"Communication to the Editors: Reservations on the Polygraph" (from Studies in Intelligence)
Department of Defense
Analysis of DPI Studies (DoD Polygraph Institute)
Studies of the Accuracy of Security Screening Polygraph Examinations (DoD Polygraph Institute)
Use of Polygraph Within DSS (Defense Security Service)
Office of Personnel Management
Polygraph correspondence (with Secret Service, Customs & Border Protection, Dept of Homeland Security, Justice Department, ATF, DEA)
>>> Polygraphs (a/k/a lie detectors) play a big role in US national security, but details about them are protected with a cult-like zeal. Vera Wilde was a grad student (and eventually a postdoc scholar) working on issues of security, surveillance, transparency, and police use of force when she began gathering government documents about polygraphs through various means, including interviewing whistleblowers and other expert sources, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits, and utilizing the CIA's CREST database.
Many of these sources and documents ended up on the website of McClatchy DC, while others were on the site of her FOIA attorneys, National Security Counselors. The documents are gone from both sites, though the reason in both cases is innocuous: redesign. Still, they're no longer on those sites—and they had never been gathered online in one place—so with Vera's blessing, I've assembled them here. She has kindly written an introduction to them (below).
At the time of this research, Vera was going by her birth name, Kathryn Lynn (“Katelyn”) Sack, and living in the US. But in 2014 she changed her name and in 2015 decided to leave the US permanently. She moved to Berlin and is now living the storied expat life, devoting herself to painting, poetry, music, and radical politics. Here's her website and Twitter page.
It's also very worth noting that Vera played an important role in FOIA history. She was the plaintiff in the heralded court ruling that said students—not just professors and teachers—can qualify for reduced FOIA fees as "educational" requesters.
Wilde Truth: The Polygraph Files
by Vera Wilde
This essay introduces the polygraph files, a collection of documents relating to government lie detection programs that I helped obtain, analyze, and make public as part of my University of Virginia Politics graduate research. Thanks are due to current and former partners in transparency. These documents originally appeared online as part of a national investigative series on which I collaborated with
McClatchy Newspapers reporter Marisa Taylor, as well as on my former Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawyer Kel McClanahan’s website following years of research lawsuits against multiple federal agencies. These lawsuits eventually led to a change in FOIA case law giving students better, fairer access to such records requests—although the requests themselves never yielded the data that I sought for my research. This research still helped me complete a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored doctoral dissertation and earn an NSF postdoctoral fellowship that took me with the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) to UCLA Psychology and Harvard Kennedy, where Phil Goff, the head of CPE, demanded my resignation for appearing to have been a whistleblower. Around this time, I experienced multi-venue attacks including oppressive surveillance (obvious physical surveillance intended to intimidate), oppressive phone redirection (so that calls were obviously not completed as dialed, but redirected instead on multiple occasions to a scam cruise line—including when I attempted calling another government’s office outside the U.S.), device compromises including oppressive man-in-the-middle attacks (so that websites displayed obviously altered pages), fraud, phishing, and social engineering. I left the US. The documents re-released here today were later taken offline without my knowledge. I am deeply grateful to Russ Kick and the Memory Hole 2 for re-compiling them in one place, and honored that the documents are again accessible to all in an archive that bears my name.
Above all, the polygraph files show that secrecy is a problem, as McClatchy noted. Most of the documents are heavily redacted and/or unresponsive in the sense of not addressing the core request—for documents, data, and policy/procedure on the applicability of equal opportunity law to polygraph interrogations. Many are not even of scholarly, historical interest. Thus the main finding of my years of graduate research on bias in polygraphs is something the documents show rather than tell. After years of multi-agency lawsuits, the agencies gave the
Please consider donating to the one-person operation that is The Memory Hole 2
public no straight answers. The relevant governmental agencies including the CIA, FBI, and NSA never provided a clear statement that and how they consider their polygraph divisions subject to equal opportunity law. Nor did they ever clarify that they have a process for processing equal opportunity complaints accordingly and holding polygraphers accountable for violations—rather than, say, awarding polygraphers cash bonuses for getting personal confessions including those of a protected nature, a perverse incentive which appears to be built into these structures about which we continue to lack systematic information.
We know agencies have awarded cash bonuses relating to polygraphers obtaining confessions. We know that in multiple cases polygraph subjects have contested making confessions that they later found out were attributed to them, and been pressured to make confessions of a protected nature under equal opportunity law (e.g., relating to sexuality, sexual history, or political beliefs). But we do not know specifically how, when, why, and why not supervisors or agencies have awarded polygraphers cash bonuses for obtaining confessions—or how, when, and why or why not these supposed confessions have been verified. We never learned whether these agencies analyze numbers of equal opportunity complaints relating to their polygraph divisions or security processes in any meaningful way, to identify patterns and ameliorate repeatedly documented abuses. Alarmed by these abuses, Congress asked and couldn’t get these answers, either.
In combination with a range of other evidence detailed below suggesting that security agencies do not consider their polygraph divisions—or the security process in which these divisions are situated—subject to equal opportunity law, this reticence strongly suggests that what is true for federal law enforcement in policing is also true for federal security agencies in employment. That is, the feds are not themselves subject to the very equal opportunity law to which they hold others, including state and local police and other governmental agencies, accountable. Practice, policy, and precedent are that they only have to wave the flag of “national security,” and discriminating on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sexuality, and other protected categories—even gender-based violence victimization—is fine.
Other evidence of this law-breaking in security agencies includes several cases my research helped document, observational research showing racial bias that the agencies have consistently refused to give independent researchers like me the opportunity to replicate using more recent data (one of the things I sued for unsuccessfully), and legal precedent (e.g., Navy v. Egan, 1988) on the inapplicability of equal opportunity law to federal security processes more generally. The cases of law-breaking in security agencies that my research helped document include two cases in which the CIA refused to permit individuals (an employee and someone with a job offer contingent on security clearance) to file equal opportunity complaints after experiencing polygraph interrogations that clearly violated equal opportunity law. A supervisor mocked the employee, suggesting she find a suggestion box to put a comment in, after polygraphers questioned her about her religious beliefs and practices. And polygraphers interrogated the recruit about a range of protected topics including her sexuality, sexual history, whether she had had an abortion, and her loyalty to the President.
Previous observational bias in the federal polygraph context specifically, and employment screening and law enforcement interrogation contexts more generally, give ample reason to fear that the sorts of illegal bias these cases reveal might systematically shape workforces subjected to polygraph interrogation. Agencies using polygraphs might have fewer blacks and women, for example, because polygraphers—who according to my survey research are vastly disproportionately old, white, male, and conservative—tend to attribute deception to them at higher rates. This would mean federal polygraph programs arguably violate equal opportunity law in a systematic way that would make agencies using them vulnerable to the sort of lawsuits black and Latino agents have won against the FBI in recent history.
This reality of intelligence and federal law enforcement agency violation of equal opportunity law in practice, policy, and legal precedent contrasts sharply with the same agencies’ attempts to appear morally just in this context. For example, the CIA recently gave Newsweek’s Abigail Jones access to a few women who had worked at the Agency for an uncritical account of their successes. This reflects a form of state media control. By releasing selective and non-responsive records relating to bias and discrimination on one hand, and granting selective access to a small subgroup of a subgroup of successful women on the other—while documents and data that prove, suggest, or might show bias disappear down the memory hole or are kept secret—undermines democratic accountability by distorting the information environment. When governments lie, the people don’t get a fair say in what goes on in their name.
One important facet of this core finding is that the CIA has lied to Congress about following equal opportunity law in polygraphs. This is established by a CIA letter to Congress in combination with other documents I submitted concurrently to McClatchy as documented in the investigative series. These documents, along with human sources I provided to McClatchy, prove that in multiple cases, the CIA refused to permit people to file equal opportunity complaints regarding polygraphs on request—but told Congress when asked that they do follow equal opportunity law and do not sidestep processes related to enforcing it on their polygraph division. This CIA law-breaking and lying to Congress about it contrast with documents showing that the FBI at least accepts those complaints—although it is unclear how the Bureau treats them. It is consistent, however, with the broader pattern of intelligence agency leadership lying to Congress (e.g., DNI Clapper lying about mass surveillance), domestic impunity for this crime, and broader unaccountability, by American law, of Americans in international criminal courts. Lack of rule of law hurts liberty and security alike. It hurts liberty by degrading the due process enshrined in our Constitution. And it hurts security according to evidence-based procedural justice research by undermining the legitimacy of our police and intelligence services—making it less likely that people will cooperate with them by sharing information in the future. People don’t trust corrupt authorities, and that mistrust makes it harder for those authorities to work with people to make our communities safer.
Another important finding is that 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 documents and the phenomena they reveal are consistent with the big picture of lawlessness in American policing and intelligence. Following historic scandals—such as the 1929 Wickersham Commission that found widespread police abuses, including torture (“the third degree”) to coerce confessions, and the 1975 Church Committee investigation into CIA, FBI, and NSA crimes, including assassination attempts against foreign leaders and illegal spying on American political dissidents—the public assumed that the government checked and balanced its police and intelligence services. But no such checking and balancing occurred. Instead, police torture continues to be widespread, police unaccountability for killing civilians remains the norm, and racial disparities in police practices from deadly use of force to drug arrests to searches during traffic stops are a continuing pattern. Continuing unaccountability, lawlessness, and bias in the intelligence world are just as bad or worse.
As we know from the Snowden leaks, mass surveillance has only grown with technological communication capacities. As we know from files and footage allegedly leaked by Chelsea Manning, American torture, detainee and prisoner abuse, and killing of innocent civilians was normalized as part of the U.S. presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, and beyond. And as we know from documents and sources I legally compiled and released—mere inequality icing on the lawlessness cake—the federal security services don’t apply equal opportunity law to themselves, particularly to the polygraph divisions that they use as pseudoscientific cover for outing so-called whistleblowers—or Agency loyalists critical of small facets but supportive of the status quo, such as the CIA’s Ilana Greenstein and John Sullivan—and other undesirables, and for whitewashing intelligence gleaned from other sources—such as foreign intelligence service moles and illegal surveillance.
If one central action item appears to be recommended by these documents and the core findings they represent, it is the need for interrogation best practices reform. But that need is dwarfed by the present need for mass surveillance reform, without which other political goals—not just those pertaining to police and intelligence reform, but to climate change, arms trade, and other matters of acute public interest—will remain unattainable due to the asymmetric nature of the information environment in which politics presently takes place. One step everyone can take towards addressing mass surveillance is making it more expensive through encrypting all your emails, texts, and photos. It seems appropriate to note here, on a website dedicated to saving important documents from oblivion, that encryption is one of current best defenses in the fight against surveillance and repression.
I’ve written elsewhere on how to make your communications more secure by resisting mass surveillance (here and forthcoming here), how next-generation polygraphs threaten liberty and security alike in the context of refugee screening, and how we might reasonably have some measured hopes for science, security, and accountability through measures such as prosecuting federal polygraphers for fraud. Simona Levi’s work holding bankers like Rodrigo Rato to account for economic crimes against the people of Spain provides a recent example of successful accountability on this model. But prosecuting fraud as fraud in the case of federal polygraph programs seems unlikely in an American political climate that has seen a controversial Obama Administration sting against polygraph opponents (Operation Lie Busters) send prominent anti-polygraph activists to prison. One, Doug Williams, will not be permitted to talk about polygraphs as a condition of his release.
Finally, on the wisdom of re-releasing primary source documents after they have left one’s hands, I must acknowledge that authentication is a problem. Specifically, you could say the chain of evidence for documents I released during my graduate research has been broken since the polygraph files disappeared from the websites that had previously made them public. I no longer have the physical documents with which to compare the re-compiled online documents. But the McClatchy documents remain on DocumentCloud—where they were originally uploaded and then embedded in article pages by McClatchy. So the chain appears to be unbroken in that sense. But even if the documents were still showing up on the McClatchy website, one could not assume they were unaltered. Websites often used for sharing or backing up primary source documents, like the Memory Hole 2, DocumentCloud, the Internet Archive, and others—like human perception and memory itself—can be hacked, defaced, and manipulated. Any document online anywhere might have been tampered with. We know that hackers have breached many federal governmental websites, including the FBI, DHS, NSA, DOD, NASA... Documents in their FOIA reading rooms could have been altered. So too might physical documents be physically altered—just as human sources might lie or make mistakes. The inherent fallibility of all forms of evidence and their interpretation is what leads social scientists to embrace triangulation, or the combination of many forms and sources of evidence.
The importance of triangulation in research design underscores the importance of independent access to observational in addition to experimental and qualitative data in addressing the question of bias in polygraphs. My many experiments on bias in technology yielded mostly null results. That is, I found no experimental evidence that would lead us to reject the null hypothesis of no racial bias in polygraphs—lending credence instead to the idea that polygraph programs might not systematically institutionalize bias after all. My experimental research was independent, multi-method, and statistically robust. It included survey experiments, psychophysiology lab experiments—and an approved field experiment that would have provided gold-standard scientific evidence on the question, but that I opted not to run during Operation Lie Busters, the federal sting on polygraph opponents that occurred in the middle of my doctoral research. Experimental results suggested my initial hypotheses and pilot results about racial bias in polygraphs were wrong. But because I had to call off the field experiment and the courts never awarded me access to the agencies’ observational data, these results are vulnerable to criticisms of artificiality. And because experimental data is so much more labor and cost-intensive to produce than observational data, I had to pick relatively narrow bias hypotheses to test that way—leaving aside questions of other forms of bias my qualitative research had documented, such as gender and religious bias, in those studies.
The concern about re-authenticating documents in the context of this qualitative research is minimal, because the chance of document tampering is quite small. To my knowledge, the documents in this archive are unchanged from the time of their previous release. I can vouch for the authenticity of the original documents I helped release, and they appear to me to be unchanged as presented here. Being human, I could be wrong. With this caveat, I believe that using what we have is better than not using what we have in order to learn and advance freedom of information—especially in the context of lawlessness in law enforcement and intelligence. This lawlessness depends on nontransparency and unaccountability. The more evidence about it that is public, the less corruption is an information problem (what) and the more it becomes a problem of what actors (who) can and will do something about it.
The silver lining of this metamorphosis of corruption from an information problem to an actor problem is that it means people are more powerful in what are increasingly chaotic information environments. We are living in an era of unprecedented public information access—and so also an era of unprecedented U.S. governmental war on whistleblowers, hackers, democratic peace activists who engage in new forms of digital civil disobedience, and other disruptive pioneers in the domain of truth-telling and political engagement in the information age. When these individuals are targeted, harassed, threatened, persecuted, and worse, they themselves—and not their work or the injustices it sought to redress—often become the story. A social scientist might mourn this infringement of souls on stats. But a political historian would instead simply note that usually history makes us, but sometimes it is people who make history after all.