Doing what is possible to limit incapacitants, what about truth serums?

By Jonathan B. Tucker, April 30, 2008

Alan Pearson's latest comment criticizes my proposal to establish a new subcategory in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for declaring "other chemical production facilities" that manufacture peptides in quantities above a specified threshold because this approach would not cover all incapacitating agents, many of which are not peptides.

In response, I would argue that my proposal, while not a panacea, is still worth doing. Several bioactive peptides have been identified that act on neural circuits in the brain to induce confusion or placidity, making them (or their analogues) of considerable interest as incapacitants or calmatives. Thus, while a technical amendment to the CWC verification annex requiring the declaration and inspection of facilities that manufacture peptides in significant quantities would not capture all incapacitating agents, it would be fairly easy to do and would address an important part of the problem. I agree with Pearson that additional transparency measures, such as the voluntary submission by member states of more detailed information on "other chemical production facilities," would help to build confidence in compliance with the General Purpose Criterion.

On another matter, Seth Carus at the National Defense University has called to my attention the fact that bioregulators need not be delivered in chemical form. According to the memoirs of former Soviet bioweaponeer Ken Alibek, the Soviet Union developed genetically engineered bacteria containing inserted genes coding for bioactive peptides, which would be expressed only after the bacteria infected a human host. This delivery method offers operational advantages over the dispersal of bioregulators as pure chemicals. Because the genetically engineered bacteria would replicate in the infected individuals, the quantity of agent that would have to be disseminated to cause incapacitating or lethal effects over a large area would be significantly less than if pure bioregulators were used.

Employing genetically engineered bacteria as a delivery vehicle for bioregulators also has implications for arms control. A bioactive peptide (either purified from a natural source or synthesized chemically) that is acquired or used for hostile purposes clearly meets the treaty definition of a "toxin" or "toxic chemical" and hence would be banned under both the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the CWC. In contrast, a genetically engineered bacterium containing a bioregulator gene that is expressed only after infection would escape the control mechanisms of the CWC. To give an analogy, the CWC's General Purpose Criterion bans the development, production, stockpiling, or use of botulinum toxin as a weapon. Yet the prohibitions of the CWC do not apply to Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that produces and releases botulinum toxin only after infecting a host. For this reason, bacteria containing bioregulator genes would be covered by the BWC but not by the CWC, and hence could not be subject to enhanced verification measures under the latter treaty.

Another issue that has yet to be addressed in this roundtable is the potential use of drugs based on bioactive peptides to enhance the interrogation of alleged criminals or terrorists. For decades, a holy grail of the U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement communities has been the development of a "truth serum" that causes a suspect to divulge information against his will. Drugs that have been used in the past for this purpose include sodium pentothal, sodium amytal, and scopolamine, none of which are considered 100 percent effective at obtaining truthful information. During the Cold War, the U.S. military and the CIA also experimented with hallucinogenic drugs as interrogation aids. For example, the CIA's Project MK-ULTRA, which began in 1953, involved the administration of LSD to unwitting subjects.

The ethical abuses of Project MK-ULTRA led the U.S. government to end its search for a truth serum in the late 1960s, at least officially. Since 9/11, however, some observers have advocated for the renewed use of such drugs. In April 2002, for example, former CIA and FBI director William Webster said that the United States should consider administering "truth drugs" to uncooperative suspects held at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere to obtain details about terrorist operations. Webster asserted that the use of a short-acting drug would not constitute physical abuse.

Although existing truth serums are all flawed, ongoing academic and pharmaceutical research on bioactive peptides that regulate neural circuits in the brain involved in emotion and cognition may eventually produce new drugs that could enhance interrogation in a reliable and predictable manner. Oxytocin, for example, has been found to promote trust in situations characterized by risk and uncertainty. I would be interested in the views of my colleagues with respect to the feasibility of developing a bioregulator-based truth serum, and whether the use of such a drug for interrogation purposes would be permitted under the law-enforcement exemption of the CWC.

Topics: Biosecurity


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