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Should Presidential Candidates Take Truth Serum?

By Friday, 05 December 2008 08:58 AM Current | Bio | Archive

President-elect Barack Obama says he will shut down America's terrorist interrogation facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and end interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, that are widely perceived as torture.

Liberals applauded Mr. Obama's positions on these issues, but they have thusfar had little to say about India's current terrorist interrogation.

India captured one of the terrorists involved in the recent mass murder attacks in Mumbai, a Pakistani from south Punjab named Azam Amir Kasab.

Kasab will be subjected to “narcoanalysis,” Mumbai police interrogators told The Times of London, which described this technique as “controversial . . . banned in most democracies, where the subject is injected with a truth serum.”

Can truth be swiftly extracted from terrorists by using a serum instead of a waterboard?

During the Cold War, the United States experimented with so-called truth serums such as the anesthetic induction drug sodium thiopental, popularly called sodium pentothal.

We reportedly stopped after concluding that such drugs weaken the inhibitions of those being questioned and make them more talkative, but what they say will be unreliable — the result of hallucination, fantasy, or an unbroken ability to lie to interrogators.

Tales persist that the Soviets developed an effective truth serum code-named SP-17 that, having no identifying flavor or scent, could be slipped unnoticed into a target's beverage.

It is said to have the power not only to loosen tongues but also to erase any memory a person might have of being interrogated while under its influence.

One ancient drug certainly lowers inhibitions. Thousands of years ago, the Romans said vino veritas or "in wine, truth." A few stiff drinks lubricate tongues into saying things where sobriety would have remained silent. Or perhaps people feel that drinking gives them a license to unleash, believing that anything too harsh can be retracted the next day as “only the booze talking.”

Let's imagine that scientists tomorrow perfect a truth serum that works reliably and does no physical harm.

Would liberals deem it torture if U.S. military interrogators dripped this drug into the vein of a captive terrorist to extract information that could save thousands of lives?

Liberals would certainly object to sticking needles into prisoners, and to altering their body chemistry. But can use of a genuine truth serum otherwise be called torture?

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 (Townsend v. Sain) held that a “truth serum” (in this case hyoscine) “injected into Townsend before he confessed has properties which may trigger statements in a legal sense involuntary. This fact was vital to whether his confession was the product of a free will and therefore admissible.”

The high court's ruling did not exactly equate truth serum with torture, but it held that, as with torture, the use of a purported truth serum was sufficient to make any confession associated with it inadmissible. A clear implication is that such a drug is inherently coercive because it undermines a defendant's free will.

State court rulings since 1963, as the Washington Post's Slate.com writer Chris Suellentrop reported, “have found truth serum-induced testimony to be scientifically unreliable and inadmissible.”

But in terrorist cases, argue defenders of the Guantanamo interrogations, the issue is not whether someone gets a fastidiously fair trial but rather whether information can be extracted in time to disarm a terrorist bomb or thwart a terrorist attack.

President-elect Obama's designated Attorney General Eric Holder was one of those in President Clinton's Justice Department who refused FBI requests to read the laptop computer of what turned out to be 9/11's “20th skyjacker.”

That laptop contained tipoff information that would have led authorities to the 19 terrorists who later murdered 3,000 Americans. But Holder argued that reading Zacarias Moussaoui's computer files would violate his rights.

“A terrorist of this sort is never cooperative,” the head of the Mumbai crime branch Deven Bharti told The Associated Press. “We have to extract information.”

Again, imagine that American national security interrogators had an effective chemical lie detector, a harmless truth elicitor that like the purported Soviet truth serum requires no needle and can be given to a person unnoticed in his food and drink.

If we possessed such a drug, would we confine its use to terrorists in extreme cases?

Why not use this drug — call it the "elixir of truth," or E.T. for short — on a wide variety of criminal suspects? Or on job applicants for sensitive national security positions? Or on everybody applying for any important job?

If we had this magical veracity drug, why not require that the major presidential candidates take this truth serum 45 minutes prior to their national debates?

Ronald Reagan once exhorted a network crew to bring their camera up close to his face. When the camera is really close, said Reagan, those watching can see when a candidate is lying.

Now even President Reagan's liberal opponents, who back then ridiculed The Gipper as a trained Hollywood actor accustomed to such cameras, would acknowledge that he looked truthful on camera because Ronald Reagan genuinely believed in the values he articulated.

In one past fad, tabloid newspapers tried to evaluate politician truthful by testing their voices with a PSE, a psychological stress evaluator that purportedly measured how tense a person was, hence how stressed and therefore honest or deceptive. But politicians can suffer great stress regardless of how truthful they are.

Another fad several election cycles ago was for candidates to challenge their opponents to take a lie detector test.

But it's possible to lie successfully to a lie detector, say some experts, by deliberately tensing up in various ways when the detector operator tries to establish a “normal” baseline for responses by asking unthreatening questions about a person's name, age, and the like; without an accurate baseline, the lie detector becomes unreliable.

The lie detector fad ended when politicians adopted a standard response: “I'll take a lie detector test when my opponent passes an IQ test.”

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President-elect Barack Obama says he will shut down America's terrorist interrogation facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and end interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, that are widely perceived as torture.Liberals applauded Mr. Obama's positions on these issues,...
Friday, 05 December 2008 08:58 AM
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