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Lie Detector Lies

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

We’re no fans of the man from Modesto, Gary Condit. But it was troubling to see him being hounded by the cable news shows into taking a polygraph test, and then trashed for using his own polygrapher. Even J. Edgar Hoover knew that the polygraph wasn’t any good for detecting deception. He dropped the test for analysis of his own men-but used it to coerce confessions out of civilian suspects.

The polygraph was invented in 1915 by a Harvard man called William Moulton Marston, who claimed that his clunky little gizmo could detect lies by measuring blood pressure. Marston’s main claim to fame derives not from his machine, but from a doodle he came up with: the cartoon character Wonder Woman.

In the past 85 years, the polygraph hasn’t changed much from the Marston prototype. The secret of the polygraph is that their machine is no more capable of telling the truth than were the priests of ancient Rome standing knee-deep in chicken parts,” says Alan Zelicoff, a physician and senior scientist at the Center for National Security and Arms Control at the Sandia Labs in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Zelicoff gave us this view in an article in the July-August edition of The Skeptical Inquirer.

Zelicoff writes that the polygraph administer is a kind of confidence artist or modern day mesmerist who tries to seduce (or scare) his subjects into believing in the power of the machine to catch them in the most minute inconsistency. “The subject, nervously strapped in a chair, is often convinced by the aura surrounding this cheap parlor trick, and is then putty in the hands of the polygrapher, who then launches into an intrusive, illegal and wide-ranging inquisition,” Zelicoff writes. “The subject is told from time to time that the machine is indicating deception. It isn’t, of course. And he is continuously urged to clarify his answers, by providing more and more personal information.” At an arbitrary point, the polygrapher calls off the testing, consults the spools of graph paper and makes an entirely subjective rendering on whether the subject has given a “deceptive response.”

“Every first year medical student knows that the four parameters measured during a polygraph-blood pressure, pulse, sweat production, and breathing rate-are affected by an uncountable myriad of emotions: joy, hate, elation, sadness, anxiety, depression, and so forth,” says Zelicoff. “But there is not one chapter-not one-in any medical text that associates these quantities in any way with an individual’s intent to deceive. More importantly, dozens of studies over the past 20 years in psychology departments and medical schools all over the world have shown that the polygraph cannot distinguish between truth-telling and lying.”

Connoisseurs of the Wen Ho Lee affair will remember that at one point the FBI falsely told the Taiwanese nuclear physicist (accused on spying for the Chinese in Los Alamos) that polygraph tests showed he was lying. Cops play these sorts of tricks all the time, faking forensic reports and then shoving them under the noses of their suspects, shouting that they’re proven liars and that they’d best sign a confession right away.

The most comprehensive review of the polygraph was conducted in 1983 by the Office of Technology Assessment, a research branch of congress. The OTA concluded, “There is no known physiological response that is unique to deception.” The report did note that the CIA and its companions “believe that the polygraph is a useful screening tool.” However, OTA concluded that the available research does not establish the scientific validity of the polygraph for this purpose. The best that OTA could say about the polygraph was that it might have some limited validity in “specific criminal incidents.” But the report went on to observe that in such cases, “the polygraph test detects deception better than chance, but with error rates that could be significant.” As for the supposedly revealing physiological responses the congressional study reported that they could be masked “by physical movement, drugs or other techniques to avoid detection as deceptive.”

There are numerous ghastly stories of federal employees abused by the machine and its operators. Take the case of Daniel M. King, a 20-year veteran of the US Navy, who was suspected of selling classified information. King was locked up in military prison in solitary confinement for 500 days and subjected to repeated polygraphs. Some of them lasted for as long as 19 hours. A military judge dismissed all the charges against him.

A few years ago FBI agent Mark Mallah was given a routine polygraph. The polygrapher, who had only 80 hours experience with the machine, concluded that Mallah had lied. (Zelicoff notes that even barbers must have 1,000 hours of training before getting a license to cut hair.) His life soon transformed into a Kafka story. He was stripped of his badge, subjected to midnight searches of his house, his diary and appointment book seized and scrutinized his neighbors, friends and relatives interrogated his every move outside monitored by helicopters. In the end, Mallah’s life was pretty much destroyed, but nothing was ever proved against him. The FBI finally apologized and Congress outlawed the use of the polygraph for civilian employees in 1988.

It’s worth noting that the Walker brothers and Aldrich Ames both beat the polygraph with no sweat. Kim Philby settled himself with a dollop of Valium before breezing through his polygraph exams.

One investigator (and CounterPuncher) for a defense lawyer in California’s Bay Are tells us that while the polygraph isn’t admissible in most courts it’s used all the time by prosecutors, mostly to seal plea bargains. “It’s a perilous option, because the utility of the polygraph is almost totally up to the operator. There are good polygraphers, but many who work for the district attorneys have only minimal training.”

The investigator described a recent case where a defense witness in a homicide case, who had passed a polygraph given by a former FBI polygrapher with 20 years experience, was sent to the DA for another test given by their examiner, a relative novice with the device. Defense lawyers can’t be in the room while the test is given, even when their clients are being examined. The prosecutors videotape the session, and while the results of the polygraph can’t be used at trial, the videotape can become evidence. In this case, the defense lawyer waited in the hall until the witness emerged from the room “with his face red as a beet.” The lawyer heard the DA’s investigator threaten the witness: “You little slimebag, I know your lying. We’re going to revoke your parole.” The DA’s examiner had interpreted the readings from one of his answers as being “deceptive.”

The only disagreement we would have with Zelicoff is his deprecation of animal parts as any sort of reliable guide to the future. Prophets and soothsayers in ancient times would use all sorts of materials that would be disdained by such modern exponents of “scientific” forensics as, let’s say, the FBI Crime Lab, which theoretically espouses scientific methods but which simply manufactures or suppresses data as each case requires.

So what would a good look at a liver plucked from a recently slaughtered chicken tell us? The color and condition would indicate what sort of feed the chicken factory was using, thus offering useful evidence about the economic and indeed moral propensities of the chicken breeders. Furthermore, since this feed varies according to the futures prices on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, an educated glance at the liver would be suggestive about future economic and meteorological trends, as assessed by the collective analytic wisdom of the Exchange.

Condit Scandal Goes Baroque

The Condit affair has reached the point of baroque fantasy. This is a common feature of many a fizzing political sex scandals. Forty years ago, in the twilight of Harold MacMillan’s Conservative government in Britain, the country was obsessed with the Profumo scandal. John Profumo, a government minister, was caught having an affair with Christine Keeler, a good time girl who’d also had a fling with a Soviet attach? called Ivanov. After weeks of uproar MacMillan confided mournfully to a friend that he was now hearing that about half his cabinet and several bishops were involved in collective orgies with the Profumo crowd.

In Condit’s case former New York rep John LeBoutiller had a signed article carrying the title CONGRESSMAN GARY CONDIT: GAYS, BISEXUALS AND MURDER that appeared Friday, July 13, 2001 on NewsMax.com, a popular website run by Chris Ruddy which carried much ripe rumor in the great days of the Lewinsky affair, particularly about Vince Foster’s terminal moments. After being a headliner for most of the day, LeBoutiller’s article was pulled without explanation.

Invoking the authority of “RJ” – an “inside-the-Beltway source who, over the years, has never steered me wrong”, LeBoutiller quoted RJ as telling him that “Condit has been known inside the gay community here in DC for being a big, big user of gay male prostitutes – especially blacks from the Caribbean who ride motorcycles and love to wear black leather.

“Now, here is the dirty little secret behind the disappearance of Chandra Levy: Condit goes both ways. He likes to get sodomized by male prostitutes before having sex with women. The gay sex turns him on and he can then ‘perform’ with women.

“Condit had one particular Caribbean male prostitute that he frequented. When it was determined that Chandra had to go, this guy was given the assignment. He picked her up on his motorcycle, took off some where, killed her, and dumped her body. Then, on orders from Condit and with money from
Condit, he headed back to Haiti or wherever he came from – far, far away from investigators and the Feds.”

Kinda explains everything, doesn’t it? Maybe Condit should be taking an AIDS test. As in the Profumo affair there’s a “security” angle too, since Condit served on the House Intelligence Committee. So if we are to believe LeBoutiller’s “R.J.”, the nation’s most precious secrets could now be in the possession of a gay Caribbean biker. Best place for them.

In a useful article for the McClatchy newspapers, Michael Doyle reports that Guideline D of the federal government’s “Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information” specifically notes that “sexual behavior is a security concern if … it may subject the individual to undue influence or coercion, exploitation or duress, or reflects lack of judgment or discretion.” House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt named Condit to the House intelligence panel in 1999. Like all members of the select panel, according to Doyle, Condit “essentially was granted a courtesy clearance. For lawmakers, standards like Guideline D don’t apply.”

“He’s a valued member of the committee, and I count on him,” Doyle quotes Rep. Porter Goss, the Florida Republican who chairs the Panel, as saying. “He asks what I would call questions on behalf of the American taxpayer … and he has a great deal of common sense.”

You can bet that the CIA keeps files on members of the Intelligence committee, not least as blackmail material in case some uppity rep starts questioning the Agency’s budget or activities. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

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