Hundreds of “belligerents” captured during the much ballyhooed war on terrorism have been grilled, but apparently little of value has emerged from these sessions. Frustrated American officials have publicly complained that Afghan battlefield prisoners employ aliases, deceit and other tactics to withstand interrogations.
Abu Zubaida, the highest ranking al Qaeda leader in US captivity, was wounded by American gunfire in a March 28 raid on an al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan. US interrogators have been questioning Zubaida at an undisclosed location, but CIA terrorism experts aren’t sure if he is providing credible information. They wonder whether he is trying to manipulate his interlocutors in an effort to advance a terrorist’s agenda.
William Webster, a former director of the CIA and FBI, sees a way around this impasse. Webster has urged the US government to administer sodium pentothal and other so-called truth drugs to defiant Taliban and al Qaeda detainees in order to obtain crucial data. Any information extracted from doped-up prisoners should be used only “for the protection of the country,” says Webster, and not to prosecute captives seized in Afghanistan. The focus will be on national security, he promises, rather than on law enforcement.
But do “truth serums” actually work? Sodium pentothal, the most commonly known speech-inducing compound, makes people more talkative, but not necessarily more honest. This problem has dogged US spymasters for more than a half century.
A sure-fire truth drug has been high on the wish-list of US intelligence operatives 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 hitherto 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? generally speaking, the reaction will be one of great loquacity and hilarity.”
In the end, marijuana didn’t fit the bill as the ultimate truth to be a gateway drug that opened the door to US military and espionage involvement with more powerful and dangerous chemicals.
After the war, American intelligence stepped up efforts to find a more effective truth serum. In 1947, the US 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 it had been used in mind control experiments by Nazi doctors at the Dachau concentration camp. 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.”
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 somnolent 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.
Keeping a person suspended in the twilight zone was not a precision science, and the results were not always satisfactory. The CIA was still searching for a viable truth drug – the Holy Grail of the cloak-and-dagger trade – when it initiated Operation Artichoke in the early 1950’s and began utilizing LSD during interrogation sessions. Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, LSD was hailed as a “potential new agent for unconventional warfare” in a previously classified CIA report dated August 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 automatically spill beans.
Perhaps the concept of a truth drug 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. Using LSD as a third-degree tactic, a skillful interrogator could gain significant leverage over unwitting subjects 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.
The US Army also employed EA-1729 (the code for LSD) as an interrogation weapon, which facilitated efforts to elicit information by essentially scaring 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.”
Former CIA director Webster says that he supports using drugs to get information on potential national security threats from Islamic extremists, but he does not endorse the use of torture. That, however, is exactly what drug interrogations are – a form of torture.
Amnesty International maintains that employing truth drugs 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. [email protected]