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*** Folks, I'm aware this is a very long article. However, I thought it was very interesting and informative, as it relates to the current active polygraph thread. Please post comments to this article in the Polygraph thread. We'll see how that works and if necessary open a thread specifically for article responses. I just don't want people to have to scroll through this whole thing every time they just want to see a new comment. ***

The truth about polygraphs

A National Academy of Sciences study validates long-held doubts about the reliability of polygraphs. So why does the government still rely on them to screen applicants for jobs? By Charles P. Pierce, Globe Staff, 8/3/2003


Of course he was sweating.

But he didn't want to be sweating, and he didn't want his heart to race this way, because he knew what that did to his blood pressure, and he knew that he was in a situation here in the Boston office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Everybody there knew him from the days when he'd been the law-enforcement equivalent of a phenom pitcher straight out of the minors. So they knew why he was standing there, and he knew why he was standing there, and they knew that he knew. He was standing there because there was a man behind a closed door with a machine that claimed to know the truth of him better than he did. And he wasn't sure what the machine knew about him that he didn't know. He knew this situation well. He'd been trained to put suspects in this kind of a box.

Once, when he was 16 and at a party, he'd smoked a little weed. The joint came by -- maybe once, maybe twice -- and he'd taken a puff. Maybe two. It was a long time ago and hard to remember, but it was long before he'd become interested in law enforcement and long before he'd become so good at it. It was long before he'd graduated from Northeastern University summa cum laude with his degree in criminal justice and long before the co-op job with the DEA. He'd planned on entering the DEA upon graduation but was tripped up by the budget shutdown of the mid-'90s.

It was long before he'd gone to work for that antidrug task force down on Cape Cod, long before he'd grown his hair long and his beard out to go undercover to chase the speed labs and the dope-running boats, and it was long before someone had waved the gun at him in the crack house in New Bedford. It was long before he'd gotten a pilot's license because he'd heard the DEA had an air wing, and he thought he might like to be part of that, too. It was long before the awards and the citations, and it was long before he'd applied for the full-time job at DEA when the government reopened for business.

He sailed through all the preliminary background checks and the physical test and scored in the 90th percentile on the oral examinations. And then they'd strapped him to a polygraph and asked him about any drug use, and he'd told them about when he was 16 and the joint came by at the party. He knew there were cameras on his eyes. He knew there were sensors in the seat. He gave his answer. The polygrapher looked at the machine and frowned.

There's a problem right here with this question, the examiner told him. There were "issues" with regard to his answers about his "past drug use." Why don't you go out and think about what the problem might be, the polygrapher suggested gravely. That was how he came to be here, sweating, in front of all the people who knew him so well.

He went back in the room. On the table, next to the machine, was a list of every illegal drug there was, from cocaine to psilocybin mushrooms, and he was a good enough cop to know that it was a prop. It was there to make him nervous, to engage his autonomic physiology in ways that would be helpful to an investigator. He'd seen it work -- hardened drug suspects with solid alibis, melting, because they believed that the machine knew what they were hiding better than they did. He knew why the list was there. It was there to make him sweat. It was working, too.

"Now," said the polygrapher, "when you said you experimented with pot three or four times, was that three or four times or three or four occasions?"

He asked the polygrapher if what the polygrapher wanted to know was how many times he'd put a joint to his lips. On the three or four occasions, I probably smoked it twice, he said. The polygrapher smiled. That was what he needed to know. No problem. Why didn't he just write that down here, that he'd smoked pot twice, and that would clear it right up. He did so, and he got himself unhooked from the machine, and he shook hands with the examiner. Welcome aboard, the examiner said.

He got the letter on Christmas Eve. The DEA wished him luck in whatever his future career might be.

He suspected the polygraph was involved, but he didn't know for certain, and the DEA wasn't saying. The rejection demolished him. He applied for the US Customs Service, and he got no reply. A friend recommended him to the FBI, which was looking for applicants for a special antiterrorist strike force. He began reading seven newspapers a day, so he would know more about what was going on in the world. He went through all the examinations and physical tests and aptitude assessments, and he passed them all again. The FBI handed him a piece of paper. It was a conditional offer of employment. Then they sat him down in a room to take a polygraph.

He was asked if he'd used drugs more than 15 times in his life or within the previous year. He answered, truthfully, that he hadn't. Then he was asked about his earlier history, and he explained about the party, and the joints, and when he was 16. The examiner almost came out of his chair. "If it was up to me," the examiner thundered, "we wouldn't hire anyone who'd ever done drugs." He felt himself reacting to what he thought was a ridiculous opinion, and he felt himself reacting to the examiner's sudden vehemence. His body was selling him out again.

The polygraph went very badly. The examiner told him he was being deceptive about his past drug use, which not even the DEA had said. He told the examiner that he'd been telling the truth. They walked him out of the office. There was no letter this time. At the elevator bank, they took the paper offering him conditional employment with the FBI right out of his hands. He went down to the street and stood outside on the sidewalk. He knew what the truth was. He just didn't know what to believe.

THIS IS ABOUT THE FAITH WE'VE DEPOSITED IN A SINGLE MACHINE, and a machine that runs almost entirely on faith.

For nearly a century, almost everything about the polygraph has remained virtually unchanged. Its basic principle, that there are recordable physiological reactions that can indicate to a trained examiner when a person is being deceptive, is the same. The criticism of the machine has been as consistent through the years as its fundamental mechanics. Its proponents from the beginning have believed in it with a faith that is almost evangelical, and for nearly as long, its detractors have derided it as the worst kind of junk science and have seen that faith as having been the problem all along.

"The polygraph is the translation of a mythological device into a technological idiom," says Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "It does measure physiological changes like respiration and heartbeat and perspiration, but there's no guaranteed nexus between those physiological changes and truth-telling. In short, what the polygraph measures is not truth and deception but perspiration and respiration."

The polygraph generally is used in two ways. The first is as one of several tools in a criminal investigation. So firm is a suspect's faith in the machine's accuracy that the machine could push the suspect past a tipping point and into a confession. Whether or not it can tell truth from fiction seems less relevant than the suspect's belief that it can. University of Maryland physics professor Robert L. Park, the author of Voodoo Science and a critic of polygraph use, extracted a nugget from one of Richard Nixon's 1971 White House tapes in which the former president defends subjecting his staff to polygraph tests, because "I know they'll scare the hell out of people."

This is how the polygraph has developed into a kind of punctuation mark in public crime dramas. Bruno Hauptmann begged to take one in the hopes that it would clear him in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. More recently, it's been revealed that 11 people have failed polygraph examinations in connection with the case of Molly Bish, the Warren teenager whose remains were discovered in early June. And two months earlier, as part of the investigation into the arsenic poisoning of several members of a religious congregation in rural Maine, law-enforcement officials attempted to force people into taking polygraphs even though they were not required to do so.

However, the most widespread use of the polygraph today is as a tool for security screening -- both before employment and afterward. The polygraph is part of daily life for thousands of government employees, and while this particular use of the polygraph is the most controversial, it's also here that the faith that we have come to invest in this machine most clearly seems to be winning over the scientific doubts about the machine itself.

Congress outlawed its use on employees of private businesses with the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988, a law based on doubts about the machine's reliability and spurred by revelations that more than 400,000 people a year were being regularly polygraphed in the private sector. But the act specifically exempted various government agencies from its provisions, allowing the use of the polygraph in the public sector to explode in the past 15 years.

For example, the polygraph is now used to screen applicants for 62 percent of the nation's police departments, compared with 19 percent 40 years ago. The federal government alone runs 20 polygraph programs and employs more than 500 examiners. And the use of the polygraph is still growing. FBI Director Robert Mueller last year requested from Congress an additional $7 million for the bureau's polygraph programs, money that would, in part, cover the cost of hiring 17 more polygraph staff.

It's impossible to get an exact figure on how many individuals working for the government are polygraphed on a regular basis, but the number could well approach the figure that so alarmed Congress in the days before the act was passed. Between November 1997 and April 2002, the FBI conducted 13,166 pre-employment polygraph screenings. Of those, roughly 3,000 applicants failed. Between 1994 and 1999, according to congressional testimony, the FBI and the cp9.5CIAcp10.5 polygraphed more than 40,000 of their employees. Last year, the FBI hired 550 special agents. All potential agents have to be polygraphed before being selected. The same holds true for agents hired by the CIA, the National Security Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Secret Service.

Elsewhere, the Pentagon requires even certain four-star generals to agree to submit to polygraphs upon request, and it occasionally uses "lifestyle questions" to fish around in the morals and values of its employees -- something that the act specifically prohibits for, say, The Home Depot.

And last year, as a continuing aftershock of the furor around Wen Ho Lee, Congress mandated that the Department of Energy polygraph 20,000 employees at the Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear laboratories. The proposal sparked a near mutiny among scientists working with some of the country's most delicate secrets, and it prompted the Department of Energy to commission an $860,000 study by the National Academy of Sciences of the effectiveness of the polygraph. The report was the most thorough debunking of the polygraph in a long history of them. In May, the Department of Energy acknowledged the receipt of the report, thanked the academy for its work, and continued to polygraph the people at the laboratories at the rate of four per day.

It is in this area that the faith placed in the polygraph seems most fragile and in which the machine seems to run most directly on faith. Both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, Soviet megaspies in the cp9.5CIAcp10.5 and the FBI, respectively, passed screening polygraphs, Ames by persuading the examiner that he'd misread the chart. The case of Wen Ho Lee is similarly instructive. Accused of leaking nuclear weapons data to the Chinese government, Lee passed a polygraph. Seeking to elicit a confession, however, the examiner told Lee that he'd failed. The best use of the polygraph was conflated with the worst, and Lee wound up in jail until he was cleared of all the major charges against him. Ames, from his cell in a federal prison, is leading a campaign against the use of polygraph screening.

Moreover, the faith Congress has placed in the polygraph seems inconsistent at best. It has repeatedly rejected the development of federal standards and licenses for polygraphers. With the 1998 polygraph act, Congress determined that the machine is not reliable enough to be used on private employees but nonetheless reliable enough to be used on people working in the most sensitive areas of the government. And, of course, it is not reliable enough to be used on the members of Congress themselves.

In 2002, when the FBI was looking for who might have leaked information regarding what the government might have known before the attacks of September 11, 2001, it asked members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and their staffs to submit to polygraphs. Out of the question, the legislators replied. "They're not even admissible in court," scoffed Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, whose support for widespread polygraph testing within the federal government was otherwise unbounded.

Of course, that faith deepened generally after the attack on the World Trade Center, an event so sudden and cataclysmic that it seemed to demand responses that went beyond the inadequate empirical. "Nine-eleven did change a lot of things," says Stephen E. Fienberg, who headed the National Academy of Sciences panel that assessed the polygraph's effectiveness. "A crisis mentality permeated everything, and it still does. The mystique of this machine always has overpowered the science of it, and now it does especially."

The people who believe in the polygraph believe firmly that in the right hands and used for the right purposes, the machine can be an invaluable investigative tool. The mechanics have been refined through the years; the polygraph is now said to work through complicated computerized algorithms that make the readings more precise.

"At one point in the past, there may have been more art than science to it," says Bruce White, the cp9.5CEOcp10.5 of Axciton Systems Inc. of Houston, the leading manufacturer of state-of-the-art polygraphs. "Since then, though, the standards have been raised on the education of the operators, and the equipment now is better capable to remove background noise and more deeply extract the patterns and the data."

And the training of the examiners has become more refined, although there still are no uniform national standards for polygraphers nor is there a system to license them. "We know that a polygraph is between 90 and 98 percent accurate, given a competent examiner and using the latest equipment," says Lieutenant John Consigli, a certified polygrapher with the Massachusetts State Police. Consigli has conducted polygraph examinations for 20 years, and he believes in the machine as an investigative tool, but only one among many and not one to be used blithely by the unpracticed.

"It is absolutely like handing somebody a loaded gun," says Consigli, who believes in his curious machine the way that people always have, right from the start, when skeptics looked at the polygraph, with all its bells and whistles, and saw something not far removed from entreaties to Olympus or whatever truth can be divined from a flight of doves.

ou're kidding me. Of course nobody minds," says Crystal Watters, amazed at the question. "I mean, well, wouldn't you take one for $400,000?"

Watters, who directs the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in Morehead City, North Carolina, was amazed that anyone would even wonder why they've been polygraphing the top three anglers every year since 1988. Seems that folks were shoving lead weights and birdshot down the gullets of their prize catches in order to increase the weight of the fish and win the top prize. The polygraph put a stop to that business, by God, or so Crystal Watters believes. Its inventor would've been proud.

William Moulton Marston was an eccentric who left Harvard University and went out into the world to find out where truth itself might be hiding in his fellow citizens. Of course, ultimately, he became more famous in 1941, when he created Wonder Woman, who among her more obvious talents would snare criminals with her golden Lasso of Truth.

In 1915, while still a graduate student, Marston began to study how intentional deception affected the body's various autonomic functions -- most especially, blood pressure. (A National Academy of Sciences history of the polygraph attributes the eureka moment to Marston's wife, Elizabeth, who, when angered, would tell her husband that her blood pressure was going up.) Marston eventually developed the "unigraph," which employed the familiar systolic cuff with which, according to Marston, he could determine intentional deception through changes in blood pressure. The polygraph was further developed to include respiration, heart rate, and perspiration as additional markers. That approach has remained largely unchanged ever since.

Unquestionably, Marston was a superior salesman. According to the academy history, he lobbied several federal agencies to put him and his device to work at the end of World War I, and there even is some thin documentation -- most of it from Marston himself -- that he might have been briefly in the business of chasing German spies. However, salesmanship aside, Marston's machine was the subject of skepticism almost from the moment he brought it out of the lab. In 1917, a committee established by the National Research Council expressed doubt about Marston's results based on the possible biases of the people interpreting the data, a criticism still leveled at the polygraph today. Then, in 1923, Marston and his machine were dealt a staggering blow in federal court.

A man named James Alphonso Frye had confessed to a murder in the District of Columbia and then subsequently recanted, saying that he'd been bribed with a piece of the reward money. Marston put Frye on the machine and announced that Frye was telling the truth. The judge presiding at Frye's trial refused to let Marston testify, and Frye appealed his eventual conviction.

The appeal was denied and, in doing so, the appeals court established standards for the admission of scientific testimony that stood for 70 years, all the way from the systolic cuff to DNA evidence. The court determined that "the thing from which the [scientific] deduction has been made must be sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs." The polygraph never has been found to meet the standards set down in the Frye case; even though a 1993 Supreme Court decision (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals) modified those standards to give the trial judge greater discretion in admitting scientific evidence, the results of a polygraph examination are still inadmissible in most criminal proceedings.

Undaunted, Marston continued to proselytize elsewhere. He permitted Gillette to use his machine in razor-blade advertisements in the 1930s. At roughly the same time, J. Edgar Hoover was refusing to use it in any FBI investigation after a Marston machine had helped send an innocent man to prison in a Florida kidnapping case, thereby handing Hoover's beloved bureau a whopping public embarrassment.

Marston was not without competitors. In the 1940s, a man named Leonarde Keeler -- the examiner to whom the Hauptmanns had appealed during the Lindbergh case -- pioneered the use of what is now called the polygraph as a tool for security clearance. According to the National Academy of Sciences history, in 1946, Keeler polygraphed 690 employees at the Oak Ridge nuclear facility in Tennessee. The employees "were asked to submit voluntarily to testing upon hiring, on a routine basis during employment, and upon termination," says the academy history. "Only a tiny percentage dared refuse. The tests resulted in the firing of many employees."

Through the years, the popularity and mystique of the polygraph have faced down numerous challenges to the machine's reliability. In 1965 and 1976, congressional committees questioned the very validity of the machine. In 1997, an article in a psychological journal put the machine's reliability at only 61 percent. (Between 1994 and 1997, more than 3,000 FBI applicants were judged to have been "withholding information" during their pre-employment polygraph examinations.) And writing in the 1998 case of US v. Scheffer, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas declared that there was "no consensus" that polygraphs were reliable enough to be used in proceedings held under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

(Of course, Thomas may have had other reasons for disliking the machine. At Thomas's confirmation hearings, Anita Hill had cited the fact that she'd taken a polygraph as evidence for her charge of sexual harassment against him; his supporters argued, among other things, that Hill could have beaten the test because she was "delusional.")

That was where matters stood until 1999, when Congress began looking closely at security at the Los Alamos and Sandia labs in the midst of the Wen Ho Lee fiasco. The uproar was immediate and loud. After a series of stormy public meetings in New Mexico, Congress mandated the testing of the 20,000 employees at both labs. But New Mexico senator Jeff Bingaman, for whom this was a constituent matter, forced into the bill the funding for the National Academy of Sciences report on the reliability of the polygraph when used for security screening. When it was released late last year, the study proved the most significant critique of the polygraph since the Frye decision.

The study determined that not only was the polygraph useless for security screening but that its use might actually be detrimental to the work of keeping the labs secure. It argued that the test was so vague that, to catch one spy, nearly 100 other employees might have to have their security clearances lifted. "Polygraph testing," the report concluded, "yields an unacceptable choice . . . between too many loyal employees falsely judged deceptive and too many . . . threats left undetected."

This put the Department of Energy in a bind. However, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham declined either to abandon the polygraph or to fully support it. Instead, he briefly delayed the testing, citing the outbreak of the war in Iraq. Later, however, it quietly began again, and the Department of Energy issued a statement saying that the "issues" raised by the National Academy of Sciences were not sufficient to abandon the polygraph.

"Why do we keep using it when we keep saying it's not reliable?" asks Bingaman. "That's an awfully good question. I think it just appeals to a lot of people's faith that there's a technological fix to every problem and, if you just get the right machine hooked up, you can determine all the right answers."

And it seems, safeguard the integrity both of our most secret weapons and our pursuit of really big fish.

ill Roche knows all about the faith we place in our machines, about how useful it can be, how malleable to so many purposes. He used to have some fun with it, back when he was a street cop in Concord, California, not far from San Francisco. He and his fellow officers occasionally would stop someone whom they suspected of driving drunk. They might have the fellow grab the radio antenna on the back of the patrol car, telling him that it was a lie detector. Or they'd tell the driver to put his hand on the radio inside the cruiser, ask him how much he'd had to drink, and then hit the button on the radio's microphone so that a red light would flash atop the radio. Sorry, they'd tell the driver. This says you're lying. Or if they felt the person was sufficiently drunk, they'd bring him back to the station and have him put his hand on a sophisticated-looking copy machine. They'd ask their questions, the machine would rumble to life, and a prearranged message would come out. Below the image of the man's palm would be the words "He's lying."

"It was amazing," says Roche today. "People will always believe a machine, even before they believe themselves. It's the same principle that causes a mother to say that she has `eyes in the back of her head.' It's belief in the unknown that causes people to make admissions."

This all stopped being amusing to Roche back in 1997, when he applied for a job with the United States Secret Service. He sailed through all the preliminary steps. All that was left was the polygraph. Roche wasn't worried. He'd passed three of them already in his career. He went to the Secret Service field office in San Francisco, and they hooked him up to the machine. And then everything went wrong.

The examiner became belligerent. He accused Roche -- who says he's lived "a very dull life" -- of deception in the area of his drug use and his honesty on the job. At one point, the examiner stood up and pointed a finger in Roche's face, asking him out of nowhere if he'd ever stolen a car. Roche became angry himself. His heart began to pound. He began to sweat. His body sold him out.

"Basically," Roche says, "what this guy did was, with a polygraph, the equivalent of planting a gun on someone."

He failed the polygraph. Somewhere there is a file that says he did. If he ever applies for a job anywhere in federal law enforcement again, Bill Roche will be hooked up to another polygraph and probably be asked if he'd ever failed a polygraph.

Roche went to the press, telling his story to several national magazines. He set up his own antipolygraph website. And he joined a massive lawsuit that attacks the polygraph's essential credibility. Bill Roche is John Doe No. 5.

The case -- Croddy et al. v. Federal Bureau of Investigation et al. -- was filed in March 2000 and is still wending through a lengthy discovery process that's complicated by the fact that all the defendants have some connection with the national security apparatus. However, the lawsuit attacks the polygraph where it's most vulnerable -- in the area of employment screening, which is exactly the function for which the academy report said the polygraph was most useless.

"There's no science that supports [using the polygraph] for screening," says Mark Zaid of Washington, D.C., the attorney for the plaintiffs in the Croddy suit. "Even polygraphers admit that." All seven plaintiffs are charging that they were denied jobs in federal law enforcement because they failed to pass a test that is fundamentally unsuited for that purpose. Just as the attack on the polygraph's science within the Department of Energy had credibility because it was coming from scientists, the lawsuit is noteworthy for the fact that all the plaintiffs are law enforcement professionals, several of whom have used the polygraph to elicit confessions themselves.

"I always thought people who sued law enforcement were guilty or just whiners," says Roche, who is still with the Concord police force. "Now I don't look at my job the same way I once did."

According to the papers filed in connection with the lawsuit, Roche's case is a fairly typical one among the various John Does. John Doe No. 1 got all tangled up in how ashamed he was of his teenage pot smoking; No. 4 was accused by the examiner of fidgeting in his chair in order to "throw off the machine," which made him fidget all the more. Ultimately, he changed his answer about his past marijuana use from "seven times" to "less than 15 times." That apparently was enough to cost him a position with the Secret Service.

"It's almost like, `Kids say the darnedest things,' you know?" says Zaid. "It's like, `Polygraphees say the dumbest things.' They'll admit to things that nobody in their right minds would admit to, just to mollify the polygrapher. The machine shows a response, so they think, `How do I make that spike go down?' So you admit to more drug use, and now you've lied on your application, so they bounce your ass out because you lied."

Sometimes, the questions can border on the surreal. Zaid has clients who claim that they were asked during the screening process for the Secret Service whether or not they'd had sex with animals, a question that, whatever its merits may be, certainly is geared toward eliciting some sort of physiological response.

Over the past century, since William Marston went looking for where the truth was hiding in his fellow men, we moved a lot of our faith out of cosmology and into mechanics. We used machines to order our days and to keep us safe. After September 11, the stakes we placed on our faith in machines became such mortal ones that we almost uncoupled faith from truth.

The former police phenom who was sweating in the DEA offices is now John Doe No. 3. He's working as a cop in his hometown just north of Boston. He has no desire anymore to work for the DEA or for the FBI. The fire is out in him, and he joined the lawsuit to get back his name, even if it's only within the shadowlands of the federal bureaucracy.

"My integrity is what I'm fighting for now," he says. "I mean, somewhere, out there, there's a file that says I flunked my polygraph, and the polygraph is looked on by most people as being very reliable. What if that gets back to my family here?"

Uncouple faith from truth altogether, and bad things can happen. People come to believe without truth, and then the truth becomes something nobody will believe.
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