Richard Willing reports for USA Today. Excerpt:
PHILADELPHIA — In a quiet corner of the University of Pennsylvania campus, professor Britton Chance is using near-infrared light to peek at lies as they form in the brains of student volunteers.
Eventually, Chance hopes to see something else: a day when a device like his replaces the old, often inaccurate polygraph as the best way for the U.S. government to detect lies told by spies, saboteurs and terrorists.
Chance is among dozens of university and government researchers who have invigorated the hunt for a better lie detector, an effort that has been made more urgent by America’s focus on national security since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In labs across the nation, researchers are using technologies originally developed to examine diseases, brain activity, obesity and even learning disorders to try to solve some of the mysteries of human conduct. The provocative idea behind some of the research is to go beyond measuring the anxiety of a liar — as polygraphs try to do — and to catch the lies as they form in the human brain.
“We need something; we have a country under stress” because of increased fears of terrorism, says Chance, 90, a biochemist and engineer who helped to develop military radar during World War II. “It might be fixed by finding out what people are thinking about.”
Even its staunchest defenders doubt that the polygraph is up to the job. Invented in 1915, the device uses wires, cuffs and a chest harness to measure changes in breathing, perspiration and heart rate. The presumption behind polygraph tests is that such changes can be brought on by the stress of telling a lie.
But researchers have long questioned the polygraph’s accuracy, in part because the test itself can make a person nervous enough to skew the results. In criminal cases, the accuracy of such tests can vary widely. Courts in only one state, New Mexico, routinely accept polygraph results as evidence.
And security screeners who use the machine to try to pick out would-be terrorists or spies have a more difficult challenge, polygraph critics say. Without details of a specific crime or security violation to ask about, polygraphs miss real spies and sometimes implicate innocent people.
Former CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who spied for the Soviet Union, and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Ana Belen Montes, who spied for Cuba, both passed polygraphs.
The polygraph is “a technology under duress,” says Frank Horvath, a Michigan State University professor of criminology and a Defense Department adviser. “The question is: Is there some way better, and how do you find it?”
The Defense Department, the FBI and the CIA are among the U.S. agencies trying to answer that.
Still no proven way
The Defense Department’s Polygraph Institute at Fort Jackson, S.C., is financing at least 20 projects aimed at finding a better lie detector. Another Pentagon office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is exploring magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other technologies. The FBI and CIA are backing more research.
Because much of the work is secret, it is difficult to estimate how much is being spent.
All the projects are in their early stages, and they are shadowed by a glaring fact: Scientists still haven’t proven that there is a scientific way to catch a liar. If a device such as Chance’s were to become the standard, a range of ethical and legal questions would pop up over how it should be used.
For now, government examiners continue to rely on the old device.
So until something better comes along, agencies continue to use the polygraph. Horvath says the government would drop the polygraph “in a minute” if a more effective device were developed. Critics say it should be dropped anyway.
“Is it better than nothing, or worse?” asks Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, which has criticized government secrecy. “It’s worse if it creates a false sense of security or excludes qualified employees from government service. Any new technology has to pass that test.”