The CIA’s Top-Secret “Heart Attack Gun”

In 1975, The CIA revealed that it had developed a top-secret weapon for the purpose of giving its target a heart-attack – in some cases without even knowing they’d been hit with anything. In this episode, we talk about the Church Commission hearings that led to this discovery and others, then play the quick quiz with “Evolution of Dance” sensation, Judson Laipply!

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The Cobra Effect

September 16, 1975. CIA Director William Colby appeared sweaty and nervous, but was up-front and spoke matter-of-factly with a special Senate Select Committee. He detailed, piece by piece some of the things he had found upon taking the reins as CIA director. Maybe he already knew some of these things, after all, he had spent most of his professional career in the CIA. It was unusual that the Agency’s Director would testify in a public hearing like this. But there were going to be some serious violations revealed, and this was the first time America would hear about it. As Colby presented the committee with a gun for them to examine, the entire room came alive with murmuring and surprise.

But let’s go back in time 5 years. 

In 1970, a whistleblower had published some accounts in the Washington Monthly that there was a nationwide domestic intelligence program that had been running for at least a decade. Its focus was monitoring American political dissent to foreign policies. This led North Carolina Senator Sam Irvin to chart a Senate committee to look into those allegations. It was the same Senator Irvin that led the Watergate Commission 2 years later that ended up revealing the wrongdoing that caused President Nixon to resign the Presidency.

Part of what came out of the Watergate hearings was the report of Project Shamrock, a government program that had ordered the viewing of telegrams sent between Americans somewhere between times of World War II and the Cold War that – at it’s height, was reading 150,000 private messages a month.

On December 22, 1974 Journalist, Seymour Hersh wrote a scathing expose that ran on the front page of the New York Times. It’s opening sentence: “The Central Intelligence Agency, directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement.” For the next month, Hersh provided more and more inside information about the program in his articles. What would follow has been dubbed the “Year of Intelligence.” For the first time, a rift started to divide the United States Congress and the country’s intelligence community. 

And this led to a special Senate committee with a lengthy title: The “Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.” It was headed up by Idaho Senator Frank Church. An 18-year member of the Senate and a former intelligence officer himself, he had recently been very critical of both U.S. foreign policy and the Intelligence community. The special select committee would become known as “The Church Committee.”

It was made up of a bipartisan group of senators, some of whom had run on and become elected to the Senate on the promise to clean up Washington after Watergate. The Vice Chair was Senator John Tower from Texas. He saw his role on the committee as keeping the hearings to the facts and to keep them from being too much of a media spectacle. But he didn’t know what they were about to find out.

Previous CIA director James Schlesinger had asked CIA operatives to internally report on any new programs that could be considered questionable or unethical. This report became known as the CIA’s “Family Jewels.” New CIA Director, William Colby provided the Family Jewels report to the Church Committee, which read like a list of unconstitutional activities. Colby was concerned about pressure from the public and the government, and thought that giving up this information would help repair the rift with Congress and help to restore trust with the American people. He saw it as necessary for the preservation of the future of their office.

The results of these hearings read like a list of crazy conspiracy theories proven true. Most of the worst stuff you’ve ever heard about American Intelligence Agencies was revealed through the Church Committee. For example, you may have heard the word “COintelpro.” This was name for the shameful program that targeted members of the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr., The American Indian Movement, anti-war protesters and others. Or maybe you’ve heard of MK Ultra. Project MKUltra was an illegal human experimentation program that used human guinea pigs to test psychodelic drugs, electroshocks, sensory deprivation, isolation, and other forms of serious abuse. Part of MK Ultra was Operation Midnight Climax. The CIA hired prostitutes to lure men to safe houses where they gave them LSD and got down to business while agents secretly watched through one way glass. These programs were real programs – not conspiracy theories. And they were all exposed during the Church Commission investigations in 1975.

But in this episode, we’re focusing on one particular moment of discovery. When Frank Church asked CIA Director Colby if he had brought anything with him today. 

Colby’s assisant produced a weapon out of a bag on the floor. It was a black pistol with a scope attached to the top. It appeared to look like a 45 caliber handgun. But this particular weapon had been adapted to fire darts, which when it strikes the target, will instantly give them a heart attack. 

The so-called “Heart attack gun” was carried over to the table where the Senate Committee was seated. Senator Frank Church nervously joked “don’t point it at me.” At this point, the entire room was buzzing with whispers and the flurry of camera shutters. The table was so wide, it had to be slid across to Senator Church. 

The hearing that day was meant to question CIA Director Colby on the Unauthorized Storage of Toxic Agents. The conversation started to revolve around the use of shellfish toxins and how much the CIA was found to be storing: enough to kill several thousand people. It was part of the discovery of the CIA’s storage of biological and bacteriological weapons that hadn’t been divulged to Congress. Colby talked about how part of their use was to replace the so-called L-Pill – a lethal pill used for suicide that was issued to astronauts and Intelligence agents in the field. The shellfish toxins worked quicker than the old chemicals that were in the L-Pill. But when pressed, he acknowledge that these toxins were also meant to be used as offensive weapons. And that’s when the conversation turned to rumors of this specialized dart gun. 

As the Senators took turns handling the weapon at the table, Colby continued to answer questions about its use. It was a weapon that had been designed by CIA Agent Mary Embree. It had the ability to fire a multitude of darts – some containing the toxins that would give the target a heart attack. It could be fired from as far as 100 meters away and operated almost silently. In some cases, the target wouldn’t even know they’d been hit. And due to the nature of the toxins, and the fact that the dart would dissolve after entering the body, the coroner’s report wouldn’t even be able to tell that any foreign substance had been administered. Mary Embree was never able to confirm if the gun was used to assassinate anyone, but did confirm that it had been tested on both animals and human prisoners. 

The Church Committee had a lot of support from the American people, who were shocked to hear what their intelligence agencies had been up to, including reports of plans and attempts to assassinate foreign leaders and overthrow governments. President Gerald Ford banned the CIA or any other government agency from carrying out assassinations. 

There were more results from the Church Committee hearings. It led to the establishment of the now permanent Senate intelligence committee, which provides government oversight to the intelligence agencies. It led to the drawing up of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance act, which outlines appropriate intelligence gathering procedures, and it led to the revisiting of the charters and mission of the CIA & FBI.

As for the actual gun? Nobody knows where it is these days. Some think that the CIA still has it in their archives. Others think it was destroyed after the hearings. But as for this crazy conspiracy-sounding story? The Internet definitely says it’s true.

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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