Some Believe 'Truth Serums' Will Come Back

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006

If there is a "truth serum" that works, it is a secret that nobody is giving up.

The debate earlier this year on interrogation techniques in the war on terrorism raised anew a question that goes back at least 2,000 years. Is there something you can give a person that will make him tell the truth?

The ancient Romans had an answer: Yes.

" In vino veritas"-- "in wine there is truth" -- is sometimes attributed to the natural philosopher Pliny the Elder. The observation made in the 1st century has been borne out over the millennia by many a remorseful inebriate. And, in truth, alcohol given as intravenous ethanol was an early form of truth serum.

In the 21st century, however, the answer appears to be: No. There is no pharmaceutical compound today whose proven effect is the consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling.

The modern fascination with truth-eliciting drugs began in 1916 when an obstetrician named Robert House, practicing in a town outside Dallas named Ferris, saw a strange event during a home delivery.

The woman in labor was in a state of "twilight sleep" induced by scopolamine, a compound derived from the henbane plant that blocks the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. House had asked her husband for a scale to weigh the newborn. The man looked for it and returned to the bedroom saying he could not find it, whereupon his wife, still under the anesthetic, told him exactly where it was.

House became convinced that scopolamine could make anyone answer a question truthfully, and he went on to promote its forensic use.

Police departments used it -- and in a few cases judges permitted it -- throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Other drugs were also tried, most famously the barbiturates Pentothal and Amytal. But by the 1950s, most scientists had declared the very notion of truth serums invalid, and most courts had ruled testimony gained through their use inadmissible.

The emerging consensus did not stop the most notorious search for truth serum, the CIA's Project MK-ULTRA. Starting in 1953, the agency tested the behavioral effects of several drugs, including their effects on interrogation. Many people were given substances without their knowledge or consent. Frank Olson jumped from a hotel window to his death after taking the hallucinogen LSD.

The program ended in the late 1960s. Its abuses -- many revealed in congressional hearings in 1977 -- produced bad publicity for the spy agency.

Whether a search for truth serums has occurred in recent decades, and especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is a matter of differing opinion.

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