“Lying Lie Detectors”

New York Times columnist William Safire comments on polygraphy, concluding:

Because professional spies are trained to defeat the device; because pathological liars do not cause its needles to spike; and because our counterspies relax when a potential suspect “passes” — the system breeds the opposite of security.

Here’s how I learned about that. In 1981 there was a brouhaha about the Reagan campaign having pilfered a briefing book used by Jimmy Carter to prepare for a debate. James Baker, to deflect suspicion from himself, hinted that it must have been the doing of the campaign chairman, Bill Casey.

Casey, just appointed C.I.A. chief, told me he was going to challenge Baker to a polygraph test to show who was lying. Figuring my old pal Casey was the culprit, I wondered why he would take the gamble. He reminded me he was an old O.S.S. spymaster, and that by using dodges like a sphincter-muscle trick and a Valium pill, he could defeat any polygraph operator. Baker wisely did not take Casey up on the challenge.

A more serious example of the foolishness of dependence on the machine: A national security adviser was suspected of leaking a secret to The New York Times. Though not our source, he flunked the exam, and was about to be fired and disgraced. He put President Reagan on the phone to The Times’s publisher, who — on a one-time basis — confirmed that the adviser had not been our source. That was one fewer career lost to the predatory polygraph.

To such anecdotal evidence we now add thorough scientific refutation of the technique. As a result, polygraphing should be stopped not only at the Energy Department, which sponsored the Research Council study because it was losing scientists, but at the Defense Department, which subjects some 10,000 employees to the self-defeating display of distrust.

If unfairness to truth-tellers doesn’t move you, try the hard-liner’s reason: Bureaucratic reliance on today’s fault-ridden system lets well-trained spies and terrorists penetrate our defenses.

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