On The Uselessness Of Lie Detector (And Medical) Screenings, And The Ames Spy Case


This post is one that has been restored after the hacking. All original comments were lost.

Have you seen the television series The Assets? Dramatization of the Sandy Grimes-Jeanne Vertefeuille book Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed. Highly recommended.

In the movie, we twice see Ames hooked to a “polygraph”, which is to say “lie detector”, a device which (as we’ll see) should always be written in scare quotes. Ames is pictured as being nervous, fretting he wouldn’t pass because, of course, he was a spy for the Soviet Union, that happy place where Equality by law reigned supreme. Skip it.

The set designers did a good job reproducing the equipment of the time: it looked a lot like they showed. I know this because I was in the service in those years in a super-secret field (cryptography) which required that I, too, be hooked up and tested.

Television being television, shortcuts are taken, but the mood isn’t too far off. The examiner comes into the room and the attempted intimidation begins. An Expert Is Here! He fastens tight things around your chest, arms, hands. You are told to sit perfectly still—movement will disrupt the test! You, the test subject, feel (a) like an idiot, and (b) guilty.

The examiner doesn’t jump right into are-you-a-spy questions. No. He instead wants to prove to you the machine works, so that you don’t dare conceal a lie. I recall once the man asked me to pick a number between (I think) one and ten. He asked me which. Six. He says, “I’m going to ask you if your number was one, two, and so forth. Each time you must say no, even when I reach your number.”

“…Is your number five?” No. “Is your number six?” No. Etc.

At the conclusion of this scientific demonstration, the examiner shows you some squiggles on a piece of paper. “See here? That’s when you said no to six. These lines indicate you’re lying.” If you have any brains, you know it’s at this point you’re supposed to marvel at both the examiner’s and the machine’s perspicacity. “Wow. That’s cool.”

And then it’s off to the spy questions, the wording of which is well realized in the movie. You can’t help, helpless as you are, staring at a blank wall (the examiner never lets you see him during the test), trying not to breathe “abnormally”, to feel that, hey, maybe I am a spy.

I wasn’t.

When the test is over, it isn’t. Invariably, there is a long pause. And then a sigh from the examiner. “Sergeant Briggs…we have a little problem with one of the questions. Can you help me with that?” Which question he doesn’t say. But, and this is true, at this point many crack and begin to confess. Whereas any with an IQ greater than the median knows to say, “Golly. I don’t know.”

If you do that, the game for the examiner is up. He’s forced to pick one of the questions and ask something specific. “It was when I asked about selling information. There was a slight indication.” And you say, “Wow. Really? I have no idea.” Back and forth a couple of times like that, with you playing the happy, cooperative, friendly fool, and you’re done.

Just like Aldrich Ames. Who always passed his tests. Ted Koppel asked Ames about this, and Ames scoffed (properly, in my view) calling them “sorcery.” I’m unable to discover the second half of the video in which Ames makes this statement, but here is a letter he wrote on the same subject.

The polygraph is asserted to have been a useful tool in counterintelligence investigations. This is a nice example of retreating into secret knowledge: we know it works, but it’s too secret to explain. To my own knowledge and experience over a thirty year career this statement is a false one. The use of the polygraph (which is inevitably to say, its misuse) has done little more than create confusion, ambiguity and mistakes. I’d love to lay out this case for you, but unfortunately I cannot — it’s a secret too.

Most people in the intelligence and CI business are well aware of the theoretical and practical failings of the polygraph, but are equally alert to its value in institutional, bureaucratic terms and treasure its use accordingly. This same logic applies to its use in screening potential and current employees, whether of the CIA, NSA, DOE or even of private organizations.

Deciding whether to trust or credit a person is always an uncertain task, and in a variety of situations a bad, lazy or just unlucky decision about a person can result not only in serious problems for the organization and its purposes, but in career-damaging blame for the unfortunate decision-maker. Here, the polygraph is a scientific godsend: the bureaucrat accounting for a bad decision, or sometimes for a missed opportunity (the latter is much less often questioned in a bureaucracy) can point to what is considered an unassailably objective, though occasionally and unavoidably fallible, polygraph judgment. All that was at fault was some practical application of a “scientific” technique, like those frozen O-rings, or the sandstorms between the Gulf and Desert One in 1980.

I’ve seen these bureaucratically-driven flights from accountability operating for years, much to the cost of our intelligence and counterintelligence effectiveness. The US is, so far as I know, the only nation which places such extensive reliance on the polygraph. (The FBI, to its credit in a self-serving sort of way, also rejects the routine use of the polygraph on its own people.) It has gotten us into a lot of trouble.

Ames said the CIA believed. Which is true. Why do they believe? Because lie detectors sometimes “work”, in the sense that some confess. But people confess to interrogators all the time, which is no proof the machine works.

There is instead ample proof that Ames was right and that lie detectors are no better than eye-of-newt witchcraft. So why are they still around?

Now most people are not spies. Something far north of 99% screened are innocent. (This should remind you of mammographies and prostrate cancer screenings.) If the examiner says everyone is not a spy, then he will be right north of 99% of the time.

The examiner may then boast to himself, to CIA, to Congress, to God Himself, that his machine has an accuracy rate higher than 99%! Sure, he missed a handful of fellows, but nobody bats 1.000. You just can’t beat 99%!

Yes, you can. This is why we need the idea of skill, which measure improvement over naive guesses like “everybody’s innocent.” I’ve written about the use of these skill scores in medicine (most women don’t have breast cancer, most men don’t have prostate cancer), but they have yet to gain any traction.

Oh, until global warming came around, meteorologists and climatologists used to judge their models with skill scores. I wonder why they stopped?

1 Comment

  1. I am the only licensed polygraph expert who has ever told the truth about the polygraph, and the truth is, the polygraph is not a “lie detector”. I have been telling the truth about the scam called lie detection for almost forty years now in hopes of destroying the dangerous myth of “lie detection”. Carl Sagan said, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” I was instrumental in destroying a large part of the polygraph industry by getting most polygraph testing outlawed in the private sector. In 1988, with the passage of the EMPLOYEE POLYGRAPH PROTECTION ACT, administering polygraph tests actually became a federal crime! Even the U.S. Supreme Court refused to admit polygraph results into evidence, and ironically it was the U.S. Justice Department who argued that the polygraph results were not reliable and should not be admitted into evidence! I was a member of the Office of Technology Assessment, (an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress), studying the validity and reliability of the polygraph – our report basically said it was worthless as a “lie detector”. I also testified in the U.S. Congress in support of the EPPA. Click here to read a transcript of my testimony: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015011381806;view=1up;seq=281 (My testimony begins on pg 275) Here is an interesting piece of historical trivia: When I testified in Congress, I put my manual, HOW TO STING THE POLYGRAPH into the Congressional Record, and the Senators and Representatives distributed more copies of my manual between 1984 and 1988 than anyone has ever distributed – including me! They sent them out by the tens of thousands in response to requests from constituents. But, there were exclusions written into the law that allowed the government – local state and federal – to continue to use the polygraph. They attempt to justify these exclusions on the grounds that the government needs this tool to protect national security and the law enforcement officials need it to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. I have proved the polygraph is not a “lie detector” – the Congress, the Justice Department, the OTA, and all those with any scientific credibility agree with me – so there is no justification for the government to continue to use it on the pretext that it protects our national security or the integrity of the criminal justice system.

    It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS to use the polygraph as “lie detector” – the theory of “lie detection” is nothing but junk science. It is based on a faulty scientific premise. The polygraph operators have the audacity to say that there is such a thing as a “reaction indicative of deception”, when I can prove that “lying reaction” is simply a nervous reaction commonly referred to as the fight or flight syndrome. In fact, the polygraph is nothing but a psychological billy club that is used to coerce a person into making admissions or confessions. It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for government agencies to rely on the polygraph to “test” applicants, or to conduct any type of investigations relating to national security. It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for the criminal justice system to rely on an instrument that has been thoroughly discredited to determine whether or not a person is truthful or deceptive, or to use it to guide their investigations in any way – especially when the results cannot even be used as evidence in a court of law! And it is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for anyone to believe they will pass their polygraph “test” if they just tell the truth! When you factor in all the damage done to people who are falsely branded as liars by these con men and their unconscionable conduct, this fraud of “lie detection” perpetrated by the polygraph industry should be a federal crime! The protection provided to some people by the EPPA should be extended to protect everyone from this insidious Orwellian instrument of torture! Shame on anyone who administers these “tests” – and shame on the government for continuing to allow this state sponsored sadism!

    So, here we have this diabolical dichotomy – the government protects some people from polygraph abuse and perpetrates polygraph abuse on others! The Congress outlaws the use of the polygraph in the private sector, (and distributes my manuals, teaching people how to pass their tests), the Justice Department argues that it should not be used as evidence in court, the Supreme Courts agrees and refuses to allow polygraph results into evidence, and the OTA issues a report saying all the scientific evidence proves it is not reliable – yet, after all this, many government agencies greatly expand the use of the polygraph to numbers never seen before in the history of the country!

    So what explains this schizophrenia in the government? Why do they outlaw it in one area and expand it in another? I’m afraid I know – I think President Nixon told us why the government uses it when he said, “I don’t know anything about polygraphs, and I don’t know how accurate they are, but I know they’ll scare the hell out of people, and that’s why I like to use them!” That mentality regarding the polygraph is the very reason I do what I do! I educate people about the polygraph so that the polygraph thugs can’t use it to scare the hell out of them – and even worse, call them liars simply because they have a nervous reaction on a relevant question! I teach people how to prove they are telling the truth because just telling the truth really only works about half the time! A person will probably fail their polygraph test unless they are trained to show the polygraph examiner what he expects to see from a truthful person. I have been asked this question many times: Can liars use this information to pass just as easily as truthful people? The answer to that question is YES! I have no control over who gets the information in my manual and video/DVD. But let me make this perfectly clear – I assume that people come to me for personal training because they know that just telling the truth only works about half the time. And, except for frivolous cases such as fidelity testing, or for demonstrations on television programs, speaking engagements and seminars, I will not knowingly teach a person to deliberately lie! Besides, liars can pass easily whether they have been trained or not – history is full of people who have lied and passed polygraphs with no problem. Aldridge Ames, the notorious spy, passed many polygraph exams – and he was an active spy when he took, (and passed) several polygraph tests! Recently, the government said they need to use the polygraph in order “to stop the next Edward Snowden” and “prevent leaks by keeping employees honest”. This reasoning is absolutely absurd! Snowden has said he got that job at NSA solely for the purpose of getting access to that information – information he planned from the outset to disclose – and he passed two polygraph tests knowing what he planned to do. How is the use of the polygraph going to stop “the next Edward Snowden” when it didn’t stop the first one? As a matter of fact there has never been even one spy ever caught by the polygraph! I have often demonstrated how simple it is to “beat the box” on national television programs. It is true that anyone can use my techniques to pass their polygraph test regardless of whether they are nervous or not, lying or not, no matter what. I have said that for over 40 years. I say it in hopes that those who use this instrument will realize that it is not accurate or reliable as a “lie detector” and will quit using it!

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