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The Truth About Truth Serum

It may make for loose lips but not necessarily elicit honest answers.

November 05, 2001|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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