ecology Fund, one such front organisation which operated out of Cornell Medical School. At the time, the University contained one of the few significant hypnosis labs in the world and Orne was tasked with finding out if hypnosis could force people to act against their own will. If the experiment was successful, its findings could be used to brainwash the CIA’s enemies.

The experiment involved hypnotising volunteer undergraduate psychology students and then asking them to perform a set of dangerous tasks. Orne and his assistants instructed their subjects to stick their hand in a jar of fuming nitric acid, throw nitric acid into the assistant experimenter’s face, and pick up a poisonous diamondback rattlesnake. Of course, the nitric acid had been neutralised by the Chemistry Department and the snake had been rendered harmless by the Biology Department. Both hypnotised and non-hypnotised subjects carried out the tasks knowing that the danger was only simulated. Though the experiment was flawed, Orne concluded that it was highly unlikely that hypnosis could be used to force people to act against their own will.

Mind control, through hypnosis, was impossible after all.

Yet, Orne’s findings ended up informing the creation of the 1963 Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual and the 1983 Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual — two highly controversial CIA training guides for interrogators seeking to obtain information from prisoners. 

The original Kubark Manual was authored by James J. Angleton, the infamous chief counterspy of the CIA from 1954 to 1974, whose paranoia led to brutal interrogations of suspected communists both inside and outside the Agency. It also served as the basis for the 1983 Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual which was distributed to American-backed militants in Latin America by CIA operatives and U.S army special forces between 1983 and 1987. After reports surfaced of these militants committing atrocities, the document served as a focal point of U.S Congressional investigations.

Both documents were originally released in 1997 under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Baltimore Sun. Upon the Kubark Manual’s initial release, the Washington Post went so far as to claim that parts of the Kubark manual went on to inform interrogation techniques used decades later during the U.S invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Orne’s contribution to the manual was in the form of an evaluation of the limits and uses of hypnosis. The Manual cites Orne’s belief that “Both hypnosis and some of the drugs inducing hypnoidal states are ‘popularly’ viewed as situations where the individual is no longer master of his own fate and therefore not responsible for his actions. It seems possible then that the hypnotic situation, as distinguished from hypnosis itself, might be used to relieve the individual of a feeling of responsibility for his own actions and thus lead him to reveal information.”

As the Manual progresses, citations of Orne’s recommendations for interrogating individuals become more violent. For example, “As Orne himself later points out, the interrogatee ‘could be given a hypnotic drug with appropriate verbal suggestions to talk about a given topic. Eventually enough of the drug would be given to cause a short period of unconsciousness. When the subject awakens, the interrogator could then read from his ‘notes’ of the hypnotic interview, which would include the information presumably told to him.” This tactic would require the interrogator to possess significant knowledge of the interrogatee beforehand, giving the interrogatee the impression that they had divulged secret information under hypnosis, and thereby breaking their mental resistance to interrogation.

The legacy of the CIA’s mind control project and their interrogation tactics serves as a reminder of the tragedy of the proxy wars and conflicts that proliferated during the Cold War. History has proven to repeat itself in the human rights abuses committed by Western troops in their invasion of the Middle East.


Part II: Espionage meets venture capital

In the film Skyfall, an ageing James Bond is forced to reckon with the changing nature of spycraft in the digital age. When Bond meets “Q”, the resident gadget-master at MI6, for the first time, he is surprised. Previous incarnations of “Q” in the spy film franchise had portrayed him as a greying old man, and Bond spurns the youthfulness of his new colleague.

But “Q” won’t have it.

“Word has it I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do a year in the field,” Q retorts.

“Oh, so why do you need me?” Bond replies, mockingly.

The message is clear: old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger operations have lost their relevance in a world where bits and bytes pose a bigger threat to national security than a loaded gun.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the CIA has a “Q” of its own, one that operates not undercover, but in boardrooms and laboratories. Named after “Q” himself, the investment arm of the CIA, In-Q-Tel, has been funding and supporting technology start-ups that have been spun out of Australia’s major research universities.

The company’s mission? To gain access to the development of cutting-edge technology that can be deployed, within 36 months, in American intelligence agencies’ national security operations such as automated intelligence gathering and analysis.

In-Q-Tel is currently backing four start-ups that have partnerships with Australian universities in research and development of their technology: Quintessence Labs (ANU, University of Queensland), Q-CTRL (University of Sydney), Advanced Navigation (ANU, RMIT) and Myriota (University of South Australia).

Each of these companies develop technologies that provide either increased cybersecurity, better military hardware, or weaponry to U.S intelligence agencies and their military. Quintessence Labs focuses on quantum cybersecurity, Q-CTRL works on quantum control (having applications for artificial intelligence and machine learning), Advanced Navigation develops navigation technologies and robotics, while Myriota creates low earth orbit nanosatellites.

Q-CTRL, founded in 2017, emerged from research conducted by the University of Sydney’s Quantum Science Group and is funded by various global venture capital firms in addition to In-Q-Tel. The company focuses on “producing firmware for quantum computing and other applications based on … research efforts in the Quantum Control Laboratory housed within the Sydney Nanoscience Hub”, and now has offices in the CBD, Pyrmont and in Los Angeles, California.

All four companies advertise their products as having potential for defence purposes on their websites. While Quintessence Labs and Myriota seem to advertise their products for non-militarised purposes, the others highlight the relevance of their technology to combat operations.

In a promotional video, Advanced Navigations advertises the world’s largest military contractors and arms manufacturers – BAE Systems, Raytheon, Leonardo, Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Thales – as clientele under the heading “They Trust Us”. Advanced Navigation’s product brochure also includes a stylised picture of a weaponised drone, suggesting that the technology it sells could be used to build machines capable of warfare. Meanwhile, Q-CTRL says that its technology “could be deployed by military personnel to detect underground, hardened structures, submarines or hidden weapons systems.”

Unlike typical venture capital firms, maximising returns is not In-Q-Tel’s primary goal when it invests in a company. In-Q-Tel typically invests $500,000 to $3 million (USD), with approximately 15-20% of those funds being used to purchase equity in the company and the majority going towards licensing agreements and contracts to adapt the company’s technology to fit the needs of the CIA.

A 2011 survey of 34 of In-Q-Tel’s portfolio companies found that “more than half of the companies found equity investments to be the least valuable asset of their interactions with In-Q-Tel.” According to the In-Q-Tel website, “Investments typically range from $500,000 to $3 million and often involve partners from multiple agencies.” By venture capital standards, these numbers are modest. The real benefit of In-Q-Tel’s backing lies in opening the door for start-ups into a network of government and defence agencies who could be potential clients and partners.

Serious concerns have been raised over the ethics of commercial technology acquired by In-Q-Tel being used for military and espionage purposes. For example, Orbital, a Silicon Valley-based AI company which analyses satellite images, drone footage, and smartphone data, has been criticised for its intelligence connections and its role in “bomb targeting” in Afghanistan for the U.S. military. Additionally, Palantir, another data analytics company based in the U.S, has come under fire for its role in enabling mass surveillance. Government agencies have used Palantir to track air travellers and immigrants while private companies have used the company’s services to surveil their employees. 

It has also come to light this year that Dataminr, an artificial intelligence alert system, was used by the University to keep track of planned protest action by staff and students last year. Dataminr is another company included in In-Q-Tel’s investment portfolio. That the University should use militarised tactics against its own community is a sign of an increasingly out of touch bureaucracy.

The fact that mastery of these advancements in the fields of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things now determine the espionage and cyberwarfare landscape shows just how far human interaction has become digitised. As society undergoes this massive transformation, we must find ways to stop corporations in yet another reckless attempt to commercialise anything they can get their hands on. 

By harnessing the power of quantum computing, governments may be able to further extend the reach of their surveillance activities. Mathematicians and computer scientists believe that current cryptography methods, which encode information such as online passwords through specific mathematical equations, will be rendered obsolete by future developments in the field. This could potentially destroy the public’s already diminished confidence in the notion of privacy.

The same interconnectedness provided by the digital age which has allowed human beings to stay close during a global pandemic is also what allows governments to spy on its citizens, and develop increasingly sophisticated weaponry – setting the stage for the emergence of surveillance states where privacy no longer exists.

In commercialising scientific breakthroughs for profit, universities and the start-ups they partner with have opened Pandora’s Box. 


A parallel emerges between the CIA’s attempts to facilitate American expansionism through the latest developments in science and technology during the Cold War, and their efforts now. Where the CIA once sought to expand the United States’ influence geographically, supporting militias and toppling national governments, in the hopes of destroying communism, it now also seeks to conquer the frontier of cyberspace.