Can mandatory polygraph testing beat Russian corruption?

In the latest effort to crackdown on high-level corruption, Russia has finalized draft legislation that will make polygraph testing a mandatory requirement for high-level officials.

For some government officials, the prospect of spending an afternoon in the dentist’s chair with their mouth pried open may sound more appealing than sitting through a polygraph test. But that is exactly what may coming down the pipe as Russia continues its bold mission of sweeping out the halls of power.

The draft legislation, entitled “On the Use of Polygraph Examinations,” will determine how lie detector tests can be used, under what circumstances, as well as a host of other essential guidelines.

The results of polygraph tests, formally legalized in 1993, are admissible in Russian courts as evidence. Yet no law was ever been established to coordinate the various “nuances” [who is qualified to administer the test, for example, and on what grounds] of the lie detector test.

Ironically, this judicial oversight aggravated the very corruption that it was intended to eliminate.

The draft legislation places emphasis on those individuals who are privy to state secrets, or who hold positions that require a high level of trust and good judgment [which would include anybody from prison guards to politicians].

Yet since every government agency has its share of secrets – even the mysterious Ministry of Culture, for example – the tests are expected to become mandatory for government workers across the board.

Under current Russian law, government agencies may request that employees submit to a lie detector test. However, employees have the right to refuse the request, while state authorities may dismiss an employee on such grounds. All this makes for a rather messy arrangement, and actually serves to hinder regular polygraph testing.

With the new legislation, experts say, the arbitrariness of the procedure will be removed and the government power structures will require mandatory polygraph tests for all staff members.

According to official estimates, there are about 100,000 cases of polygraph testing in Russia per year; last year alone, 20,000 police officers were given the test.

The great lie-detector debate

Are lie detectors telling us the truth? Although some observers are in favor of introducing mandatory polygraph tests as a way of combating the evils of corruption, others argue that it will only serve to increase the problem.

Vladimir Semago, an expert with Russia’s Chamber of Accounting, chaired the nation's first anti-corruption committee in 1996. He believes that a mandatory lie detector regime will ultimately fail.

“The officer who receives the information from the polygraph test may… try to sell this information to who it concerns,” Semago told RT. “That is the… Russian reality.”

“Once you begin such a process,” Semago continued, “it will be like an avalanche and you will not be able to control the rules [that serve as guidelines for the valid use of polygraph tests]. People will use the results like a hammer to hit those people they are against.”

Other observers, however, argue that the time is right to introduce polygraph testing in Russia as corruption shows no sign of abating.

How does the polygraph work?

The lie detector, or polygraph test, is an instrument that simultaneously detects changes in physiological processes, such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and electrical resistance (galvanic skin response, or GSR).

In the US, the polygraph is used by police departments, the FBI, the CIA, federal and state governments, as well as numerous private agencies. The polygraph works on the premise that when people lie they demonstrate physical “evidence” of their lying. The heartbeat rate increases, blood pressure goes up, breathing rhythms alternate, bodily perspiration increases, etc.

A baseline for these physiological characteristics is established by presenting the subject with questions whose answers are already known. A marked deviation from the “baseline for truthfulness” is taken as a sign of lying.

“This draft legislation is very important for the law enforcement community,” commented a member of the Duma’s Security Committee, who requested to remain anonymous due to her personal affiliation with the legislation. “There needs to be very concise parameters that may be used against high-ranking government workers, especially those who have access to sensitive state information.

“The lie detector test has been proven a reliable tool for gaining information about what is going on inside of a person’s head, as well as making the inner workings of government more transparent.”

Just last week, members of a crime group were arrested on charges of attempting to sell posts in the federal and regional government agencies, the Russian Interior Ministry's Department of Economic Security said, adding that the group had been under investigation for about six months.

“The swindlers were well organized, acted cautiously, and implemented methods of intelligence and counterintelligence,” Andrey Pilipchuk, chief spokesperson of the Department of Economic Security, told ITAR-TASS. “They offered various posts in the federal and regional bodies… for cash.”

The individuals were arrested during a handover of 45 million rubles [about $1.5m dollars].

“The group offered to secure an appointment as a senator from a constituent part of the Russian Federation,” Pilipchuk said. “These people are discrediting bodies of power.”

Will mandatory polygraph testing be able to eliminate such examples of high-level insider corruption?

According to Semago, the people who run the “lie detector machines” will have too much power and there will exist greater opportunities for corruption.

The new law, its proponents say, in addition to laying down strict procedures for polygraph tests, will work to weed out the “charlatans” that are giving polygraph tests a bad reputation.

The draft legislation requires that polygraph examiners “have a higher education, be at least 25 years of age, and have no criminal record or disability that may interfere with their ability to perform their work.”

Such safeguards are especially important now that agencies are hurrying up to become transparent. But does there exist a real risk that government agencies will place too much faith in lie detector tests, a science that many say is an imperfect method for determining truth?

Although the science may be fuzzy, this has not stopped the hype that lie detectors are the way to a squeaky, anti-corrupt society.

According to Rossiskaya Gazeta, “there are only 250 professional examiners in state agencies; meanwhile, the demand is in the thousands.”

If nothing else, the new polygraph testing, if it does become enshrined in law, will open up a whole new field of employment for many.

Robert Bridge, RT