BASE HREF="http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/10/opinion/"> Lying 'Lie Detectors'
The New York Times The New York Times Opinion October 10, 2002

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Lying 'Lie Detectors'

By WILLIAM SAFIRE

WASHINGTON

Longtime readers of this column have noticed some recurring themes: I'm for personal privacy and have an affinity for the often-betrayed Kurdish people. I despise state-sponsored gambling as well as the form of torture that calls itself the "lie detector."

Win some, lose some. Losses: Lawmakers are playing the slots, and privacy has been taking a beating from both government and private snoops. But some wins: The Kurds we protect in northern Iraq are united and ready to join in a fight for freedom. And this week, the polygraph - that hit-and-miss machine measuring sweat, speedy heartbeat and other signs of nervousness - has been discredited as the judge of truth-telling.

After 19 months of study, experts convened by the National Research Council, an arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, concluded that "national security is too important to be left to such a blunt instrument," and noted pointedly that "no spy has ever been caught [by] using the polygraph."

Up to now, the main objection to the determination of human believability by machine has come from civil libertarians. In criminal investigations, hot lights and rubber truncheons have been replaced by a modern "third degree." A U.S. attorney general once told me: "Look - we know it's often wrong, but watching that needle jump is scary, and it's our best way for police to get confessions."

The Supreme Court in 1998 held, 8 to 1, that only a jury can be the lie detector: "By its very nature, polygraph evidence may diminish the jury's role in making credibility determinations. . . . the aura of infallibility attending polygraph evidence can lead jurors to abandon their duty to assess credibility and guilt."

Thus defeated by the high court in criminal trials, and with businesses restrained by Congress from using the intimidating device to screen employees, the "polygraph community," as the sweat-merchant lobby calls itself, made its last stand by claiming the ability of its testers to root out spies.

The C.I.A. had been the first to fall for it. By relying on widespread polygraph tests to "flutter" its employees, the agency believed it was invulnerable to "moles." But the Soviet penetrator Aldrich Ames breezed through two of those tests, causing our counterspies to lower their guard and ignore obvious clues to the source of espionage that cost the lives of 10 U.S. agents in Russia.

Because professional spies are trained to defeat the device; because pathological liars do not cause its needles to spike; and because our counterspies relax when a potential suspect "passes" - the system breeds the opposite of security.

Here's how I learned about that. In 1981 there was a brouhaha about the Reagan campaign having pilfered a briefing book used by Jimmy Carter to prepare for a debate. James Baker, to deflect suspicion from himself, hinted that it must have been the doing of the campaign chairman, Bill Casey.

Casey, just appointed C.I.A. chief, told me he was going to challenge Baker to a polygraph test to show who was lying. Figuring my old pal Casey was the culprit, I wondered why he would take the gamble. He reminded me he was an old O.S.S. spymaster, and that by using dodges like a sphincter-muscle trick and a Valium pill, he could defeat any polygraph operator. Baker wisely did not take Casey up on the challenge.

A more serious example of the foolishness of dependence on the machine: A national security adviser was suspected of leaking a secret to The New York Times. Though not our source, he flunked the exam, and was about to be fired and disgraced. He put President Reagan on the phone to The Times's publisher, who - on a one-time basis - confirmed that the adviser had not been our source. That was one fewer career lost to the predatory polygraph.

To such anecdotal evidence we now add thorough scientific refutation of the technique. As a result, polygraphing should be stopped not only at the Energy Department, which sponsored the Research Council study because it was losing scientists, but at the Defense Department, which subjects some 10,000 employees to the self-defeating display of distrust.

If unfairness to truth-tellers doesn't move you, try the hard-liner's reason: Bureaucratic reliance on today's fault-ridden system lets well-trained spies and terrorists penetrate our defenses.




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