The following are George W. Maschke's comments, sent to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham on 11 June 2003 by e-mail to email@example.com, regarding the U.S. Department of Energy's notice of proposed rulemaking on polygraph policy published in the Federal Register on 14 April 2003.
Dear Secretary Abraham:
Your decision to completely disregard the findings of the National Academy of Sciences in its authoritative report, The Polygraph and Lie Detection, and to continue relying on pseudoscientific polygraph "tests," is wrongheaded and threatens the national security of the United States. Far from being continued without change, the Department of Energy polygraph program should be scrapped in its entirety.
In justifying your decision to continue so-called "exculpatory" polygraph examinations, you argue that "the NAS...concluded that 'specific-incident polygraph tests discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection.'" The NAS's conclusions regarding specific-incident polygraph examinations (at p. 214) are much more nuanced and caveated than your selective citation suggests:
Estimate of Accuracy Notwithstanding the limitations of 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.
1) The authors' conclusion that polygraph tests "can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance" is conditioned upon the subject population being similar to "those represented in the polygraph research literature," that is, ignorant of polygraph procedure and countermeasures (techniques for passing or beating a polygraph "test"). Such ignorance cannot be safely assumed, especially with a highly-educated and skeptical work force such as you have in the Department of Energy and with extensive information on polygraph procedure and countermeasures readily available both in research libraries and via the Internet from sites such as AntiPolygraph.org.
2) If the authors' conclusion that "the evidence does not allow any precise quantitative estimate of polygraph accuracy..." is correct, then it follows that software algorithms (such as the PolyScore system used by DOE and other federal agencies) that purport to determine with mathematical precision the probability that a particular individual is lying or telling the truth are utterly worthless.
3) The authors conclude that "the evidence does not provide confidence that polygraph accuracy is robust against potential countermeasures." Thus, it is not safe to assume that anyone passing a polygraph examination has spoken the truth.
4) The last sentence of the above-cited paragraph is the key one with regard 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!
The NAS's conclusion that "specific-incident polygraph tests for event-specific investigations can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection" with naive subject populations is hardly a vindication of the validity of polygraphy.
Indeed, elsewhere in its report, the NAS compared polygraphy to a superstitious ritual with the polygrapher officiating as shaman. (See the subchapter, "The Lie Detection Mystique," beginning at p. 18.)
In view of the foregoing conclusions by the National Academy of Sciences, polygraphy should not in any way be relied on to exculpate anyone of suspected security violations or other wrongdoing.
Your justification for continuation of polygraph screening also misrepresents the findings of the NAS report. You state, "...the NAS acknowledged that a screening polygraph, even if set to reduce the number of false positives, will identify true positives who are being deceptive." The NAS made no such conclusion. On the contrary, what the NAS report states in this regard (at p. 219) is the following:
Failure to Detect with "Friendly" Thresholds Polygraph screening programs can reduce the costs associated with false positive findings by adopting techniques that reduce the likelihood that innocent examinees will "fail" a polygraph test. Polygraph screening programs that produce very small proportions of positive results, such as those reported by DOE, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), can do so only at the cost of failing to accurately identify the majority of deceptive examinees. This conclusion applies to any population with extremely low base rates of the target transgressions, and it holds true even if none of the deceptive examinees uses countermeasures.
Indeed, speaking at a press conference held on 8 October 2002, NAS polygraph review committee member Dr. Kathryn B. Laskey -- who had been briefed by the Central Intelligence Agency's polygraph division -- emphasized that no spy has ever been caught by a routine polygraph screening test. Against this background we have the examples of Aldrich Hazen Ames, Karel (Karl) Frantisek Koecher, Larry Wu-tai Chin, and Ana Belen Montes -- all double agents who committed espionage against the United States and beat the polygraph.
The NAS rightly concluded (at p. 219) that "a belief in [the polygraph's] accuracy not justified by the evidence...presents a danger to national security objectives" (original emphasis). Your misrepresentations of the National Academy of Sciences' conclusions, and your decision to completely disregard those conclusions, is strong evidence that you and your counterintelligence staff suffer from the very overconfidence in polygraphy against which the NAS so eloquently warned.
In your notice of proposed rulemaking, you mentioned that DOE "will...consider whether to issue a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking with additional policy options for public comment and whether it is necessary and timely to hold a public hearing to provide an opportunity for presentation of oral comments."
Clearly, additional policy options are called for, and a public hearing should be held before you make any final decision on DOE's polygraph regulation.
George W. Maschke