Cruel Joke: U.S. Exports Polygraphy to Iraq

AFP: An American solider sits strapped to a lie detector during a press conference in Baghdad's secure 'Green Zone'In an article titled, “Iraq Turns to Lie Detectors to Outsmart Al-Qaeda,” Agence France Presse (AFP) reports on the graduation of the first class of U.S. Government-trained Iraqi polygraph operators. But to outsmart Al-Qaeda, doesn’t one need to be smarter than Al-Qaeda? As has documented, Al-Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents — unlike the U.S. and Iraqi governments — understand full well that the lie detector is a pseudoscientific sham. See Al-Qaeda Documentation on Lie Detection and The Myth of the Lie Detector for the proof.

Iraq turns to lie detectors to outsmart Al-Qaeda

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Faced with infiltration of state organs by wily insurgents and Al-Qaeda jihadists, Iraq’s government has turned to a detection method highly favoured by the United States — polygraphs.

The first eight officials of the defence and interior ministries to be trained by US experts in the use of sophisticated lie detection equipment graduated last month after a six-month course.

“It is vital that we ensure that our employees in key services are trustworthy,” General Hamier, of the national police force, said at a small graduation ceremony in Baghdad’s highly-fortified Green Zone.

“Until now we have made employees fill in questionnaires on paper, and then we questioned them. It is very easy to lie. But now (with the new equipment) that will be much more difficult,” said Hamier.

Because polygraphy has no scientific basis to begin with and is vulnerable to simple countermeasures, it is not at all clear that it will be much more difficult for liars to get hired by the Iraqi government. Making matters worse, polygraph screening is inherently biased against the most truthful persons and is likely to screen out the very kind of straight arrows the Iraqi government desperately needs.

Steven Bond, lead adviser of the US Intelligence Transition Team in Baghdad, cautioned that the jihadists had proved formidable foes.

“Al-Qaeda has proved that they are very good with sleeper cells, to infiltrate people in sensitive positions,” said Bond.

“With these polygraphs, they’ll be able to be sure that people are who they say they are, that they don’t give away information they are not supposed to.

“It’s important for the vetting process, for hiring or investigations within the army or the police.”

Yet somehow the democracies of Western Europe get by just fine without resorting to such pseudoscientific rituals as polygraph screening to vet their armies and police. Steve Bond is a fool to suppose that polygraphy can be relied on for such purposes. As the U.S. National Academy of Sciences warned, “[polygraph testing’s] accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.” Tragically, the Bush Administration (like previous administrations) has completely disregarded the science on polygraphs.

The polygraph equipment comprises a small box with six sensors on one side and a simple laptop on the other. It is made in Canada and costs 5,500 dollars. Eight were sponsored by the Americans and Baghdad is to invest in more.

Two sensors on the chest record breathing and cardiac rhythm, one measures blood pressure, two are attached to the fingers of the left hand while the sixth is placed, like a flat cushion, beneath the buttocks of the person being interrogated.

If the polygraph instruments are from Canada, then they must be from Limestone Technologies, Canada’s only polygraph manufacturer.

“The basic human physiology is quite simple. But you can’t control your heartbeat, or the sweat at your fingertips. These sensors are very sensitive, you can’t beat them,” said Daniel Sosnowski, an instructor from Dallas.

Daniel Sosnowski, who was awarded a $365,000 U.S. Government contract to provide eight polygraph instruments and six months of training to the Iraqis, is wrong. While it is difficult to suppress one’s heartbeat or palmar sweating, it is easy enough to covertly increase them at key points in the polygraph examination, thereby increasing the likelihood that one will pass — whether or not one is telling the truth. For more on such techniques, see Chapter 4 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector (1 mb PDF).

An American soldier volunteers for the demonstration. He is harnessed to the lie detector in seconds.

He chooses a number between one and 10 (seven). Then the interrogator asks him to respond “no” each time he is asked, “Did you choose number one?”, “Did you choose number two?” — all the way up to number 10.

The sensor monitoring the sweat on his fingers makes a blip on the screen when he answers “no” to number seven. With all the other numbers it had remained constant.

“If the interogee is trained to evade detection, we’re trained also to look for his counter-measures. There will be some, somewhere. We’re looking for distortions, and it’s very difficult to fake,” said Sosnowski.

“Did you see the reaction on the seven? What would it be be with: ‘Did you steal secret documents?”

Again, Sosnowski is wrong. In laboratory experiments conducted by Charles R. Honts and collaborators, some 50% of examinees who received a maximum of 30 minutes of training were able to fool the polygraph, and even experienced polygraphers could not detect the countermeasures. Any Al-Qaeda members seeking to infiltrate the Iraqi (or for that matter, the U.S.) government will have much more than 30 minutes in which to prepare. The fact of the matter is that no polygrapher has ever demonstrated any ability to detect the kinds of countermeasures outlined in The Lie Behind the Lie Detector.

The Iraqis would be wise not to don the Emperor’s-new-clothing technology their American advisors have presented them.

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