Science writer Brendan Borrell, prompted by reports that Mumbai gunman Azam Amir Kasab will be injected with “truth serum” by his Indian interrogators, examines the history of this discredited interrogation technique for Scientific American in a timely article titled, “What Is Truth Serum?”
CNN reports that the lone gunman reportedly taken alive in the recent attack on Mumbai, India has been subjected to a polygraph test:
[Mumbai Joint Police Commissioner of Crime Rakesh] Maria identified the suspect as Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, 21, from Faridkot village in the Okara district of Pakistan’s Punjab province. He is the son of Mohammed Amir Kasab, the police commissioner said.
Multiple law enforcement and intelligence sources familiar with the investigation said Kasab was put through a polygraph test and has also been interviewed by the FBI.
Maria said all 10 attackers were Pakistanis, which Pakistani officials have denied, blaming instead “stateless actors.”
While the polygraph may have some use as an interrogational prop with naive and gullible persons, it’s junk science of the highest order, and Indian investigators would be wise not to rely on it. But pseudoscience seems to be in vogue in India. The Times of London reports that the gunman, whom it identifies as Azam Amir Kasab, will also be injected with “truth serum”:
Indian police interrogators are preparing to administer a “truth serum” on the sole Islamic militant captured during last week’s terror attacks on Mumbai to settle once and for all the question of where he is from.
Rather than resorting to the magical thinking of lie detectors and truth serums, Indian authorities would be better served by using traditional investigative methods, which although they may require time, hard work, and critical thinking, deliver more reliable results.
In his Spytalk column dated 23 February 2007, Congressional Quarterly Homeland Security editor Jeff Stein addresses the question of whether interrogators administered a mind-altering drug to terrorism suspect José Padilla — a question the Department of Defense is refusing to answer — and discusses past governmental use and abuse of so-called “truth serums.”
Washington Post staff writer David Brown reports. Excerpt:
If there is a “truth serum” that works, it is a secret that nobody is giving up.
The debate earlier this year on interrogation techniques in the war on terrorism raised anew a question that goes back at least 2,000 years. Is there something you can give a person that will make him tell the truth?
The ancient Romans had an answer: Yes.
“In vino veritas” — “in wine there is truth” — is sometimes attributed to the philosopher Pliny the Elder. The observation made in the 1st century has been borne out over the millennia by many a remorseful inebriate. And, in truth, alcohol given as intravenous ethanol was an early form of truth serum.
In the 21st century, however, the answer appears to be: No. There is no pharmaceutical compound today whose proven effect is the consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling.
The modern fascination with truth-eliciting drugs began in 1916 when an obstetrician named Robert House, practicing in a town outside Dallas named Ferris, saw a strange event during a home delivery.
The woman in labor was in a state of “twilight sleep” induced by scopolamine, a compound derived from the henbane plant that blocks the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. House had asked her husband for a scale to weigh the newborn. The man looked for it and returned to the bedroom saying he could not find it — whereupon his wife, still under the anesthetic, told him exactly where it was.
House became convinced that scopolamine could make anyone answer a question truthfully, and he went on to promote its forensic use.
Police departments used it — and in a few cases judges permitted it — through the 1920s and 1930s. Other drugs were also tried, most famously the barbiturates Pentothal and Amytal. But by the 1950s, most scientists had declared the very notion of truth serums invalid, and most courts had ruled testimony gained through their use inadmissible.
The emerging consensus did not stop the most notorious search for truth serum — the CIA’s Project MK-ULTRA. Starting in 1953, the agency tested the behavioral effects of several drugs, including their effects on interrogation. Many people were given substances without their knowledge or consent. Frank Olson jumped from a hotel window to his death after taking the hallucinogen LSD.
The program ended in the late 1960s. Its abuses — many revealed in congressional hearings in 1977 — produced bad publicity for the spy agency.
Whether a search for truth serums has occurred in recent decades — and especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — is a matter of differing opinion.
Gordon H. Barland was a captain in the U.S. Army Combat Development Command’s intelligence agency in the 1960s. Before leaving active duty in 1967 he was asked to write up “materiel objectives.” He put on the wish list a drug that would aid interrogation.
He later became a research psychologist and spent 14 years working at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute. While psychopharmacology was not his specialty, trying to catch liars was.
“I would have expected that if there was some sort of truth drug in general use I would have heard rumors of it. I never did,” said Barland, who retired in 2000 and now lives in Utah. He further doubts that the government would again engage in such experiments, given the MK-ULTRA experience.
“It would be very difficult to get a project like that off the ground,” he speculated.