Videos: Interviews About Polygraphs by Vera Wilde
Warning Shots of Corruption
Releasing and Revisiting the Polygraph Interviews that Launched My Dissertation Research
by Vera Wilde
In memoriams Steve Fienberg, Dave Keaton, and Mamie Brown.
This essay curates a series of recently released interviews about polygraphs that, along with some of my other research, feature in Mark Harris’s latest article in Wired, “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings.” Harris conducted a massive survey of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies’ polygraph screening use. This research shows that, like federal agencies, a significant proportion of these police agencies’ polygraph programs operate without internal oversight vis-a-vis bias or efficacy. Meanwhile, significant racial disparities frequently plague police officer selection and department demographics.
The evidence suggests that in some cases, polygraphs institutionalize interpreters’ own preconceived notions, possibly including bias against blacks and other groups—and they do that in a seemingly neutral, scientific way that’s neither transparent nor accountable. Polygraphs themselves are not biased, but the ways in which people use technologies like this can be. That leaves lie detection especially prone to bias, because in the US, the polygraph is primarily used as a tool of intimidation rather than a diagnostic test of truth or deceit. (In a few other countries, like Israel and Japan, it’s still an intimidation tool—and the scientific consensus remains that there is no unique lie response to detect. But a more scientifically valid test format, the Guilty Knowledge Test, aka the Concealed Information Test, is more commonly used in those places.)
These results are supported by my work as presented in Harris’s article. This includes previously unpublished and incomplete data the FBI released to me, as a National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported PhD student, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2012. At the time, I continued to sue for full release of this and other polygraph program data—a fight the responsive federal entities, including the CIA, FBI, and Defense Department, fought all the way. Ultimately, they won the court battle to defend government secrecy around federal polygraph programs. But, these entities’ internal records were not the only possible source of data. Harris’s article also features the results of a polygrapher survey I conducted in which a double-digit percentage of examiners reported observing disparities in polygraph outcomes between groups that could indicate bias.
I’m also sharing some recently released interviews I conducted in 2008-2011, curated here today. These interviews were originally intended for a documentary project that turned into my PhD research that turned into an NSF postdoc on police brutality and prejudice. Some of my interviewees are dead now. I hope the contributions of all these people will live on in some small way through this work. In their honor, these interviews are now licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Prominent statistician and late-in-life polygraph expert Stephen Fienberg gave an interview on October 10, 2009, in the Keck Center of the National Academies in Washington, DC. This interview showcases Steve’s intellect, heart, and balance between firm liberal democratic and neutral scientific moorings as a dedicated public servant. I hope his work and memory will live on, because he was right and this is important. [Ed note: All 3 parts of the interview with Fienberg are here.]
Leading political science methodologist and former CIA analyst Rose McDermott provided invaluable academic mentorship and an interview at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on March 21, 2011. McDermott’s interview is particularly valuable because she demolished the primary polygraph proponent argument: It’s the best we have, and that’s better than nothing.
“It’s not better than nothing,” McDermott responded. Polygraphs as a national security protection tool are like condoms, she explained, that you have poked a bunch of holes through. “It is nothing. It’s nothing only it’s uncomfortable.” [Ed note: Both parts of the interview with McDermott are here.]
The following interviewees talked to me on-record about their polygraph-related experiences as death row exonerees: Dave Keaton, Shabaka Waqlimi (aka Joe Green Brown), Clarence Brandley, Herman Lindsey, Derrick Jamison, and Juan Melendez. These interviews took place in June 2011, at a Witness to Innocence retreat. All these interviewees were black or Hispanic. Their stories don’t prove systematic racial bias in polygraphy per se, but do provide suggestive anecdata that individual polygraphers can use polygraphs in biased ways with sometimes life-or-death consequences.
These interviews show that in a subset of known cases of convicted innocents, polygraphs weren’t admissible in court—but they nonetheless contributed to wrongful convictions. All of these men had been sentenced to death and, thus doomed, suffered for years—for crimes for which they were later exonerated. Many found that, upon release, their communities still did not believe in their innocence or in their value. These cases suggest the need for a ban on polygraphs in criminal justice. No one I’ve spoken with before or since understood better the fraud of “lie detection” than America’s first death row exoneree, the late Dave Keaton. [Ed note: All 4 parts of the interviews with exonerees are here.]
The innocent people who are missing from these interviews also bear mention. These death row exonerees eventually got something more closely resembling due process. Others have not been so lucky (e.g., Cameron Todd Willingham; Sacco and Vanzetti).
It’s not just accused and convicted criminals who’ve suffered life-altering consequences in the criminal justice system due to polygraphs. Police across America also use polygraphs on victims, witnesses, and suspects at their discretion. In my previous work as a postdoctoral police researcher, I’ve heard police proudly describe how they still use polygraphs against rape victims they don’t believe, even though the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prohibits public officials from making sex offense investigation or prosecution contingent on a victim taking a polygraph test. It’s impossible to know how frequently police continue to use polygraphs on victims and witnesses, including in cases (like rape) or in ways (like contingency) where that is immoral or illegal.
It also bears mentioning that guilty criminals sometimes avoid police investigation by passing polygraphs, since police still use lie detectors as investigative tools even though they’re not admissible in court. This affects many people, including victims whose cases then go unsolved, and innocent people who are subsequently investigated for the same crimes.
People caught up in the “war on terror” are another group missing from this interview sample. None of them wanted to go on record due to fears of retaliation. Nonetheless, records I pursued as a graduate student through federal FOIA lawsuits and released in a national investigative series showed that, as I previously wrote for The Memory Hole 2:
polygraphers expressed significant concerns about the value of polygraphs as they were
being used overseas, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, on deployed personnel and
detainees alike. One polygrapher lamented that his results were ignored and an old man
whom he believed to be innocent was sent to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, where
Americans tortured Iraqis after the 2003 invasion. Others echo the sentiment that
polygraphs were used as interrogation tools or ‘hammers’ to generate confessions (true or
false)—not to clear innocents or seek the truth. Language barriers and war zone
conditions such as noise further hindered interactions. But the same U.S. government that
surveyed its polygraphers on what they thought about their overseas work appears to
have ignored their resultant feedback. There is no evidence of any government polygraph
program shrinking in size because of polygraphers’ own revelations that they believed
U.S. polygraph use overseas was unfair and ineffective.
These records did not include documents relating to the US military’s use of a handheld lie detector called PCASS (Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System) in Iraq and Afghanistan—a tool with the same problems as polygraphs “with a dumbed-down measurement system,” according to Fienberg. He specifically subjected this tool to scathing criticism for its poor evidentiary basis, noting that PCASS was not tested under field conditions that would likely both lead to further degradation (such as the presence of an interpreter) and raise the stakes. Given the artificial conditions under which the military “did a half-assed evaluation” on the tool, Fienberg explained, “you might as well have taken a quarter out of your pocket and flipped it in the air and seen if it came down heads or tails. It’s about that accurate.” This means there are many missing war on terror polygraph victims.
The interviews I conducted before starting my PhD dissertation research on polygraphs suggest that sometimes these interrogation tools act as vehicles for various prohibited biases, including racial bias. Follow-up psychophysiology studies that I conducted in a sound-proof room using recorded federal polygraph protocols in order to eliminate effects from interaction between subject and questioner yielded null results. These results suggest that stereotype threat and authoritarian selection effects do not bias polygraphs under lab conditions. This is worth knowing, because those things might otherwise explain racial bias in polygraphs. The fact that they don’t seem to contribute to possible disparities means that interpreter biases—such as prejudice or interaction effects between polygrapher and subject—are much more likely explanations of such disparities where they do exist.
Multiple federal agencies that use polygraphs to routinely screen employees and applicants refused to release their observational data so that independent researchers could test for disparities. Federal agencies are notorious for stonewalling in response to FOIA requests. Not being familiar with that reality and desiring national data at the highest level, this researcher’s graduate data acquisition strategy sought federal polygraph program data exclusively. A better public records requests strategy, like Harris employed, is to request this data from more levels of agencies (i.e., city, county, and state). Although federal agencies sometimes successfully argued that my own, earlier requests were too broad in terms of scope, they were thus actually too narrowly directed in terms of recipients. Future researchers take note.
Overall, the evidence suggests that racial and other interpreter biases can affect polygraphs in the field. Unanswered empirical questions remain about the extent and nature of such biases. Yet these findings also echo longstanding ethical questions about the willingness of the American government to subject itself to the same laws it applies to others. Federal agencies do not appear to apply equal opportunity law to their polygraph programs. The CIA Office of Security allegedly told CIA veteran Ilana Greenstein that the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not apply to security decisions, including those made by its polygraph division.
“I had filed a complaint based on Security’s disparate treatment based on my faith, which is Jewish,” Greenstein said. “In part based on the questions they had asked me. Even from my earliest polygraphs, about synagogues I had attended when I had traveled. Really questions that I felt were inappropriate and irrelevant and different from what they asked different ethnic or racial or religious groups.” [Ed note: Both parts of the interview with Greenstein are here.]
In a 2012 letter to Congress in response to another ignored equal opportunity complaint, after CIA polygraphers apparently interrogated a rape victim about her sexuality and sexual victimization history, the CIA denied sidestepping equal opportunity law in its polygraph program. Yet after years of FOIA lawsuits, the available records do not support the contention that federal agencies affirmatively apply equal opportunity law to their polygraph programs by avoiding, assessing for, or remedying either disparate effects in the aggregate or violations of equal opportunity in individual cases. This employment context, which gets the most attention in some respects, is actually the least odious as a matter of justice.
From Abu Ghraib detainees to death row exonerees, the most vulnerable subjects of American justice have been polygraphed out of due process. I started conducting interviews on such abuses in 2008, and in the past ten years have observed only evidence of deterioration rather than reform. Very little advocacy exists to limit polygraphs, especially in criminal, immigration, military, or anti-corruption contexts. I would sincerely hope for a more sensible discussion around this topic, which is creating so much unfairness in our society and abroad.