How Secret Services Use Barbiturates as Truth Serums (2023)

Certain drugs work by tapping into the lower regions of human consciousness. The sedating-hypnotic Ambien, for example, induces an unnatural state between wakefulness and sleep. So-called "truth serums" are used for the same purpose: to put someone in a semi-conscious state with the idea that the person lacks the mental focus to lie. On paper, it sounds like sci-fi and spy thrillers. In practice, the reality is very different.

Read on to learn how barbiturates work and how they have been used to try to discern the truth in a variety of situations.

Barbiturates and how they work

The endtruth serumis a popular name for drugs better known as barbiturates, substances that act on the central nervous system. Legitimate and credible medical reasons for prescribing barbiturates include:

  • reduce anxiety.
  • Stunning pain.
  • Causes drowsiness, like a sleeping pill.
  • Causes unconsciousness (like anesthesia before surgery).1

Barbiturates fall into three general categories, each roughly corresponding to the time it takes for the effects to wear off. A barbiturate such as sodium thiopental (more commonly known as sodium pentothal) activates about 20 minutes after administration, making it very useful for anesthesiologists preparing patients for surgery.

Another example of a barbiturate is phenobarbital or nembutal, which is used by veterinarians to euthanize animals.2

twilight dream

ÖOf all the different types of barbiturates out there, it was sodium pentothal's ability to affect consciousness that made it a tool of choice for writers and filmmakers. The depictions may have been largely fictional, but the ideas came from how psychiatrists and police officers used the drug in their respective practices: psychiatrists to get patients to educate themselves about repressed memories, and police officers to extract confessions from criminals .

A complaint fromio9is that the nobler origins of what has become known as "truth serum" have been lost in the noise of history and public perception.3At the beginning of the 20th century, Dr. Robert House of Dallas focused on scopolamine, a drug given to women in labor to induce sedation and sleepiness to better help women through the stress of labor and delivery.

But in the "twilight dream" state that followed the government, women responded to every question put to them with mindless, automatic responses that often unknowingly exceeded the parameters of the question.

Some doctors found that the women who answered questions in this "twilight dream" provided accurate and open-ended answers, which Dr. House to wonder if a similar approach could be used to interrogate suspects.

In that regard, House was able to interview two inmates at the Dallas County Jail "whose guilt seemed unequivocally confirmed," according to the CIA's "'Truth' Drugs in Interrogation" article. Under the influence of scopolamine, the two prisoners denied the charges against them; Both were exonerated at their respective court cases.4

House's theory was that the same mechanism of action that could make one woman "forget" that she is having a baby (to the point that she can answer questions instinctively and truthfully) could make anyone else, too to answer. especially when they had nothing to hide. If the use of scopolamine could produce such honesty, then it could save innocent people from being hanged.

Shell Shock unlock

HHouse's prison experience took place in 1922, when the world was still reeling from the unprecedented horrors of World War I. Shell Shock (what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) had great difficulty expressing her thoughts and feelings. Some soldiers refused to speak, so traumatized were they by their experiences on the battlefield.

Just like dr. House used scopolamine to remove inhibitions (whether in women at birth or in men who were wrongly locked up with nothing to hide), sodium pentothal was thought to be the perfect anti-anxiety drug to administer to the depressed. soldiers

Once the mutism caused by the trauma was resolved, the psychiatrists engaged them in psychotherapy until they were given the appropriate structure to deal with their mental difficulties.

The programs have proven themselves. Soldiers relieved of their burdens were able to reintegrate into their local communities (thus avoiding the fate of soldiers from previous campaigns, who were often forced to spend years in rudimentary psychiatric facilities).

The success stories spread and the psychiatrists treating the soldiers were brought in to offer their services at police stations. Over time, the connection was made as to how barbiturates removed a soldier's fear of reliving past events, and how barbiturates could theoretically remove a criminal's fear of being caught.

But the more scientific rigor has been applied to confessions while under the influence of barbiturates, the less enthusiastic the results have been.

During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency used scopolamine on suspected Soviet spies as well as their own agents in hopes of eliminating double agents. One of the reasons scopolamine was preferred was its amnestic effects: it erased the victim's memory not only while under the influence of the substance, but also in the period immediately prior to administration. For espionage, this ability to control the target's memory was (and still is) invaluable.

However, to extract useful information, it left much to be desired. One of the limitations of using drugs for interrogation purposes is that interrogators must say very clearly what they want, to the point where they actually have the answers to the questions they are asking.

Any ambiguity on the line of scrimmage will cause a stoned interrogator to say things that may or may not be true.

proximity to the interviewer

Also, someone under the influence of barbiturates is likely to tell the interrogator only what they want to hear. Correspondingi09, barbiturates suppress the parts of the brain that can critically assess the merits of a question, to the point where the questioner just wants to please the questioner (a sense of "closeness to the interviewer").

When under the influence of scopolamine or sodium pentothal, it's easier to let your imagination run wild, just as a mild high can loosen your tongue (and mind).

Business Insiderexplains that barbiturates (like sodium thiopental, which has been used as a truth serum) work by decreasing communication between the brain and central nervous system. It suppresses the body's ability to transmit information to and from the brain, making it useful for:5

  • pain relief.
  • sedation.
  • Relaxing Muscles.
  • Lower blood pressure.

It also makes it difficult to perform high-performance tasks like walking in a straight line or even making up a lie. The use of barbiturates avoids any form of concentration. It is similar to the state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, only much stronger (due to chemical influence).

When an interrogator wants a confession that boils down to a simple "yes" or "no," that's much easier to achieve with barbiturates. But when the emphasis is on information, particularly complex and subtle information (as in the case of espionage or criminal investigations), you draw the line between the interrogator being direct, resourceful, not understanding the question, and lying because it's easier is as they tell story truth. it becomes prohibitively difficult.

This is particularly the case when the questioner asks key questions; The goal will simply go in the direction of the questions, even if the truth contradicts the series of questions.

the notion of certainty

Therapists noticed the problem when they observed their patients eventually accepting what they were being told.american scientistexplains that people who have received barbiturates pick up the signals of their interlocutor and simply repeat them.6

Similar revelations have undermined the perceived usefulness of sodium pentothal. Eventually, the researchers found that the drug caused the subjects to reveal too much information, thereby obscuring the truth. The reaction style of the stream of consciousness under the influence of barbiturates made the whole method of separating fact from fiction part of the problem.

The problem is summarizedi09, is that barbiturates remove the concept of certainty from the information provided by a question. For intelligence agencies, police investigations, and psychiatrists, uncertain answers are not worth the time it takes to ask the questions.

It is understandable that the courts have viewed with disdain confessions obtained through the administration of barbiturates. Already in the first half of the 20th century there were scandals when police officers drugged suspects with these substances. Today, the concept of a confession made under the imposed pressure of a barbiturate and then used to obtain a guilty plea can rightly be viewed as a violation of the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination.

The amendment states that "no person [...] shall be compelled to testify against himself in a criminal proceeding," and the amnesiac and invasive properties of barbiturates (when used in an interrogation context) were widely regarded as criminal offenses in the spirit that specified by the amendment.7

Der Fall James Holmes

The legality of barbiturate use in this context received renewed attention in 2013 when a Colorado judge authorized the administration of a truth serum to a controversial and high-profile criminal case.

In July 2012, James Holmes killed 24 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Another 70 people were hit by bullets, making 2016 the largest mass shooting (by number of casualties) in US history. Holmes confessed to the crime but pleaded not guilty to insanity.

In 2013, Chief Justice William Sylvester authorized the use of a "truth serum" to be used on Holmes to determine if he was genuinely mentally disturbed on the night of the massacre.

The president of the American Bar Association's criminal justice division said the suggestion of using a truth serum to prove a claim of insanity was "highly unusual" in the United States and accurately predicted the impact of such a move. Law. Change in the right of silence.

Medical experts also question the wisdom of administering a truth serum to Holmes. A psychiatrist told himThe guardthat the presence of barbiturates in a person's system does not guarantee truthful answers and can even distort the course of justice "by subjecting the accused to pressure" and "suggestions from others".

Similarly, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York noted that there is little evidence to support the use of drugs to obtain truth, particularly in a criminal context.8

At the end of his trial, Holmes was found guilty on all charges against him (including 24 counts of first-degree murder and 140 counts of attempted murder). He was sentenced to 12 life terms and an additional 3,318 years behind bars. No truth serum was administered during his trial.9

Suggestive therapeutic procedures

shen to write why truth serums are closer to fantasy than reality,Salonquotespsychology todayto say that the entire practice of "suggestive therapeutic procedures" (aka "narcoanalysis" for the way an interviewer attempts to explore a person's neutralized subconscious) is notoriously inaccurate.

Such practices can make subjects so desperate to provide information that truth serums can "increase the risk of false memories," which are events that never actually happened but to which the subject holds so strongly that the interviewer might believe the report is true.10

The CIA itself claimed that drugs were capable of reaching the depths of the mind, "provided an extremely enduring theme for the press and popular literature," but immediately dismissed the idea.

even the sentencetruth serums, writes the agency, is an inherent misconception: Drugs are not serums by definition, and the "truth" is dubious at best.

The CIA has the advantage of taking this position after entire generations discovered that barbiturates were useless in extracting information from non-compliant sources, and the agency itself moved to other methods of doing so.

LSD: The First Modern Truth Serum

BBut in the mid-20th century, as the dust of World War II was still setting and the cold of the Cold War set in, the CIA powers thought otherwise.

In 1946, just a year after Nazi Germany's defeat, the Pentagon declared that all-out war with the Soviet Union was inevitable and that the United States must defend itself by all means, including the use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. . . Weapons. weapons

The Joint Chiefs of Staff had some help: 1,500 Nazi scientists, technicians, and engineers who had been secretly repatriated to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. The purpose of the operation was to ensure that post-war Germany was unable to retaliate and deny the Soviet Union access to Nazi think tanks.11

In 1948, Richard Kuhn, an Austro-German biochemist and Nobel laureate who collaborated with the Nazis, told Operation Paperclip officials about a drug that Swiss chemists had been developing to turn into weapons. The drug, a hallucinogen, was prized for its ability to "disable, not kill." It was called lysergic acid diethylamide, or its initials LSD.

It was leaked to the Americans that the Soviets themselves were using unconventional mind control programs on their own Nazi prisoners. Believing it was only a matter of time before the Russians began capturing the Americans, the CIA began fighting fire with fire and developing their own brand of improved interrogation techniques.

The CIA wondered what would happen if its agents could drug captured Soviet spies with LSD, extract information from them "and somehow make them forget they spoke."


In 1952, two Soviet spies conducted the first experiments. A memo sent to the CIA's Deputy Director at the time revealed that "small doses of drugs" (and hypnosis) induce patients into a "complete hypnotic trance," leaving them with no memory of the 100-minute interrogation that followed could.

The plan was simply to drug the spies, question them, and then release them, believing that the resulting amnesia would clear up any loose ends. reality, writedaily beastwas that out of questionable results and anti-Soviet paranoia "one of the most notorious CIA programs of the Cold War" arose, the infamous Project MKUltra.

How far the CIA went with MKUltra became the subject of government investigations and controversial revelations, all of which revealed that the much-vaunted use of LSD (and later barbiturates) on spies was not yielding the desired results.

Tired of unpredictable and unreliable answers, the CIA quietly shelved its use of LSD and barbiturates and focused on other forms of interrogation (of equally questionable effectiveness and legality).

However, the idea of ​​using substances to control the minds of spies and soldiers, both Russian and American, proved fertile ground for storytelling. movies likeJacob's ladderjThe Manchurian candidateexplored the idea that brainwashed sleeping pills are "reactivated," a concept popularized in modern Jason Bourne films.

TV shows likeAkte X, Fringe,and the coup of 2016weird stuffprovided current updates to the MKUltra concept, often using the War on Terror as a modern analogy for the Cold War climate.12


BBut despite the gripping drama and fantastical locations, using barbiturates as a "truth serum" is a place where truth isn't as alien as fiction.

A BBC reporter who volunteered to take sodium thiopental to test its effectiveness wrote that such drugs are more likely to get people talking, but what they say can be a salad of positive-thinking words, answers to questions, suggestions from the interviewer and maybe a be grain. the reality13

Even the newer methods used by the CIA and intelligence agencies to break through the barrier of lying in their intelligence gathering have met with skepticism.

One of the attorneys on a special prosecution team tasked with trying terrorists being held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base told PBS that with the right techniques, he could get a person to admit guilt for any charges against him. , but a confession would be useless.

Whether it is fear of pain, fear of impending pain, or impaired cognitive abilities, there is a part of the human consciousness that remains immune to torture or truth serums for now.

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