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The Truth About Truth Serum

Popular culture makes gratuitous use of powerful lie-repelling agents known as Truth Serums. They are usually depicted as injected drugs which strongly inhibit a subject’s ability to lie, causing him or her to mechanically recite the truth to an interviewer upon questioning.

Such drugs have been utilized by some of the three-letter government agencies in the not-so-distant past (CIA, FBI, DOD, KGB, etc.), particularly during the rampant paranoia of the Cold War. And in the aftermath of 9/11, there was some discussion on the idea of bringing them back into use for interrogation. But are these truth serums effective? Do they produce any useful results?

The Zero-Armed Bandit

“I don’t think it belongs here.” Such was the assessment of Bob Vinson, the graveyard shift supervisor at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The “here” Vinson referred to was a nook just outside the telephone equipment room in the employees-only portion of the second floor of the hotel. The “it” was a curious piece of equipment of unknown origin loitering conspicuously in the cramped side room. It was a metallic gray box about the size of a desk, with a smaller box attached on top near the rear right corner. The front face of the smaller box was an incomprehensible control panel occupied by 28 metal toggle switches in five neat rows, each labeled with a numbered sticker. All of these switches were situated in the down position except for #23, which was toggled up—an oddly ominous asymmetry.

It was approximately 6:30am on Tuesday, 26 August 1980, and although Bob Vinson had been on shift all night long, he hadn’t heard any large equipment delivery commotion from his nearby office, and he was sure this thing hadn’t been there an hour earlier. Whoever had left the machine had taken the time to place each corner on blocks of wood, and these blocks pressed deep dimples into the red-orange carpet, suggesting that the equipment had significant mass. In spite of its resemblance to some kind of manufactured electromechanical office machine, it had no power cord, and no obvious power switch, just the 28 enigmatic toggles. To add alarm to intrigue, Vinson had found that some of the keyholes for the doors leading into the area had been hastily jammed using what appeared to be toothpicks and glue.

An envelope with “Harvey’s Management” typewritten on one side lay on the carpet alongside the object. Vinson was reasonably suspicious that the envelope did not contain anything as harmless as an invoice. “Stay here,” Vinson instructed the custodian who had been examining the mystery object with him. “Don’t touch it. Don’t let anyone fool with it. I’ll be right back.”

Vinson soon returned with companions, having summoned members of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino security, who had subsequently summoned sheriff ‘s deputies and the fire department. After prodding the envelope with a broomstick to ensure it wasn’t booby-trapped, those to whom it was concerned gingerly extracted three pages of typed text from the envelope. The letter claimed that this device was a bomb.

Operation Midnight Climax

The US CIA and military is filled with a history of bad decisions, deceit, and in some cases what I would classify as pure evil. One such misguided and unethical program was an appendage of Project MKULTRA under the name of Operation Midnight Climax.

Before we go into detail we must first explore the nature of Project MKULTRA. MKULTRA was started in 1953 under the direction of CIA director Allen Dulles. The program was allowed to use up to 6% of the total CIA budget and required no budget oversight or reporting. The premise of MKULTRA was to explore the use of “mind-control” drugs after alleged uses of such drugs by Communist Leadership (Soviets, Chinese and North Koreans) on U.S. POWs. The drugs included the use of LSD, Heroin, and Sodium Pentothal (Truth Serum).

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