Defense Department Relying on Investigative Technology That Deserved to Die 10 Years Ago

In an MIT Technology Review article published ten years ago this week, writer Bruce Sterling offered his list of ten technologies that deserve to die. Though I find it difficult — without caveats, that is — to agree with Sterling on nine of his choices, I share a similar opinion when it comes to one item on his list: Lie Detectors.

MIT Technology Review 10-01-03Having spent much of the past four years conducting an exhaustive investigation into the federal government’s use of credibility assessment technologies, I became intimately aware of the technologies competing in this arena — one of which, the polygraph, is often mistakenly referred to as the “lie detector.” When I read the explanation Sterling gave for including this century-old technology as the ninth item on his list, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly:

They just plain don’t work. They might have some vague use in increasing the psychological stress of a subject under interrogation, but galvanic skin response and heart rate have little to do with the process of lying. The use of lie detectors is basically a voodoo ritual that allows large institutions to lie to themselves about the trustworthiness of their employees.

Even if lie detectors did work-say, with newfangled nuclear magnetic-resonance brain scans-they would become an Orwellian intrusion. Furthermore, there would likely be a social revolution as major actors in society, from top to bottom, had to admit to fabricating their lives out of spin and wishful thinking. The official public version of our means, motives, and opportunities is severely divorced from the private world of our interior thoughts. If we were forced to confront and reveal our brain functions through technological means, most of us would soon discover that we led half-baked lives of quiet intellectual desperation, in which very little thought of any kind ever took place.

I do not claim or pretend to be an expert on the polygraph; instead, my agreement with Sterling is based upon what I discovered during my aforementioned investigation.

Perhaps most important among my findings is evidence of an unconventional war — a “turf war” — that’s been raging silently for 40 years, shows no signs of easing, and impacts Americans around the world.

James R. Clapper Jr.

James R. Clapper Jr.

On one side of the turf war are polygraph loyalists who seem willing to do almost anything to maintain their technology’s foothold as the federal government’s credibility assessment tool of choice. On the other side are backers of a newer credibility assessment tool proven more reliable and more effective than polygraph in places like Guantanamo Bay and Iraq before being banned by the Department of Defense no fewer than three times since Sterling’s article was published. One of those bans was issued in 2007 by then-Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., the man now serving as Director of National Intelligence (i.e., our nation’s top intelligence official).

Of course, there is much more to this turf war than I’ll share in this space. For all of the graphic details, you’ll need to order a copy of my latest nonfiction book, THE CLAPPER MEMO. Released in May, it’s available in ebook and paperback versions at and comes highly endorsed.

Bob McCarty is the author of Three Days In August and THE CLAPPER MEMO. To learn more about either book or to place an order, click on the graphic above.

Bob McCarty is the author of Three Days In August and THE CLAPPER MEMO. To learn more about either book or to place an order, click on the graphic above.

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