Not long after reports surfaced that CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames had passed a lie detector test while spying for the Russians, an FBI agent told a conference of polygraph experts that he'd taught his 10-year-old son how to beat the machine.
"It's easy," Drew C. Richardson, a supervisory agent with a doctorate in physiology, told the gathering. All he had to do was to bite his tongue or curl his toes while answering "relevant questions," such as "I'm a boy" or "I live in Virginia." That would raise his pulse to a level that would mimic the lie he would tell later on.
The examiner couldn't tell the two apart, said Richardson, who now heads a different FBI unit.
Last month, Richardson got a chance to tell his story to a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee headed by Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who is looking into problems in the FBI crime lab, including persistent complaints that the polygraph is unreliable -- and unfair -- in measuring the honesty of potential federal employees.
Every year, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of honest young men and women are denied jobs after flunking their polygraph examination, a prerequisite for jobs with the FBI, Secret Service, CIA and many jobs in the Pentagon, critics such as Richardson say. Last year, the federal government conducted more than 15,000 tests, 80 percent of them by the Pentagon alone.
"Many more people have been victimized by polygraph exams than by problems in the explosives lab," Richardson told Senate investigators, referring to allegations by an FBI whistle-blower that bomb experts had slanted their reports and testimony in thousands of cases.
Take the example of a San Francisco woman who applied for a job with the FBI shortly after graduating from law school in 1994. Her record was clean and police work ran through her family. Her father was a police chief and her uncle the head of the California Highway Patrol Association.
Her father often came home with tales of how drugs destroyed families and bred crime, so she grew up with a revulsion toward marijuana. If someone lighted up a joint at a party, she'd leave, she told me.
So when it came time for her FBI polygraph, she "thought it would be cake." The examiner, however, insisted that she was lying about her use of drugs. He told her that she had a "dark cancer" in her heart, and he was "the doctor who was there to cut it out." She flunked.
"It was a nightmare," she recalled in a recent telephone interview. "It was a big shift in my life. I had always seen government services, as, you know, a noble calling. But that made it all dirty."
The FBI, which conducts 6,000 to 8,000 tests annually, long ago abandoned its "zero tolerance" policy and now allows some youthful marijuana use. That encouraged a New York woman to think she could become an FBI special agent -- that, and her master's degree in criminology, her stint as a New York state coordinator in Ross Perot's first run for the presidency in 1992, and her past employment with lawyer F. Lee Bailey.
But she, too, flunked the exam -- twice.
"It was quite frustrating," she said. During the second test, the examiner grilled her again on her "one-time flirtation" with marijuana at a summer party years ago.
But FBI officials also watched through a glass partition as she was interrogated about complaints she'd made to Grassley after her first test and how she'd obtained an affidavit by James Murphy, head of the FBI's polygraph unit, in which Murphy conceded that lie detectors were merely useful as an "adjunct" to a criminal interrogation.
"I think it's about a witch hunt, I really do," she said.
Even the polygraph's most vocal critics think it's a useful tool in criminal investigations, when a suspect can be confronted by evidence. "Just the sight of it makes a lot of suspects come clean," says one FBI agent. But using it in fishing expeditions on a job applicant is malpractice, even its defenders say.
"Polygraphs are little more accurate than flipping a coin," scoffs David Lykken, author of a seminal text, "Tremors in the Blood: The Uses and Abuses of Lie Detectors."
"The use of the polygraph to look at someone's general honesty is garbage," echoes Dr. John Furedy, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. "It's a fine instrument for interrogation if you already have strong evidence of someone's guilt, but as a trap to snare moles [double agents] from a random pool of employees or to 'prove' a job applicant is lying about drug use," he said, is "astrology magic and wishful thinking."
Ironically, says Lykken, it's "the most innocent, the straight arrows who have a strong conscience, and who respond strongly to any accusations of suspicions of wrongdoing" who tend to flunk the test. Practiced liars glide through.
One day Lykken got a call from an Army intelligence officer who complained bitterly that he'd wrongly been denied a security clearance because of a polygraph. Lykken gave him a few tricks to use and the officer passed.