Civil Liberties

Teaching Polygraph Takers To Relax Lands Instructor Behind Bars


Public Domain

According to a press release from the United States Department of Justice, Chad Dixon will spend eight months in stir "for his role in a scheme to deceive the federal government during polygraph examinations conducted as part of federal security background investigations." He didn't rig the machines or bribe test administrators; he just taught "countermeasures"—instructions that the feds insist are a crime. But, considering that innocent people have gone to prison because polygraphs falsely said they were lying, and the National Academies of Science believe "the general quality of the evidence for judging polygraph validity is relatively low," learning how not to stress out when taking a wrongly named "lie-detector test" would seem to be just good, sensible preparation. Inconveniencing the government may be the true crime.

The Justice Department press release (PDF) says:

According to court documents, Dixon operated an Internet-based business that trained customers how to "beat" polygraph examinations conducted by various agencies of the federal government, including within the intelligence community. Dixon taught physical and mental polygraph countermeasures designed to obstruct polygraph examinations by producing "truthful" polygraph charts "even if you are flat out lying." Dixon customized his trainings by asking each customer the purpose of their polygraph examination and the information they wanted to conceal from the government. Dixon instructed his customers to conceal their misconduct, to deny receiving polygraph countermeasures training, and to lie during their exams. The purpose of the scheme was for Dixon to enrich himself by training federal job applicants and federal employees how to conceal specific and material information from the federal government in exchange for between approximately $1,000 and $2,000 plus travel expenses.

McClatchy reported last month that the federal government is in a full-court press against polygraph counselors, mostly because it's heavily invested in using the controversial devices to screen job applicants. It uses the devices even though most courts won't admit polygraph results because they consider them completely unreliable.

The federal government polygraphs about 70,000 people a year for security clearances and jobs, but most courts won't allow polygraph results to be submitted as evidence, citing the machines' unreliability. Scientists question whether polygraphers can identify liars by interpreting measurements of blood pressure, sweat activity and respiration. Researchers say the polygraph-beating techniques can't be detected with certainty, either.

Citing the scientific skepticism, one attorney compared the prosecution of polygraph instructors to indicting someone for practicing voodoo.

If beat-the-machine instruction is voodoo, so may be the machines themselves. Reason's Jacob Sullum reported in 2002 that Abdallah Higazy was jailed after a "polygraph machine supposedly showed that Higazy was lying when he denied owning an aviation radio that he did not in fact own." Charges against the student were later dropped and he was freed amidst allegations that he'd been threatened into a false confession.

That the polygraph results in the Higazy case were bogus should be no big surprise. The National Academies of Science looked into the reliability of the widgets and found that there was damned little to go on. According to The Polygraph and Lie Detection:

The general quality of the evidence for judging polygraph validity is relatively low: the substantial majority of the studies most relevant for this purpose were below the quality level typically needed for funding by the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. …

Although psychological states often associated with deception (e.g., fear of being judged deceptive) do tend to affect the physiological responses that the polygraph measures, these same states can arise in the absence of deception. Moreover, many other psychological and physiological factors (e.g., anxiety about being tested) also affect those responses. Such phenomena make polygraph testing intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results.

Since that report, nothing has emerged to improve the scientific status of polygraph testing. Critics of the widgets have taken to the Internet to debunk them—and to offer instruction to help test-takers survive encounters with the fallible devices.

Dixon seems to have been selected as a target because he offered hands-on training and may have actually known some of the tidbits that clients were trying to conceal. But what he actually taught, he wrote in a letter to the judge, were countermeasures such as "to relax and breathe normally on relevant questions." Even if he knew the details of his clients' sins, he has no particular obligation to the agencies to which they' applied for jobs, and telling them to relax while answering questions would seem to be just good advice.

Some vocal polygraph critics suggest that it's Dixon's criticism of polygraphs that really pisses off the feds, and that his hands-on counseling just made him an easy target. Reported Matt Zapotosky for the Washington Post:

George Maschke, whose Web site offers similar information on the flaws of polygraph testing but does not offer hands-on training, said he was troubled by Dixon's case.

"It seems to me that they're going after critics of the polygraph and then fabricating a crime to prosecute where there had been no crime to prosecute before," Maschke said. "Free speech is important, and I don't think explaining to people how the polygraph works, including its vulnerability to countermeasures, should be criminalized."

Dixon's real crime seems to have been to raise questions about the federal government's commitment to what may well be junk science. It's junk science that the feds rely on to intimidate employees and would-be hires during an unprecedented war against whistleblowers.