“Failure of the Polygraph”

Attorney Mark S. Zaid discusses polygraph policy in this op-ed column. Excerpt:

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.

Mr. Zaid represents a number of plaintiffs who have filed suit against the U.S. Government over its pre-employment polygraph policy. For details, see the AntiPolygraph.org Polygraph Litigation page.

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