A dungeon-like room in the Psychotechnology Research Institute in Moscow is used for human testing. The institute claims its technology can read the subconscious mind and alter behavior.
MOSCOW — The future of U.S. anti-terrorism technology could lie near the end of a Moscow subway line in a circular dungeon-like room with a single door and no windows. Here, at the Psychotechnology Research Institute, human subjects submit to experiments aimed at manipulating their subconscious minds.
Elena Rusalkina, the silver-haired woman who runs the institute, gestured to the center of the claustrophobic room, where what looked like a dentist’s chair sits in front of a glowing computer monitor. "We’ve had volunteers, a lot of them," she said, the thick concrete walls muffling the noise from the college campus outside. "We worked out a program with (a psychiatric facility) to study criminals. There’s no way to falsify the results. There’s no subjectivism."
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has gone to many strange places in its search for ways to identify terrorists before they attack, but perhaps none stranger than this lab on the outskirts of Russia’s capital. The institute has for years served as the center of an obscure field of human behavior study — dubbed psychoecology — that traces it roots back to Soviet-era mind control research.
What’s gotten DHS’ attention is the institute’s work on a system called Semantic Stimuli Response Measurements Technology, or SSRM Tek, a software-based mind reader that supposedly tests a subject’s involuntary response to subliminal messages.
SSRM Tek is presented to a subject as an innocent computer game that flashes subliminal images across the screen — like pictures of Osama bin Laden or the World Trade Center. The "player" — a traveler at an airport screening line, for example — presses a button in response to the images, without consciously registering what he or she is looking at. The terrorist’s response to the scrambled image involuntarily differs from the innocent person’s, according to the theory.
Gear for testing MindReader 2.0 software hangs on a wall at the Psychotechnology Research Institute in Moscow. Marketed in North America as SSRM Tek, the technology will soon be tested for airport screening by a U.S. company under contract to the Department of Homeland Security.
Photo: Nathan Hodge
"If it’s a clean result, the passengers are allowed through," said Rusalkina, during a reporter’s visit last year. "If there’s something there, that person will need to go through extra checks."
Rusalkina markets the technology as a program called Mindreader 2.0. To sell Mindreader to the West, she’s teamed up with a Canadian firm, which is now working with a U.S. defense contractor called SRS Technologies. This May, DHS announced plans to award a sole-source contract to conduct the first U.S.-government sponsored testing of SSRM Tek.
The contract is a small victory for the Psychotechnology Research Institute and its leaders, who have struggled for years to be accepted in the West. It also illustrates how the search for counter-terrorism technology has led the U.S. government into unconventional — and some would say unsound — science.
All of the technology at the institute is based on the work of Rusalkina’s late husband, Igor Smirnov, a controversial Russian scientist whose incredible tales of mind control attracted frequent press attention before his death several years ago.
Smirnov was a Rasputin-like character often portrayed in the media as having almost mystical powers of persuasion. Today, first-time visitors to the institute — housed in a drab concrete building at the Peoples Friendship University of Russia