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Lie Detectors Lie
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Polygraph tests are insulting, degrading and intimidating. They violate
the right of privacy, the rights to dignity and self-respect, the right to
be taken at your word, the right against self-incrimination, the right to be
presumed innocent until proven guilty.

What's more, there's irrefutable evidence that the so-called lie detector tests are highly unreliable gauges of guilt or innocence. Yet the CIA, the FBI and other government agencies, federal, state and local, continue relying heavily on them.

Consider Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who confessed in 1994 to having done $2.5 million worth of counterspying for the Soviet Union. He regularly passed the CIA's lie detector tests during the nine years he was doing business with Moscow.

Ames, who certainly should know, said "there's no special magic" in the guilty passing the tests: "Confidence is what does it. Confidence and a friendly relationship with the examiner."

Lie detectors do not record whether those hooked up to them are telling the truth. They merely measure the subject's physical reaction to questions - changes in pulse rate, perspiring and other signs of discomfort that the testers equate with lying.

Thus, as those familiar with polygraphs will tell you, spies and other accomplished liars such as Ames can easily pass the tests, while people who are innocent but nervous can easily fail them.

Consider the innocent. Wouldn't you be nervous, or angry, or otherwise agitated enough to raise the suspicions of a polygraph operator if it was demanded, in the third-degree manner of the tests, that you deny having done something you hadn't done?

Might not simply having to take such a test unnerve you? Wouldn't you feel intimidated?

As former President Nixon said in one of those White House conversations secretly taped in 1971: "I don't know anything about polygraphs, and I don't know how accurate they are, but I do know they'll scare the hell out of people."

"There is no physiological response unique to lying," noted Dr. John F. Berry Jr., a former assistant secretary of defense who joined with two other physicians in several studies that showed conclusively the futility of polygraph tests.

The studies suggested that if the government tested, say, 10,000 employees in attempting to uncover a spy, it would end up with more than 3,500 suspects -- and they probably would not even include the real spy.

The American Medical Association found that lie detectors result in false accusations one-third of the time. Other researchers have pegged the failure rate as high as 50 percent.

Law enforcement agencies everywhere nevertheless use polygraphs to extract confessions from suspects, and many other government agencies use them in hiring, firing and disciplining employees. Private businesses use them to try to uncover employee wrongdoing and to monitor employees in sensitive jobs.

No one knows how many government workers have been fired, had their reputations sullied, or even been imprisoned because of faulty testing. Nor is there an accurate measure of how many people have fallen victim to the tests given by police who, as columnist William Safire said, view them "as more effective than a truncheon and hot lights to coerce a suspect into confessing."

But studies of the tests administered by private employers indicate that those harmed could number in the hundreds of thousands.

Fully one-fourth of the private employers' test results are wrong, according to the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Which means that every year as many as a quarter-million people in private employment are cited unjustly for theft and other alleged misconduct.

For anyone to nevertheless use lie detectors is outrageous. As the late Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina noted, they are engaging in "twentieth century witchcraft."

Copyright Dick Meister