Facts About the Shadiest Attempted Cover-ups in History

June 26, 2024 | Theresa Di Mauro

Facts About the Shadiest Attempted Cover-ups in History

As much as we don’t want to admit it, every once in a while, the conspiracy theorists get it right and a massive government cover-up is revealed—or revealed, and then immediately debunked. In many cases, it’s understandable that certain operations have to be performed secretly to protect those involved, but many of the examples here that were ultimately exposed showed some pretty shady activity that probably shouldn’t have been happening in the first place. Still skeptical? Here are 24 slippery facts about the shadiest attempted cover-ups in history.

1. Sleeper Agents

It was when the Cold War was at its peak that the US considered using mind-controlling substances to infiltrate communist Russia with sleeper agents. In a project named MK-Ultra, the CIA began testing this possibility by getting government scientists to experiment on human subjects using substances such as hallucinogens, methamphetamine, and barbiturates, in combination with hypnosis, to break the subject down. They would then rebuild them with qualities specific to their spy missions. The Project was determined to be a failure and scrapped, with CIA Director Richard Helms ordering the destruction of all documents related to the project.


2. Whatever Happened to Do No Harm?

In 1931, Dr. Cornelius Rhoads set off to Puerto Rico to infect its citizens with cancer cells, presumably to study the effects. Thirteen of them perished. Regarding the events, Rhoads allegedly wrote the following:

"The Porto Ricans [sic] are the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever to inhabit this sphere... I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off eight and transplanting cancer into several more... All physicians take delight in the [mistreatment] of the unfortunate subjects".

Despite these horrendous remarks and actions, Rhoads later received a seat on the United States Atomic Energy Commission. He was also elected by the US to be put in charge of chemical combat projects.  Furthermore, he somehow even became vice-president of the American Cancer Society.

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3. Trading Trama

Considered to be one of the biggest coverups of recent history, the Iran-Contra affair took place during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. The deal which facilitated the sale of firearms to Iran began in order to free seven American hostages being held captive in Lebanon. After the sale was made, a portion of the money ended up funding anti-Sandinista and anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua. Reagan’s involvement in the deal remained classified, and the convictions of minor political players were either overturned or pardoned by President George H. W. Bush during the final year of his presidency.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

4. Collateral Damage

During the Vietnam War, there was a mass slaying of approximately 500 unnamed civilians which was initially reported as a routine battle. It wasn’t until a helicopter gunner sent a letter to Congress asking for an investigation that the facts became apparent and it came to be known as the My Lai massacre. Despite the devastation, many still consider the slaughter to be part of the collateral damage of armed conflict.

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5. Higher Powers

Still one of the most widely-contested government coverups, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) was initiated as an ionospheric research program jointly funded by the US Air Force, the US Navy, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Its original purpose was to analyze the ionosphere and investigate the potential for developing ionospheric enhancement technology for radio communications and surveillance. Theorists debate both the function and necessity of having a High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program at all, claiming that it can be used to "weaponize" weather and be used to trigger floods, major power outages, and thunderstorms.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikimedia Commons

6. The Real X-Files

The Majestic 12 (or MJ-12) was purported to be a secret committee made up of scientists, army leaders, and government officials. The committee was formed in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman to facilitate recovery and investigation of an alien spacecraft. The alleged cover-up was brought to light in 1984 due to a series of supposedly leaked secret government documents first circulated by ufologists. The FBI investigated and determined that the supposed documents were "completely bogus", however the legend of the Majestic 12 lives on in the minds of serious conspiracy theorists.

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7. Sounds Innocent, But Isn’t

Regarded as the "greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics"—prior to the Watergate Scandal—the Teapot Dome Scandal was a bribery incident that took place during the administration of Warren G. Harding, from 1921 to 1922. Albert Bacon Fall, Secretary of the Interior, had leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming, along with two other locations in California, to private oil companies at low rates without competitive bidding. The leases were investigated, and Fall was convicted of accepting bribes and became the first Cabinet member to go to prison.

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8. Deal With the Devil

Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical combat research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII. As head of this unit, Dr. Ishii was responsible for carrying out violent human experimentation on tens of thousands of "logs" as he called them. He would perform vivisection (experimental surgery) on unwilling prisoners, without the use of anesthesia; force pregnant women to abort their babies; and induce strokes, heart attacks, frostbite, and hypothermia. The facility and remaining prisoners were destroyed in 1945, and Ishii was detained. Then, the respected General Douglas McArthur allegedly struck a deal with Ishii: The US would grant Ishii immunity from his offenses, if he exchanged of his data data based on his human experimentation.

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9. Involuntary Testing

In the 1940s penicillin was established as a cure for syphilis, but its effectiveness was still being researched. The US experimented on the citizens of Guatemala by using infected hookers to spread the infection to unknowing prison inmates, insane asylum patients, and veterans. When this was ineffective, they turned to inoculating unsuspecting patients by pouring syphilis bacteria onto men’s penises, forearms, and faces. Although the intention was for all subjects to receive the treatment of penicillin, as many as 1/3 never did, which likely spread to further generations. Hilary Clinton apologized for the events on October 1, 2010, and new research began to determine if anyone affected was still alive and suffering with the infection.

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10. Experimental Dermatology

Dr. Albert Kligman set out to use human subjects to test the effects of Agent Orange on the skin-which was deemed as "dermatological research". He not only injected his subjects with dioxidin, the main component of Agent Orange, but he was rumored to have done so in 468 times the amount he was authorized to. The US Army oversaw the testing to "learn how the skin protects itself against chronic assault from deadly chemicals, the so-called hardening process".

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

11. Post-War Push

Operation Paperclip was a program that the US government covertly instituted following WWII. This program secretly brought more than 1,500 German scientists, technicians, and engineers from Nazi Germany and other foreign countries to the United States for employment. This was partly done to prevent German scientific expertise and knowledge from leaking to the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom; additionally, there was the intent to keep post-war Germany from redeveloping its research capabilities. The scientists were "bleached" of their unfortunate social ties, and all documents tying them to the party were altered or destroyed.

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12. Report Card

It took five years of preparation, but in 2014 the Senate Report on the CIA Detention Interrogation Program was finally released. It was shown that the CIA had been using unlawful and "enhanced" interrogation techniques, and that they yielded very poor results. If that’s what was left in, one can’t help but wonder what the five years of "preparation" may have left out.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

13. Side Effects

In the 1960s the US Department of Defense performed a series of irradiation experiments which were targeted to non-consenting, poor, African-American cancer patients. The subjects were told that they would be receiving radiation treatment, however, they were not informed that they would be receiving extremely high doses in order to determine the effects on the human body. The consent forms were only signed with initials in order to avoid litigation and to prevent the patients from receiving any compensation for the government. It was reported that the radiation doses equaled 7500 x-rays to the chest, which caused intense pain, vomiting, and bleeding from the nose and ears. At least 20 of the subjects didn't survive.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

14. Not Just Imagine-d

The ex-Beatle John Lennon became very well known for his protests against conflict and advocacy for peace. Fearing that he might disrupt the 1972 National Republican Convention, the FBI placed Lennon on its "watch list". They terminated his visa and even began deportation proceedings against him. When Lennon and his family were not found to be doing anything "suspicious," the FBI closed its investigation a month after Nixon’s re-election. After his murder in 1980, historian Jon Weiner fought and won a 14-year judicial battle to force the FBI to release its Lennon files under the Freedom of Information Act.

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15. Multi-Generational Toll

Castle Bravo was the most powerful nuclear device that the US ever set off. It was detonated in 1954 over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands as part of the ongoing response to increased Soviet missile activity. Although originally meant to be kept a secret, there was a massive fallout from the blast which affected the citizens of nearby islands. The effects included birth defects and radiation sickness. The effects continued to be felt later on as many children whose parents were exposed to the blast developed thyroid cancer and neoplasms. In response to this, Project 4.1 was launched in order to examine the effects of radiation fallout on humans.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

16. War of the Worlds

In 2010, newly-released files showed that the UK government took the threat of UFOs in the 1950s so seriously that UK Intelligence Chiefs met to discuss the issue. The ministers went on to commission weekly reports on UFO sightings from a committee of intelligence experts. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is an account claiming that Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a UFO sighting be kept secret to prevent "mass panic". The sighting he was referring to was the bizarre incident off the Coast of England where a renaissance plane and its crew were returning from a mission over occupied Europe and encountered a metallic UFO which shadowed them. It left both the crew and the experts consulted afterward so confused and uncertain that Churchill ordered it to remain a secret for at least 50 years.

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17. The Secrets of Area 51

There are many who still theorize that the famed Area 51 is the site of a downed UFO and/or alien bodies and artifacts. While this is the most popular theory, the much more likely explanation for Area 51 is that it is a restricted area where new/emerging technologies are developed and tested. CIA veterans who have been relieved of their secrecy vows surrounding Area 51 have said that the site was the testing ground for spy planes like the A-12 and its record-breaking speedy successor the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960’s. So while the site is still considered to be a cover-up of sorts, it is doesn’t seem likely that the government is hiding aliens out there.

Iron Man factsWikimedia Commons

18. The Smithsonian Coverup

Recently, The Smithsonian became entangled in a great alleged conspiracy of its own. On April 5, 1909, the Phoenix Gazette carried a front page spread about a great archeological dig in the Grand Canyon. The story went into great detail about recovered objects of Egyptian origin being discovered by Professor S. A. Jordon from the Smithsonian. This discovery indicated migration of ancient peoples.  The Smithsonian had adamantly rejected this narrative, denying any knowledge of the dig or the people supposedly involved. Many believe that the cited article may just be a great example of old "fake news," however, others remain intrigued by the many "Egyptian" names given to sites surrounding the Grand Canyon.

No Way Stories factsWikimedia Commons

19. Nessy Revealed

Most are familiar with the famous sighting of the dark, brontosaurus shaped image in the water of Loch Ness, captured in what is now known as the "surgeon’s photograph". Referring of course to the Loch Ness Monster, this tall tale sent the public into a whirl in 1934 and has since inspired many other "sightings". Often rebutted by skeptics, believers may have a new glimmer of hope. Newly published documents reveal that a former Scottish Police Chief named William Fraser remarked, "That there is some strange creature in Loch Ness seems now beyond doubt, but that the [authorities] have any power to protect it is very doubtful". The existence of the famed monster has not yet been confirmed, but there continues to be a possibility, and that is more than enough to keep looking!

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

20. Deadly Seashells

It has been reported that from 1960 to 1965, at least 8 plots to assassinate Fidel Castro were brainstormed by the CIA. A report that was drafted in 1967 (and declassified 36 years later) listed several possibilities to carry out this proposed idea, including using contaminated air, poisoned pills, and syringes. The one plot that really caught people’s attention was the booby-trapped seashell. Castro was known to be an avid diver, so the CIA planned to plant a beautiful seashell in a reef that he was known to frequent. The idea was to make the shell so beautiful that Castro would have to pick it up, triggering an explosion. However, the elaborate scheme was deemed to be impractical.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

21. Bon Appetit

In August 2008, the United States National Archives released an incredible number of former personnel files of those who had worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.  Included in the list of former employees was Julia McWilliam—better known as Julia Child, the famous chef and master of French cuisine. Although her work in Intelligence was never deemed to be a secret, it was not publicized either. After the release of these files, many more people became aware of her service during WWII.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

22. Dark Days

Nine stories below the lowest floor of Grand Central Station in New York sits a bunker known as M-42. There was a fear of sabotage while the station’s trains were being used to transport armed forces in and out of New York during WWII, therefore the bunker was rumored to be secured by armed guards with shoot-to-kill orders. Also located below the Station is Track 61, which was built for wealthy travelers arriving to NYC on private trains. The track has a freight elevator that rises up to the garage level of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Its most frequent user was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who suffered from mobility issues due to polio.

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

23. Quite the Trip

The CIA set out to building safehouses in New York and San Francisco for the sole purpose of studying the effects of hallucinogens on non-consenting subjects. One outfit was called Operation Midnight Climax: In order to lure people into these safe houses, the CIA had several hookers on their payroll—yes, you read that correctly—who would entice "clients" to come back to the houses. Once there, the gigolos would dose them with various substances. The subjects were then monitored behind a two-way mirror. It is alleged that the officials who ran the experiments described them as "fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, and pillage with the sanction and bidding of the All-highest?

Spookiest Places On Earth factsWikimedia Commons

24. The Potemkin Village

A "Potemkin Village" has become known as any deceptive or false construct, conjured often by cruel regimes, to deceive both those within the land and those peering in from outside. This is said to reference the story of a dashing 18th Century Russian nobleman, Grigory Potemkin, who endeavored to show Catherine the Great the best face of his empire. To accomplish this, it is said that pasteboard facades of pretty towns were set up at a distance on riverbanks, and whole populations of serfs were moved around and dressed up in fanciful garb to flaunt a prosperity that didn't exist. Recent historical work has determined that this origin story is likely exaggerated, but real examples Potemkin Villages have nonetheless occurred. The kicker to all this? Catherine the Great and Potemkin had once been lovers, and enjoyed a tryst of "laughter, [sensuality], mutually admired intelligence, and power". Why you gotta do me like that, Grigory?

Shadiest Cover-ups factsWikipedia

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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