Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ivins case’s inconvenient issue: his polygraph

Posted at 6:03 PM ET, 02/15/2011
The Washington Post
By Jeff Stein

The FBI and the National Academy of Science today jousted over the quality of science applied to solve the 2001 anthrax attacks, but another inconvenient piece of the puzzle seems to have been artfully swept under the rug: the fact that Bruce E. Ivins passed a polygraph.

Polygraph advocates, not the least of which are the national security agencies that rely on the tests despite their many well-known miscues, refer to what they do as “science.”

But polygraph critics, including a retired senior FBI laboratory official, often deride the test as little more than witchcraft, a mechanism that measures emotions, not “lies,” and is entirely dependent on the widely varying skills of its operators. The rig may be fine as an investigative tool to “sweat” a suspect, they say, but entirely unreliable as a mechanism to ferret out skilled criminals, spies or deceptive job applicants. Indeed, it not infrequently declares the innocent "guilty."

Almost a year ago the Justice Department said in its review of the case that Ivins, an Army scientist at Ft. Detrick, Md., employed “classic countermeasures” to defeat his 2002 polygraph test, among them getting a prescription for “psychotropic medications.” A Newsweek report also said Ivins employed “controlled breathing to fool the examiners.”

But as an organization of polygraph critics noted at the time, “there are no studies on the effects of such medications on polygraph results.”

The FBI’s own case file on Ivins, moreover, contradicted the DoJ report.

Ivins “did not research anything about the test, to include ways to defeat its accuracy,” the FBI’s 2002 report on Ivans said. (See here, page 199.)

“Likewise, he did not take any steps to defeat the tests [sic] accuracy or use countermeasures. In fact, IVINS stopped taking his anti-depression/anti-anxiety medication 48-72 hours before the polygraph, and he offered to provide blood and/or urine specimens at the time of the test to prove he was not medicated.”

An obvious question might be whether, of the many other possible suspects who were eliminated, any were eliminated solely on the basis of polygraph examinations.

An intriguing possibility, if not likely. As the FBI said in response to the NAS report Tuesday, the totality of an investigation renders suspects, not any one test. Or as the bureau put it Tuesday in regard to the anthrax tests, "Although there have been great strides in forensic science over the years, rarely does science alone solve an investigation.''

The “science of polygraphs" included, it might have added.


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