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
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
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
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
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]
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
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 CIAs 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 individuals discretion
and caution. . . . [G]enerally speaking, the reaction will be one of great
loquacity and hilarity.
In the end, marijuana didnt 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
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 ones will on
another person, even when the strongest dose of mescaline had been
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
Perhaps the concept of a "truth serum" was a
bit farfetched, for it presupposed that there was a way to chemically
bypass the minds censor and turn the psyche inside out, unleashing a
profusion of secrets. After much trial and error, the CIA realized that it
doesnt 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.
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
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.
Its a slippery slope, admits Vincent
Cannistraro, a former CIA chief of counterterrorism. Once youve 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. Its a short skip and a hop to LSD, or something worse.
A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens.