The baby-faced gunman of Mumbai, Azam Amir Kasab, now in the custody of Indian police, is the sole surviving attacker in the three-day rampage that began on the night of November 26 and left more than 170 people dead and scores of others injured.
After the attacks, Indian officials immediately began pointing fingers at longtime rival, Pakistan, as the source of the 10 militants—a charge that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari disputed last night on CNN. During police interrogations, Kasab himself claimed to hail from the Punjab region of Pakistan and to have trained with the Pakistan-based extremist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
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Of course, Kasab could be making this all up. The only way that interrogators can tap a man's memory is to ask him. But what if the person is unwilling to spill the beans or, at least, the real ones? If only there were only a way to plug a USB cable to the back of Kasab's head and just download the experiences.
While such technology may be the stuff of science fiction, Indian government officials have announced they will employ another technique that seems to leap from the pages of a 1940s pulp novel: truth serum. Also known as narcoanalysis, administering psychoactive drugs for interrogation purposes has been around for just under a century, but it has been viewed with skepticism from the start. Indeed, the practice is banned in most democracies, and evidence obtained from such an interrogation would have a hard time making it into an American court.
But could 'truth serum' reliably extract the truth from this man and other criminal targets? We asked Alison Winter, a science historian at the University of Chicago, who has studied the origins and applications of truth serum.
What does the term 'truth serum' mean?
That's a term that was used to describe the use of certain drugs, most commonly barbiturates like sodium amytal and sodium pentothal, to try to extract truthful statements from people about their past experiences. What the term really meant was that the people who used the serum believed that it made people unable to censor themselves and they would just empty their memories into a narrative statement.
Who discovered these effects?
In the mid-1910s, Dr. Robert House was an obstetrician who noticed that the popular obstetric anesthetic drug, scopolamine, also known as twilight sleep, would put his patients into a state where they would deliver information in a way that seemed automatic.
He didn't want to use it in interrogation, for the purpose of getting people to admit to criminal acts, so this is a quite different beginning from the association we have now. At the time, he wanted to use it to provide support for claims people made about their innocence -- not their guilt. If somebody said 'I wasn't at the crime, I was in the library but nobody saw me,' then, perhaps, this would give support for the claim, because you would think they could not lie under the drug's influence.
It was only later when other people used these drugs that they got the reputation for having the power to force people to provide information against their will.
How did they begin to be used for interrogation?
In the 1930s, there were these committees to evaluate corruption in American policing, and it first came out that police were using these drugs in interrogations to get suspects to incriminate themselves. But there's not a lot of documentation of that.
During World War II, these drugs were used in a very different way. They were the first intravenous anesthetics and were used to treat traumatized soldiers who had lost their memories or had aphasia [loss of the ability to speak or process language due to brain injury]. Doctors found that using these drugs would make it easier for people to say what happened, and this helped them feel better.
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As a result, a lot of doctors who had been in the military during the war were familiar with these drugs. Sodium amytal and pentothal were no longer just used as surgical anesthetics, although that was their most common use, but they were sometimes used for this psychiatric purpose of getting people to talk. In most cases, the drugs were not used in interrogations, but to help people talk about their memories in psychiatric consultations. However, some of these military doctors eventually became consultants for police forces or they did psychiatric research for the government and began exploring different ways of using these drugs for interrogation.
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Do experts believe they really work?
The idea of a 'truth serum' has never been widely accepted. Although there have been waves of enthusiasm for the idea of a drug that can extract information reliably, there has been even more skepticism. Ever since the 1920s, many judges, psychiatrists, and scientists have rejected the idea that there is a drug that can get memories out intact. They have claimed, instead, that it makes people feel like talking, but it also puts them in a state of extreme suggestibility: people will pick up on cues about what questioners want to hear and repeat that back. This is one of the reasons that statements made under the influence of these drugs have never, as far as I know, been accepted in an American court.
After 9/11, there were discussions in the national papers about whether it's a good idea to interrogate suspects using these drugs. Every time there is a desperate need for information from people, you get speculation about whether these drugs are going to get that information. But you also get consistent warnings that the information may be less reliable than what you would get without the drugs. That skepticism was there right from the start 80 years ago.
'Truth serum' is a colloquial name for any of a range of psychoactive drugs used in an effort to obtain information from subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide it otherwise. These include ethanol, scopolamine, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, midazolam, flunitrazepam, sodium thiopental, and amobarbital, among others.
Although a variety of such substances have been tested, serious issues have been raised about their use scientifically, ethically and legally. There is currently no drug proven to cause consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling. Subjects questioned under the influence of such substances have been found to be suggestible and their memories subject to reconstruction and fabrication. When such drugs have been used in the course of investigating civil and criminal cases, they have not been accepted by Western legal systems and legal experts as genuine investigative tools. It has been suggested that their use is a potential violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (the right to remain silent). Concerns have also been raised internationally throughthe European Court of Human Rights arguing that use of a truth serum could be considered a violation of a human right to be free from degrading treatment, or could be considered a form of torture. It has been noted to be a violation of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture.
'Truth serum' was abused against psychotic patients as part of old, discredited practices of psychiatry and is no longer used. In a therapeutic context, the controlled administration of intravenoushypnotic medications is called 'narcosynthesis' or 'narcoanalysis'. Such application was first documented by Dr. William Bleckwenn. Reliability and suggestibility of patients are concerns, and the practice of chemically inducing an involuntary mental state is now widely considered to be a form of torture.
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 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 dispute whether any of them qualify as a randomized, controlled study, that would meet scientific standards for determining effectiveness.
India's Central Bureau of Investigation has used intravenous barbiturates for interrogation, often in high-profile cases. One such case was the interrogation of Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist captured alive by police in the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Kasab was a Pakistani militant and a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. 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.
The Central Bureau of Investigation also conducted this test on Krishna, a key witness (also suspect) in the high-profile 2008 Aarushi-Hemraj Murder Case to seek more information from Krishna and also determine his credibility as a witness with key information, yet not known to the investigating authorities. Per unverified various media sources, Krishna had purported to have deemed Hemraj (prime suspect) as not guilty of Aarushi's murder, claiming he [Hemraj] 'treat Aarushi like his own daughter'.
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 were to be allowed after consent of accused. The judge stated: 'We are of the considered opinion that no individual can be forced and subjected to such techniques involuntarily, and by doing so it amounts to unwarranted intrusion of personal liberty.'
In Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh High Court permitted narcoanalysis in the investigation of a killing of a tiger that occurred in May 2010. The Jhurjhura Tigress at Bandhavgarh National Park, a mother of three cubs, was found dead as a result of being hit by a vehicle. A Special Task Force requested the narcoanalysis testing of four persons, one of whom refused to consent on grounds of potential post-test complications.
A defector from the biological weaponsDepartment 12 of the KGB 'illegals' (S) directorate (e.g., presently a part of Russian SVR service) claimed a serum code-named 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 color, and no immediate side effects. Most importantly, a person had no recollection having had the 'heart-to-heart talk',' and felt afterward as though they'd suddenly fallen asleep. Officers of S Directorate primarily used the drug to verify fidelity and trustworthiness of their agents who operated overseas, such as Vitaly Yurchenko. According to Alexander Litvinenko, Russian presidential candidateIvan Rybkin was drugged with the same substance by FSB agents during his kidnapping in 2004.
Scopolamine was promoted by obstetrician Robert Ernest House as an advance that would prevent false convictions, beginning in 1922. He had noted that women in childbirth who were given scopolamine could answer questions accurately even while in a state of twilight sleep, and were oftentimes 'exceedingly candid' in their remarks. House proposed that scopolamine could be used when interrogating suspected criminals. He even arranged to administer scopolamine to prisoners in the Dallas County jail. Both men were believed to be guilty, both denied guilt under scopolamine, and both were eventually acquitted. In 1926, the use of scopolamine was rejected in a court case, by Judge Robert Walker Franklin, who questioned both its scientific origin, and the uncertainty of its effect.
The United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) experimented with the use of mescaline, scopolamine, and marijuana as possible truth drugs during World War II. They concluded that the effects were not much different from those of alcohol: subjects became more talkative but that did not mean they were more truthful. Like hypnosis, there were also issues of suggestibility and interviewer influence. Cases involving scopolamine resulted in a mixture of testimonies both for and against those suspected, at times directly contradicting each other.
LSD was also considered as a possible truth serum, but found unreliable. During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out a number of investigations including Project MKUltra and Project MKDELTA, which involved illegal use of truth drugs including LSD. A CIA report from 1961, released in 1993, concludes:
'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.'
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Townsend v. Sain, 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.
In 1967, Perry Russo was administered sodium pentothal for interrogation by District Attorney Jim Garrison in the investigation of JFK's assassination.
More recently, a judge approved the use of narcoanalysis in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting trial to evaluate whether James Eagan Holmes's state of mind was valid for an insanity plea. Judge William Sylvester ruled that prosecutors would be allowed to interrogate Holmes 'under the influence of a medical drug designed to loosen him up and get him to talk', such as sodium amytal, if he filed an insanity plea. The hope was that a 'narcoanalytic interview' could confirm whether or not he had been legally insane on 20 July, the date of the shootings. It is not known whether such an examination was carried out.
William Shepherd, chair of the criminal justice section of the American Bar Association, stated, with respect to the Holmes case, that use of a 'truth drug' as proposed, '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 US constitution.' Discussing possible effectiveness of such an examination, psychiatrist August Piper stated that 'amytal’s inhibition-lowering effects in no way prompt the subject to offer up true statements or memories.'Psychology Today’s Scott Linfield noted, as 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.'
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. Archived from the original on 2013-07-30.
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 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.
Given the nature of narcoanalysis, it is not possible to get volunteers to facilitate controlled studies.
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.