Investigative frontier: Digital polygraphs ease fears'a bit

Investigative frontier: Digital polygraphs ease fears'a bit


President Richard M. Nixon once said on the infamous White House tapes, 'I don't know anything about lie detectors other than they scare the hell out of people.'

A digital polygraph program running on a notebook PC might seem less scary than old-fashioned needle tracings on paper, but lawmakers and agencies are still weighing it as a deterrent to espionage and other crimes by government employees against the potential privacy encroachment.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations uses a PC-based polygraphy setup from Axciton Systems with an assortment of sensors.
'One of the most troubling concerns is the insider threat,' said Gale Ahern, chief of the Air Force's polygraph program. He cited the recent case involving FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen, who allegedly sold secrets to the Soviets for 15 years. During his years working as an agent, Hanssen reportedly was never given a polygraph test.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) at an April Judiciary Committee hearing called Hanssen's case 'the most serious [espionage] in this nation's history.'

But Leahy also raised a warning flag about the rights of employees if polygraph tests become more widespread. 'I am not saying that all use of polygraphs should be prohibited, particularly in the sensitive area of national security,' he said, but 'I am very concerned that the rights of innocent employees be protected.'

Two providers of digital polygraph technology, Axciton Systems Inc. of Largo, Fla., and Lafayette Instrument Co. Inc. of Lafayette, Ind., are responding to the demand for less-scary testing.

No more jumping needles

Darryl DeBow of Northern Virginia Pre-employment and Polygraph Services of Leesburg, Va., which distributes Lafayette's polygraph software, said agencies are moving to polygraph programs on PCs to replace needle-and-paper analog machines.

'We upgrade and upgrade and upgrade,' he said.

Lafayette includes a statistical program with its software, 'something polygraphy has never done before. The need is going to grow within the federal government,' DeBow said.

The Air Force recently bought 60 Lafayette software packages, he said, and his company also replaced analog instruments at the Secret Service with the desktop PC software.

Lafayette's LX2000W polygraph software runs under Microsoft Windows 9x, NT 4.0 and 2000. It also works with older versions of Windows but produces analog results.

DeBow said the digital format lets examiners enlarge and highlight specific results such as respiration, sweat gland activity, blood pressure or pulse rate during an exam.

'When [employees] see a laptop, they are more comfortable with it, but there is always a little nervous apprehension,' Ahern said.

The theory behind the polygraph is that when people lie they become nervous. Measuring rates of heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rhythm and perspiration discloses the stress that can signal that a person is lying.

Michael H. Capps, deputy director for developmental programs at the Defense Security Service, said the scientific community considers modern polygraphs about 90 percent reliable.

Capps, who oversees the Defense Department's Polygraph Institute, a training facility for federal examiners, said algorithms developed by the government and contractors such as the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab of Laurel, Md., promise better reliability.

The FBI as well as DOD, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Postal Service and the Secret Service all use polygraphs for pre-employment screening.

'It's a very emotional issue,' said Dave Keene, assistant director for polygraph testing at DOD. 'As long as you don't abuse, overuse or misuse it, it's an excellent tool.'

Polygraph testing usually occurs after a background check, he said. A polygraph exam costs about $200, regardless of the number of retests. Keene said that's low compared with the cost of a background check, which runs at least $5,000 per person.

Cases like Daniel King's are the exception, he said.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel M. King was recently freed after having been jailed for a year and a half on charges of espionage without any physical evidence other than an irregular polygraph report.

Testing, 1, 2, 3

The Air Force conducts 800 polygraph investigations annually for criminal and counterintelligence operations, Ahern said. The service is increasing its use of the tests but evaluating results more carefully.

Tests are routinely administered for criminal investigations and for security checks of employees in several dozen programs handling classified information.

In either case, Ahern said, a test is evaluated at three levels'by two managers from the program in question and then by Ahern's office. He said the multiple evaluations and improvement in the technology should ease concerns about too much testing.

Nonetheless, the issue is on the table.

'There is some interest within DOD to do more screening exams, as the Energy Department and the FBI are starting to do,' Keene said.

Energy will issue a report to Congress later this year about pre-employment polygraph screenings of its workers.

'In the next three to five years, I don't believe testing will decrease,' Ahern said. 'It'll remain constant or increase because of the views of senior leadership.'

DOD, however, has had a slight drop from 11,546 polygraph exams administered in 1999 to 11,131 in 2000, Keene said.

Between 1994 and 1997, the FBI conducted 16,200 pre-employment polygraph exams, said Mark Zaid, an attorney with Lobel, Novins and Lamont of Washington, who testified at the April Judiciary Committee hearing on polygraph use.

'The majority of [applicants] would not have been polygraphed prior to March 1994,' Zaid said.

He said agencies are increasing polygraph use as 'a cheap fix. They use it before they have to. For investigative purposes, they'll use it as a hopeful out from having to do any more work.'

The bottom line is that 'it winds up getting a lot of confessions from people,' said Jim Murphy, head of investigations for the corporate counsel to the Office of the Attorney General.


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