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Government

Veteran FBI Employee Accused of Trying To Beat Polygraph, Suspended Without Pay 262

George Maschke writes: A mid-career veteran of the FBI has been suspended without pay and faces revocation of his/her security clearance (which would inevitably lead to termination) because the Bureau's polygraph operators allege he/she tried to beat the polygraph. The case is currently the subject of an unpublicized Congressional inquiry. Retired FBI scientist, supervisory special agent, and polygraph critic Dr. Drew Richardson has publicly shared a memorandum he wrote in support of the accused in this case, which has heretofore been shrouded in secrecy. It should be borne in mind that polygraphy is vulnerable to simple countermeasures (PDF, see Ch. 4) that polygraph operators cannot detect. This case is yet another example of how the pseudoscience of polygraphy endangers virtually everyone with a high-level security clearance.
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Veteran FBI Employee Accused of Trying To Beat Polygraph, Suspended Without Pay

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:20PM (#50564493)

    It's essential to the way the world works, we must believe in it!

    • by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @09:22AM (#50566049) Homepage

      Well, yes. The government-security world works that way.

      It's a matter of trust. The government will only trust you with its secrets if you play the game and follow the rules, including the silly ones that everybody knows are silly. The polygraph isn't really meant to magically find spies. It's meant to find the people who think they're above the rules or are adversarial to the government and its security.

      If it actually catches any liars, that's a bonus, but it's not really the goal.

  • by gijoel ( 628142 ) on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:20PM (#50564497)
    When there is overwhelming evidence that polygraphs don't work?
    • Because phrenology is a proven science in criminal profiling!
    • by Travis Mansbridge ( 830557 ) on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:25PM (#50564517)
      You probably already know this, but for those who may not, the polygraph is mostly an interrogative tool used in eliciting confessions or telltale behavior regardless of its real ability to gauge honesty. As for "beating" a polygraph, the charge is as spurious as the basic claim that it can gauge honesty. If it can't, and it's largely been demonstrated that it can't, there's no reason to hold anyone to the results it presents regardless of what the operator may believe they indicate.
      • hooking someone up to a machine with wires is a good way to scare the crap out of them, the "polygraph" machine could be an empty box.

        • by LMariachi ( 86077 ) on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:43PM (#50564567) Journal

          There’s a possibly anecdotal story that floats around about some cops who put a suspect’s hand on a photocopier as a “lie detector,” claiming to him that the copies of his handprint proved he was lying, thus inducing him to confess. Pretty sure that bit has made it into at least one TV show, but the story has been around for a while.

          • In the version I heard, they place a colander on his head, with some wires attaching it to the copier. The copier had an original saying "Lie" on it, and they'd push the copy button whenever they thought he was lying. Probably an urban legend, but I'm sure plenty of such tricks have been used throughout the history of law enforcement.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Anonymous Coward

              In the version I heard, they place a colander on his head, with some wires attaching it to the copier. The copier had an original saying "Lie" on it, and they'd push the copy button whenever they thought he was lying. Probably an urban legend, but I'm sure plenty of such tricks have been used throughout the history of law enforcement.

              Computers have proven again and again that you can take an otherwise smart person, put them in front of a machine, and suddenly they become drooling stupidass dumb fuckin' idiots incapable of the most basic observation and reasoning. Anyone who has ever worked tech support knows this.

              • by Aighearach ( 97333 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @06:01AM (#50565435) Homepage

                Tech support workers often fancy themselves as knowledgeable, but I say ask the IT staff supporting them!

                And they're idiots too, just ask the infrastructure development team.

                And I have inside word from a product engineer that the infrastructure team doesn't even know what the product is, or why they company they work at exists.

                And even the marketing team knows that the product engineers never build the product that was actually promised and sold.

                We had some moron who claimed that polygraphs don't detect lies, but luckily there was an experienced operator to explain, "no, it doesn't detect general lies, but sometimes it detects people trying to cheat on the test, which is a category of lie." So they don't work in the way they were originally intended, or in the way the public believes, but they do indeed detect a certain type of dishonesty. It works better than a photocopier, because it is a real machine that does real stuff, so even an educated schemer can fall into the trap of trying to "trick" it.

                Polygraph is a load of shit, as a technology. No question. But that fact gives me no sympathy at all for people who lie to try to get around it. Obviously, the polygraph operators don't deserve very much "benefit of the doubt," but if there is solid evidence of cheating, then it doesn't matter if the test can't detect any other type of lie. Cheating is cheating, and if they want credit for not playing the lame game, they don't have to agree to it in the first place. There are lots of legal jobs, recognized as upstanding by the community, which I would never accept because they violate my principles. If you agree to the test, take it straight; if you change your mind, change your job. The high road is always the easier path in the end, because it is self-consistent.

                • by king neckbeard ( 1801738 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @10:10AM (#50566391)
                  Doesn't it concern you that a lot of very powerful agencies have a policy that you can only be allowed in if you believe in a certain type of magick? It's one thing if a job has requirements that don't make them a good fit for you, but quite another that our government is run by a dangerous religious cult.
              • '"Commander Turner, would you show Mr Ramsey the gadget your boys found?"
                The lieutenant-commander pushed a black cylinder about the size of a lead pencil down the table... With an ostentatious gesture, Ramsey put his black box on the table. He placed the cylinder beside it, managing to convey the impression that he had plumbed the mysteries of the device and found them, somehow, inferior.
                "What the devil is that thing?" he wondered.
                "You've probably recognized that as a tight-beam broadcaster", said Belland.
                R

            • Right, I’d misremembered the exact methodology. It was on The Wire, as the AC notes, but I’m sure I heard it before that.

          • by paiute ( 550198 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @08:27AM (#50565829)
            Homicide: Life on the Street - the book from which the series was made.
        • "hooking someone up to a machine with wires is a good way to scare the crap out of them, the "polygraph" machine could be an empty box."

          Even if that "someone" is a veteran FBI agent? Don't think so.

          • Even if that "someone" is a veteran FBI agent? Don't think so.

            I said "could" for a reason, instead of "will"

            • Even if that "someone" is a veteran FBI agent? Don't think so.

              I said "could" for a reason, instead of "will"

              Yes but for the small-minded, the chance to hassle you and cash in that apparent decisive, instant, effortless slam-dunk "victory" is much more important than realizing that you may have said what you said the way that you said it for a reason. Actually arguing against you and navigating all the shades of grey would be too much work for the instant-gratification types.

          • by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @05:52AM (#50565411) Homepage Journal

            Actually - yes. If you research the pseudoscience, you can find a number of former government agents who describe the stress involved in taking yet another polygraph test. Of special interest to the females among us, are the women's accounts. It seems that polygraph operators often linger over sexually oriented questions, searching for the most intimate details of a woman's life. What else would you expect of some geeky sumbitch who probably doesn't even have a life of his own?

            • +100. I knew a girl - yes a girl, she was 1 16 year old intern - who quit a job at XXX agency because the polygraph operator was excessively interested in her masturbation habits. They couldn't have cared less about the male interns (rolls eyes)
          • Yes, you could easily fool a veteran FBI agent with a fake polygraph machine. You'd need a veteran operator to run the box, of course. And another one under the table to wiggle the needles at the right times. But very do-able. The machine doesn't do anything, except flush out the scared, people who react strongly to scary questions, and people cheating on the test. The scared are probably not great FBI agents, long term. Those might not be false positives at all, just another thing they test for. People who

      • Also, for anyone curious, polygraph reading involves reviewing physiological responses from control questions like "what is your name?" against the readings after questions like "did you kill your wife?" and the most widely accepted means of "beating" these tests is to fake the physiological response during control questions by clenching the anus, driving the blood pressure up and skewing the readings when compared against the actual questions. Now you know!
        • control questions like "what is your name?"

          Common control questions are things like "Have you ever cheated on a test?" and "Have you ever underpaid your taxes?". These are things that nearly everyone has done.

          clenching the anus, driving the blood pressure up and skewing the readings

          No. This does NOT work. There is a sensor in the seat that will detect that. Likewise, the old "thumb tack in the shoe" does NOT work, because you have to remove your shoes when taking a polygraph. Neither of these "tricks" has worked for at least 20 years.

          The only reliable way to beat a polygraph is by using another polygraph, and practic

          • Since most people don't have access to a polygraph, this means that polygraphs actually work pretty well most of the time, on most people.

            How exactly do you sort out the people who have trained from those who have not? Do you hook them up to a polygraph to get the answer?

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              How exactly do you sort out the people who have trained from those who have not?

              How do you drive a nail with a screwdriver? Answer: You don't. That is not what a screwdriver is for. But it is still a useful tool.

              Likewise, a polygraph is not going to catch a highly trained agent. But it will filter out some of the more common situations, leaving more time to use other tools, such as background checks, financial audits, etc.

              Most security breaches are not by "highly trained agents". They are caused by some stressed out insecure alcoholic taking bribes so he can live beyond his means.

              • by Sique ( 173459 )
                Actually, a polygraph will do nothing of the above. All it does is enforcing the prejudices of the people involved. If you are under stress, you are under stress. May it be because of the situation, the nature of the questions, the fear of the outcome or the need to lie. The polygraph will not tell anyone what the reasons for the stress are, and it's purely guesswork of the operator to attribute it to any of the possible reasons.
                • It may be that organizations who use this as an employment tool don't care what the cause of stress is, they feel it is dangerous. For better or worse. I'm not advocating for such an attitude; just advocating the idea that the attitude exists, and is the cause of the use of polygraphs.

            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by Anonymous Coward

              Ask if they're Scientologists.

              Not kidding: Look up "E-meter", and see how long-term Scientiologiests train for thousands of hours on entering a hypnotic state in which they learn to control their responses to a polygraph state, and to convince themselves under polygraph testing that they are reliving past lives.

          • Common control questions are things like "Have you ever cheated on a test?" and "Have you ever underpaid your taxes?". These are things that nearly everyone has done.

            Emphasis on "nearly". What this device does, then, if it works at all, is to proclaim the most honest amongst us as liars. Because, yes, there are people who could answer "no" to both of those questions.

          • by gweihir ( 88907 )

            Common control questions are things like "Have you ever cheated on a test?" and "Have you ever underpaid your taxes?". These are things that nearly everyone has done.

            Hahahah, nice! I have never found it necessary to cheat on any test, preparation was always a better investment. And where I live, you cannot underpay your taxes. Sounds like they would have some trouble "calibrating" on me.

            • No trouble at all; if you have any response, that becomes the new "lying" baseline. Suddenly you're lying score goes up 90%
            • And where I live, you cannot underpay your taxes. Sounds like they would have some trouble "calibrating" on me.

              As soon as they found out you're a foreign national and lied on your application, you'd be calibrated all right!

              Is there really a place with no taxes? For you to understand the point of that calibration question, you're supposed to report all income in the US. So if you do somebody a small favor and they give you $5, you're supposed to report that. Nobody does, because it would be a total pain; for the taxpayer but also for the government. They want the rule to be that you have to report everything, but the

              • by gweihir ( 88907 )

                The thing with the taxes here is that you can either pay them in full or not pay them at all (very difficult). You cannot "underpay", as they get all the data from employer, bank and insurance sides as well. As to "service by a friend", there are very generous limits here below which you do not pay taxes on them. So, yes, to the best of my knowledge (and that is what counts), I have never underpaid taxes.

                As to tests, well, anything I regards as a test, I was honest on. Again, that is what counts. Their defi

              • by fnj ( 64210 )

                Is there really a place with no taxes?

                You missed the point entirely, genius. There are places where the government will compute your income taxes for you and send you a bill or debit your account. I know it's hard to understand for an American, but not every place extorts the citizen's time (which is money) to make them individually figure out a tax code seven times the length of the bible. US Rep. Rob Portman (R-OH) says the income tax racket extorts 5.4 billion hours a year from US taxpayers.

                if you do som

          • by GuB-42 ( 2483988 )

            In fact, it is kind of ironic as what the polygraph does best is detect if someone is trying to beat the polygraph.

          • " but they are "good enough" for preliminary security screening."

            Bullshit. They aren't even good enough for preliminary screening. Voice stress analysis has more going for it than polygraghy does, and even that is pseudoscience. Body language has always been a fair indicator, along with voice analysis. Old men and women can detect liars at least as reliably as polygraphy, using nothing more than those. Unless and until you can read other people's minds, you can't say definitively whether that person is l

          • I'd be interested in investigating your claim that "polygraphs actually work pretty well most of the time, on most people". Can you point me towards any scientific results that support your view?
        • by gweihir ( 88907 )

          You know that they will not be coming for you, right?

      • by sdw ( 6809 )

        It definitely does not work at all for at least some people, like me. If anyone needs an example subject or someone with standing who's career was affected, let me know. Additionally, important medical information was withheld from me for 4 years, drastically increasing my risk of a catastrophic event.

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        In other words, its primary use is to intimidate people.

      • The FBI has an awful lot of previous form when it comes to pretending to have scientific evidence that doesn't really exist.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
        https://www.washingtonpost.com... [washingtonpost.com]
        http://www.theatlantic.com/pol... [theatlantic.com]
        https://www.wsws.org/en/articl... [wsws.org]

        etc., etc. ad nauseam.

    • One can plainly tell a witch by throwing them in water. Everyone knows witches float and swim, the innocent drown.

        You would figure the FBI would know better?

    • Don't muck with powerful magic, heathen.

    • by Z00L00K ( 682162 )

      The polygraph only works if the targeted person believes it works - and even then there's a high degree of failures.

    • What's next? A dowsing rod [wikipedia.org] to help searching for explosives?

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      The FBI does not believe in pesky Science. It does believe in the Law! (... well, it does believe the law applies to others, but not itself....)

    • They simply haven't read the memo yet. None of the "science" was new when this article was published: http://www.science20.com/gerha... [science20.com] A simple search for "polygraph pseudoscience" turns up 35,800 results. There should be millions of results, but I'll settle for ~36,000.

      If you're subjected to a polygraph, the guy running the machinery decides whether you're trustworthy or not. You use the word "witchcraft", and it's very appropriate. Voodoo, magic, shaman, witch doctor, polygraph operator - it all am

  • by FranTaylor ( 164577 ) on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:32PM (#50564527)

    He found vulnerabilities in our intelligence-gathering.

    How many other people have tricked the FBI? There is no way to tell. With his data they can try to figure out if other polygraph interviews have been "tainted" by a skillful victim.

  • by rwyoder ( 759998 ) on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:38PM (#50564543)

    Penn & Teller "Bullshit!"
    http://www.220.ro/emisiuni-tv/... [220.ro]

    "60 Minutes"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    I had a personal friend who has a PhD in Engineering who worked for an US govt agency with a 3-letter abbreviation. He got so fed up with the idiocy of periodically put put on a polygraph, that he quit. It seems every time it happened, they would come up with yet another bogus accusation, and try their damnedest to get a confession.

    • You have to wonder if it's actually about detecting treachery, or to foster mindless docility.
  • by EmperorOfCanada ( 1332175 ) on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:47PM (#50564583)
    I the city that I left (due to government corruption, a failing economy, and did I mention a collapsing economy) hired the brother of the premier to run the polygraphs for the fire and police departments. But it wasn't corruption at that level of simplicity, police chiefs and what not all had their fingers in the pie. I don't think if any of them care if the things work all they care about is getting their contracts and feathering their beds.

    I suspect that if you go to the FBI they have whole divisions that have been build upon the foundation of polygraph technology. They not only would suddenly have to actually be FBI agents but they all would have just spent the bulk of their careers basically interpreting goose livers. But even worse they would not be able to go out on consulting gigs where they can be the "FBI Polygraph Expert" this would be a total disaster.

    Lastly I suspect there is a bit of powertripping among their numbers. You can point to some squiggles on a line and say, "His answers were weak, here, here and here." and you have just ruined a career or sent a person to jail.

    So it doesn't really matter how many times the FBI is shown to be using science at the level of a cave man witchdoctor they have a massive PR machine plus their argument trumps your argument because they carry guns and can lock you in a cage for disagreeing.
  • by U2xhc2hkb3QgU3Vja3M ( 4212163 ) on Sunday September 20, 2015 @11:56PM (#50564611)
    George: Jerry, just remember. It's not a lie... if you believe it.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @12:04AM (#50564629) Journal
    Why is everyone making such a big fuss about this? In accordance with established appeals procedure we have already put out an RFP for a comically large wooden balance scale and duck. Once the bid is complete, the agent's weight will be compared with that of the duck and the truth will be established by incontrovertible scientific means. There is no need for alarm.
  • Family Experience (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 21, 2015 @12:24AM (#50564705)

    I have a family member who applied to the Border Patrol. They are now giving polygraphs to all applicants. After failing 4 polygraphs for stuff like "did you kill somebody and bury them in a shallow grave" to "are you part of a criminal organization" and "are you providing materiel support to terrorists" he was dismissed from consideration. I assure you, they none of those were true, but this person is a very bad liar and gets nervous when accused. Border patrol currently have something like an 80% failure rate on pre-employment screenings. What should be particularly frightening is that we are actually selecting for liars who don't get nervous. The polygraph proponents will vehemently argue it can't be beat, which is technically true. It detects what it detects, pulse, respiration, blood pressure, skin galvanometer. But of course it's the meaning that makes the difference isn't it? It's not a lie detector, it's a nervousness detector. Do you really want people who don't get nervous when questioned?

    Also, the polygraph is an excellent example of "base rate fallacy", and almost certainly the vast majority of people caught by the polygraph are completely innocent of anything. Even if the polygraph is 80% accurate (wildly generous) that means that if you test 10,000 national security employees you are going to fail 2000. How many spies do you have? A reasonable reasonable estimate would be in the single digit range, but let's just say it's 20. That means you are going to "catch" 2000 good employees and only 8 spies. 0.4%, which is going to make prosecution virtually impossible. You are not even going to be able to devote much investigative effort since 99.6% of the time it is going to end up being a waste of time.

    • by Jesrad ( 716567 )

      They should hire only the 80% who fail the tests, as the remaining 20% obviously can beat the polygraph with ease and are not trustworthy.

      • Wowzers, this is the first time the slashdot fortune cookie has matched perfectly with the story as I was reading it! Cookie at time of reading is:

        There is one way to find out if a man is honest -- ask him. If he says "Yes" you know he is crooked. -- Groucho Marx

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Of course, these tests are an excellent way to increase the number of psychos that can lie without physical signs on the force. On wonders whether that is intentional...

  • No sympathy here (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Indy1 ( 99447 ) <spamtrap@fuckedregime.com> on Monday September 21, 2015 @12:30AM (#50564727) Homepage

    you work for a fascist enterprise that's focused on prosecuting political crimes, don't cry when that enterprise turns on you.

  • In most states, an employer can pretty much fire any employee for almost any goddamn reason they want to, with perhaps only about half a dozen or so extremely specific exceptions. Failing a polygraph is not one of those few listed exceptions, and if firing a person allowed, I'm pretty sure that suspending an employee without pay is no less permissible as well.

    The only recourse for the wrongly terminated employee, of course, is to sue the employer, involving expensive litigation that is rarely worth the

  • I paraphrase St. George:

    People, in general fall into one of three categories:

    Stupid
    Crazy
    Full of Shit

    All three can defeat a polygraph, any day of the week. So it really doesn't matter what or why or how the results fail to express the truth. If you're stupid, crazy, or full of shit, the truth is not a matter of objectivity. It is ludicrous to assert that subjective phenomenon could quantify any measure of truth or objectivity. This might be why the FBI's reaction demonstrates the immaturity of bed wetti

  • I recall reading something probably years ago about someone that avoided having to take a polygraph because she (pretty sure it was a she) had a medical condition that prevented getting an accurate reading from a polygraph test. Does this sound plausible?

    Also, if true then what would these medical conditions be? I'd assume some pretty major stuff affecting heart rate and pressure, such as a mechanical heart, pacemaker, or perhaps a heart transplant. Maybe even more common things like being on a blood thi

    • by ledow ( 319597 ) on Monday September 21, 2015 @04:16AM (#50565171) Homepage

      Sigh.

      Polygraphs are bunkum. No other civilised country in the world admits them as evidence in court. They are akin to reading star-signs, "getting a bad feeling" or divining for water. Seriously.

      My objection - were I ever to be approached for such a thing - would not be medical. It would be that they are LIES in themselves. There is absolutely no scientific evidence for them, and they can be deceived quite easily (which is why the one country that does use them has to have a law about trying to circumvent them, or even disseminating information about how to circumvent them).

      They are false, inaccurate, unreliable, machines interpreted by a biased and inexpert human being (who cannot demonstrate their effectiveness beyond statistical error) which you aren't allowed to disagree with.

      As such, not having wiped your bottom properly might "skew" the results, let alone conditions of the skin, blood, stress, mental conditions, etc.

      Just hope that if you ever have to take one (I won't because I only visit civilised countries), that the guy taking the test likes you. That's literally as "scientific" as they get.

  • It should be borne in mind that polygraphy is vulnerable to simple countermeasures (PDF, see Ch. 4) that polygraph operators cannot detect. This case is yet another example of how the pseudoscience of polygraphy endangers virtually everyone with a high-level security clearance.

    Wait a minute. If he's taking obvious steps to beat the test, no matter what you think of the general usefulness this is still a problem. There's a reason cops will come over and talk to someone who's acting suspicious.

  • We need a better way to detect lying if polygraphs can be beaten.

    Actually, on a personal note, I had an interest in this at school; it was one of the things I was zeroing in on as a career path. Unfortunately, universities being the places they are now, a liar made it difficult for me to pursue this research interest. It's not as ironic as it seems, since people who are willing to lie about another person's actions and easy to come by. Our university was rife with people undermining each other through what

    • You'll never scientifically be able to detect lies as long as the symptoms of lying are indistinguishable from those of a variety of other psychological states. It's just not possible. On the other hand intelligent interrogation techniques are proving more and more effective.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      It might be facial expression analysis.

      There was a New Yorker article about Paul Ekman (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/08/05/the-naked-face) that made the claim that reading facial expressions could provide a very difficult to beat method of detecting dishonesty. The full article is paywalled, but if I remember he had a technique he claimed was teachable and had a very high rate of success.

      Ekman spent years creating an entire taxonomy of human faces and apparently there have been studies involving

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