Australia: “ASIO Polygraphs ‘Unreliable'”

Political correspondent Brendan Nicolson reports for The Age. Excerpt:

Lie detector tests being carried out on officers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation were not scientifically proven, and could be beaten by real spies and incriminate innocent officers, the Federal Opposition has warned.

Labor’s justice spokesman Daryl Melham told The Sunday Age that the polygraph, or lie detector, was very controversial technology that could cause serious injustice.

The polygraph is an instrument which measures the automatic responses of the nervous systems of people being questioned. It works on the basis that when people tell a lie, uncontrollable changes are apparent in their blood pressure, pulse rate and respiration. Tension is also reflected as minor shocks measurable on the skin.

Following the arrest in 1999 of a former Defence Intelligence Organisation officer Jean-Philippe Wispelaere after he tried to sell highly classified material to a foreign government, the Federal Government ordered a review of security procedures in departments which handled highly classified material.

The review was carried out by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Bill Blick, who made more than 50 recommendations designed to tighten procedures.

These included a suggestion that staff of intelligence agencies should be subject to psychological testing, financial checks and random bag searches.

In September 2000 Attorney-General Daryl Williams announced that ASIO had agreed to undertake an internal and voluntary trial of polygraph tests “to evaluate the potential of the tests as a personal security tool”.

Mr Williams said he could not provide further details because of the matter’s sensitive nature.

In August this year Mr Melham asked Mr Williams a series of questions on the trial’s progress including the number of officers subjected to lie detector tests, how many passed or failed and if any were charged or demoted as a result.

Mr Williams responded late last month that he still could not give details but he said the trial was still in progress.

Mr Melham said the ASIO trial was not an acceptable basis on which to consider such a controversial and questionable security measure.

Australian courts refused to admit lie detector information as evidence and use of the device was illegal in New South Wales.

Mr Melham said the government had not ruled out more extensive use of polygraphs to security check all Commonwealth staff with access to national security information. He said any trial should be carried out in the open with independent scientific scrutiny.

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