The Polygraph and the Confession of Jonathan Pollard

Former Naval Investigative Service agent Ron Olive, to whom convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard provided a confession, writes about the circumstances leading up to the confession in an article titled, “Detecting a lie: Agent recalls role in catching a spy” that was published 18 November 2006 by the Arizona Republic:

I was the assistant special agent in charge of counterintelligence for the Naval Investigative Service on Nov. 19, 1985, when the Pollard case broke wide open.

The night before, we recovered several top-secret and secret documents from Pollard’s apartment. We had him on illegal possession of classified material, but no one thought he was a spy.

I asked him to come in for a polygraph at 10:30 the next morning. He called, telling me he didn’t sleep much and was too tired to come in.

It was critical he take the polygraph. I tried to make light of the investigation. Without threatening, I informed him that none of us had slept well the night before.

“It’s in your best interest to take this stupid polygraph test, Jay. Let’s get this over with once and for all,” I said, adding that once he had passed the test, he could go back to work with a clean slate.

That was a white lie. On account of the documents we’d found in his residence, he would never go back to work in the Anti Terrorist Alert Center or anywhere else in the government.

Then Pollard made a comment that set off alarm bells in my head:

“Ron, I don’t mind taking a polygraph if they only ask me about the Soviet Union or the Soviet bloc countries.”

For the first time, I had a gut feeling that something was very wrong. Gathering my thoughts, I said in a lighthearted voice, “Jay, you’re absolutely right. There’s no way you can’t pass this polygraph when they ask you about the Soviets and the bloc countries.”

“I’m really too tired to drive in,” Pollard said, digging in his heels.

It was time to get firm with him or lose him forever.

“Look, Jay, if you’re so tired, I don’t want you driving down here anyway. Stay right where you are. I’ll have agents from the office pick you up and drive you back home.”

Then I raised my voice: “This mess can’t be put off any longer.”

At last, he agreed to come in and take the polygraph.

When my two agents came through the door with Pollard, the analyst stopped in his tracks.

“Ron,” he said in an urgent voice, “I need to talk to you before I take this polygraph.”

“Sure, Jay,” I said, taken aback.

I escorted him into the office spaces at the far end of the hallway that had been set aside for polygraph testing. I had no clue what he wanted to talk to me about.

Trying to throw me off, Pollard began talking about arms sales to Afghanistan, but I stopped him in his tracks.

Then, for three hours, he confessed to selling highly classified national defense documents and explained how he went about stealing them – the beginning of the end for this spy.

The Pollard case illustrates the potential utility of the polygraph: it seems that fear of the lie detector facilitated Pollard’s confession. It should be noted, however, at the time of his confession, Pollard had already been caught on videotape stuffing his briefcase with classified documents, and as Ron Olive indicates, classified documents had been recovered from his residence. It is also worth noting that at the time of Pollard’s confession, Cuban double agent Ana Belen Montes, who passed the polygraph while spying against the United States, had recently penetrated the Department of Defense.

Israeli Military Plans Polygraph Jihad

Amos Harel reports for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in an article tiled, “IDF Officers to Get Polygraphs Over War Leaks”:

Dozens of officers will be questioned with a lie detector about their contacts with journalists, as part of a probe of leaks to the media during the recent Lebanon war.

Military Advocate General Brigadier Avihai Mandelblit ordered the investigation into suspected media leaks at the request of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

“A number of incidents during the war raised suspicions that contacts were made with reporters contrary to military orders … in a way that could have endangered lives,” the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office said in a statement.

The investigation is expected to focus on “serial leakers,” mainly about issues that angered Halutz, such as leaks on IDF activity in Lebanon while it was still in progress. The chief of staff said that he considers instances of officers being in direct contact with reporters and leaking unauthorized information to be very grave.

The announcement of the MAG probe against officers sent shock waves through the army yesterday. As a result, many officers have been afraid to talk to journalists in recent days, while others are busy worrying about whether they said too much during the war.

If information about special forces engaging in operations deep in enemy territory did indeed leak while the troops were still in Lebanon, this is a serious security breach that must be closed to prevent danger to soldiers’ lives. However, the IDF has not had much success in closing such breaches in the past. Nine years after the naval commando disaster in Lebanon, the official military version still holds that an accidental explosion went off, rather than admitting that the disaster was caused by an intelligence hitch and Hezbollah cunning.

However, it seems unlikely that the only thing troubling Halutz is the security of his forces. If this were the case, why did the MAG wait more than two months after the end of the war before starting his probe?

Rather, it seems that an attempt is being made to keep army officers’ criticisms of the top brass from leaking outside. The IDF Spokesman’s Office hinted at this when it denounced “officers who are in direct contact with journalists without authorization.”

However, it seems doubtful that Halutz will obtain quiet for long. The officers have too much pent up anger to keep quiet, and they will find other ways to speak. If Halutz orders transcripts of officers’ conversations on mobile phones, they will get other people to speak for them. Moreover, reservists cannot be silenced, nor can GOC Northern Command Udi Adam, who leaves his post next Monday.

Israel: “Vilan Critical of Polygraph for IDF Officers”

The following report from is cited here in full. It makes reference to the compulsory polygraph “testing” of Israeli officers in an attempt to track the source of a media leak about a military disagreement with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon:

( MK (Yahad) Avshalom Vilan, who served in an elite IDF unit, expressed sharp criticism against the decision to compel IDF commanders in Gaza to submit to a polygraph exam.

The move has resulted in the resignation from his post of Brigadier-General Shmuel Zakkai, Commander of Forces in Gaza, who angrily explained that if senior command lacks trust in him and his decision-making ability, he cannot continue to serve in his current command. At present, it remains to be seen if Zakkai will continue in the IDF or will decide to leave the service as a result.

Vilan concurred, adding if the system does not trust its commanders there is a serious problem which cannot be rectified by a polygraph, which he added in inconclusive at best.

Israel: “Knesset Okays Bill Prohibiting Lie Detector Test for Employees”

Zvi Zrahiya reports for Ha’aretz. This short article is cited here in full:

The Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee on Wednesday approved a bill preventing employers from requesting or demanding that a job candidate undergo a lie detector test.

The bill, submitted by MK Yehiel Hazan (Likud), sets special circumstances under which an employer would be allowed to request that an employee undergo a lie detector test.

One of the reasons the bill gives for a polygraph test is a disciplinary investigation being held against the employee. Another reason is an investigation on an event which may cause substantial damage and which raises a reasonable suspicion against the employee’s involvement, while no other reasonable way to check the employee’s involvement is available.

According to the bill, the employer will be obliged to provide the employee with detailed information on the purpose of the test and the use that may be done with its results. The employer will have to give the employee a reasonable amount of time to provide a written agreement in the presence of a lawyer to undergo the test.

The bill sets instructions about providing the employee with the test results and prohibits the use of results of a lie detector test that was performed against the law’s instructions.

The bill also prohibits the employer or any other person to exploit an employee’s refusal to undergo a polygraph test.

The bill does not apply to the defense authorities, including the Israel Defense Forces, Israel Police, the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, and the Knesset Guard.

MK Shaul Yahalom (National Religious Party), chairman of the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee, said on Wednesday that the bill was important for strengthening employees’ rights.

By excluding military and intelligence agencies from the protections of this antipolygraph legislation, Israel is committing the same error that the United States made in 1988, when it created a double-standard by giving federal, state, and local governments an unjustified blanket exemption from the Employee Polygraph Protection Act.

University of Toronto professor of psychology John J. Furedy adds the following commentary:

Just as the ancient Romans knew there was something wrong with entrails reading, but were so desperate to know the future for really important events that they employed it, so both the Americans and Israelis know that the polygraph is flawed, but when it comes to really important things like security, they superstitiously accept its use.

There is also a confusion of ethical with logical considerations. In ethical terms, it makes sense to protect individual rights when all that is involved is wrongly classifying a dishonest employee, but not when the error entails danger to the nation. However, in logical terms, whatever flaws the polygraph has as an employee screener, the same flaws are present as a spy screener. These logical flaws include the fact that it’s not a “test” in the sense that an IQ test is a test, the comparison between relevant and “control” questions makes no scientific sense (i.e., its rationale is non-sensical), and the fact that there has been no systematic evidence produced that indicates that the psychophysiological information that is provided actually improves accuracy.

Israel: “Bills to Prevent Compelled Polygraph Exam” reports in a short article that is cited here in full:

( The Knesset Social Affairs & Health Committee is preparing two bills for a first reading in the Knesset, both aimed at making a compulsory polygraph exam for job applicants illegal. The bills are authored by MKs Yehiel Hazan (Likud) and Zahava Gal-On (Meretz).

The two legislators believe compelling one to take a lie-detector test is a violation of one’s rights.

Israel: “A Lying Test”

Ha’aretz published the following letter from co-founder George Maschke:

A lying test

Regarding “Cellcom CEO puts execs under the grill” by Hadar Horesh, February 7:

Yitzhak Peterburg’s decision to force senior Cellcom executives to submit to polygraph tests or be fired is a mistake. Polygraph “testing” is simply unreliable. The dirty little secret behind the polygraph is that the “test” depends on trickery, not science. The polygrapher exhorts the examinee to answer all questions truthfully, but secretly assumes that denials to certain questions – called “control” questions – will be less than truthful.

One commonly used control question is, “Did you ever lie to get out of trouble?” The polygrapher steers the examinee into a denial, warning that anyone who would do so is the kind of person who would be guilty in the incident under investigation. But secretly, it is assumed that everyone, even innocent people, have [sic] lied to get out of trouble.

The polygrapher scores the test by comparing physiological reactions to these probable-lie control questions with reactions to relevant questions (e.g., “Did you talk to any reporter about those business plans?”) If the former reactions are greater, the examinee passes; if the latter are greater, he fails. This simplistic methodology has no grounding in scientific method.

Polygraph tests also include irrelevant questions like “Is today Saturday?” The polygrapher falsely explains that such questions provide a “baseline for truth,” but in reality, they are not scored at all and merely serve as buffers between sets of relevant and control questions.

Investigators value the polygraph because naive and gullible examinees sometimes confess. But many truthful persons fail the “test.” Perversely, the test is biased against the truthful because the more candidly one answers the control questions, and as a consequence feels less distress when answering them, the more likely one is to fail. Conversely, liars can beat the test by augmenting their physiological reactions to the control questions. This can be done by constricting the anal sphincter muscle, biting the side of the tongue, or merely thinking exciting thoughts. Although polygraphers frequently claim they can detect such countermeasures, no polygrapher has ever demonstrated any ability to do so, and peer-reviewed research indicates that they can’t.

George W. Maschke

Israel: “CEO’s Decision to Polygraph Execs – At Behest of Cellcom Board”

Ha’aretz reports. Excerpt:

Cellcom’s shareholders are the ones behind the controversial order of the mobile operator’s brand new CEO, Yitzhak Peterburg, that company executives undergo lie detection tests as a precondition for their continued employment, after a series of leaks to the press.

Specifically, the shareholders ordered Peterburg to halt the rash of leaks, which disclosed details of Cellcom’s new working plan and internal top-level discussions, by a crushing move. Peterburg was the one who decided to use a polygraph, an idea that won the shareholders’ support.

Peterburg’s directive was designed mainly as a deterrent, not necessarily to hunt down offending managers, on whom he – as a new manager – is dependent.

Outraged executives lost no time leaking their complaints to the press. Labor law executives noted that despite the lack of precedence in court rulings, mandatory polygraphing is probably illegal under the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom (1992).

Israel: “Polygraph Requirement Leading Cellcom VPs to Consider Resignation”

Efi Landau reports for Globes [online]. Excerpt:

Cellcom VPs are opposed in principle to Cellcom president and CEO Dr. Yitzhak Peterburg’s order that company executives take a polygraph examination, but do not dare to publicly oppose him. Peterburg wants to discover who leaked information to the press last week.

Peterburg himself was examined on Friday, and appointments for all company executives were made for this week. The company spokesperson declined to say what questions Peterburg was asked in his polygraph test, and what the results were.

Several Cellcom VPs have received job offers, and are considering them. Peterburg announced today that taking the test is a precondition for continuing to work at the company. In his statement to the press, Peterburg said that the company had an obligation to ensure that senior executives who were “damaging and sabotaging company activities would not continue in their posts at Cellcom”.

Senior company sources said that Peterburg himself is damaging the company and undermining its business, by instituting a reign of terror and beginning an irreversible process of demoralization.

Israel: “Cellcom CEO Puts Execs Under the Grill”

Hadar Horesh reports for Ha’aretz. Excerpt:

Yitzhak Peterburg, the new president and CEO of Cellcom cellular phone company, has been so disturbed by recent leaks to the press of corporate doings, that he called senior executives together yesterday and told them to take a polygraph test to establish who was responsible for the leaks.

Whoever refused to take the lie-detector test would be fired, he said. And to set an example, Peterburg himself volunteered to be the first to take the test.

Since Peterburg took over at the end of last year, company executives have complained about his new style of management, which often leaves them out of decision-making. Earlier this month, he announced a series of cost-cutting measures including 10 percent pay cuts for senior executives and the reduction of 280 jobs. This follows downsizing of 450 workers in 2002.

Israel: “Cellcom Execs to Take Lie Detector Test”

This short article from Globes [online] is cited here in full:

At a special management meeting called today, Cellcom president and CEO Dr. Yitzhak Peterburg announced that, due to a wave of information leaks, all Cellcom managers would be required to undergo a polygraph test if they wished to continue working at the company. Peterburg emphasized that no one was exempt from the procedure, and that he would be the first to be tested by the lie detector.

Peterburg added that Cellcom was a commercial firm operating in a competitive environment, and that employees on all levels were committed to maintain maximum confidentiality. He said that the company had an obligation to ensure that senior officials who were “damaging and sabotaging company activities would not continue in their posts at Cellcom”.

Cellcom’s spokesperson said that the measure was intended to protect all those staff members who did their work faithfully and were mindful of confidentiality.