The Telegraph on acid – France, the CIA, and a touch of plagiary (updated x4)

Acid Patterns

[Updates below: Maybe ergot, maybe not. The CIA’s obsession with acid.]

After ‘Duke of Edinburgh asks female sea cadet if she works at a strip club’, the most popular story on the Telegraph website at the moment accuses the CIA of having secretly fed LSD to the villagers of Pont-Saint-Esprit in France in 1951.

It’s a serious accusation. Not only would this be chemical warfare against an ally (or quasi-ally at least), the Telegraph tells us that five people died and ‘dozens were interned in asylums’ after the ‘quiet, picturesque village in southern France was suddenly and mysteriously struck down with mass insanity and hallucinations.’

The timing of the story is very odd. It is based on an obscure book by HP Albarelli, which was published in 2008 and is now out of print in the UK.

[Albarelli has been in touch to say that the book is newly published, despite showing as 2008 on Amazon UK. According to his publisher, TrineDay, the book was out November 2009.]

Albarelli’s theories are dismissed out of hand by Steven Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of History at Cornell University and a noted bread expert (yes, really).

Kaplan has also written a book about Pont-Saint-Esprit, in French, entitled Le Pain Maudit. He was not interviewed by the Telegraph, however, but he made the following comment to France 24:

I have numerous objections to this paltry evidence against the CIA. First of all, it’s clinically incoherent: LSD takes effects in just a few hours, whereas the inhabitants showed symptoms only after 36 hours or more. Furthermore, LSD does not cause the digestive ailments or the vegetative effects described by the townspeople…

It is absurd, this idea of transmitting a very toxic drug by putting it in bread. As for pulverising it [for ingestion through the air], that technology was not even possible at that time. Most compellingly, why would they choose the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit to conduct these tests? It was half-destroyed by the US Army during fighting with the Germans in the Second World War. It makes no sense.

Now maybe Albarelli is right and Kaplan is wrong, but you’d think the Telegraph would make some effort to talk to Kaplan before publishing a story that has gone around the Internet like wildfire.  It’s not as if Henry Samuel, the Telegraph France correspondent, wasn’t aware of Kaplan’s work.

After all, parts of his article bear an extremely suspicious resemblance to a review of Kaplan’s book, published by the New York Times in 2008.

Here’s the NYT:

What became a national disaster began on Aug. 16, 1951, when the inhabitants… were suddenly stricken by frightful hallucinations of being consumed by fire or giant plants or horrid beasts.

A worker tried to drown himself because his belly was being eaten by snakes… A man saw his heart escaping through his feet and beseeched a doctor to put it back in place. Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets.

And here’s the Telegraph:

On August 16, 1951, the inhabitants were suddenly racked with frightful hallucinations of terrifying beasts and fire.

One man tried to drown himself, screaming that his belly was being eaten by snakes… Another saw his heart escaping through his feet and begged a doctor to put it back. Many were taken to the local asylum in strait jackets.

The details that are not from the Times (“An 11-year-old tried to strangle his grandmother. Another man shouted: “I am a plane”, before jumping out of a second-floor window, breaking his legs.”) come from this French blog post from Monday this week .

It presumably prompted the paper suddenly to jump on Albarelli’s conspiracy theory (and yes – it’s a fairly close translation):

Un gamin de 11 ans, Charles Granjhon, tente d’étrangler sa mère… Un homme saute du deuxième étage de l’hôpital en hurlant : “Je suis un avion.” Les jambes fracturées, il se relève et court cinquante mètres sur le boulevard avant qu’on puisse le rattraper.

Questions for the Telegraph’s editor:

1. Did Samuel read Albarelli’s book or speak to him? [Albarelli says he wasn’t called by the Telegraph.]
2. Did he speak to Kaplan or any other sources?
3. Does he accept that the Telegraph plagiarized the Times?
4. And shouldn’t he set the bar a little higher before publishing stories of this type? (more…)