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Truth Serums & Torture

By Martin A. Lee
June 4, 2002

On U.S. pundit shows this year, a hot topic has been whether captured Taliban fighters and alleged al-Qaeda operatives should be subjected to "truth serums" or physical torture to make them talk.

Hundreds of captured Taliban and al-Qaeda belligerents have been grilled, but apparently little useful has been gleaned. Frustrated U.S. interrogators have complained that Afghan battlefield prisoners employ aliases, deceit and other tactics to withstand interrogations.

In debating how to extract more information, cable-TV commentators and other pundits generally have treated "truth serum" as a softer means of extracting information compared to more traditional torture, with commentators weighing the pros and cons of the two approaches. But beyond the question – does "truth serum" work? – is a long history of practice that blurs the moral lines between the use of interrogation drugs and more overt methods of torture.

Former CIA and FBI director William Webster put the "truth serum" issue into prominent play in April when he urged use of drugs to loosen the tongues of suspects, such as Osama bin Laden's aide Abu Zubaida and captives held in cages at Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The debate soon spread to cable-TV talk shows. On Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor,"  for instance, retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan said he doubted "truth serum" would work but hoped Webster's suggestion would lead the Bush administration to try torture. "Maybe it'll be an entrée to take us to the next step," Cowan said. "I kid around with people about plugging them up to a 110-volt outlet and flipping the switch if they don't want to talk."

Guest host John Kasich demurred that many experts don't see torture as an effective interrogation technique either, "and I'm not talking about somebody who's worrying about being politically correct," but even "people inside of some of our best intelligence organizations."

Cowan disputed the view that torture is ineffective. "I'll be honest by saying that I served a lot of time in Vietnam, and in some cases where I worked on prisoner operations, we did go a little bit beyond what normal interrogation techniques would give you, and we got phenomenal information," he said. [Fox News, April 26, 2002]

Wish List

Yet, U.S. spymasters – knowing that torture subjects may simply tell an interrogator what he wants to hear – have long yearned for a drug that could pull reliable information out of an unwilling subject.

A sure-fire truth drug has been high on the wish list of U.S. intelligence agencies at least since 1942, when scientists working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s wartime predecessor, were asked to develop a chemical substance that could break down the psychological defenses of enemy spies and POWs, thereby making it easier to obtain information from them.

After testing several compounds, the OSS scientists selected a potent extract of marijuana as the best available "truth serum." The cannabis concoction was given the code name TD, meaning Truth Drug. When injected into food or tobacco cigarettes, TD helped loosen the reserve of recalcitrant interrogation subjects.

The effects of the drug were described in a once-classified OSS report: “TD appears to relax all inhibitions and to deaden the areas of the brain which govern an individual’s discretion and caution. . . . [G]enerally speaking, the reaction will be one of great loquacity and hilarity.”

In the end, marijuana didn’t fit the bill as the ultimate "truth serum," but it proved to be a gateway drug that set U.S. military and espionage scientists on a path to creating more powerful and dangerous chemicals. After World War II, American intelligence stepped up efforts to find a more effective "truth serum."

In 1947, the U.S. Navy launched Project Chatter, which included experiments with mescaline, a hallucinogenic drug derived from the peyote cactus (with effects similar to LSD). Mescaline was studied as a possible speech-inducing agent after the Navy learned that Nazi doctors at the Dachau concentration camp had used it in mind-control experiments. The Nazis concluded that it was “impossible to impose one’s will on another person, even when the strongest dose of mescaline had been given.”

Twilight Zone

The CIA also embarked upon an extensive research program geared toward developing unorthodox interrogation techniques. Two methods showed promise in the late 1940s. The first involved narco-hypnosis. A CIA psychologist attempted to induce a trance state after administering a mild sedative.

A second technique relied on a combination of two different drugs with contradictory effects, which were injected intravenously into both arms of an interrogation subject. Flick the switch and a heavy dose of barbiturates would knock a person out, and then a stimulant, usually some type of amphetamine, was administered through the other intravenous feed to wake a person up. As the subject started to emerge from a somnambulant state, he or she would reach a groggy, in-between condition prior to becoming fully alert.

Described in CIA documents as “the twilight zone,” this semiconscious limbo was considered useful for special interrogations. But keeping a person suspended in the twilight zone was not a precise science, and the results were not always satisfactory.

The CIA was still searching for a viable "truth serum" – the Holy Grail of the cloak-and-dagger trade – when it initiated Operation Artichoke in the early 1950s and began utilizing LSD during interrogation sessions. Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, LSD was hailed as a "potential new agent for unconventional warfare," according to a classified CIA report dated Aug. 5, 1954. But even a surreptitious dose of LSD, the most potent mind-bending drug known to science, could not guarantee that an interrogation subject would spill the beans.

Perhaps the concept of a "truth serum" was a bit farfetched, for it presupposed that there was a way to chemically bypass the mind’s censor and turn the psyche inside out, unleashing a profusion of secrets. After much trial and error, the CIA realized that it doesn’t quite work that way.

Eventually, CIA experts figured out the most effective way to employ LSD as an aid to interrogation. They used its terrifying effects on some prisoners as a third-degree tactic. A skillful interrogator could gain leverage over prisoners by threatening to keep them in a crazed, tripped-out state forever unless they agreed to talk. This method sometimes proved successful where others had failed. LSD has been used for interrogations on an operational basis – albeit sparingly – since the mid-1950s.

U.S. Army interrogators also employed EA-1729 (the code for LSD) as an intelligence-extracting aid. Similar to the strategy of their CIA counterparts, Army interrogators used the drug to scare the daylights out of people who were zonked and terror-stricken on acid.

Documents pertaining to Operation Derby Hat record the results of several EA-1729 interrogations conducted by the Army in the Far East during the early 1960s. One subject vomited three times and stated that he “wanted to die” after he had been slipped some LSD. His reaction was described as “moderate.”

After another target absorbed triple the dose normally used in such sessions, he kept collapsing and hitting his head on a table. “The subject voiced an anti-communist line,” an Army report noted, “and begged to be spared the torture he was receiving. In this confused state he even asked to be killed in order to alleviate his suffering.”

International Standards

In calling for use of "truth serums" on Taliban and al-Qaeda captives, Webster said any information extracted from the prisoners should be used only "for the protection of the country." He said legal safeguards should be in place to prevent prosecutors from turning admissions against the detainees.

The former CIA and FBI director also opposed use of torture on the prisoners. That distinction, however, misses the point that the application of drugs during interrogations often has become a form of torture.

Amnesty International maintains that employing "truth serums" for espionage purposes could violate international treaties and the Convention Against Torture that the United States had signed. But neither the CIA nor the military has renounced the use of LSD as an interrogation weapon.

“It’s a slippery slope,” admits Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counterterrorism. “Once you’ve used [truth drugs] for national security cases, then it becomes a standard. Sodium pentothal is not that effective, and so you have to use something stronger. It’s a short skip and a hop to LSD, or something worse.”

Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens.