February 27th, 2007
Jeff Stein, Congressional Quarterly National Security Editor says:
Padilla Case Opens Old Questions on CIA ‘Truth Serums’
By Jeff Stein, CQ National Security Editor
Why won’t the government just deny that U.S. interrogators administered a “truth serum” to Jose Padilla?
What are they trying to hide?
Lawyers for the Chicago-born al Qaeda wannabe say their client told them he was given an LSD-like hallucinogen during his 44 months-and-counting stay in a Navy brig in South Carolina.
The government refuses to say what is almost certainly true: that interrogators did not, in fact, use any kind of so-called “truth serum” on Padilla.
Instead, it issues wobbly canned statements that dodge the question, like this one last week from a spokesman for Secretary of Defense (and former CIA director) Robert M. Gates:
“It has always been our policy to treat all detainees humanely.”
And: “The government in the strongest terms denies Padilla’s allegations of torture — allegations made without support and without citing a shred of record evidence.”
But I hadn’t asked about torture.
I asked again about “truth serums.”
Now the spokesman was more circumspect.
The Pentagon would have no further comment, Navy Commander J.D. Gordon said, “because the case is in litigation.”
But it had no problem flatly denying torture.
The CIA and Navy would not comment for the record.
For its part, the FBI did not hesitate to answer the question.
“The FBI would neither use, condone nor be partner to the use of any such tactic,” public affairs unit chief Rich Kolko responded within minutes of an e-mailed inquiry.
Indeed, the FBI had objected to the harsh methods that CIA and Defense Department interrogators were using on Padilla and other detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere.
The irony of the government’s silence on truth serums — to me anyway — is that nobody I talked to outside of Padilla’s camp believes U.S. interrogators employed drugs to loosen his tongue. (Padilla’s lawyers, federal public defenders in Miami, did not return several calls seeking elaboration.)
Why? The first reason is that the drugs normally associated with the term “truth serum” aren’t likely to work.
But not for want of trying.
In some of the chilliest compartments of the Cold War, the CIA and the Russians raced to perfect a hallucinogen that could unlock — and control — the minds of enemy spies and detainees.
“The Search for the Manchurian Candidate,” as author John Marks dubbed the CIA’s efforts, ran under such esoteric- sounding code names as MKULTRA, ARTICHOKE and BLUEBIRD.
The CIA was particularly fascinated by LSD, a hallucinogen it tested on hundreds of unwitting subjects in the 1950s and ’60s, including pub crawlers, hospital patients and its own scientists.
One of them, Frank Olson, plunged from the window of a New York hotel room on Nov. 28, 1953.
The case remains mired in controversy.
Olson was paranoid and depressed by the LSD, the CIA said in 1977 under pressure from the Rockefeller Commission , which was investigating the spy agency’s clandestine domestic activities.
But Olson’s son, who has spent decades investigating his father’s death, and some of Olson’s former colleagues at Ft. Detrick say they believe Olson was pushed out the window because he had turned against the LSD experiments.
“The Good Shepherd,” the Robert DeNiro film about the CIA’s early days, made an oblique reference to the experiments when a KGB defector injected with a hallucinogen hurled himself out a window.
Green Berets in Vietnam
Most of the CIA’s drug experiments were illegal, of course, which is why they were stamped top secret in the name of national security.
Most analysts say testing drugs on unwitting enemy combatants also violates Geneva Convention prohibitions against medical experiments on prisoners.
But in at least one known case, a secret Green Beret intelligence unit in Vietnam in 1969 employed “truth serums” in an attempt to crack a suspected communist double agent, a man by the name of Thai Khac Chuyen.
The injections of sodium pentothal and thorazine succeeded only in making Chuyen groggy — and eventually hostile, as I detailed in my 1992 book, A Murder in Wartime.
At that point the Green Berets figured Chuyen knew too much. They drugged him again, took him to sea, shot him in the head and dumped him overboard weighted with chains.
He had never confessed, and years later many in the unit said they felt he was innocent.
The Green Berets eventually were found out and headed for trial on first-degree murder charges when then-CIA Director Richard Helms, fearing disclosure of his own assassination program, persuaded President Richard M. Nixon to intervene.
Most experts say they think the use of “truth serums” has long been in remission.
“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,” Gordon H. Barland, a research psychologist who spent 14 years at the Defense Department’s Polygraph Institute, told The Washington Post last year.
Today, Barland said, “It would be very difficult to get a project like that off the ground.
“In my time, it was never used,” former CIA operative Robert Baer, who retired in 1997, told me. “And it was never considered an option.”
But in 2002, William H. Webster, who has headed both the FBI and CIA, argued for the use of “truth drugs” on uncooperative al Qaeda and Taliban captives.
But most FBI officials frowned on it as ineffective — and illegal.
Jack Cloonan, a retired senior FBI counterterrorism specialist who objected to some of the CIA and Defense Department interrogation methods, thought the nation’s premier civilian law enforcement agency should not be a party to illegal activity.
In an interview last week, Cloonan also reiterated a long-held view that drugs “don’t suddenly make people blurt out the truth”—with the legendary exception of alcohol.
The Defense Department and CIA also experimented with varieties of alcohol injections, too, to little avail.
“In vino veritas” — the Latin aphorism that says in wine there is truth — can’t be relied on, it turns out.
Cloonan says he doesn’t think “truth serums” were used on Padilla — but he can’t be sure.
“The Navy prevented us from speaking with him, despite our repeated attempts to do so,” Cloonan told me last week.
Cloonan said the explanation he got was that Padilla was beyond the FBI’s reach “because of his status as an ‘enemy combatant.’
“I have no firsthand knowledge a truth serum was used on Padilla,” he said. “Having said that, I suspect other means might have been employed.”
David Brandt, the retired former head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who also had objected to some of the CIA and Defense interrogation methods, also told me he hadn’t heard anything about drugs being used on Padilla.
“Even if sodium pentothal wasn’t actually used, I could imagine interrogators telling the detainee they had administered a truth serum (to try to persuade him that resistance is pointless),” Joanne Mariner, the top terrorism expert at Human Rights Watch, said by e-mail.
“They definitely used this type of psychological technique (even to the extent of trying to falsely convince detainees that they had been handed over to abusive governments),” Mariner wrote.
A half dozen relevant congressional offices I contacted declined to respond, mostly on the grounds that the subject is “too sensitive.”
Is It Legal?
Most experts say that the use of “truth serums” would violate Executive Order No. 12333, “United States Intelligence Activities,” signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, which prohibits “research on human subjects except in accordance with guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.”
Other guidance is provided by Army Field Manual 34-52, which includes in the definition of coercion “drugs that may induce lasting and permanent mental alteration and damage.”
But to former CIA operative Melissa Boyle Mahle, President Bush left truth serums on the table in a “signing statement” that he attached to his ratification of last year’s anti-torture legislation (PL 109-148).
“In essence, Bush is saying in the signing statement that as commander-in-chief, he reserves the right to waive the law’s restrictions in the name of protecting national security,” Mahle blogged. Or, “when it comes to war, the president is above the law and can authorize the CIA to act above the law.”
Daniel J. Gallington, a ranking national security official in past Democratic and Republican administrations, says he thinks that’s good.
“While we are prohibited from conducting ‘medical experiments’ on a detainee, the reality is we can consider nearly anything else so long as we get the appropriate level of approval to do it,” says Gallington, deputy counsel for intelligence policy at the Justice Department in the 1990s.
And the “appropriate level” in the event of a Jack Bauer-type ticking nuclear bomb scenario, Gallington told me, “might be at the highest levels of elected government, perhaps with appropriate congressional notification or consultation.”
“It would be both ‘legal’ and morally justifiable under the circumstances,” he argues.
Sources and Methods
“Confusion continues about the permissibility of various interrogation techniques, even after the enactment of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005,” said the conference report [109-359] accompanying the fiscal 2006 Defense Appropriations bill (PL 109-148).
Officials sympathetic to the CIA’s rationale for refusing to confirm or deny the use of truth serums argue that doing so would reveal the spy agency’s “sources and methods.”
In contrast, counterterrorism officials have defended the use of water boarding, stress positions, sexual humiliation and other controversial methods used on detainees.
Padilla’s lawyers argued in court last week that the interrogation methods used on him — including “truth serums” — have rendered him “immobilized by anxiety” and mentally incompetent to stand trial.
The government ridicules the idea.
But the truth on the truth serum may finally emerge this week. Over government objections, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke summoned prison officials to appear at a Feb. 28 hearing on Padilla’s treatment.
“These are the people from his time in the brig who would know that,” the judge told the prosecutors. “What’s the problem?”
Jeff Stein can be reached at email@example.com.