Normal Topic David Major's 22 May Speech on Counterintelligence (Read 2623 times)
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David Major's 22 May Speech on Counterintelligence
Jun 21st, 2001 at 3:31pm
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On Tuesday, 22 May 2001, former FBI and NSC counterintelligence chief David G. Major gave an hour-long talk on counterintelligence at the Federal City Club in Washington, DC. C-SPAN's video recording of his talk may be viewed on-line in RealPlayer format here:

Major is an engaging speaker, and the media often turn to him and his Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies when covering counterintelligence issues, including polygraph screening. I found David Major's talk both informative and entertaining, and I recommend that all who are interested in counterintelligence policy view this presentation. (It is not clear how long it will remain in the C-SPAN archive.)

Unfortunately, however, Major clings to a misplaced faith in polygraphy, and I couldn't let some of his remarks pass without comment. Before he turned to polygraph policy he observed with regard to signals intelligence, "We love to solve problems through technology -- sort of the American Way. If I can find a technical fix I won't look at a human fix for the problem. Something we're seeing happening today...." Major's observation holds true with regard to polygraphy as well.

Beginning at about 31 minutes and 40 seconds into the RealPlayer file, Major turns to polygraph policy, beginning with his 1985 discussions with ex-President Ronald Reagan when he (Major) was counterintelligence chief at the National Security Council:

So when we sat there and I talked to the President of the United States about, "how could Johnny Walker operate for so long?" there was a series of things I remember telling him, and one of them was, nobody who has access to that level of secrets should not have a polygraph. Now a polygraph -- I don't know if any of you have ever taken it -- and -- it is also a technical solution to a difficult problem -- but, I have taken them. And I can tell you it's an unpleasant event -- matches only going to your psychologist, I should add. But, if you don't want to have to do this -- however, you should be able to pass the question, "Are you a spy?" And someone can't pass that "are you a spy?" question, then maybe we should have to re-evaluate that person. But unfortunately, the polygraph is filled with so much myth and so much misunderstanding and so much misuse, when we ask for lifestyle, and what you told your spouse, and all the other things that are -- so we're very reluctant to embrace it. In fact, we're the only nation that embraces the polygraph as -- compared to other nations in the world. You see, we like that technology. But, all we said, "If you have the keys to the kingdom, if you're a COMSEC person, a communications security person like Johnny Walker, you ought to be able to pass a polygraph, which he had never had to take. And that was a fairly...fairly state-- positive argument....

It is ironic that Major laments the polygraph being "filled with so much myth and misunderstanding" when, in point of fact, it's utility for obtaining admissions/confessions is entirely dependent on the ignorance and fear of those being "tested." When the individual being "tested" understands that polygraphy is junk science and that it is fundamentally dependent on the polygrapher lying to and deceiving him/her about the nature of the procedure, when the "myth and misunderstanding" are swept away, then the individual is not likely to make any admission(s) that he/she would not also make without the presence of the no-longer-so-terrifying box.

When Major states, "you should be able to pass the question, 'Are you a spy?'" he seems to be unaware that simple countermeasures, which are presumably no secret to foreign intelligence services, enable liars to handily defeat the so-called "test." This being the case, when an individual cannot pass the question "Are you a spy?" it may be a good indication that the individual is, in fact, not a spy. Real spies will take the time to learn how to pass a polygraph "test." (To find out how, see Chapter 4 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector.)

Major goes on to state:
...we had this meeting on August 7th [1985], and everybody signed onto that. Everybody said, yes, in the United States, if you have an SCI -- sensitive compartmented intelligence information -- if you have a COMSEC clearance -- communications security clearance -- you ought to have -- pass a polygraph on "are you a spy?" If we don't add that as the national policy, not just one particular agency... We were on the track to do that, until December 19th of 1985, when the Secretary of State went on national television and said, "I will take a polygraph, and then I'll resign in protest." And the President of the United States wasn't about to take down the Secretary of State with the polygraph, and the policy was lost. And that's very important, because it was on August [sic, correct October] 5th -- 1st, 1985 that my friend, Bob Hanssen, would drive into New York, mail the letter to Prince George's County, to a man he knew that the FBI was not covering because he was a legitimate diplomat. He started a fifteen-year career as one of the most potentially damaging spies in American history.

One of the things that's gone on about the John -- about the Hanssen case is, "How could it go on for so long?"...


But I will tell you this: if the policy had been implemented in '85, by 1990 Bob Hanssen would have taken a polygraph test. Bob Hanssen would have not been able to continue for so long. He would have either manipulated his way out of that, or he would have been in a position what he -- he flagged something. But he wouldn't have been able to not have to face the box during this period. It wasn't because of arrogance on the part of the FBI. Starting in the mid-1980s, the Bureau was studying the polygraph. The Bureau has to face the fact that if you ever have a bad response on a polygraph, and you're a law enforcement officer, that's discoverable in a trial. The defense attorney can use it against you. Therefore you can discredit the individual, which is different than an intelligence officer. You have to come to grips with that. The polygraph is not a panacea. The polygraph literally is a poli-- is an issue that has false positives and false negatives. What do you do with all the false positives you deal with? But we were dealing with that. We were struggling with that policy. But the problem was, Bob knew all that. He knew everything the Bureau was doing, and he was the John Le Carr* perfect spy....

Major implies that former Secretary of State George P. Schultz, for having taken a principled stand against polygraphy, is somehow responsible for Robert P. Hanssen's not having been caught sooner. This is truly outrageous. It should also be noted that Schultz's opposition to polygraphy did not stop the Department of Defense from expanding its polygraph program, and the FBI could have similarly done so without interference from the Secretary of State, had it so desired.

And as I recall, George Schultz never said he would take a polygraph and then resign in protest. Rather, he flat out refused to submit to a polygraph "test" and said words to the effect that if the President didn't trust him after some 40 years of public service, he would go find something else to do. I've found a citation regarding George Schultz and polygaph testing which I haven't yet been able to check:

Lippincott, Don. "George Schultz and the Polygraph Test," in Gutmann, Amy and Dennis F. Thompson. Ethics and Politics: Cases and Comments, 3rd ed., Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1997. pp. 171-177.

More importantly, however, Major's premise that a polygraph "test" would have "flagged" Bob Hanssen is flawed. Polygraphy's inherent lack of predictive validity combined with the availability of effective countermeasures makes it unlikely that Hanssen would have been "flagged" by the polygraph. Aldrich Ames, who was spying for the Soviet Union/Russia during the period in question, passed polygraph screening tests on 2 May 1986 and again on 12 and 16 April 1991, deflecting suspicion away from himself. There is no reason to suppose that Bob Hanssen's alleged espionage would have stopped if only David Major's plan for government-wide polygraph screening had been implemented.

Major further lamented:

But, you go back in history, and if you look at this issue, you realize that we have struggled repeatedly on trying to implement serious counterintelligence programs. But what is all the debate in the modern era? Here we are in the spring -- starting in the summer of the year 2001 -- and what are we talking about security? You know what we're talking about? Polygraphing FBI agents 'til they bleed through the ears and the nose and every place else! Why aren't we talking about everyone in the government again? Whether we have to wait for another case?

I had an opportunity to talk to some people on Capitol Hill, some young staffers, and they were really wanting me to beat up on the Bureau about not polygraphing everybody at an early hour. And, I kept saying, if you implement that program, then why don't you implement it for you all -- staffers on Capitol Hill? 'Cause if you're serious about this, they have as many secrets as the government did. The first reaction "Oooooh, not me! I don't have no secrets!" But the answer is, they gotta go where the secrets are, and the secrets are everywhere. They're in -- they're in the intelligence community, they're in State Department, they're in Congress. This is not an FBI problem. This is a national America [sic] problem that we always try to buy it on the cheap. It is my hope that through education that we can change the future....

Those who understand the trickery (not science) on which polygraphy depends would not characterize polygraph screening as a "serious" counterintelligence program. As the FBI's own top expert on polygraphy, Dr. Drew C. Richardson of the Laboratory Division, has testified, polygraph screening "is completely without any theoretical foundation and has absolutely no validity...the diagnostic value of this type of testing is no more than that of astrology or tea-leaf reading." He further testified, "If this test had any validity (which it does not), both my own experience, and published scientific research has proven, that anyone can be taught to beat this type of polygraph exam in a few minutes." What kind of a counterintelligence program is that? A seriously stupid one.

I fully agree with David Major that those on Capitol Hill who want to implement polygraph screening in the FBI should also implement it amongst themselves. It is hypocrisy for them to do otherwise.

Major also observes that "we always try to buy it on the cheap." Polygraphy is precisely such an attempt to buy security on the cheap, but by placing our faith in this pseudoscience, we are buying only a false sense of security. Real spies will pass, while the careers of innocent persons whose chart tracings "zig" when polygraph doctrine says they were supposed to "zag" will continue to be irreparably harmed. shares David Major's hope that through education that we can change the future.
« Last Edit: Jun 21st, 2001 at 3:56pm by George W. Maschke »  

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David Major's 22 May Speech on Counterintelligence

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