This week’s issue of Bloomberg Businessweek includes an in-depth feature article by investigative reporter Drake Bennett profiling Doug Williams‘ decades-long efforts against the pseudoscience of polygraphy and the federal government’s efforts to silence him. We won’t summarize the article here: it’s well worth reading in full. See “Man vs. Machine: The True Story of an Ex-Cop’s War on Lie Detectors.” See also the accompanying video report by Jennafer Savino and Justin Beach:
Bloomberg Business has published a video report on how to beat a polygraph test featuring Doug Williams of Norman, Oklahoma, who was targeted for entrapment in the federal government’s Operation Lie Busters investigation.
Williams, himself a former police polygraph examiner, has been a vocal critic of polygraphy for some 35 years and is the author of How to Sting the Polygraph, a manual that explains the trickery on which polygraph “testing” relies and offers strategies for passing. Williams had no criminal record when federal polygraph examiners set out to engineer a crime for which to prosecute him. Explaining the effort to entrap Williams in 2013, John R. Schwartz, who heads the U.S. Customs and Border Protection polygraph unit, told fellow law enforcement polygraphers that he thought that those who “protest the loudest and the longest” against polygraph testing “are the ones that I believe we need to focus our attention on.”
On 4 July 2015, in a message board post titled “APA Board Conpires [sic] to Limit Eligibility for Elections and International Influence,” a pseudonymous user posting as “Dedicated to Truth”1 attached a Microsoft Word document purporting to be a working draft (141 kb .doc file) of the American Polygraph Association’s bylaws. AntiPolygraph.org has reason to believe that this document is genuine.
The draft bylaws indicate that the APA’s board of directors is seeking to limit electoral challenges from outsiders such as that posed by Daniel Mangan of New Hampshire, who is running for the position of president-elect against J. Patrick O’Burke, a current APA vice president and member of the board of directors who is also director of The Polygraph Institute, LLC, a Texas polygraph school.
“Dedicated to Truth” alleges that Mangan’s candidacy is opposed by the APA board of directors and that the board is contemplating a change to the bylaws that if currently implemented, would have shielded O’Burke from Mangan’s electoral competition. At present, any voting member may be nominated for the position of president-elect. The draft bylaws would change this by adding the requirement that a candidate for the position of president-elect be a sitting member of the board of directors.2 If adopted, perhaps this section should be called “the Mangan Rule.”
“Dedicated to Truth” also alleges that “there is talk…of adding a requirement that anyone seeking election to the BOD must have attended the previous annual seminar.” This latter provision appears to have not yet been written into the draft bylaws.
AntiPolygraph.org understands that in recent years, a growing number of the APA’s new members have been recruited from abroad, often encouraged to join by the American polygraph instructors who train them. “Dedicated to Truth” writes: “The BOD is…afraid of an international takeover of the Association and is planning on excluding non-US citizens from becoming Members of the Board,” pointing to a marginal note by APA general counsel Gordon Vaughan stating in relevant part “RAY NELSON TO DRAFT PROPOSED LANGUAGE THAT NO OFFICER MAY BE NON-US CITIZEN.”
The current draft language would allow a maximum of two members of the board of directors to be non-US citizens, make English the official language of the APA, and impose requirements that might be onerous for any board member not a resident of the United States. In addition, the APA board would require a three-fourths supermajority vote by the general membership to change these restrictions:
4.5 International Composition of the Board of Directors. At no time may more than two (2) Directors positions be held by a person who is not a citizen of the United States of America.
The Official Language of the APA is English and official correspondence must be in English. The official National Office for the APA must be in the continental United States (CONUS) with at least one annual meeting held in a CONUS location that is attended by a quorum. All Directors must agree and be capable of traveling to CONUS locations for all Board meetings. The banking institution holding the funds for the APA must also be in a CONUS location. The provisions in 4.5 may not be changed except by a three fourths (3/4) majority vote of the general membership.
The American Polygraph Association is holding elections via electronic voting this week (5-11 July 2015).
On Monday, 8 June 2015, U.S. Representative Dennis A. Ross (R-FL) held a press conference with Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to promote a proposed amendment of the 1988 Employee Polygraph Protection Act “to provide an exemption from the protections of that Act with regard to certain prospective employees whose job would include caring for or interacting with children.”
If passed, the bill, dubbed the “Protect Our Children Act,” would allow for compulsory pre-employment polygraph screening of school employees from teachers to janitors, employees of theme parks, zoos, swimming pools, day care centers, churches, and so forth. Specifically, Ross’ bill provides in relevant part:
`(g) Exemption for Certain Employers of Employees Who Care for or Interact With Unsupervised Children.-- ``(1) Exemption.--Subject to paragraph (2) and subsection (c) of section 8, this Act shall not prohibit the use of a polygraph test by any employer if the test is administered to a prospective employee-- ``(A) whose activities would involve the care or supervision of children or regular access to children who are cared for or supervised by another employee; ``(B) whose job description indicates a high probability that the prospective employee will interact with unsupervised children on a frequent basis; or ``(C) where the employer reasonably believes there is a high probability of unsupervised interaction between the prospective employee and a child on a more than incidental basis.
Subparagraph (g)(1)(c) is so broadly worded that many jobs not currently envisaged might be construed to fall under it. But even if the legislation were more strictly worded, it is a bad idea that will not protect children. There is broad consensus amongst scientists that polygraph “testing” has no scientific basis. As retired FBI scientist and supervisory special agent Dr. Drew Richardson has observed, polygraph operators are involved in the detection of deception “to the extent that one who jumps from a tall building is involved in flying.”
Passage of Ross’ proposed amendment to the EPPA will predictably result in many innocent job applicants being falsely branded as liars, even as pedophiles seeking access to children pass the polygraph using simple countermeasures that polygraph operators cannot detect.
Conducting polygraph screening “for the children” doesn’t bestow any validity on this pseudoscientific methodology. Politicians who truly care about protecting children should eschew the sort of magical thinking associated with polygraphy and reject this bill. Rep. Ross’ bill currently has no co-sponsors.
In June 2014, I suggested Surespot Encrypted Messenger to visitors to AntiPolygraph.org as a secure means of contacting me, and I’ve been including my Surespot address (georgemaschke) in my signature block on message board posts and e-mails, as well as on AntiPolygraph.org’s contact page. Now I’m not so sure about Surespot. I fear the developer may have received a secret demand to facilitate electronic eavesdropping on Surespot users, as did Ladar Levison, who operated the now defunct Lavabit e-mail service.
Surespot is a free, open source, easy-to-use app for Android and iOS that allows users to exchange encrypted messages using public key cryptography. The source code is available on GitHub. Surespot is provided by 2fours, a small company run by
Cherie Berdovich and Adam Patacchiola of Boulder, Colorado.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Secure Messaging Scorecard gives Surespot relatively high marks:
Before recommending Surespot, being cognizant of the Lavabit saga, I e-mailed Berdovich and Patacchiola to ask about any governmental demands for information, sending the following questions on 31 May 2014:
1 – Have you ever received a National Security Letter?
2 – Have you ever received a court order for information?
3 – Have you ever received any other request to cooperate with a government agency?
Berdovich replied that the “[a]nswer to all three questions is no.” Because Surespot’s website doesn’t include a warrant canary, I wrote again on 12 Novembember 2014 asking the same three questions. Patacchiola, who programmed Surespot, replied the same day: “1 and 2, still no, 3 we have received an email asking us how to submit a subpoena to us which we haven’t received yet.”
The following day, I asked Patacchiola if he could say what agency or organization is seeking details on how to submit a subpoena. He did not reply.
In April 2015, I sent Patacchiola a similar set of questions but received no reply. I wrote again on 25 May 2015, asking:
1. Has 2fours received any governmental demand for information about any of its users?
2. Has 2fours received any governmental demand to modify the surespot client software?
3. Has 2fours received any governmental demand to modify the surespot server software?
4. Has 2fours received any other governmental demand to facilitate electronic eavesdropping of any kind?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, can you elaborate?
I have also attempted to contact Berdovich and Patacchiola via the Surespot app itself but have received no reply. While its possible that they’ve simply tired of being pestered by me about government demands for information, I don’t think that’s the case and suspect they are under a gag order.
Surespot is doubtless of interest to U.S. and British intelligence and law enforcement agencies because of its adoption by English-speaking supporters of the Islamic State. In February 2015, the U.K. Daily Mail reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was using Surespot to recruit British brides for jihadis:
And on 26 May 2015, the U.K. 4 News ran a story heralding “Intel fears as jihadis flock to encrypted apps like Surespot”:
While Islamic State supporters may use Surespot, so too do a diverse group of people, including individuals who wish to contact AntiPolygraph.org privately. The Google Play Store indicates that the Android version of Surespot has been installed 100,000-500,000 times. It would be inappropriate for any government agency to take action that would compromise the privacy of all users of a messaging service in the course of its effort to investigate one, or a few. But that is what happened to Lavabit, the privacy-focused e-mail service used by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The government secretly ordered Lavabit’s proprietor, Ladar Levison, turn over his server’s secret key, and forbade him from telling anyone about it.1 I fear something similar may have happened to Surespot’s Adam Patacchiola.2
Update (12 June 2015): The day after this post went online, on 8 June 2015, the Surespot server (server.surespot.me) experienced an outage, two references to which are to be found on Surespot’s Facebook page. Two days thereafter, on 10 June 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Facts (PDF) in U.S. v. Ali Shukri Amin that mentions the use of Surespot by the defendant, a supporter of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL):
11. In or about late November or early December 2014, the defendant put RN [Reza Nikbakht] in touch with an ISIL supporter located outside the United States via Surespot in order to facilitate RN’s travel to Syria to join and fight with ISIL.
18. On January 16, 2015, an overseas ISIL supporter communicated to the defendant via Surespot that the group of ISIL supporters, including RN, had successfully crossed over into Syria.
The Statement of Facts does not specify how the Department of Justice came to know these details. Under terms of the plea agreement (PDF), Amin “agrees to provide all documents, records, writings, or materials of any kind in [his] possession or under [his] care, custody, or control directly or indirectly to all areas of inquiry and investigation.”
In addition, Amin also agrees that, at the request of the United States, he “will voluntarily submit to polygraph examinations, and that the United States will choose the polygraph examiner and specify the procedures for the examinations.”
Update 2 (26 July 2015): In a Twitter post today, information security researcher “the Grugq” reports having received confirmation that Surespot has been compromised:
Do not use SureSpot. It has been backdoored/broken to facilitate monitoring. I have received confirmation of this: https://t.co/LlffyxEMy3
— the grugq (@thegrugq) July 26, 2015
- Levison contested the secret order in court, but lost. He ultimately turned over his secret key after shutting down Lavabit entirely. He was threatened with arrest for closing his own business. [↩]
- On 22 May 2015, the Daily Mail reported that Cherie Berdovich “left the [Surespot] organisation last summer.” [↩]
On Wednesday, 3 June 2015, Business Insider published a story by reporter Christina Sterbenz titled “The one thing you need to know to pass a polygraph test.”1 AntiPolygraph.org co-founder George Maschke and American Polygraph Association president Raymond Nelson were interviewed for this report.
A few points in the article merit special note. Sterbenz writes:
Most jurisdictions, including the government, have also forgone the use of probable-lie comparison, Nelson said, and now rely on “directed lie comparison,” which doesn’t require any manipulation when asking control questions.
It is AntiPolygraph.org’s understanding that the probable-lie control question test remains the primary technique relied upon by federal, state, and local governmental agencies in the United States. It is true that the U.S. Departments of Defense and Energy have adopted the directed-lie Test for Espionage and Sabotage, but to the best of our knowledge, these agencies are outliers, and the CIA and NSA continue to rely on the Relevant/Irrelevant technique while federal law enforcement agencies rely on the probable-lie CQT as embodied in the Law Enforcement Pre-Employment Test. Moreover, even the directed-lie technique entails numerous instances of examiner deception of the examinee, as explained by retired FBI polygraph expert Dr. Drew Richardson more than a decade ago.
“It’s less scientifically, ethically, legally, and socially complicated,” Nelson said.
The directed-lie technique is arguably less ethically complicated than the probable-lie technique, but it has no stronger scientific or legal basis. It’s still pseudoscience.
In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences published one of the most comprehensive studies of polygraph accuracy, concluding that while the tests could “differentiate lying from telling the truth at rates well above chance,” they weren’t accurate enough for security purposes.
Regrettably, Sterbenz’s citation of the National Academy of Sciences’ report omits crucial caveats. What the NAS report actually states, at p. 214, is:
Notwithstanding the quality of the empirical research and the limited ability to generalize to real-world settings, we conclude that in populations of examinees such as those represented in the polygraph research literature, untrained in countermeasures, specific-incident polygraph tests for event-specific investigations can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection.
Accuracy may be highly variable across situations. The evidence does not allow any precise quantitative estimate of polygraph accuracy or provide confidence that accuracy is stable across personality types, sociodemographic groups, psychological and medical conditions, examiner and examinee expectancies, or ways of administering the test and selecting questions. In particular, the evidence does not provide confidence that polygraph accuracy is robust against potential countermeasures. There is essentially no evidence on the incremental validity of polygraph testing, that is, its ability to add predictive value to that which can be achieved by other methods.
AntiPolygraph.org notes with respect to the foregoing conclusion (in Chapter 1 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector):
Some in the polygraph community have attempted to hang their hat on the first sentence of the above citation to support the claim that polygraphy “works.” But note that the Committee’s conclusion that “specific-incident polygraph tests for event-specific investigations can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance” is conditioned upon the subject population being similar to “those represented in the research literature,” that is, ignorant of polygraph procedure and countermeasures. Such ignorance cannot be safely assumed, especially with information on both polygraph procedure and countermeasures readily available via the Internet.
It follows from the Committee’s conclusion that “the evidence does not allow any precise quantitative estimate of polygraph accuracy” that software algorithms peddled by polygraph manufacturers such as Axciton and Stoelting that purport to determine with mathematical precision the probability that a particular individual is lying or telling the truth are unreliable. And because, as the Committee concludes, “the evidence does not provide confidence that polygraph accuracy is robust against potential countermeasures,” it is not safe to assume that anyone passing a polygraph “test” has told the truth.
The last sentence of the above-cited passage is the key one with respect to polygraph validity (as opposed to accuracy): “There is essentially no evidence on the incremental validity of polygraph testing, that is, its ability to add predictive value to that which can be achieved by other methods.” What this means is that there is no evidence that polygraph “testing” provides greater predictive value than, say, interrogating a subject without the use of a polygraph, or with a colander-wired-to-a-photocopier that is represented to the subject as being a lie detector.
Indeed, in the first chapter of their report, in a subsection titled, “The Lie Detection Mystique” (pp. 18–21), the Committee members compare polygraphy with superstitious lie detection rituals in primitive societies, likening the polygraph community to a shamanistic priesthood “keeping its secrets in order to keep its power.”
A discussion thread regarding this article has been opened on the AntiPolygraph.org message board.
- The less click-baity title suggested by the article URL, “How to pass a polygraph test,” would have been more appropriate. There are numerous things that anyone hoping to pass a polygraph “test” should know. [↩]
On Monday, 1 June 2015, AntiPolygraph.org co-founder George Maschke was a guest on the Peter B. Collins Show to discuss developments in the trial of Doug Williams, whom Collins interviewed before the trial. A free preview clip of the interview is available online, and the entire interview (along with any archived interviews, including that of Doug Williams) is available with the purchase of a $1 day pass.
On Wednesday, 27 May 2015, AntiPolygraph.org co-founder George Maschke was interviewed on the Scott Horton Show about the recent trial of Doug Williams, who was targeted in a federal undercover operation dubbed Operation Lie Busters. The entire interview is available online, as is Scott Horton’s earlier interview with Doug Williams himself.
Alan B. Trabue retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2011 after a 40-year career, 38 years of which he spent in the polygraph division. AntiPolygraph.org has received a review copy of his memoir, A Life of Lies and Spies: Tales of a CIA Ops Polygraph Interrogator (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015). The book comprises numerous entertaining anecdotes about polygraph examinations the author conducted on agents recruited by CIA case officers, with a special focus on operational security matters. As Trabue notes in his epilogue, it is his hope that his story not only entertains, “but also helps keep others in the world of espionage and covert activities safe from harm.” While Trabue provides relatively little detail about polygraph procedure, or about the history of the CIA polygraph division, this review will focus on such details; more general reviews of the book are available here and here.
Trabue notes that when he first interviewed with the CIA polygraph section in 1972, it was known as the “Interrogation Research Section.” The cryptic name is understandable when one realizes that polygraph “testing” is all about interrogation. Trabue refers to himself as a “polygraph interrogator” (p. 7), noting (at pp. 29-30):
During my training, it was constantly stressed that the CIA considered the polygraph process to be an aid to interrogation. My training officer stressed that my mission was to obtain any reportable information regarding the issues under investigation and report the information to the adjudicators. Interrogation and the reporting of information obtained during polygraph examinations were stressed much more than the technical results of actual polygraph testing….
But despite this acknowledgement, Trabue seems not to understand that polygraphy lacks any scientific basis and to actually believe that polygraph charts are a reliable indicator of deception, noting at p. 79, that “[a]fter a deceptive response has been clearly identified on the polygraph charts, an interrogator will confront the examinee with that fact.” He writes that [m]any [polygraph examiners] had cases with polygraph charts clearly indicating that an agent was a double agent…” (p. 83) and speaks of “unmistakable deceptive reactions” (p. 177).
Of course, there is no such thing as a “deceptive response” that can be “clearly identified” on polygraph charts. The entire procedure is pseudoscience–the brainchild of interrogators who had little grasp of the scientific method. The author’s failure to understand this after nearly four decades as a polygraph examiner bears out Upton Sinclair’s observation that “[i]t is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Trabue notes that when conducting polygraph examinations of agents recruited from within foreign intelligence services, he “tried to make posttest decisions based solely on analysis of the polygraph charts and avoided any posttest interrogation” (p. 92). No doubt he was following CIA polygraph protocols, but any reliance on polygraph chart readings is misplaced: the procedure is inherently biased against the truthful and yet easily defeated by liars using simple countermeasures that polygraph operators cannot detect.1
Trabue actually provides an example of the unreliability of polygraph chart readings in Chapter 12 (“Castro’s Buddy Beats the Box”). This chapter tells the story of Trabue’s experience conducting “a very thorough polygraph interview and examination” of a Cuban agent recruited by the CIA. Trabue notes that “the results [were]…clearly and unmistakably nondeceptive” and that he “was confident in [his] analysis and with the final call of No Deception Indicated.” But Trabue adds:
There is an unexpected and bitter ending to this story. In a most unfortunate turn of events, about two years later I was advised that Fidel Castro had been seen on Cuban television with his arm around the shoulders of the agent I tested. Castro revealed to the world that my examinee had been a double agent against American intelligence for many years….
Trabue does not name the Cuban double agent who beat him, but his account closely matches reporting on the late Cuban intelligence officer Nicolás Sirgado, who beat the CIA polygraph three times.
In a letter penned in 2000, convicted spy Aldrich Hazen Ames, who twice passed CIA polygraph screening examinations while spying for the Russians, offered insight into why the CIA continues to rely on polygraphy despite ample evidence of its unreliablity: bureaucratic CYA:
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.
An anecdote recounted by Trabue (at pp. 197-98) speaks to this sort of reliance on polygraphy as a means of skirting responsibility for one’s decisions:
There was one other occasion when I was pressured, again from the chief of an office. I was within minutes of leaving the office to test an agent who was going to be involved in a diplomatically sensitive and expensive operation.
As I prepared for the case in a vacant office, the chief entered ans slowly approached. Putting his knuckles on the desk, he leaned over me, made sure he had my eye, and said, “I expect DI or NDI results.”
His words were delivered with all the menace, threat, and intimidation he could muster.
He paused and then added, “I don’t want to hear any of that Inconclusive crap.”
At first, I thought he was joking. His menacing words were delivered in an overbearing, intimidating manner and brought an instant smile to my face, but I quickly saw from the expression on his face that he was dead serious.
As my smile faded, I said, “Sir, I’ll do my best to get clear test results, but unfortunately the outcome of some polygraph tests is an Inconclusive call. Sometimes there are health reasons, and sometimes there are just inconsistent and erratic responses for unknown reasons. Inconclusive means you don’t know one way or the other. I’m not about to flip a coin jsut to make it DI or NDI.”
“I want DI or NDI,” he said, glaring down at me. “That Inconclusive call won’t do me any good. We’ve got an expensive operation about to start, and I’ve got to know one way or the other.”
I repeated, “I’ll do my best, but an Inconclusive call is a possibility.”
Still hovering over me, he slowly and emphatically repeated, “I want a DI or NDI call.” He raised himself to full height again, turned his back to me, and walked out of the office.
CIA polygraph trivia mentioned includes the fact that for decades the CIA used the Stoelting three-channel Executive Model polygraph with a communal inkwell that held red ink. The instrument was built into a briefcase and weighed about 25 pounds (pp. 129-30, 239). Trabue notes that “[t]here was a standing joke in Polygraph Section that foreign intelligence services could easily identify CIA polygraph examiners because their right arm was longer than their left arm” (pp. 118-19).
Trabue also unwittingly offers a counterinterrogation tip for polygraph examinees (p. 229):
All interrogation officers are familiar with the concept called “throwing a bone,” wherein an examinee offers an interrogator information to throw him off track. It is a stalling tactic, usually an act of desperation, used in the hope that the interrogator will take that bone and run with it for a while and perhaps even believe that the bone is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. A “bone” may be information fabricated by the agent, it may be a partial truth, and it may be an entirely true piece of information, but it most certainly is not the information that the examinee was really concealing during interrogation. After a lengthy interrogation, a confession will many times be treated by an interrogator as a bone thrown by the examinee. The interrogator will say something like, “John, thanks for telling me that, but that could not possibly explain the massive reactions I saw on your polygraph charts. Something much more serious caused you to react. John, what else is there?” The interrogator will continue with the interrogation as if there had been no confession. If what the examinee said was truly the reason for his reactions, he will continue to offer his story over and over again, because he has nothing else to add. (emphasis added)
As one of only three published memoirs by a retired CIA polygraph examiner,2 Trabue’s My Life of Lies and Spies will be of interest to all concerned with polygraphy, interrogation, or intelligence operations.
- For an overview of such countermeasures, see Chapter 4 of AntiPolygraph.org’s free book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector. [↩]
- The other two being Of Spies and Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam and Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner, both by John F. Sullivan. [↩]
AntiPolygraph.org has followed the case of U.S. v. Doug Williams with interest, from the raid on his office and home on 21 February 2013, to the indictment handed down on 13 November 2014, to the trial held 12-13 May 2015 (see our on-location reporting on day one and day two of the proceedings). On the second day of the trial, Williams changed his plea from not guilty to guilty with respect to all counts. There was no plea agreement with prosecutors. Later on the evening of 13 May, the content of Williams’ website, Polygraph.com, was removed from the Internet
, and a WHOIS search suggests that the site is no longer registered in his name. Williams’ Twitter account, @PolygraphCom, was deleted the same evening. To date, Williams has not spoken publicly about why he changed his plea.
Just prior to the trial, the Guardian published a noteworthy article by Jessica Glenza about the case. After Williams’ guilty plea, the Department of Justice issued a press release that formed the basis for much of the national reporting on the case.
Ars Technica published a story by David Kravets that engendered a good many thoughtful comments, and Slashdot also posted the news, along with numerous comments. See also the relevant discussion thread on the AntiPolygraph.org message board, which covers the period from the indictment through the trial.