Truth Serums

Interesting article on the history and current search for a drug that compels people to tell the truth:

There is no pharmaceutical compound today whose proven effect is the consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling.


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.

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.

Posted on November 22, 2006 at 8:43 AM41 Comments


Carlo Graziani November 22, 2006 9:21 AM

There may be no work underway on “Truth Serums” as such. But “Interrogation Aids”? That would include torture pharmacology, as pioneered by Soviet psychiatry.

I’ll bet pennies to dollars that that’s an active research program here and now. After all, the Attorney General has determined that if it causes no organ damage, it’s technically not torture, right? Think of the ticking time bombs…

nzruss November 22, 2006 9:26 AM

I read in some old spy novel about the use of LSD to get the detainee out of his mind, then afterward saying “you already admitted to everything, but you need to clarify this one thing to cut a deal….. “

Jake Saunders November 22, 2006 9:26 AM

When I was young – maybe 10 years ago – I requested a document under the FOI (it think its called MKULTRA) but basically it outlined how the goverenment were trying to come up with a truth serum. Eventually they got LSD and used to invite people to a cabin party in the woods and spike their drinks to test it…many people either got killed or ended up killing themselves – its truth serum qualities werent exactly reliable…needless to say they just moved onto the next drug…and I willing to bet they have been moving onto the “next drug” ever since….i seriously doubt they stopped.

Jarrod November 22, 2006 9:40 AM

It’s always been my understanding that the use of such drugs requires someone well-trained in psychology or psychiatry. The drugs work not by forcing the truth to be told, but by lowering inhibitions to a point where subjects almost can’t stop talking, going on and on. The psych training is required because the subjects often will mix what in their mind is real with what is actually real — fantasy and reality — and teasing them apart can be quite difficult.

I’ve also heard that it takes a great deal of patience to listen to someone under the effects, as the rambling can go in completely random directions, and it takes some work to keep the subject on-topic.

Clive Robinson November 22, 2006 10:19 AM

There is a book I read (in the late 1980’s I think) by an ex-spetsnaz officer (can’t remember the bods name) who had defected.

Prior to his defection he had spent some time improving “field interrogation” techniques.

Apparently after some experimentation (not detailed) his team had concluded that the best method was to tie the person up against a tree, stick a gag-stick in their mouth to keep it open.

Then take a large “railway file” (In Britain known effectionatly as an 18 inch bas**rd) and go to work on the lower teeth without asking any initial questions.

Apparently when the file gets down to the nerves most peole will start to talk about anything they think you want to here without much more prompting than a sorry look and getting a firm grip on the file again…

The important thing was not to ask questions, but just listen to what was said. It was apparently a hit and miss afair like “gold mining” but the “occasional nugget” would come up.

He also mentioned that drug interogation was something that could take a month or more and needed specialist techniques to put the person in a suggestible state. Only when that had been achived was it possible to start getting results, but only from those who had a susceptibility to hypnosis or vivid imaginations. It also appeared to be no more reliable than isolation techniques.

VultureTX November 22, 2006 10:36 AM

Okay there is no drug that causes one to speak “truths”.

There are chemical based methods for making people speak more openly. There are pysch techniques to make people cling to the “truth” in order to stave off the technique’s effects.

And now there is MRI monitoring where they have shown that people being “creative” use different parts of the brain than those recalling memories.

So once you combine drugs, technique, and MRI review , you can ferret out “truth” as the suspects knowns them.

A Drug cocktail of ecstasy,Demerol and LSD intravenously applied to a subject in an isolation tank. With a MRI field surrounding the tank (non conducting fiberglass tank of course).

Result in 3-4 days the subject will be clinging to truths having no other input and will babble their secrets with only little whispers for prompting. Of course the subject is damaged by the drugs in the process and suffer related effects for years. And occasionally a subject will just go into total withdrawal. But that is is a possibility with all “force” regimens.

BTW the “whispers” work best if they are phrases from media and not one persons voice.

Peter Hentges November 22, 2006 11:01 AM

What I think would be a very interesting area of psychological study would be the way our brain operates when lying and when telling the truth. Do we use different paths to construct those ideas? Studies along these lines would be fascinating.

Peter November 22, 2006 11:02 AM

I believe Clive is referring to the series of books written with the pen-name of Victor Suvorov, with some titles like “Inside the Aquarium” (the aquarium was the GRU’s nickname for their HQ).

Chris Wuestefeld November 22, 2006 11:44 AM

If you’ll excuse a bit of tinfoil hattery:

From the article:

Information gotten through drug-aided interviews would not be
allowed in a trial because of the Constitution’s PRIVILEGE
against self-incrimination
[emphasis mine]

Perhaps if there’s a way to coerce people into telling “the truth”, it’s to muddle their thinking so that they believe that protection from self incrimination is a privilege rather than a RIGHT.

Axy November 22, 2006 12:31 PM


It is a privilege, in that the amendment to repair these minor problems with the constituation hasn’t been proposed yet. No doubt it is on the shelf though, waiting for the right time.

C Gomez November 22, 2006 12:49 PM


On what shelf? How would it get approved? More likely, the current Constitution would merely be ignored, as it so often is now in the name of being a “living, breathing” instrument.

Elliott November 22, 2006 1:07 PM

I am shocked in multiple ways at once.
Shocked about the barbarous and inhuman tortures described here.
Shocked that there seem to be people who are so unscrupulous and really do such to other people.
Shocked that there seem to be government agencies that fund research in that direction, and entitle and even encourage people to (ab)use it.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, I am shocked that I can’t recognize disgust in any of the posts above. Not even fear that it could happen to you, someday, in the name of “truth”.

There is no value in torture and mind manipulation. You can’t do it and claim any longer to be “the good guys”. It sacrifices humanity, the one thing that makes life worthwile and elevates us from predators, criminals and terrorists. Don’t you think the inmates in guantanamo won’t perceive torture as terror, and their tormentors as terrorists?

You won’t even achieve anything, because the allegations of the victims are not reliable anyway. Innocents would devise any imaginable crime, in the hope to say what the interrogator wants to hear.

All attempts to break forcibly into the privacy of a human brain, be it with drugs or technology, are no less vicious and inhuman. That crosses a frontier, violates the one tiny bit of dignity that has not yet been regularly violated. It abases feeling human beings to things. That cannot be right.

But for some people the curiosity, fascination and sadism to try out torture and mind control at “subjects” and spy into their most intimate inner seems to run over any sanity and reason. So sad.

Roy November 22, 2006 1:14 PM

In studies of lie detection, the experimental design is unlike the situations where an effective discriminator would actually be used if one could be found, and so the results have no useful application.

The investigators have nonsense ideas like ‘guilty knowledge’ where they cannot distinguish between something the subject learned first hand by being the culprit and information someone was given second hand. It would be laughable if it were not so sad.

They also have childish ideas of truth and lying. There is a world of difference between ‘All Cretans are liars’ and the real world: you can lie with your mouth shut.

The studies will not withstand scientific rigor, so their findings can be dismissed out of hand.

fraud guy November 22, 2006 1:52 PM

“Truth serums”, as has been stated before, only break down inhibitions regarding talking; they do not necessarily induce their subject to tell the truth or any particular piece of knowledge.

A trained or dedicated subject of “truth” serum or torture can keep themselves from disclosing requested information for an extended period of time (cf. American POWs in Vietnam, or Vietnamese prisoners tortured by the CIA–I wish I could find the citation of the study).

Torture of innocents, however, will often produce confessions or disclosures to try to stop the torture. There is no inhibition against giving the inquisitor what the victim thinks they want to hear unless the victim has a will to truth stronger than their tolerance of pain. Unfortunately, most people don’t.

The MRI/”truth” serum combo will not necessarily produce usable information, but would only indicate that the victim is withholding information, and only if you could get them to sit still long enough to get a clear reading (since we are talking about torture methods, that would likely be possible).

In addition, any organization who loses a member should, if they are organized well enough, treat the loss of that member as a loss of any information that member has, and by the time any dedicated member would have cracked, they should have prudently changed their plans to protect their operational and organizational security.

So the interrogative value of “truth” serums and torture is almost nil, while the intimidation factor against those who are innocent is high. This is why these methods are prohibited in modern, enlightened courts of law where truth is the desired outcome (but apparently not military tribunals).

Anonymous Coward November 22, 2006 3:11 PM

Is anyone surprised that when governments are allowed (nay, encouraged, in the name of “security”) to conduct secret business, that business inevitably treads on the rights of those who granted the government its power?

Bunny November 22, 2006 4:17 PM


I am shocked in multiple ways at once.

Hear, hear. Some comments (and commenters!) here really freak me out. You know who you are – shame on you.

Revenant November 22, 2006 5:18 PM

@Sam Brown:

It’s mentioned on the first page.

“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…”

Andre LePlume November 22, 2006 6:44 PM

@Elliot and Bunny:

I know nothing directly about the politics or morals of anyone commenting here, but from what various people have said about, for example, the TSA, the “War on Terror”, and so on over many months, I feel safe in thinking that revulsion at the violation of personal rights inherent in torture literally “goes without saying” in this forum. Moreover, if my guesswork about the demographics of Bruce’s readership is accurate, you’re dealing with a bunch of engineers, applied math people, and computer scientists. I hardly think it odd that they would focus on whether a mechanism (even an immoral one) would be effective, and if so whether it would be efficient.

Finally, I think it is remarkable that absence of an expression of disapproval should be taken as an indicator of assent. I don’t intend this as a personal criticism, but I think it says something about the Zeitgeist that one would believe that sufficiently strongly to commit ones thoughts to print.

the other Greg November 22, 2006 8:47 PM

“goes without saying” is usually not said because it’s not true.

How often do we need to repeat the ‘teacher’ and the ‘prisoner’ experiments before we figure out it is not ‘them’; it is ‘us’.

Clive Robinson November 23, 2006 7:30 AM

@Elliot and Bunny

My interest in tourture as it where was during my time in the “green” as there was a very realistic posability I would be one of the people operated on (they always go after the senior radio/crypto guys).

As you will see from the end of my earlier post, the information I found out about it showed that somebody working for an organisation that practiced it, indicated it was at best a very unreliable practice, and usually of little real worth (as has been indicated by other posters).

People under tourture or other forms of duress “will tell you what they think you want to hear” not what you want to hear.

The British army have over the years been quite succesfull at getting information out of people, they have (to my limited knowledge) never had need to use threats or tourtue, as most people cannot lie convincingly or well except in very minor ways (Think the imortal “does my bottom look big in this…” question 😉

Interogation is usually a time consuming process but it generaly involves ordinary conversation mainly about unimportant but periheraly related issues, you just feret tiny bits of info out and cross check them again some time later. Eventually the false statments unravel or become inconsistant and the person being interogated makes mistakes in trying to hide things.

It is why they always tell you “Name Rank and Serial Number only”, along with “don’t chat with your mates even if you think you cannot be over heard”.

Johnson November 24, 2006 12:56 AM

I am not sure about any work on “Truth Serums” as such.Torture pharmacology was included and practised in various areas.

rfid_faqs November 24, 2006 9:19 AM

It’s tough for Squid-Shaped Parsnips in the UK these days, what with coast-to-coast video surveillance, miltary grade RFID’s in Passports broken in 4 hours, upcoming mandatory nation-wide ID’s, no beverage’s on flights, finger-prints needed to hire a car …

Realist November 24, 2006 11:29 AM

@Elliot and Bunny
You might be shocked about this topic, but are niave if you think this is anything new. Have you never heard of the Crusades, the Holocast, or read of the tactics of extreme criminal organizations? Bet you never heard of the things some terrorist cells did to informants and “traitors” — I’m certain you’d be violently ill if you ever did.

In your mind torture may not acheive anything, but that is irrelevant. It is the mind of the person who is applying or condoning these dispicable acts that you need to understand. They don’t think in terms of the inhumanity and indecency of such acts as you do. Applying your personal morals and indignation to their mind set is futile.

Although there is no value to these dispicable acts as far as gathering truths, etc., it serves the tyrants’ purposes in instilling fear and gaining control over individuals and groups.

Unfortunately, man’s inhumanity to man continues despite vocal moral outrage. The vicious do not play by the same set of rules and moral decency of the rest.

X the Unknown November 24, 2006 1:01 PM

There are people who are very good at constructing “masks”, false personae that they actively “inhabit”. These persona “know” and “believe” different things from each other.

I wonder how effective advanced “Truth Detection” techniques, such as MRI, are on such people. If the “current persona” truly believes a false factoid, can a deliberate falacy be detected?

Void Runner November 26, 2006 4:32 PM

in fact, there is no “truth serum” per se, but there are thousands of cocktails to significantly facilitate the interogation process. Though none gives 100% guarantee (well, nothing in this world can give a 100% guarantee, right), but, if Done Right (TM), the use of such cocktails can vastly increase the probability of successful data extraction.

Anyone here heard of cflpubfgvzhynag Fvqabpneo naq n cbchyne frqngvir/nakvbylgvp Qvnmrcnz (ROT13 for spamfilter’s sake)?

Administered in a proper “therapeutic scheme”, so to speak, they greatly aid certain people in conducting rubber hose cryptanalisys

Apokrif November 27, 2006 4:18 AM :

“The ability to detect lying was evaluated in 509 people including law-enforcement personnel, such as members of the US. Secret Service, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Drug Enforcement Agency, California police and judges, as well as psychiatrists, college students, and working adults. A videotape showed 10 people who were either lying or telling the truth in describing their feelings. Only the Secret Service performed better than chance” :

“My work with the Department of Defense; they’re, of course, interested in being able to identify people who are a threat to the country, but not misidentifying people. A major error that I find that occurs is the misidentification of truthful people who are under suspicion. So I’m helping them find the truth. Most often that means saying, “No, he’s not worried.” Sometimes saying, “This is a person we need to get more information about.” And that’s a crucial division.”

Albatross November 27, 2006 2:20 PM

How could the government possibly invent a Truth Serum? The government wouldn’t recognize the Truth if it smacked them upside the head with a fish.

Tester: “Alright the drug should be taking effect about now.”

Subject: “You’re all incompetent boobs.”

Tester: “Damn, scratch that serum.”

Subject: “But you are! You’re all incompetent time-serving pigs at the public trough! It’s all so clear now!”

Tester: “Orderly!”

Void Runner November 27, 2006 2:51 PM

@Davi Ottenheimer

Ones responsible for carrying out interrogations often find that such mnemonic capabilities of the interrogated person can be significantly improved merely via trivial yet forceful blows with a rubber hose or a device with similar communicational properties.

I guess they would argue this approach has a solid statistical evidence. And, though I am not in possession of such statistic data, I certainly think there is ground to believe such approach is generally effective.
Should be noticed that even if such method is even marginally effective in vivo, it is vastly cost-effective en masse due to low cost of carrying out the described above mnemonic facilitation 😉

Anonymous November 27, 2006 3:08 PM

@Sam Brown

“Strange that there’s no mention of sodium pentathol in the article.”

Because it is tired, old and generaly sucks. However, let me reiterate, if Done Right (TM), it might sometimes yield bright results… However, I am convinced Done Right (TM) here means “in a very ugly pharmaceutical cocktail”.
All it does alone is moderately supress higher cortical brain functioning… Think of like 10-15 dark beers.

Also, the name “sodium pentathol” is patented, so it might be that the author did not manage to negotiate product placement conditions with patent holder, and did not know the unpatented name of the drug ///hint hint:Sodium thiopental///

gman November 27, 2006 3:15 PM

@Void Runner

Note to self – calculate cost efficiency of a single rubber hose work cycle.

Do you mind attending our test facility? As a guest expert, off course 🙂

fred November 28, 2006 12:19 PM

Drugs used in torture, this is what you are talking about, drugs administered without the consent of the tortured. It has been done and is being done. The “article” is probably part of the black propaganda arm to “talk” this stuff up just as there were a slew of “strong interrogation technique” articles at the beginning of the war, before the torture vids and pix showed up.

More interesting than the “news” (none) in the article is who is mr brown and where does he get his money, who is the washington post and where do they gets money.

a_Lex November 29, 2006 7:38 AM

“Drugs used in torture, this is what you are talking about, drugs administered without the consent of the tortured.”


“It has been done and is being done. The “article” is probably part of the black propaganda arm to “talk” this stuff up just as there were a slew of “strong interrogation technique” articles at the beginning of the war, before the torture vids and pix showed up.”

Could you please be more specific?

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.