A "truth serum" is a colloquial name for any of a range of psychoactive medications used to obtain information from subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide it otherwise. They have been used in the course of investigating civil and criminal cases, and for the evaluation of psychotic patients in the practice of psychiatry. That application was first documented by Dr. William Bleckwenn in 1930, and it still has selected uses today. In the latter context, the controlled administration of intravenous hypnotic medications is called "narcosynthesis" or "narcoanalysis". It may be used to procure diagnostically – or therapeutically – vital information, and to provide patients with a functional respite from catatonia or mania.
Active chemical substances
Sedatives or hypnotics that alter higher cognitive function include ethanol, scopolamine, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, potent short or intermediate acting hypnotic benzodiazepines such as midazolam, flunitrazepam, and various short and ultra-short acting barbiturates including sodium thiopental (commonly known by the brand name Sodium Pentothal) and amobarbital (formerly known as sodium amytal).
While there have been many clinical studies of the efficacy of narcoanalysis in interrogation or lie detection, there is no agreement that any of them qualifies as a randomized, controlled study, which is the scientific standard for determining effectiveness.
Use by country
India's Central Bureau of Investigation has used intravenous barbiturates for interrogation. One such case in which the CBI has used these techniques is the interrogation on Kasab. Kasab was a Pakistani militant and a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Islamist group, through which he took part in the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India. Kasab was the only attacker captured alive by police. On 3 May 2010, Kasab was found guilty of 80 offences, including murder, waging war against India, possessing explosives, and other charges. On 6 May 2010, the same trial court sentenced him to death on four counts and to a life sentence on five counts.
On May 5, 2010 the Supreme Court Judge Balasubramaniam in the case "Smt. Selvi vs. State of Karnataka" held that narcoanalysis, polygraph and brain mapping tests to be allowed after consent of accused. In another case, Madhya Pradesh High Court permitted narcoanalysis in the investigation of a tiger killing.
A defector from the biological weapons department 12 of the KGB "illegals" (S) directorate (presently a part of Russian SVR service) claimed that a truth serum codenamed SP-117 was highly effective and has been widely used. According to him, "The 'remedy which loosens the tongue' has no taste, no smell, no colour, and no immediate side effects. And, most important, a person has no recollection of having the 'heart-to-heart talk'" and felt afterwards as if they suddenly fell asleep. Officers of the S directorate used the drug primarily to check the trustworthiness of their own illegal agents who operated overseas, such as Vitaly Yurchenko. According to Alexander Litvinenko, Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin was drugged with the same substance by FSB agents during his alleged kidnapping.
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that confessions produced as a result of ingestion of truth serum were "unconstitutionally coerced" and therefore inadmissible. The viability of forensic evidence produced from "truth sera" has been addressed in lower courts – judges and expert witnesses have generally agreed that they are not reliable for lie detection.
"Early in [the 20th] century physicians began to employ scopolamine, along with morphine and chloroform, to induce a state of "twilight sleep" during childbirth. A constituent of henbane, scopolamine was known to produce sedation and drowsiness, confusion and disorientation, incoordination, and amnesia for events experienced during intoxication. Yet physicians noted that women in twilight sleep answered questions accurately and often volunteered exceedingly candid remarks. In 1922 it occurred to Robert House, a Dallas, Texas, obstetrician, that a similar technique might be employed in the interrogation of suspected criminals, and he arranged to interview under scopolamine two prisoners in the Dallas county jail whose guilt seemed clearly confirmed. Under the drug, both men denied the charges on which they were held; and both, upon trial, were found not guilty."
"The salient points that emerge from this discussion are the following. No such magic brew as the popular notion of truth serum exists. The barbiturates, by disrupting defensive patterns, may sometimes be helpful in interrogation, but even under the best conditions they will elicit an output contaminated by deception, fantasy, garbled speech, etc. A major vulnerability they produce in the subject is a tendency to believe he has revealed more than he has. It is possible, however, for both normal individuals and psychopaths to resist drug interrogation; it seems likely that any individual who can withstand ordinary intensive interrogation can hold out in narcosis. The best aid to a defense against narco-interrogation is foreknowledge of the process and its limitations. There is an acute need for controlled experimental studies of drug reaction, not only to depressants but also to stimulants and to combinations of depressants, stimulants, and ataraxics."
A judge approved the use of narcoanalysis in the trial of the 2012 Aurora shooting to evaluate whether James Eagan Holmes's state of mind is valid for an insanity plea. He said, "Judge William Sylvester ruled that in the event of Holmes pleading insanity his prosecutors would be permitted to interrogate him while he is under the influence of a medical drug designed to loosen him up and get him to talk. The idea would be that such a 'narcoanalytic interview' would be used to confirm whether or not he had been legally insane when he embarked on his shooting spree on 20 July last year." The drug "would most likely be a short-acting barbiturate such as sodium amytal. William Shepherd, chair of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association, said that the proposed use of a 'truth drug' to ascertain the veracity of a defendant's plea of insanity... would provoke intense legal argument relating to Holmes's right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."
According to psychiatrist August Piper, "amytal’s inhibition-lowering effects in no way prompt the subject to offer up true statements or memories." Moreover, "Psychology Today’s Scott Linfield noted, per Piper, that “there’s good reason to believe that truth serums merely lower the threshold for reporting virtually all information, both true and false."
- Human experimentation
- Pharmacological torture
- Project MKUltra
- Project Chatter
- Project Bluebird
- Naples M, Hackett TP: The amytal interview: history and current uses. Psychosomatics01 1978; 19: 98–105.
- Bleckwenn WJ: Sodium amytal in certain nervous and mental conditions. Wis Med J 1930; 29: 693–696.
- Tollefson GD: The amobarbital interview in the differential diagnosis of catatonia. Psychosomatics 1982; 23: 437–438.
- Bleckwenn WJ: Production of sleep and rest in psychotic cases. Arch Neurol Psychiatry 1930; 24: 365–375.
- Anonymous: Barbiturates. http://www.surgeryencyclopedia.com/A-Ce/Barbiturates.html, Accessed 9-21-2009.
- There is some controversy to this point; see IJME debate in Jesani, Amar (Oct–Dec 2006). "Medical professionals and interrogation: lies about finding the 'truth'". Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (Editorial). Mumbai. 3 (4): 116.
A PubMed search found 26 references from 1997 to 2001 (or 5.2 publications per year), but in less than five years (2002 to July 2006) the number has more than tripled to 83 or 16.6 publications per year. Many of these are randomised controlled trials.and Jesani, Amar (Jan–Mar 2007). "Misconceptions about narco analysis". Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (Editorial reply). Mumbai. 4 (1): 7.
It is true that the number of research publications on lie detection has tripled during 2002-2006. But no material has been produced that can be described as randomised controlled trials.
- A simple search: Misquitta, Neville (28 Feb 2011). "Narcoanalysis - spies, lies and truth serum". Psychiatry and Society in Pune (blog). Retrieved 12 Mar 2013.
A PubMed search using the MeSH term ‘narcotherapy’ gives just two articles in the last ten years. There are no randomised control studies - the scientific standard - to demonstrate the reproducibility of results obtained by narcoanalysis for information gathering, abreaction, or lie detection.
- Lakshman, Sriram (May 2007). "Narcoanalysis and some hard facts". Frontline. 24 (9). Retrieved 12 Mar 2013.
Given the nature of narcoanalysis, it is not possible to get volunteers to facilitate controlled studies.
- Bimmerle, George. "Truth" Drugs in Interrogation. Center for the Study of Intelligence (Technical report). 5. CIA. Retrieved 12 March 2013.
The almost total absence of controlled experimental studies of "truth" drugs and the spotty and anecdotal nature of psychiatric and police evidence require that extrapolations to intelligence operations be made with care.
- "Mumbai attacks: Militant kept in underwear to prevent suicide". The Daily Telegraph. 8 December 2008.
- "Exclusive: The Kasab Confession Part - 1".
- The government of Pakistan initially denied that Kasab was a Pakistani citizen, but, in January 2009, it confirmed his citizenship. "Ajmal's Nationality Confirmed". Dawn (Pakistani Newspaper). 8 January 2009. Retrieved 31 January 2012.
- "CRIMINAL APPEAL NOS.1899-1900 OF 2011" (PDF). Supreme Court of India. 29 August 2012. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
- "Planned 9/11 at Taj: Caught Terrorist". Zee News. 29 November 2008.
- "Please give me saline". Bangalore Mirror. 29 November 2008.
- "Bombay HC upholds Kasab's death sentence". IBN Live.
- Irani, Delnaaz (3 May 2010). "Surviving Mumbai gunman convicted over attacks". BBC News. Archived from the original on 5 May 2010. Retrieved 3 May 2010.
- "No narcoanalysis test without consent, says SC". The Times Of India. May 5, 2010. Retrieved May 18, 2012.
- "HC permits narco test of 3 forest staffers". May 2, 2012.
- Alexander Kouzminov Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West, Greenhill Books, 2006, ISBN 1-85367-646-2 .
- Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko. Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB. New York: Free Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4165-5165-2.
- Townsend v. Sain, Sheriff, et al., 372 U.S. 293, 307-308
- See for example State v. Pitts, 116 N.J. 580 (The Supreme Court of New Jersey 1989) (“Three experts ... agreed that sodium-amytal-induced interviews are not considered scientifically reliable for the purpose of ascertaining "truth."”).
- P. Solomon Banda; Dan Elliott (11 Mar 2013). "Judge OKs medication for Colorado shooting suspect". Yahoo! News. AP.
- Pilkington, Ed (12 March 2013). "Judge approves use of 'truth serum' on accused Aurora shooter James Holmes". The Guardian.
- Brown, David. "Some Believe 'Truth Serums' Will Come Back", The Washington Post, Monday 20 November 2006; page A08.
- "Truth" Drugs in Interrogation: Effects of narcosis and considerations relevant to its possible counterintelligence use. Central Intelligence Agency.
- Informal demonstration of thiopental (video), BBC, 4 October 2013.