The Truth About Truth Serum


A battle of wills fought to a stalemate has led terrorism investigators to consider ripping a page from Cold War-era playbooks and use truth serum to break the silence of four detained men.

Despite the grave circumstances, it’s hard not to envision scenes from B-grade suspense movies or campy spy spoofs in which the most hidden of secrets are just a syringe away.

Trouble is, there’s little evidence that a truth serum--presumably containing compounds such as sodium pentothal--would work.


“All it does is disinhibit you and make you more loose-tongued, but you’re not necessarily going to be telling the truth,” said Steven J. Kingsbury, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

Still, some anesthesiologists say they’ve heard enough patients mutter secrets under the influence of such compounds that the idea could have merit.

A magical elixir that would draw the truth from the unwilling has been the stuff of fantasy for centuries. Wine was the original loosener of lips, and spy chasers--including some in the CIA and KGB--worked from the WWII era into the ‘60s to find a drug that would unlock lips.

The best-known of the compounds, sodium pentothal, can get people to talk in much the same way alcohol does, by affecting how neurotransmitters in the brain perform.

The low-tech explanation is that barbiturates--which include sodium pentothal--help channels in the neurotransmitters stay open longer, and in the ensuing flow of gamma-amniobutyric acid, or GABA, personal inhibitions fall away.

But the uninhibited are not necessarily truthful.

Even if an effective truth serum did exist, medical and legal experts say its use would raise significant ethical questions, ranging from whether doctors should administer a drug for nonmedical purposes, to how investigators gain legal authority to drug a suspect against his will.


“The events of Sept. 11 require us to imagine the unimaginable and think the unthinkable,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and author. “But we also have to use common sense and constitutional values.”

As first reported in the Washington Post, unidentified FBI officials say approved methods of coercion--such as promises of leniency--have failed to get any of the four detainees to cooperate with investigators.

The men are among more than 1,000 people being held in detention centers nationwide for questioning related to the attacks.

The four are thought to be linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terror network. One was in custody before the attacks, arrested in Minnesota after he told flight-school instructors that he wanted to learn to fly passenger jets but not necessarily land them. Two were detained the day after the attacks, traveling under false papers and carrying box knives, hair dye and about $5,000 in cash. The fourth man is a Boston cab driver who authorities say knew some of the hijackers.

Their silence has led officials to consider unusual strategies, including extraditing them to a country without legal restrictions on torture, or injecting them with sodium pentothal or other reputed truth serums.

But the details that might come tumbling out would be as suspect as the ramblings of the drunk on the next bar stool.


“It’s just like hypnosis,” said Kingsbury. “There is a lot of research that shows that while you can get more memories while a person is hypnotized, you get a greater percentage of both true and false memories.”

Kingsbury said he knows of no compound that can do in reality what Hollywood has long done on film: force someone to tell the truth. And, he said, the subject falls outside the usual scope of medical research, where the aim is to heal patients, not strip them of their secrets.

“We’re not interested in breaking a person down--that’s more of a police or CIA thing,” Kingsbury said.

“Nothing [evidencing truth serum] exists in the research literature. Whether some secret CIA lab has something, I have no idea. They don’t share with me their pharmacological stuff.”

Dr. Norman A. Clemens, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, said he also knows of no compound that would work as a truth serum. And, he said, forgoing medical ethics by drugging people against their will for nonmedical reasons invites the kind of institutional corrosion the terrorists are hoping to achieve.


Sodium pentothal was discovered in 1936 in Chicago by Abbott Laboratories’ researchers Ernest H. Volwiler and Donalee L. Tabern, who were seeking an injectable general anesthesia. The discovery was a watershed moment in anesthesiology and earned Volwiler--who eventually became Abbott’s president and board chairman in the 1950s--and Tabern spots in the national Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.


Sodium pentothal still is used most often for rendering patients unconscious before they are given another longer-lasting anesthesia to keep them knocked out for the duration of a surgical procedure.

In operating rooms, anesthesiologists have long noted that some patients experience a sense of euphoria and begin chatting as sodium pentothal passes them into unconsciousness.

“Any drug that loosens inhibitions can lead someone to not realize what they’re saying,” said Dr. William J. Loskota, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at USC’s Keck school. “It would take a careful and skillful interrogator to elicit the kinds of responses desired. And always a concern is, are they drug-induced responses? Are they real?”

Loskota and other anesthesiologists argue that even if the responses are suspect, getting any information from the four detained men might be worth the effort.

Dr. Ronald Katz, who teaches anesthesiology at USC and UCLA, has used sodium pentothal on thousands of patients over the last 40 years.

Katz said he occasionally has been startled by confessions of infidelity or other revelations by patients as they slip into unconsciousness, though he has not sought to verify their accuracy. And, he said, it remains unclear how such a compound would work on someone who refuses to divulge information, as opposed to someone who is unwittingly repressing memories.


“There is no good scientific data on what percentage of people will answer questions truthfully, but based on my experience it’s less than 50-50,” Katz said. “It’s certainly worth a try, with someone good doing it. But it’s also conceivable that if you don’t do it right, the person could pretend to be under the influence and say misleading or wrong things. It’s basically a very long shot, but it might work.”

Whether it should work is another matter. Doctors question the ethics of administering drugs for nonmedical purposes. And court experts said the subject opens fresh legal veins.

“This is all new stuff,” said Dershowitz. “Can you get a search warrant to search a person’s mind? The courts have never thought about that.”

Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, said the Supreme Court once barred police from surgically removing a bullet from an uncooperative shooting victim so they could match it to a weapon. “The court said that would be an unreasonable search and seizure,” Weisselberg said.

“But what’s reasonable may depend in part on the threatened harm or the nature of the investigation. A court ... would have in mind the question of whether allowing this to go forward might save a lot of lives.”

Both Weisselberg and Dershowitz said that if investigators used a truth serum without a court order or warrant, they wouldn’t be able to use information gained against the individual suspect. But they might be able to use the information to prosecute others.


Dershowitz likened the situation to that of a material witness who has been granted immunity and thus can be legally compelled to testify against his will.

“The question is, what means can be used to get him to satisfy the legal obligation?” Dershowitz said. “But is it the right thing to do? That’s the moral question.”