Intelligence agencies using “truth serums” sounds like it belongs in the bygone age of Cold War spies, but a newly released report shows that the US was recently toying with the idea in the paranoid post-9/11 world of terrorism.
The declassified report, only publically released thanks to a federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has revealed the secret history of a CIA research program to find “truth serum” between 2002 and 2003. The aim of “Project Medication” was to find a mind-altering drug that could be used to pry out information on potential attacks from terror suspects shortly after the September 11 attacks.
During this time, the CIA studied records of old Soviet drug experiments, including the infamous MK-Ultra program and other discredited human experiments from the Cold War, to see whether mind-altering drugs could be used to aid their interrogation processes.
Learning from the legacy of previous research projects, the report concludes that midazolam could be the drug of choice. This is a prescription sedative, marketed under the name Versed, that’s used to treat anxiety and trouble with sleeping. It also has a strange effect on memory, appearing to temporarily cause amnesia and halt the brain’s ability to form new memories. However, it remains unclear how the drug could be used to coerce information out of detainees under interrogation. Despite the ominous mission it was nearly tasked with, midazolam is on the World Health Organization's List of Essential Medicines, which documents the most effective and safest medicines needed in a health system.
Fortunately, the CIA’s “Project Medication” never came to fruition due to a number of legal problems and was promptly shelved by the CIA at the start of 2003.
“Versed was considered possibly worth a trial,” the report reads, “if unequivocal legal sanction first were obtained.
“There were at least two legal obstacles: a prohibition against medical experimentation on prisoners and a ban on interrogational use of ‘mind-altering drugs’ or those which ‘profoundly altered the senses.’”
As the report shows, medical professionals had an “intense” and “extensive” involvement in the CIA’s interrogation and detention program between 2002 and 2007, overseeing at least 97 detainees being held and interrogated in 10 top-secret CIA facilities, all in the name of counterterrorism. According to the report, these medical professionals played a key role in “legitimizing the program.”
“Thanks to an ACLU victory in federal court, we know much more about how CIA doctors violated the medical oath to 'do no harm,'” Dror Ladin, Staff Attorney at the ACLU National Security Project, wrote in a blog post.
“While Project Medication never got off the ground, CIA medical professionals remained critical participants in experimenting with torture.”