“Records Show Judge’s Qualms Over F.B.I. Acts”

New York Times reporter Benjamin Weiser reports on developments in the case of Abdallah Higazy, a falsely accused exchange student from whom an as yet un-named FBI polygrapher extracted a false confession. Excerpt:

Newly released court documents show that a federal judge in Manhattan briefly considered appointing a special prosecutor to investigate how the F.B.I. had obtained a confession from an innocent Egyptian student detained in connection with the attack on the World Trade Center.

The documents show that the judge, Jed S. Rakoff of Federal District Court, raised questions of whether the student, Abdallah Higazy, was coerced into confessing to an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was administering a polygraph test about a radio that was said to be in his hotel room.

The judge also said he was “apparently seriously misled” into believing the confession was true, though it proved to be false.

The government vigorously opposed the appointment of a special prosecutor, or a second option, to have the judge hold a hearing into the circumstances of the confession. Judge Rakoff ultimately agreed on an option proposed by prosecutors, ordering them on Aug. 5 to conduct their own investigation and report back to him by Oct. 31.

Mr. Higazy’s case remains one of the more unusual chapters in the Sept. 11 investigation. Mr. Higazy was first held last December as a material witness in the investigation after a hotel security guard said he found an aviation radio in the safe in the room where Mr. Higazy was staying at the time of the attack. The room overlooked the trade center.

Mr. Higazy was charged with lying when he denied owning the radio, and spent about a month in jail in solitary confinement. In January, Mr. Higazy was released and the charges dropped after the guard admitted making up the story about the radio.

The previously sealed court documents show that Judge Rakoff held a court conference on Jan. 18, one day after learning through the news media that the charges against Mr. Higazy had been dismissed, and he expressed concern that in keeping Mr. Higazy in jail, he had relied on the government’s representation that the student had confessed.

The documents offer more detail than previously known about the confession. They say that Mr. Higazy, without his lawyer present, gave the F.B.I. agent three versions of how he had obtained the radio. He said that he had found it in a subway station near City Hall, had found it underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and had stolen it from the Egyptian Air Corps, in which he had once served. The assertions were all untrue.

The documents suggest that Judge Rakoff was seriously concerned that the F.B.I. agent, who is not named, was using an investigative tool of questionable reliability and may have taken advantage of an individual who was “nervous and under stress” to effectively transform a lie detector test “into an uncounseled interrogation.”

The whole purpose of a polygraph “test” in the context of a criminal investigation is to trick the person being “tested” into submitting to an uncounseled interrogation. Anyone suspected of a crime — whether innocent or guilty — would be wise to refuse any polygraph “test.” The “test” is a pseudoscientific fraud, as explained in detail in Chapter 3 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector.

Update 28 February 2021: The polygraph operator who coerced a false confession from Abdallah Higazy is FBI Special Agent Michael Templeton.

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