Polygraph tests became so routine in workplace investigations that Congress passed the Federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act in 1998, banning the use of polygraphs in most private employment settings. Liar, Liar, Set the Polygraph on Fire

Dr. William Marston, creator of the comic strip Wonder Woman, penned under the pseudonym of Charles Moulton, now has people amused by another of his creations — the lie detector test.

A new report from the National Academies' National Research Council supports what many junk science opponents have long argued: lie detector (polygraph) tests, which measure heart rate, respiratory rate and perspiration during interrogation, are too flawed to be relied upon and do not justify the government's heavy use.

Former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had great enthusiasm for the lie detector. Consequently, it became a routinely used tool by the FBI in its investigations of crimes, employee screenings and spy matters. U.S. police forces, the Pentagon and other government departments followed suit. Just this past spring, another former FBI Director, William Webster, filed a report with the FBI about the Robert Hanssen Soviet-spy incident, criticizing the Bureau for its procedures and recommending a major expansion of lie detector use in ferreting out traitors.

The overuse of polygraph tests has also spread to the private sector. Some insurers now use lie detector technology when policyholders call to make a claim. Polygraph tests became so routine in workplace investigations that Congress passed the Federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act in 1998, banning the use of polygraphs in most private employment settings.

Yet numerous exceptions to the ban remain, including the permitted use in situations involving public employees, job applicants to drug manufacturers, job applicants to security firms, and in cases where an employer (public or private) is investigating a financial loss with reasonable suspicion that a specific employee was involved. Privacy concerns plague the polygraph's use, including maintenance and disclosure of results.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the "jury is the lie detector" and there is a per se inadmissibility rule for polygraph tests. Though courts do not permit lie detector results to be entered as evidence because they are too unreliable, polygraphs are still commonly used by investigators, prosecutors and even by suspects proclaiming their innocence. O.J. Simpson is rumored to have flunked; the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey proclaimed to have passed.

For many years, there has been no consensus in the scientific community over the reliability of polygraph evidence. Bill Casey, former CIA chief, commented on the ease with which one can manipulate the test. Entire web sites, such as PassaPolygraph.com, are devoted to teaching methods to fool the lie detector.

Yet, at least until now, tens of thousands of polygraphs are given each year. Lie detection is big business, with one Texas-based polygraph examiner reporting he receives over $50,000 annually from his client, the City of Arlington, to conduct about 40 polygraph tests a month.

The study by the National Research Council, which took almost two years to complete, will be discussed by Congress early next year. Dr. Stephen Fienberg, a prominent computer scientist who headed the panel of experts that produced the report, stated: "National security is too important to be left to such a blunt instrument." At a recent press conference, he added: "We believe that testing yields a choice between two unsatisfactory results: either too many loyal employees may be falsely judged as deceptive, or too many major security threats could go undetected."

The Department of Energy commissioned the study after the embarrassing Los Alamos fiasco. There, Wen Ho Lee, an experienced scientist at Los Alamos, underwent a series of polygraph tests, which were the basis of accusations against him of passing nuclear secrets to China, charges for which he was later exonerated.

The good news for parents is that the study results may culminate in a massive government sale of unreliable polygraph machines, making them more readily available to Robert DeNiro wannabes who can conduct Meet the Parents-like interrogations in their basements. The bad news is that the study recommends further research into other truth-screening methods, like brain fingerprinting, voice tremor analysis and thermal imaging — techniques more intrusive and not necessarily any more reliable.

October 31, 2002
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