The Truth about the Lie Detector: Critics Claim That Polygraph Testing Is as Credible as the Tooth Fairy or Witchcraft. Yet the US Government Still Relies on It to Identify Terrorists and Vet FBI Agents. Andrew Stephen on America's Alarming Love Affair with Junk Science

By Stephen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Truth about the Lie Detector: Critics Claim That Polygraph Testing Is as Credible as the Tooth Fairy or Witchcraft. Yet the US Government Still Relies on It to Identify Terrorists and Vet FBI Agents. Andrew Stephen on America's Alarming Love Affair with Junk Science


Stephen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Did ex-Representative Mark Foley have sex with teenage male congressional pages? Was Wen Ho Lee, an American nuclear scientist, guilty of espionage by passing nuclear secrets to the Chinese? Did John Mark Karr kill six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey? Was the British nanny Louise Woodward guilty of the involuntary manslaughter of the baby in her care? Was Aldrich Ames, a senior CIA official in charge of analysing Soviet intelligence, actually a Soviet double agent? Was Leandro Aragoncillo, an FBI analyst with top-secret clearance who was based in the White House under Vice-Presidents Gore and Cheney, also a spy? What about Dr Ignatz Theodor Griebl, a Nazi ringleader who fled New York on the SS Bremen in 1938?

I do not care about Foley, or Karr--who was innocent of JonBenet Ramsey's murder, as it turned out--but all the other cases have a thread in common. They illustrate a century-old American fallacy which, at long last, is beginning to crumble: that polygraph (aka lie-detector) tests actually work. Evidence is mounting that, far from being the infallible tools of world-beating American investigative procedures that Hollywood would have us believe, they have actually been responsible for countless miscarriages of justice and have ruined lives.

Ames, for example, sailed through three polygraphs before the CIA discovered that he was actually one of the worst US traitors in history. Woodward "passed" one but was then convicted on other evidence. Lee both "failed" and "passed" polygraphs, resulting in him being imprisoned and then released before being awarded $1.65m in damages by the federal government. Aragoncillo "passed" a pre-employment FBI polygraph but pleaded guilty to espionage in May. Griebl "passed" an FBI polygraph test and promptly returned to Hitler's side.

And Foley? Given what I now know about polygraphs--not least from reading a 151-page report, issued by the US government last month and entitled Use of Polygraph Examinations in the Department of Justice--I suspect a polygraph test would have a 50:50 chance of digging the truth out of him. As a thick-skinned and smooth-talking politician who lived decades pretending to be somebody he isn't, he would probably have cruised through like Ames. In a letter from his prison cell in Pennsylvania, no less an expert than Ames himself described polygraphy as "junk science" comparable with astrology; Ted Kennedy likens it to "20th-century witchcraft".

Yet nothing illustrates better the dysfunctional operation and inbuilt contradictions of US government in the 21st century than its attitude towards polygraphing. The justice department report solemnly outlines how, between March 2001 and February 2005, the FBI expanded the number of its employees liable to be polygraphed from 550 to 18,384; that, between 2002 and 2005, it conducted 1,994 polygraph examinations specifically regarding terrorism and counter-terrorism; and that, in the same period, the FBI and two related government departments conducted 28,000 pre-employment polygraphs for job applicants. Yet I spotted a six-line item in the Washington Post a few days ago that began: "The energy department is ending required polygraph tests for thousands of its workers at its nuclear weapons facilities ..."

In short, the left hand of government does not know what the right hand is doing, despite the mounting evidence. Eighteen years ago, Congress passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, which made it illegal for private sector employers to force employees to take lie-detector tests or to sack them for refusing to do so (except in certain fields, such as where private security firms were involved); Congress was thus in effect saying that procedures which do not work satisfactorily in the private sector can none the less be used by the US federal government itself.

"It's totally insane"

Last month, Professor David Lykken-behavioural geneticist, emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota and the world's leading expert on polygraphs--died at the age of 78, leaving a lifetime's work of studying polygraphy (which meant, mostly but not entirely, debunking it) behind him. …

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