1. Project Sunshine
The US was testing lots of nuclear weapons during the 1950s, but one of the top scientists involved in US nuclear testing complained that he didn’t have human tissue samples to be able to properly test the effect of radioactive fallout on people. A worldwide network to collect tissue samples from cadavers was promptly set up, and up to 1,500 cadavers (or parts of cadavers, such as limbs) were shipped to the US for testing without the consent of the next of kin. Some 40 years later, a 900-page report was released under the Clinton administration acknowledging the unethical and illegal actions taken during Project Sunshine.
2. Operation Northwoods
After botching the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1962, a memo was circulated among the US Joint Chiefs of Staff on March 13th that year. Its subject line read “Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba”. Suggestions for this justification included "Sink ship near harbor entrance. Conduct funerals for mock-victims," and "...blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba". Luckily, President John F. Kennedy had the presence of mind to reject operation Northwoods, and the then chair of the JCS, Lyman Lemnitzer, was denied a second term in office.
3. Operation Paperclip
As the smoke of World War II was still clearing, President Harry Truman was busy approving the transfer of more than 1,500 Third Reich scientists, technicians, and engineers to the US. These included Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich’s chief rocket engineer, and Walter Schreiber, the German Army’s chief of medical science. The Joint Intelligence Objective Agency created false records for the incoming Germans, many of whom were considered war criminals, in order to smuggle them into the country relatively unnoticed.
4. Operation Mockingbird
This rather Orwellian operation saw two reporters being spied on by the CIA between March and June 1963. The objective was to discover the reporters’ sources and the sensitive information they were planning to disclose. According to documents declassified in 2007, the reporters’ homes and offices were wiretapped illegally, and they were followed relentlessly as part of the project, which was "particularly productive in identifying contacts of the newsmen...including senators, members of Congress, and other well-placed individuals."
5. Project Greek Island
Beneath the Greenbriar Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia lies a 112,000-square-foot bunker that remained a secret for more than 30 years. It was built in 1961 complete with enough dormitories to accommodate 1,100 people and was intended to house Members of Congress in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. It was only exposed by a Washington Post reporter in 1992, leading to its immediate decommissioning.
6. Operation CHAOS
The Vietnam War was hugely unpopular in the US by the mid-1960s, so President Lyndon Johnson and the CIA decided to investigate and even infiltrate the many protests taking places on college campuses throughout the US. They were specifically looking for whether the protest movement had been infiltrated by foreign influences, particularly Communist ones. They never found any, but that didn’t stop them from collecting thousands of files on innocent individuals. The entire operation was also illegal because the CIA is only legally permitted to collect foreign intelligence (as opposed to domestic).
7. Project Azorian
One of the most expensive (and disastrous) CIA operations in history involved the attempted recovery of a Soviet submarine, K-129, which sank in the middle of the Pacific Ocean back in 1968. The plan to try and raise it some three miles off the ocean floor was hatched in 1974 after the CIA and the Department of Defense spotted an opportunity to collect Soviet intelligence. A massive deep-sea vessel was promptly commissioned, built and put to work, but it was only able to recover a single section of the submarine. Thieves also broke into the company that built the ship, stealing some secret documents related to the project. This led to the story becoming exposed in the media, thus leading the CIA to abandon its attempt to recover the rest of the submarine.
8. Operation Gold
This operation is often regarded as the very first covert one that the CIA conducted during the Cold War, and involved an attempt to tap Soviet lines of communication that ran beneath Berlin. Together with the British Secret Service, the CIA set about digging a nearly 1,500-foot tunnel underneath one of the city’s major thoroughfares. Some nine months later, the first tapes were installed, but a Soviet mole had discovered the plans and the CIA had no choice but to abandon the tunnel. Nevertheless, the CIA monitored hundreds of thousands of Soviet conversations during the 11 months that it was functional.
9. Operation Merlin
During the 1990s, the CIA thought it would be a great idea to try and sabotage the Iranian nuclear program by sending fake nuclear blueprints to Tehran’s scientists via a Russian scientist. The rather shambolic plan didn’t work, because the Russian realized that the blueprints were fake and pointed it out to the Iranian scientists. Whoops!
10. Stargate Project
Possibly the weirdest of all of the CIA’s activities (the ones we know about, anyway) began in the 1970s. The Stargate Projected aimed to see whether “remote viewing” was actually possible. Theoretically, this process allows people to “see” or experience things that are far away by reaching out with their minds. Despite it only containing between 15 and 20 participants, the Stargate Project wasn’t shut down until 1995 after – wait for it – a more than 20-year period in which no conclusive results we produced.