Polygraphs Will Not Stop Spying
by Gary Aldrich - Volume 1 Issue 31 March 14, 2001
Discovery of a spy who wormed himself deeply into the very heart of intelligence gathering inside the FBI, Americaís premier law enforcement agency, has us desperately searching for answers.
Itís shocking to learn that a trusted member of an inner circle has become a traitor to everything you believe. But I urge those responsible for the protection of our national security to resist temptations to seek quick fixes, or easy answers.
As former FBI Director William Webster and Attorney General Ashcroft begin their reviews, and recommend security fixes at the FBI, I respectfully urge them to consider serious weaknesses in a procedure being promoted by some who apparently believe the best solution is a quick and easy solution.
When I served the FBI as an agent assigned to the Miami Field Office, I was responsible for a case that ended up in trial before a federal judge. The con manís attorneys were trying to enter evidence they claimed was key to his defense. What was that evidence? The defendantís own statements of innocence made to a private polygrapher.
Even though the inadmissibility of polygraphs had been decided over and over again at every level of courtroom proceedings, the judge allowed yet another hearing to review the art and science of polygraph.
The FBI had used this handy investigative technique for years, especially in cases involving embezzlements. It was well known that low-level bank employees, usually young unsophisticated tellers, would quickly confess when faced with the "scientific" evidence of their deceptions.
The stern faced polygraph examiner would point out the lines and squiggles that were obvious signs to him that lies had been told about the missing loot, and in many cases confessions of guilt would be forthcoming.
As an agent who took pride in successful interrogation techniques that I developed over the years, I was reluctant to use this new "tool." Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had banned its use, claiming it was not accurate enough.
I derived great satisfaction as an FBI Agent by gathering key evidence, using logic, paying close attention to every detail from the crime scene and careful interviews of witnesses - all requiring hard work.
Admittedly, there was a moment of fulfillment and pride when the perpetrator knew he had been bested and decided to confess to get a better "deal" rather than be drawn against the strength of an FBI agentís skills in evidence gathering.
But I also realized that if a subject could be persuaded to confess early in the investigation, I would still earn credit for having solved a crime, but less time would be used to close the case.
Thus, the use of the polygraph in some situations made us more efficient FBI agents.
But in the aforementioned court case in Miami the tables had been turned, because here the subject was pleading his innocence by using the results of a polygraph examination administered by a retired FBI agent!
The former agent was a highly trained, highly experienced polygrapher. Iím sure the fact that such an expert had conducted the subjectís positive examination weighed heavily on the judgeís decision to allow a hearing.
In a hearing that lasted an entire week, the defense brought expert witnesses who testified that the polygraph was accurate enough for use as evidence at any criminal trial in any jurisdiction. The federal prosecutor and I had located just as many "experts" who would testify that the polygraph was as much an "art" as it was a "science."
The federal prosecutor argued that while it was true that sometimes the use of polygraph seemed to produce an accurate indication of deception, in many cases no clear-cut lying could ever be established. In other cases, lying was indicated during a test when a virtual mountain of evidence existed to prove the subjectís innocence.
Just as troubling were the many instances when no conclusion could be drawn from taking the polygraph. In other words, neither the guilt nor the innocence of an individual could be established because the examiner deemed the test to be inconclusive.
In such cases, the examiner could recommend that the subject retake a test. Naturally, a second or even a third testís results would be negatively impacted by the fact that a first test was inconclusive.
Thus, repeated polygraph examinations of a subject would have doubtful use as evidence in any criminal trial, since the technique of polygraph, if sound, should have made a determination the first time around.
We did prevail in Miami and the judge made the ruling that from all the expert testimony heard, it was determined that polygraph examinations were accurate in only about 85% of the cases cited - not a high enough standard to allow results to be entered into evidence in his federal courtroom, nor in any other court, for that matter.
He also agreed with us and thus ruled that the technique of polygraph was as much an art as it was a science. Our experts had testified that the success of any given polygraph examination was greatly influenced by the subjectís belief that the polygraph machine actually worked!
In other words, if the subject knew that there was a 15% error rate, and that many tests came up as inconclusive, his attitude during the tests could determine, in part, how he would answer his questions and how much, if any, the machineís needles "jumped."
Moreover, our experts testified that some individuals could lie without appreciable impact on the polygraph machine because they are sociopaths, and actually believe the lies they are telling to be the truth. Thus, they could "beat" the test.
Additionally, there are certain well-known drugs that can mute the reaction to the polygraph examinerís questions, enough to produce an inconclusive result. In the art and science of polygraph, an inconclusive result is simply that - inconclusive. It is not taken as evidence of deception.
Surely any intelligent spy would know these facts, and if he didnít, his handlers would make sure he knew prior to any agency polygraph. Thatís why the use of a polygraph examination in only a feeble step is attempting to root out traitors. And yet, the media and so-called "intelligence agency" experts seem to be pointing to these tests as the be-all, end-all solution. This is a dangerous, false conclusion.
In Miami, after we presented our mountain of evidence of the subjectís guilt, his only defense had been the retired FBI agentís polygraph examination, which we had successfully kept out, so he presented no defense at all.
Did the retired FBI agent have a good-faith belief in his conflicting polygraph examination of our subject? I believe that he did. He was one of the FBIís leading polygraph experts before he retired, and he had a good reputation for honesty.
Was the polygraph inaccurate when its "state of the art" wires, needles and gauges concluded our subject was an honest man, innocent of any charges? The jury sure thought our subject was guilty, and so did I.
So did the judge. He sentenced this crafty con man to ten years in the federal penitentiary, and thatís no lie.
On the way to the prison bus, the defendant and I had a chance for one last discussion. He was a crook, but like almost every con man, he was very likable and we had traded banter during courtroom breaks to the utter distraction of his defense attorneys. He confessed, "Hell, Mr. Aldrich, I had to try something! I had no defense."
Finally, the truth! A true confession from a man who had passed a high quality polygraph examination. A test he had passed with flying colors along with the blessings of a retired FBI agent - an expert in the use of the vaunted polygraph we now turn to for protection against skilled, intelligent, highly motivated spies.
We must be more careful when we set about to protect our national security. Our children are counting on us to make good decisions, and sometimes those decisions call for tough solutions - not some hocus-pocus quick-fix remedy to get us by until the next spy emerges.
We have an opportunity to closely and carefully examine whatís wrong at the FBI and at other important intelligence agencies. Letís not waste a chance to make serious, meaningful changes when our nationís safety hangs in the balance.