FBI Reliance on Polygraphs in Terror Investigations Criticized

In an Albany, NY Times Union article titled, “In terror pursuit, a maze of leads,” staff writer Brendan Lyons mentions criticism of the FBI’s reliance on polygraphy. Excerpt:

Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a 34-year-old Jordanian immigrant who was being held in Albany County jail contacted authorities and claimed he had driven one of the 19 hijackers on a taxicab tour of Albany a few days before the attacks.

The claim allegedly was made by Abraham Yousef, an Albany cabdriver from Troy who is in state prison after being convicted of raping a teenager he met on the Internet. Some theories police considered in weighing Yousef’s claim was that the hijackers who flew out of Boston might have looked at New York’s Capitol as a secondary target, or as a landmark for steering south along the Hudson River toward Manhattan, sources close to the case said.

While some police sources still believe Yousef was telling the truth, they said FBI agents dismissed Yousef’s story because they could not corroborate his claim after giving him a polygraph exam. FBI officials in Albany declined to discuss their interrogation of Yousef.

Despite massive overhauls in the FBI and other police agencies since Sept. 11, there are critics who still question the way some leads have been pursued in this region — and whether polygraphs have replaced old-fashioned shoe leather.

In Yousef’s case, for instance, one federal law enforcement source said agents may have put too much faith in technology to determine whether Yousef’s claim warranted more attention.

“They have been relying too heavily on lie-detector tests,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Part of their investigative methods, especially the foreign counterintelligence people, is to go give them lie-detector tests, and most people would think it isn’t a very effective method.”

FBI agents also zeroed in on the man whom Yousef claimed had introduced him to one of the 9/11 hijackers — 34-year-old Ali Mounnes Yaghi, a Jordanian immigrant and longtime pizza shop owner in Albany. Yaghi was taken into custody by FBI agents three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and also given a polygraph exam while being shown photographs of the 19 hijackers.

His attorney said an FBI agent told him that Yaghi flunked the polygraph exam, but the agent declined to say what questions they believe he failed to answer truthfully.

Yaghi was later cleared of having any connections to terrorism and deported to Jordan last July.

Yaghi, who has a criminal record in Albany that includes charges of trying to run down a cop and a conviction for carrying an illegal handgun, sat in the courtroom for most of Yousef’s rape trial in August 2001.

Yousef’s story, when coupled with Yaghi’s outspoken anti-American beliefs, convinced some police officers in Albany that a Sept. 11 terrorist may have visited the city.

“That was real. That happened,” insists one police official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The structure of the information, in my opinion, made it almost impossible to be a lie.”

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