The Washington Post
In the wake of the FBI’s embarrassment at having one of its own caught spying for the Russians, former FBI director William Webster was appointed to head a commission to find out what went wrong. The commission concluded that lax security allowed Special Agent Robert Hanssen to elude capture. In an anticipatory response, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that the FBI will dramatically increase the use of lie detectors, beginning with more than 1,000 of its employees. Such a move would be a substantial mistake. Continuing expansion of polygraph use guarantees the demoralization of the work force and the destruction of the careers of many innocent and loyal federal employees.
The FBI implemented its present policy in March 1994, in the wake of the Aldrich Ames CIA spy case, and then expanded testing following Hanssen’s arrest. The FBI claims that fewer than 10 exams have raised red flags among the 700 who were tested, but no details have been provided. Yet no scientific evidence exists demonstrating that polygraph screening tests, whether administered during the application process or as part of a routine security reinvestigation, have any validity. Studies undertaken for the Department of Defense’s Polygraph Institute, which trains FBI polygraphers, reveal that screening tests fail time after time.
In fact, the polygraph determines whether a person is lying with accuracy only slightly greater than chance. Moreover, studies have repeatedly shown that the polygraph is more likely to find innocent people guilty than vice versa.
Even Attorney General John Ashcroft has admitted that polygraph tests have at least a 15 percent false positive rate. That means a significant percentage of truthful individuals will be falsely labeled and investigated as drug users, terrorists and spies, oftentimes without any opportunity to respond.
In 1997 the FBI laboratory’s polygraph unit chief swore to a U.S. military court that “(a) the polygraph technique has not reached a level of acceptability within the relevant scientific community, (b) scientific research has not been able to establish the true validity of polygraph testing in criminal applications, (c) there is a lack of standardization within the polygraph community for training and for conducting polygraph examinations.”
The next year, the government told the U.S. Supreme Court that polygraph evidence should be inadmissible because of its inaccuracy. Thus a serious inconsistency exists between this position and the government’s extensive use of polygraphs to make vital security and preemployment determinations.
Today the outcry for increasing the use of polygraph examinations arises in the context of catching spies. The fact is that even had Hanssen taken a polygraph — in his 25 years with the FBI he never did — the likelihood is that he would have passed.
The polygraph does little to expose spies. The recent conviction of Ana Belen Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who spied for Cuba, once again proves this point. Montes spied for nearly 20 years and passed several polygraph examinations.
Ames, the CIA official turned-spy, convinced his polygraph examiners at least twice that “deceptive” readings were easily explainable. As a result, Ames “passed” his tests. During the 1980s, approximately 30 Cubans who served as CIA spies passed extensive polygraph examinations.
Following the defection and debriefing of a Cuban intelligence officer, it was revealed that the CIA’s “Cuban agents” were actually double agents for the Cuban government. Indeed, the federal government has never acknowledged that a true spy has been caught solely because of the polygraph.
With the known problems surrounding the reliability of the polygraph and its unsuccessful history of exposing spies, any serious review should persuade the government to eliminate rather than expand its use. The National Academy of Sciences may soon be that messenger. Since January 2001, it has been conducting a scientific review of the research on polygraph examinations that pertains to their validity and reliability, in particular for personnel security screening. Its final report is due to be submitted later this year.
If the FBI truly wants to expose spies, it may wish to consider another creation of William M. Marston, whom many consider the father of the modern polygraph. Under his pseudonym, “Charles Moulton,” Marston created the popular comic book character Wonder Woman. It is no coincidence that her magic lasso requires those who are bound in it to tell the truth. To discover if other Hanssens exist among its ranks, the FBI might as well put its faith in the magic lasso as depend on the reliability of the polygraph. Both are based on science fiction.
The writer, a Washington lawyer, is litigating a federal challenge to the constitutionality of polygraph examinations.