I love the Scott Horton Show, and honestly, I even love Scott Horton — he’s interviewed me a couple of times, and we spent an afternoon together one day in is his home studio talking about the Middle East.
And I love this interview with Doug Williams, a former police officer who has gone from being an advocate of the “lie detector” to training folks how to beat the test, a evolution he apparently describes in this book. Williams calls polygraph “a scam,” and he outlines a few things that reminded me of the two days I spent hooked up to a polygraph as part of my CIA hiring process.
(I spend half a chapter detailing these two days in my memoir, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, which you should read if you have not read it. Go and buy it. And then read it. Now.)
The thing Williams said that struck me most was his description of what the polygraph is designed to do. Mostly, it’s an investigative tool, and the scientific story we tell ourselves about the polygraph — that it can tell when you’re lying because the human body automatically responds when lies are told — actually helps in its use. Williams says the polygraph in and of itself actually doesn’t work — Edward Snowden passed three such exams fully intending to snag data and release it to the world.
In fact, Williams told Horton that frequently what are interpreted as “lies” are, in fact, other kinds of responses — guilt, for example. Which is what probably was at work with me.
I was escorted to a small blue room without windows or mirrors. The woman who interviewed me that afternoon had a thick folder with her. Apparently, that was me. She explained how the polygraph worked—hers was a laptop computer—and that she would be asking me a series of questions, all of which had one correct answer: no.
I don’t remember all five questions. Three were fairly mundane, but two involved terrorism. One dealt with providing financial support for terrorist groups and organizations, and the other I don’t remember. Membership, maybe.
And she told me that I was failing the two terrorism related questions.
Now, I was never told by either of my questioners that I was lying, or that they thought I was lying. They merely told me I was “failing” the question — that the machine said my answer of “no” was not accurate — or that the machine told me I was having “problems” accurately answering the question. While they could have known about my past, I honestly don’t think so — my first questioner could not hide the look of shock and surprise on her face. I think it was an honest look, and I suspect she went to her supervisors and told them, “You are not going to believe what we have here.”
I suspect that had I not gone back for the second interview, the FBI would have come looking for me.
While this was my first round with the polygraph (and my last, I will never do that again), it was not my first experience with the kind of questioning that pushes to find the truth. Nor was it my first experience with an incredibly good interrogator who could provoke basically guileless young men (and women) into confessing their deepest secrets.
One night at SF State, John Hartwell and I spoke reverently and fondly of MSG Fulwood (MSG = Master Sergeant), who in the mid-1980s grilled every incoming enlistee on their sins and crimes at the Los Angeles Military Entrance Processing Station (or MEPS; and I am right, everything the military does also sounds like it could make lunchmeat). She was very good at it. Just about everyone who left that room had been reduced to tears. An intimidating African American woman, MSG Fulwood could have gotten Hitler to confess to loving Jews. She didn’t yell, she didn’t scream, she didn’t accuse. She just ground you down with questions and a stern tone of voice that struck confused and disoriented teenagers as both parental and compassionate and yet stirred every sense of guilt imagined.
Johnny told me he would have confessed to anything just to end the interview. And he had sinned an awful lot. More than me.
Williams said this is greatest use of the polygraph, to get people who are already inclined to feel guilty (like me, I suppose) to confess and give details. But then, you don’t actually need it to work in order to achieve that. You just need skilled and gifted interrogators armed with intuition and the ability to work people over thoroughly to do their jobs.
Americans love technical fixes. We want machines to give us results that are inarguable and precise. Basically, we want the machines (or our bureaucratic processes) to make the decisions for us, so that we are freed from the uncertainties of human judgment. They can’t. In the matter of human beings, some things will always be imprecise and vague, and open to interpretation. And doubt. And simply being wrong.