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Some Believe 'Truth Serums' Will Come Back

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Gordon H. Barland was a captain in the U.S. Army Combat Development Command's intelligence agency in the 1960s. Before leaving active duty in 1967 he was asked to write up "materiel objectives." He put on the wish list a drug that would aid interrogation.

He later became a research psychologist and spent 14 years working at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute. While psychopharmacology was not his specialty, trying to catch liars was.

"I would have expected that if there was some sort of truth drug in general use I would have heard rumors of it. I never did," said Barland, who retired in 2000 and now lives in Utah. He further doubts that the government would again engage in such experiments, given the MK-ULTRA experience.

"It would be very difficult to get a project like that off the ground," he speculated.

Another psychologist who spent 20 years in military research said he also "never heard anything like that or knew of anyone who was doing that work." He spoke on the condition of anonymity because interrogation is not his specialty.

Some doubt the practicality of running, or keeping secret, such a research agenda.

"I can't imagine it," said Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"We haven't been able as a government to create anthrax vaccine. The idea that we could develop a [truth] drug de novo strikes me as outlandish," she said. "That would be a really major research and development project that would be hard to hide."

For the record, spokesmen for the Army medical research command, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the CIA say there is no work underway on truth serums.

Whether such a substance could ever be used legally is a question some legal scholars believe is still open.

"In the United States, no law at either the state or national level makes the use of truth serum a crime per se," Jason R. Odeshoo wrote in the Stanford Law Review in 2004.

Information gotten through drug-aided interviews would not be allowed in a trial because of the Constitution's privilege against self-incrimination, but it might be legal to use truth serum "solely for intelligence-gathering purposes," he argued. Similarly, while the Geneva Conventions forbid its use against prisoners of war, if terrorism suspects aren't considered POWs the conventions wouldn't block it, he wrote.


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