SEOR Professor Sees Polygraph Panel Recommendations Bear Fruit

Posted: September 29, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

How do you catch a spy? You would think that with modern technology, it would be easy. But the surprising fact is that the lie detector, or polygraph, is still a workhorse of spy-catching even though it’s a dinosaur in terms of technology.

Nearly one year ago, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel issued a report on polygraph usage that suggested it was not effective as a screening tool for highly sensitive national security positions. A headline in the Wall Street Journal summed up the verdict: “Scientists Say Lie Detector Doesn’t Always Tell the Truth.”

Kathryn Laskey, associate professor of systems engineering, served on the panel, which found that the polygraph’s usefulness is limited; moreover, an unacceptable rate of false readings creates the possibility that innocent federal employees are being unfairly flagged while actual spies trained in countermeasures may be going scot-free.

A polygraph works by indicating physiological changes such as an elevated heart rate, higher blood pressure, and sweaty palms. It “might identify people who are lying, but might also identify people who are just nervous,” Laskey points out.

The 14-member NAS panel, officially called the National Research Council Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph, included a broad range of experts in statistics, psychophysiology, law, facial expressions, brain imaging, and signal detection theory. The panel, whose members served voluntarily, urged that further research on new technologies be conducted.

“We said probably the best place to place your research funding is not on the polygraph itself, because it’s 80-year-old technology. The best place to place your research funding is on newer techniques–maybe based on facial expressions, maybe based on brain imaging–that we think are more closely tied to the actual psychophysiology of truth-telling and not just general nervousness,” Laskey says.

Under the direction of Congress, the Department of Energy (DOE) had been using the polygraph as a screening tool on thousands of its employees as a result of the case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory who had been suspected of being a spy. However, employees and scientists working in DOE labs protested the use of the device, saying it was demoralizing and causing scientists to quit and others to avoid taking jobs with the agency.

When the NAS report, which had been commissioned by DOE, came out last fall, Congress ordered the agency to evaluate the recommendations and develop a plan within six months. Last April, word came down from the DOE secretary: no changes in department policy would be made.

Then, in an apparent about-face earlier this month, the deputy secretary of DOE, Kyle McSlarrow, reported to Congress that the department had reconsidered the report and its recommendations.

“The NAS report makes very clear how little we actually know–in a scientific sense–about the theory and practice of polygraphs, either in support of or against the use of polygraphs in a variety of contexts. I found many of the NAS’s concerns about the ‘validity’ of polygraph testing to be well taken,” McSlarrow said. He also called the report “a study of considerable rigor and integrity.”

As a result, the deputy secretary plans to formulate a new DOE policy by the end of this year. Under it, DOE would do fewer tests and adjust its response to negative and positive test results, and would also sponsor more research on methods of detection.

“It was very clear from his testimony that he had read our report carefully, and that many of the arguments we had made had swayed him,” Laskey says. “It means we actually did have an impact on the polygraph policy, and that’s gratifying.” Laskey says she feels the most persuasive point of the report was a table showing that in a population of 10,000 government employees that included 10 spies, a polygraph sensitive enough to detect 80 percent of traitors would fail 1,606 employees, and only 8 of them would be spies.

“This was a really difficult panel to serve on because most of us as scientists are used to just going in there and doing the scientific research,” Laskey says. “But when you’re talking about something like this there’s also the question that if you go out there and stand on a soapbox and say this thing doesn’t work–and part of the reason it works is because people believe it does–are you then by virtue of writing this report discrediting the polygraph and therefore making it not work? We talked about that. We didn’t say the polygraph doesn’t work. In fact, it’s very clear that it does work to a limited degree.

“It’s a very polarized issue,” Laskey continues. “There are some very strong pro-polygraph people, particularly in the federal security agencies. They believe in the polygraph, and they see it as essential because they really need to have some way to do security screening.”

Laskey notes that the panel had started its work before Sept. 11, 2001, and those events changed the tenor of the deliberations. “That made our work higher profile. It also sobered the panel and made us really think about how important what we were doing really was, and how important the national security issues were.”

Laskey has previously served on two NAS panels, one that evaluated Department of Education studies on bilingual education, and one that reviewed statistical issues in testing and evaluating defense systems. She currently is a member of the National Research Council’s Board of Mathematical Sciences and Their Applications, which identifies public policy issues to which mathematical sciences could contribute.

Such studies help policymakers change direction when needed, Laskey says. “What we tend to do is look for issues where we see things that could be done better, find champions who are happy to have the National Academy come in and do a thorough analysis of important policy issues, and give them the political clout that they need to do the right thing. That’s the role that the National Academy serves.”

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