Fienberg’s Polygraph Testimony Story

File this as proof that, sometimes, math changes the world… 

I found myself wanting to review the transcript/tapes and post a huge block quote in my SubStack on mass security screenings for low-prevalence problems. But these things get long. So here’s Stephen Fienberg’s polygraph testimony story. It starts around minute 12 of interview tape 1. (Here are tapes 2 and 3, a synthesis of my larger polygraph interview series, and the National Academy of Sciences polygraph report SF co-chaired.) 

It’s a fascinating story. I was on the airplane — in those days I actually used to get upgraded. So I remember I was sitting in first class in the first row, and my cell phone rang. And the voice on the other end said, “Could you hold the line for Mr. McSlarrow?” I didn’t know who Mr. McSlarrow was. And this person gets on the phone and says, “I’m Kyle McSlarrow, I’m the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy.” And then I realized I should have known who he was, because he was scheduled to testify at the hearing the next day with me. And he said, “I wanted to alert you to the fact that we’ve changed our minds. And I’m faxing you a copy of my testimony. Where should I send it?” I said, “Well, I’m on the airplane; you can’t send it here. Why don’t you send it to the National Academies, and they’ll make arrangements to give it to me. Can you tell me what it is?” And he told me a little bit, but not a lot of the reversal of this absolute position that they were going to continue to plan to polygraph everyone.

And then next morning I met with the study director from our study, Paul Stern, and he handed me a copy of this fax. And basically what it said was, everything I had planned to testify about was inappropriate. So in about 10 or 15 minutes, we rewrote the script and I prepared somewhat different testimony. And of course McSlarrow went first, and so I got a chance to scribble in the margins and he clearly was doing something beyond the script as well. And his Q&A happened before I ever testified also. So, in some sense, the hearing was over before I got to the table, although there were some interesting questions and answers. It was a fun process. I’ve testified before Congress on a number of occasions before. In some sense, this is the first time I ever thought it really mattered, and where the script went out the window in a quite remarkable way.

I can’t imagine that without pressure to do something to justify their position, there would have been any reason for them to change. I mean, there there’s two different things: There’s the policy that said “We’ll polygraph everyone.”And there was the reality, which is they’ve never done that. And so the April Federal Register statement was really all about implementing the policy that had been in the legislation way back when and — and they didn’t say how they were gonna do that, either. My friends at Los Alamos told me it had never been implemented. And after April it still hadn’t been implemented. So there are complicated dynamics and I’m not privy to all the details. What the Deputy Secretary said was, “I’ve read the report carefully now, and it moved me — in the sense that it moved my position from the one we took in April, to a new one. I found the arguments compelling,” he said, “so now we’re not gonna polygraph everyone. We’re only gonna polygraph half the people.” That’s not quite — it was much more elaborate, but it more or less amounted to about half the people…

[But why, I asked inaudibly, would you see a program doesn’t work and backfires, and do it less, instead of not doing it?]

And the great exchange happened in the question and answer session of McSlarrow, when Senator Bingaman asked him exactly that question. So he laid out the new policy, the new policy being different groups being polygraphed at different rates — high-risk, high-security people would have polygraphs on a regular basis, random polygraphs for some others, an issue we discussed in the report. So this wasn’t totally at odds with the report. And — and a bunch of other things, like the polygraph would not be definitive. And so it wasn’t just the movement of numbers, but direct public recognition that the polygraph was not infallible. Which is the way people thought about it in this context before.

And Senator Bingaman’s question was terrific, because he picked up our report. He asked the deputy secretary to open it to Table S1. To read the numbers. And there was this wonderful exchange. He said, “Do you need me to give you a copy?”And one of our staff members was about to hand him a copy of the report, and he said “Oh no, I don’t need that. It’s imprinted in my mind.” And then Senator Bingaman went on and — and said, “Well, there’s such-and-such numbers in this table. And if I understand the proposals, that would lead to approximately half those numbers being polygraphed every year. So let’s just take those tables and divide the numbers by two.” And then he went through the scenario, and he said, “There’s a lot of false positives in this scenario, and false negatives here, and how do you propose to deal with that, given that the Academy said you shouldn’t do this at all?” And it was an interesting exchange.