This post is one that has been restored after the hacking. All original comments were lost.
Have you seen the television series The Assets? Dramatization of the Sandy Grimes-Jeanne Vertefeuille book Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed. Highly recommended.
In the movie, we twice see Ames hooked to a “polygraph”, which is to say “lie detector”, a device which (as we’ll see) should always be written in scare quotes. Ames is pictured as being nervous, fretting he wouldn’t pass because, of course, he was a spy for the Soviet Union, that happy place where Equality by law reigned supreme. Skip it.
The set designers did a good job reproducing the equipment of the time: it looked a lot like they showed. I know this because I was in the service in those years in a super-secret field (cryptography) which required that I, too, be hooked up and tested.
Television being television, shortcuts are taken, but the mood isn’t too far off. The examiner comes into the room and the attempted intimidation begins. An Expert Is Here! He fastens tight things around your chest, arms, hands. You are told to sit perfectly still—movement will disrupt the test! You, the test subject, feel (a) like an idiot, and (b) guilty.
The examiner doesn’t jump right into are-you-a-spy questions. No. He instead wants to prove to you the machine works, so that you don’t dare conceal a lie. I recall once the man asked me to pick a number between (I think) one and ten. He asked me which. Six. He says, “I’m going to ask you if your number was one, two, and so forth. Each time you must say no, even when I reach your number.”
“…Is your number five?” No. “Is your number six?” No. Etc.
At the conclusion of this scientific demonstration, the examiner shows you some squiggles on a piece of paper. “See here? That’s when you said no to six. These lines indicate you’re lying.” If you have any brains, you know it’s at this point you’re supposed to marvel at both the examiner’s and the machine’s perspicacity. “Wow. That’s cool.”
And then it’s off to the spy questions, the wording of which is well realized in the movie. You can’t help, helpless as you are, staring at a blank wall (the examiner never lets you see him during the test), trying not to breathe “abnormally”, to feel that, hey, maybe I am a spy.
When the test is over, it isn’t. Invariably, there is a long pause. And then a sigh from the examiner. “Sergeant Briggs…we have a little problem with one of the questions. Can you help me with that?” Which question he doesn’t say. But, and this is true, at this point many crack and begin to confess. Whereas any with an IQ greater than the median knows to say, “Golly. I don’t know.”
If you do that, the game for the examiner is up. He’s forced to pick one of the questions and ask something specific. “It was when I asked about selling information. There was a slight indication.” And you say, “Wow. Really? I have no idea.” Back and forth a couple of times like that, with you playing the happy, cooperative, friendly fool, and you’re done.
Just like Aldrich Ames. Who always passed his tests. Ted Koppel asked Ames about this, and Ames scoffed (properly, in my view) calling them “sorcery.” I’m unable to discover the second half of the video in which Ames makes this statement, but here is a letter he wrote on the same subject.
The polygraph is asserted to have been a useful tool in counterintelligence investigations. This is a nice example of retreating into secret knowledge: we know it works, but it’s too secret to explain. To my own knowledge and experience over a thirty year career this statement is a false one. The use of the polygraph (which is inevitably to say, its misuse) has done little more than create confusion, ambiguity and mistakes. I’d love to lay out this case for you, but unfortunately I cannot — it’s a secret too.
Most people in the intelligence and CI business are well aware of the theoretical and practical failings of the polygraph, but are equally alert to its value in institutional, bureaucratic terms and treasure its use accordingly. This same logic applies to its use in screening potential and current employees, whether of the CIA, NSA, DOE or even of private organizations.
Deciding whether to trust or credit a person is always an uncertain task, and in a variety of situations a bad, lazy or just unlucky decision about a person can result not only in serious problems for the organization and its purposes, but in career-damaging blame for the unfortunate decision-maker. Here, the polygraph is a scientific godsend: the bureaucrat accounting for a bad decision, or sometimes for a missed opportunity (the latter is much less often questioned in a bureaucracy) can point to what is considered an unassailably objective, though occasionally and unavoidably fallible, polygraph judgment. All that was at fault was some practical application of a “scientific” technique, like those frozen O-rings, or the sandstorms between the Gulf and Desert One in 1980.
I’ve seen these bureaucratically-driven flights from accountability operating for years, much to the cost of our intelligence and counterintelligence effectiveness. The US is, so far as I know, the only nation which places such extensive reliance on the polygraph. (The FBI, to its credit in a self-serving sort of way, also rejects the routine use of the polygraph on its own people.) It has gotten us into a lot of trouble.
Ames said the CIA believed. Which is true. Why do they believe? Because lie detectors sometimes “work”, in the sense that some confess. But people confess to interrogators all the time, which is no proof the machine works.
There is instead ample proof that Ames was right and that lie detectors are no better than eye-of-newt witchcraft. So why are they still around?
Now most people are not spies. Something far north of 99% screened are innocent. (This should remind you of mammographies and prostrate cancer screenings.) If the examiner says everyone is not a spy, then he will be right north of 99% of the time.
The examiner may then boast to himself, to CIA, to Congress, to God Himself, that his machine has an accuracy rate higher than 99%! Sure, he missed a handful of fellows, but nobody bats 1.000. You just can’t beat 99%!
Yes, you can. This is why we need the idea of skill, which measure improvement over naive guesses like “everybody’s innocent.” I’ve written about the use of these skill scores in medicine (most women don’t have breast cancer, most men don’t have prostate cancer), but they have yet to gain any traction.
Oh, until global warming came around, meteorologists and climatologists used to judge their models with skill scores. I wonder why they stopped?