Islamic militancy

CIA explored using ‘truth serum’ on terror suspects, tortured them instead

  • Existence of the drug research programme disclosed in a once-classified report
  • Idea was shelved after Justice Department had previously provided legal memos justifying the use of torture like waterboarding
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 7:36pm

The CIA explored finding a “truth serum” to use on terrorism detainees in the years after the September 11 attacks, according to a declassified report that was released as part of a lengthy Freedom of Information lawsuit.

The report, written by a chief CIA medical official whose identity has not been disclosed, detailed that Project Medication, as the effort was named, was shelved in 2003.

But not before the agency doctors had explored whether “drug-based interviews” would make for a less harsh alternative to the brutal interrogation practices like sleep deprivation, small-space confinement and waterboarding that the CIA employed in the years after September 11, tactics that have come to be widely referred to as torture.

The report noted the agency’s previous forays into the field of truth serums, citing a 1961 report that concluded that individuals who could withstand interrogations would probably still be able to hold out in altered mental states.

It also cited the CIA’s use of LSD and other drugs during its notorious MK-ULTRA project in the 1950s and 1960s, when the agency conducted 149 experiments in mind control, including the use of 25 unwitting subjects.

A drug called Versed, known by its generic name as midazolam, was identified by the report as the preferred drug for truth inducement.

A benzodiazepine, a class of drugs normally used to treat anxiety, the drug did have a drawback for interrogation purposes, the report noted: it was required to be administered by a doctor intravenously, compared to LSD which could be administered without a subject’s knowledge.

“Ambivalently, Versed was considered possibly worth a trial if unequivocal legal sanction first were obtained,” the report noted.

But the report noted that any use of such a drug would probably bump up against legal obstacles: those that banned conducting medical experiments on prisoners, as well the use of mind-altering drugs in interrogations. The CIA never asked the Justice Department to look at the issue, effectively shelving it.

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Ordered released by a judge as part of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the report sheds more light on the contentious aspect of George W. Bush’s legacy: the CIA’s use of brutal interrogation techniques after September 11.

It details the tactics used against suspects, including slapping, being thrown against a wall, waterboarding and being confined in a cramped box.

And it shows the complicated legal and moral arguments employed by agency officials, including those in the medical world, to justify such ethically challenging decisions.

Though the harsh interrogation methods have been widely condemned since, including by President Barack Obama, and outlined in a public senate report that noted that the techniques were “in violation of US law, treaty obligations, and our values,” no CIA officers were ever prosecuted for their role.

In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda mastermind behind the attacks who was waterboarded 140 times, the CIA medical officer said that the torture, which simulates the experience of drowning, “provided periodic relief from his standing sleep deprivation”.

In the case of case of another senior al-Qaeda member, a Saudi-born Palestinian known as Abu Zubaydah, his confinement in small boxes was deemed to “serve as an escape from more severe measures”.

The CIA declined to comment but pointed to statements made by one of its legal officers in a court case that said the report was a working draft that had never been finalised.

The report was titled “Summary and Reflections of Chief of Medical Services”, on participation in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme.

The ACLU had been working for more than two years to get the report released, as the government has fought the disclosure, Associated Press reported.

But a federal judge in New York ordered it released in September 2017, and it was eventually given to the ACLU in August.

Additional reporting by The Guardian