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17 Aug, 2013 04:22

First Amendment rights not enough to stop feds from prosecuting polygraph operators

First Amendment rights not enough to stop feds from prosecuting polygraph operators

US federal officials are investigating polygraph teachers who supposedly help job applicants fib their way through government lie detector tests. The criminal inquiry is seen as the Obama administration's latest attempt to preserve government secrecy.

Law enforcement has targeted at least two people who claim that their methods of breath control, muscle tensing, facial tics, and other techniques are reliable enough that an individual with a nefarious background will be capable of gaining employment with the US government.

Investigators accessed business records belonging to the two men, according to a McClatchy report, and then used those documents to identify roughly 5,000 people who sought advice on how to beat the test. Of that sum, 20 people applied for government and federal contracting jobs. At least ten of the 20 applicants were eventually hired by various federal entities, including the National Security Agency.

The machines were introduced in the early 20th Century, quickly gaining favor with police who observed a suspect’s physiological responses – including blood pressure, pulse, and perspiration – when questioning an individual about a crime. Multiple research studies held over the past 50 years have debated the polygraph’s dependability, though, with a 1998 Supreme Court ruling declaring, “There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable.”

Consequently, because the polygraph itself is thought to be nonsense, experts say anyone who purports their ability to beat it is themselves lying.

Despite widespread reluctance, including inadmissibility throughout the US court system, the federal government administers lie detector tests on approximately 70,000 job applicants each year. The undercover investigation at hand reportedly seeks to discourage potential whistleblowers, criminals, and spies from obtaining national security clearance and gaining access to state secrets.

“Nothing like this has been done before,” US Customs and Border Protection official Josh Schwartz said during a speech at the professional polygraphers’ conference, as quoted by McClatchy. “Most certainly our nation’s security will be enhanced. There are a lot of bad people out there…this will help us remove some of those pests from society.”

Federal authorities, McClatchy reported, have already arrested Doug Williams - a former polygrapher with the Oklahoma City Police Department who wrote a book on the subject - and Chad Dixon of Indiana, who was the inspiration for the book. Sources told the news agency that prosecutors will attempt to sentence Dixon to two years in prison for wire fraud and obstructing an agency proceeding.

Critics assert that there is simply no crime in teaching methods to defeat the polygraph. Self-proclaimed experts freely advertise their services online, in books, and on television, and have never had the need to hide their services. That is not to mention the First Amendment legal battle over impeding free speech, which government prosecutors would surely face in court.

“If someone stabs a voodoo doll in the heart with a pin and the victim they intended to kill drops dead of a heart attack, are they guilty of murder?” Gene Iredale, an attorney for one of the defendants, asked McClatchy. “What if the person who dropped dead believed in voodoo?”

“These are the types of questions that are generally debated in law school, not inside a courtroom,”
Iredale continued. “The real question should be: ‘Does the federal government want to use its resources to pursue this kind of case?’ I would argue it does not.”

Dixon, 34, refused to elaborate on his legal situation but told McClatchy that he began working as a polygrapher because he could not find work as an electrical engineer. The father of four children has seen his home go into foreclosure because of the investigation and, despite having no criminal record, he expects to serve prison time.  

“My wife and I are terrified,” he said. “I stumbled into this. I’m a Little League coach in Indiana…never in my wildest dreams did I somehow imagine I was committing a crime.”