Mark Harris’s Wired article “An Eye-Scanning Lie Detector Is Forging a Dystopian Future,” featuring some of my criticisms of next-generation “lie detection” tool Converus, runs today.
Here is a new website about an EU-funded automated border security system currently being tested in Latvia, Greece, and Hungary. In addition to asking for your name, address, and information about your social media accounts, iBorderCtrl asks you to turn on your webcam so that a humanoid avatar on your screen can interrogate you while the “Automatic Deception Detection System” Artificial Intelligence studies your face for minuscule motions that supposedly betray that you are lying. And that’s before you even get to the border…
Heute habe ich meinen B1 Deutschkurs abgeschlossen! Ich mag Deutsch, weil es eine sehr präzise, spezifische, logische und einzigartige Sprache ist. And liebe ich dieses Lied, das wir gelernt haben… weil es schön ist und auch eine wichtiges Thema hat.
“Die Gedanken sind frei” (Thoughts are free) is a famous German folk song about internal freedom, the integrity of our minds as sacrosanct spaces, and the powerlessness of political oppression and censorship to totally dominate or destroy from without the freedom, beauty, and truth we can carry within. From ancient Stoics like Epictetus to seventeenth-century critics of the English Court of Star Chamber (who inspired the authors of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment), proponents of freedom of thought have always insisted that the individual’s moral authority to make his own decisions was foundational to his well-being—and so to that of society, too. Somehow it’s often lost in political discourse today that privacy means agency in this way; the integrity of the self gets miscast as a selfish or nefarious limit on autocratic (and increasingly technocratic) state power, as opposed to a morally and politically necessary building-block of a free society.
“Chaos,” oils on 100 x 120 cm stretched canvas (reprise).
Celebrating feeling like I finally finished my fucking dissertation (that I defended in 2014)… After having recently published these new polygraph essays, revisiting my old research in contemporary context. And then published my second poetry book that I had worked on for three years (Vagabonding)… And then gone to Paris. Alone. To read good, new (to me) poetry, see an old friend who is allowed to call me Katelyn (the only one), peruse art and parks, and eat cake.
To Paris, alone. In October. And all other holy quests.
Vagabonding—Against the backdrop of a burning world, a young woman writes honest poetry about discovering a new continent, new love, new meaning, and her own – sometimes confusing – hunt for ever more art, sex, and love.
This book is Creative Commons licensed and online for free. As a transparency activist and scholar, I believe in freedom of information. As an artist, it has always felt right to give away my best work to my favorite people. There is something intuitively gift economy about feeding people, creating art, and loving. This intuition is philosophically moored in Virginia Woolf’s insistence that—while we need financial autonomy, especially as women (A Room of One’s Own)—we also need professional autonomy from corrupt, war-mongering institutions in order to have meaningful independence, honest relationships, and political influence (Three Guineas). Doing gift economy work when it feels right is a big fuck you to the war machine.
Nonetheless, if you buy Vagabonding on Amazon, then you’re also materially supporting my art—which I greatly appreciate.
I’m not on social media, and I like it that way. If you want to promote my work there, that’s fine. Thank you!
But… I also want to suggest an alternative: If you like my book and want to recommend it to a friend, why not send them a copy? Consider it an art project, or a writing assignment: Write a poem of your own in the front and then give it to a friend… Or a beautiful stranger.
Some of my poems have melodies. I keep trying and would like help turning them into songs. But this probably remains something I have to do myself, in due time. Since I can hear them, and other people can’t…
There’s also an illustrated version of Push Coasts online here… Similarly, many of the poems in Vagabonding were previously published and illustrated here on my blog. The Nuremberg 2027 section envisioning future war crimes trials, for example.
I followed this publishing model for my first book after getting dozens of poems published in literary journals and other outlets for many years… And finding the pay-off of publication was often not much of a pay-off: a smaller audience than might be possible otherwise due to low journal circulation, a big time/effort loss from submission rounds due to low acceptance rates even if you publish consistently, and effectively zero payment—maybe $40 here, a few copies of a journal there. That model really does not make sense in terms of valuing your time, trusting yourself, or getting your work out there.
It makes more sense to just do your work and put it out when it’s ready. Especially once you’ve already demonstrated through publishing that you have a good ear for what works. This publishing model thus made sense and worked for my purposes last time. Similar models have long made sense to many authors I admire, like Charles Reznikoff, Mark Twain, Margaret Atwood, and others. So I’m doing it again.
Happy hi from Warsaw, Poland, where I’m lucky to be able to support women’s and LGBT rights, leftist anti-corruption politicking, and especially my lovely friend Ewa Infeld and her amazing mom, Magdalena Hen, in their runs for regional and district councilors in their runs for regional and district councilors in the municipal election, respectively.
If you don’t already know about the awesome unbreakable rainbow made of light and water that LGBT advocates and allies made in Zbawiciela Square this past summer, after far-right hooligans repeatedly burned down their beautiful pride sculpture, you need to know what Ewa was writing about this in June, now. While resistance to fascism continues after Pride events and elections, these moments can feel like a pulse of community life and love in a world of doom.
“Vagabonding: Egypt.” This will be the cover of my second poetry book, Vagabonding. I’m hoping now that book will be complete in November. Oils on 100 x 120 cm stretched canvas.
“Vagabonding: A cave in France,” oils on 80 x 100 cm. This was the runner-up cover art possibility.
“Dragon Country Dragon.” Dragon was to go over our fireplace, but doesn’t work visually with the grates. Luckily we have a friend who moved to Dragon Country, where Dragon Country Dragon clearly needs to live. Oils on 40 x 120 cm stretched canvas.
Probably all the next paintings are layers (incomplete). But I feel like blogging current paintings and a poem to switch gears. My blog looks too polygraphic at the moment.
“Chaos: A Prayer,” 100 x 120 cm stretched canvas.
Thinking about Lorenz’s butterfly and the unpredictability of fluid systems. Usually Lorenz systems are represented with lines, but I also really like Lewis Dartnell’s point version. The idea of chaos is comforting to me because the world is a mess, so it helps to remember the Bernie universe existed alongside the Trumpian one and it wasn’t predictable which one we’d end up with. Just as it’s not predictable what can happen when we try. Universes of possibilities do exist and prediction is hard. So it’s not totally irrational to have hope.
“Anonymous: A Wounded Illusion,” oils on 60 x 90 cm stretched canvas.
Thinking about how distributed k-anonymity (DkA) doesn’t work with mass surveillance, doesn’t work with too many dimensions, skews your results if the outliers are too weird, and warrants insider threat mentions. In other words, stop pretending Signal and other technological solutions to a political problem are buying you privacy. Maybe against companies, not against nation-states, and increasingly the lines are blurred.
Apropos everything and nothing, as poetry is, here’s one of my favorite poems.
By Stanley Kunitz
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
Below is the text of an email just sent to Senators Grassley, Flake, Collins, and Manchin. (I had already emailed Feinstein and Murkowski something similar, and didn’t want to duplicate. ) If anyone else thinks this is a good idea, please feel free to re-use it. Or give me a signal boost on social media; I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever.
If Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is confirmed today, and he proceeds from that position to knowingly jeopardize national security or undermine the functioning of the checks and balances of the U.S. Government—then these Senators can’t say they weren’t warned. I told them there was evidence of an important nature that they hadn’t heard. It’s all here. (It was all out there before, but no one saw it.) Putting the national interest first right now means pausing this process to let the Senate Judiciary Committee evaluate these important facts before voting on this nomination.
New info: Evidence Kavanaugh knowingly jeopardized national security
Dear Senator Grassley,
The Senate Judiciary Committee needs to hear new evidence on Judge Kavanaugh relating to national security. If there is an emergency provision of some kind to suspend voting for this purpose, then it would be appropriate to apply it today. This email explains why. I’ve also tried to explain on my website: www.verawil.de, in a series of essays about polygraphs.
I’m a PhD polygraph researcher whose polygraph open records case Kavanaugh decided in 2016. A summary of my points on this matter is on my website here: https://verawil.de/2018/10/five-posts-on-polygraphs-a-summary.
These materials show that the evidence suggests Judge Kavanaugh knowingly jeopardized national security as a federal judge. Because he testified to you that polygraphs are unreliable. But when I asked the government for polygraph program records that could have revealed data important for advancing science in the interests of national security and other public interests—such as insights about polygraph program bias, abuse, waste, fraud, inefficacy, and corruption—he denied my request.
It’s difficult to reconcile Kavanaugh’s belief that polygraphs are unreliable, with his ruling that letting researchers see polygraph program records would be detrimental to law enforcement. Because if law enforcement is using a tool that is widely known to be unreliable, then it would seem that strengthening the science around such tools—as my research has done—might help to strengthen law enforcement. But I tried to do that, and Kavanaugh stopped me. My research was in the national interest. His ruling was not.
As a federal judge in this case, Kavanaugh failed to check abusive executive branch power like the independent judiciary must. This undermined the U.S. government from working as designed. It is dangerous for American democracy to install a judge who does not seem to understand how checks and balances are supposed to work.
In all this discussion about other things, something really important has been lost. Something that I think your fellow Senators who care about national security, and the integrity of checks and balances in the U.S. government working as designed, need to hear. Please refocus the work of the Senate where it belongs. Hear my evidence. The facts here really matter before this vote, and they have not been heard.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Dr. Vera Wilde, PhD
To make here might have been: There’s new information from somebody (me) alleging Judge Kavanaugh knowingly jeopardized national security as a federal judge. Maybe we need to have a hearing into that, before the nomination vote. So let’s? There’s probably some kind of emergency rule for something like that. I just wouldn’t know what it is, how to say it, or who to tell.
I know it’s silly because I didn’t earn an Oscar; I didn’t earn anything but my weekend. But I have to say anyway…
Thanks to everyone who helped make this accidental renewal of my old research possible—especially Mark Harris at Wired, Russ Kick at AltGov2 (formerly The Memory Hole), my love R for everything from painting boxes to baths, dear Arjen who put my dissertation on his own server (among other crucial assists), Diani Barreto for editing help (kickstarting some less bad early drafts without which all would have been abandoned), and Moem at Hack42 who gave me a place to get away and work/rest in a different setting. And my other dear friends at Hack42 who didn’t draw on my face when I fell asleep on the couch. And Gregg who saved the tapes. And Nadia who mailed them. And everyone who asked not to be named.
All idiocies (other than the continuing existence of polygraphs) remain mine… And there have been many. I’m sorry that the stress of some related issue areas gets to me sometimes.
And if you don’t have time to read any of this, don’t despair! A recent xkcd also has a nice summary (row 3, column 2).
Open Letter to Senators on Kavanaugh and Polygraphs
Re: After Kavanaugh, Address Polygraphs
A lot of people are asking you to vote one way or another on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. It’s an important issue, and one I hope you decide well.
But I’m writing to you about something different, related, and equally important: a larger issue the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings raise that is overlooked. Whichever way you vote, polygraphs will have affected your decision. That’s wrong, because this is an issue of great national importance, and polygraphs are junk science.
It’s also sadly unavoidable now for partisan reasons that this particular fraud will influence an issue of great national importance. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination in part because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because polygraphs are unreliable. Junk science should not affect national politics, but someone in Congress decided to use a polygraph to assess the accuser’s credibility regarding allegations of sexual assault. That was wrong and should never happen again.
Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to instead of balancing its abuse of power. That’s what Kavanaugh apparently did as a federal appeals court judge writing the opinion in my open records request case Sack v. DOD (2016). That case was a final defeat in my long graduate school quest to obtain records on bias in polygraphy.
When I say polygraphs are junk, I know what I’m talking about. The National Science Foundation supported my doctoral dissertation research on bias in polygraphy. That research somewhat expectedly found evidence of bias, and unexpectedly also found evidence that polygraph programs backfire. Instead of causing police departments that use them for recruit selection to hire more honest officers, they seem to make agencies hire more officers who are later better able to lie to get out of trouble when people complain that they have committed violence. This suggests that instead of exporting polygraphs as anti-corruption tools, the government should stop using them.
Evidence already shows polygraph programs are vulnerable to bias in some cases and contexts, and generate waste, fraud, and abuse. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) could audit federal polygraph programs specifically for systematic bias—and efficacy. By either gaining data access that GAO theoretically cannot be denied, or conducting field experiments to obtain otherwise inaccessible data, or both, GAO could definitively answer questions that non-transparency has prevented other researchers from answering. This type of GAO audit could provide the rationale for immediately ending all government polygraph programs.
Your political trajectory will be forever affected by how you vote on the Kavanaugh nomination. And either way, polygraphs will have mattered. Please take steps to keep this pseudoscience from affecting national politics again in the future. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Then take evidence-based action on the basis of the audit results, which seem likely to be bad news for polygraph programs based on a wealth of already available evidence.
Please consider putting the truth first. Pseudoscience should never influence the fate of the nation. We need institutional solutions to the corruption problems that are keeping the real evidence from setting the terms of the discussions that count.
Thanks and best regards,
Dr. Vera Wilde, Ph.D.
P.S. – References and more information are available on my website at www.verawil.de, which also has my contact information should you wish to discuss.
The way polygraphs are currently being used in politics, everyone loses.
Polygraphs are premised on the intuitive notion that truth matters so much, our own bodies and blood show it when we lie. Yet, lie detection is a myth. There is no unique lie response to detect, and so there is no lie detector. But truth matters. That’s why polygraphs should never again affect issues of national importance such as who works at the National Labs, who is suspected of forbidden dissent, who is sent to Abu Ghraib or sentenced to death in America, whose criminal complaint is investigated, how—or who is (or is not) granted a lifetime appointment on the US Supreme Court.
Whether the Senate confirms or derails Judge Brett Kavanaugh any day now, the junk science of polygraphs will have influenced the outcome of an important process in which it had no appropriate place. Democrats could succeed in blocking the nomination because they consider Kavanaugh’s first sexual misconduct accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, to be credible. That would be unfortunate in a sense, because Dr. Ford’s credibility was bolstered by passing a polygraph. But my National Science Foundation-supported doctoral dissertation research showed that polygraph chart interpretation is vulnerable to confirmation bias. That is, if people already have information about a subject’s background, that information can create an impression of what the truth is—and that, in turn, can influence how the polygraph chart is read.
(As a sidenote: This bias can be neutralized, my research shows. But no one seems to have applied the solution that I demonstrated. I don’t care, because the scientific consensus is that polygraphs are insufficiently evidence-based for any important uses in the first place. So it would be silly to invest resources improving rather than ditching them. But the way the overwhelming majority of polygraphs are conducted introduces possible confirmation bias that could be but has not been systematically addressed.)
Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to, instead of balancing, its abusive power. Judge Kavanaugh was the federal appeals court judge who denied me access as a researcher to polygraph program records that would have enabled further analysis for bias among other things.
The Defense Department told the court polygraphs were so important for law enforcement that their records must be kept secret, and Kavanaugh ruled as though he believed them. The fact that he openly believes polygraphs to be unreliable as a matter of judicial consensus when the stakes are personal suggests that he did not, when he ruled on my case, really believe the argument that DOD made.
That would be unsurprising, since DOD’s argument did not make sense. Kavanaugh’s subsequent ruling was also illogical, as analyzed here. The only explanation for the logical inconsistencies in both would seem to be abuse of power.
Some might say that it would be poetically just if polygraphs helped derail Kavanaugh’s nomination after he unjustly defended polygraph program secrecy. And yet, it would be so much more just if junk science did not affect important outcomes. If polygraphs were retired along with the misconception that real victims report sexual assault immediately to police, when they very often don’t. Never again to tip the scales of justice away from due process. Never again to cloud issues of great national political significance with pseudoscience.
Bias in polygraphy, my research suggests, is a bad apples problem affecting relatively few outcomes but undermining fairness in sometimes egregious ways including life-and-death contexts. At the same time, its propensity to increase the very corruption it’s meant to decrease is a bad barrel problem undermining overall efficacy in contexts that can be just as practically significant. Government non-transparency hinders progress on both issues.
These bias and corruption problems are related but distinct. The bias issue is one of bad appleles. A minority of prejudiced polygraphers probably have huge effects on a minority of police departments, companies, and federal agencies that use their services, by disproportionately flunking certain groups, e.g., blacks, homosexuals, rape victims, whistleblowers—an authoritarians’ banquet of outsiders, anecdotally targeted by polygraphers as recorded by a broad range of documents and sources compiled, shared, and enriched with others’ work in my 2012 collaboration with Marisa Taylor at McClatchy, 2014 Ph.D. dissertation research, and 2018 collaboration with Mark Harris at Wired.
“Bad apples” is more than an expression. Operation Bad Apple was a polygrapher fraud-busting operation that veteran CIA polygrapher John F. Sullivan spoke about in a 2008 interview after writing about it in his book Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner. John called abusive polygraphers who were manufacturing fraudulent confessions or charts, bad apples. The evidence on bias in polygraphy suggests he was probably right to think of them that way.
By contrast, the corruption issue is about “bad barrels”—not egregious cases of bias, fraud, or abuse, but a deleterious overall effect. In the aggregate, polygraph programs seem to hurt police departments that intend to use them in order to decrease corruption, by unexpectedly increasing corruption instead—much like the infamous D.A.R.E. program increased the very juvenile drug use it was expected to decrease. (As a sidenote: No one knew about that backfiring effect until field experimental data revealed it. This type of efficacy data generation remains surprisingly rare in public policy. This is known as the evidence-policy gap. It’s counter-intuitive if you’re not familiar with the literature in this area, but it’s not unusual.)
Secrecy provides cover for both bias and corruption. Programs that seem to be unaccountable under equal opportunity law on a case by case basis, like federal polygraph programs, will be more vulnerable to biased “bad apples” because non-transparency keeps possible aggregate disparities from being publicly analyzed. And anti-corruption programs that backfire, increasing the corruption they seek to decrease, will similarly be better able to protect their own interests in persisting, when their efficacy is not being publicly or independently evaluated.
Non-transparency, as I recently noted, limits research on polygraph bias and efficacy. But federal agencies are not the only possible source of relevant data. Experimental data can be collected in any population, although its generalizability is then an open question. Survey data can be collected from relevant populations, such as state-licensed polygraphers. And national-level survey data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics can be analyzed using statistical tools as if it were experimental data, allowing causal inferences to be drawn about the effects of polygraph programs on police departments. Triangulating all these sources of data sheds novel light on questions of bias and corruption in polygraphy.
Survey and experimental data on bias
Before formulating and beginning to test hypotheses with experiments using the scientific method, I conducted interviews—recently released and curated in an essay on AltGov2—that documented bias, fraud, and abuse in polygraphy. My subsequent hypotheses centered mainly around whether such bias was systematic, and how it worked under real-life conditions such as polygraphers viewing background investigations that could introduce confirmation as well as racial bias. Observational data from the federal polygraph institute itself had in 1990 shown significant racial bias against innocent blacks. But follow-up experimental data—vulnerable to design criticisms such as expectancy effects and artificiality—showed no such bias. Overall, the qualitative and quantitative evidence on racial bias in polygraphy remained suggestive enough to warrant triangulating, or combining it with more forms of data from more sources, to see what they would all suggest when considered together.
A series of four Internet survey experiments showed racial bias (bias against blacks and Hispanics) does not systematically affect polygraph chart interpretation. Confirmation bias (bias against people with negative background investigations) does. And it’s possible to “hack,” or neutralize, that confirmation bias. The hack works by tricking people interpreting polygraph charts into thinking they’re running polygraphs in “suspicious mode,” so they delegate their confirmation bias to the computer.
These Internet survey experiments employed naive interpreters on an online platform run by Amazon called Mechanical Turk (aka MTurk). On MTurk, workers sign up to complete online tasks for pay. MTurk has been criticized, but remains widely used because it seems to yield good data in large samples, cheaply and quickly.
However, it is an open question whether these results generalize to the population of interest—professional polygraphers or to the field more broadly. Ideally, the study sample would have been polygraphers. But their limited accessibility precluded that possibility.
Online survey experimental subjects’ demographics differed from those of polygraphers as a group in potentially important ways. My survey of Virginia state-licensed polygrapher demographics, political attitudes, and self-reported bias showed polygraphers (like American police management) tend to skew white, male, older, conservative, Republican, and Fox News-watching compared with the general population. Per Berinsky et al, MTurk samples skew in the opposite direction in some ways that can impact bias effects, such as gender (female), party identification (Democrat), and especially age (younger).
Polygraphers also tend to be overwhelmingly current and former law enforcement—a distinct group in terms of social and political attitudes and behaviors. For instance, this group skews more authoritarian than the national norm according to national survey data from American National Election Studies analyzed in tandem with polygrapher survey data. This might matter, because right-wing authoritarianism is associated with racial bias.
Indeed, the small-scale pilot study data that helped secure NSF funding for this larger-scale dissertation research on bias in polygraphs used criminal justice students and professionals in real life as much as possible, in order to get a sample more similar to polygraphers than the general population. That preliminary data did indicate racial and confirmation bias, and a possible compounding interaction between them. There wasn’t enough data in that small sample, however, to assess an interaction, or speak to statistical significance at all: thus, the need for a larger sample size. But due to accessibility, that larger sample got further away from polygraphers demographically.
Polygraphers as a group might also be distinct in ways that specifically matter for the bias effects of interest. About 20% of Virginia state-licensed polygrapher survey respondents reported thinking that some groups (e.g., blacks or homosexuals) tend to fail polygraphs more than others. This suggests that a substantial minority of people interpreting polygraph charts for a living in the field hold biases against some groups that could affect the outcomes of the “tests” they administer. If they were simply honestly reporting observed disparities, then those disparities should have been consistent across polygraphers; but the disparities were inconsistent.
The available evidence altogether suggests that polygraphs themselves are not biased, and most people interpreting them may exhibit confirmation, but not racial, bias. Smaller or less systematic effects will be harder to measure with statistical significance. Those effects would be particularly hard to measure if they came from so-called “bad apples” who might self-select into positions of power in the field and abuse them in a relatively small proportion of cases that could yet have socially and politically significant consequences. For instance, a polygraph-related, erroneous credibility attribution to the CIA source Curveball contributed to the illegal 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Polygraphs have similarly contributed to innocent (and subseuqently exonerated) men being sentenced to death in America, and to (probably) innocent men being sent to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Moreover Thomas Schelling’s segregation game shows it only takes a small bias to endanger equality for society as a whole. But relatively small bias effects will nonetheless be difficult to measure with statistical significance in this context.
Qualitative data from interviews and documents, as well as survey data from Virginia state-licensed polygraphers, suggest possible racial, religious, sexuality, and other forms of bias in polygraphy. By contrast, psychophysiology lab studies and online survey experimental data suggest that racial bias in polygraphs is not a systematic, statistically significant effect resulting from stereotype threat or authoritarian selection on the subject side, or from interpreter bias on the polygrapher side. Triangulating field data with these other sources is required to assess the fuller picture of how polygraph programs work in the field. Do they institutionalize systematic racial bias? And do they work in law enforcement agencies to address the corruption they are meant to lessen?
Field data on bias and corruption
The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects national survey data from thousands of state, county, and local law enforcement agencies (LEMAS). This data is sufficient to run quasi-experimental analyses, analyzing the observational data “as if” it were experimental data, using coarsened exact matching (CEM) and difference in differences (DID) analysis (for a more detailed explanation, please see dissertation, Chapter 4). CEM is a matching procedure that here allows comparison of local and state law enforcement agencies that are highly similar, except for their implementation of particular selection tools like polygraphs. This comparison reduces model dependence, average treatment effect estimation error, and internal validity threats from measurement error.
These quasi-experimental analyses do not show evidence of systematic racial bias effects of polygraph programs on law enforcement agencies. However, it seems likely, based on data recently obtained by Mark Harris for Wired in combination with my own research, that there are prejudiced polygraphers who, for example, disproportionately flunk blacks vying for jobs at particular departments. Other sources of data generate cause for concern about racial and other bias in polygraphy in the field. Agencies that observe large racial disparities in hiring and demographics should be wary of polygraphs as one possible avenue for bias in both administrative and employment contexts. That said, there is insufficient scientific evidence to reject the null hypothesis of no systematic racial bias in the aggregate in police polygraph programs in the field. The generalizability of this finding to other contexts, like federal agencies, remains an open question.
These analyses also show that polygraph tests and only polygraph tests (among eighteen police selection tools) decrease sustained citizen complains of excessive officer use of force, and this effect is statistically significant. At first glance that might sound great; it might sound like polygraphs decrease police brutality. That’s not what the data suggest, though. Polygraphing police hires may select against people who are worse at lying or more honest, selecting instead for police officers who are better at lying and getting away with it when they have done something wrong. The reason is that there are tools that cause a decrease in total complaints, and polygraphs are not one of them. So polygraphs appear to select specifically on recruit characteristics that change not brutality or complaint rates themselves, but rather only complaint outcomes.
This is a distinct effect. Polygraphs are the only police selection tool, of eighteen such tools on which LEMAS collects data. That is ironic and important, because the U.S. has long exported polygraphs as part of its sponsored anti-corruption programs—as in Plan Colombia, the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, and others in the Bahamas, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Iraq (dissertation, Chapter 3). It would seem to be horrifying and surprising if American taxpayer-funded anti-corruption programs worldwide actually increased corruption.
Yet this effect has face plausibility. Most American polygraph schools and polygraphers rely primarily on the so-called control question test format. This interrogation protocol intends to cause subjects to lie to polygraphers without knowing that they’re supposed to be lying. Those presumed lies to so-called control questions generate physiological responses that are then compared with physiological responses to so-called relevant questions, to say whether someone is lying. People who are better at lying in the first place are likely to admit less wrongdoing during the dialogue that is arguably the point of the whole exercise. People who are relatively honest are going to both admit more derogatory information, and not lie (as easily, or at all) in response to control questions—skewing the test against them in two ways. So the design of the control question test polygraphs most common in American policing may discriminate against honest people.
That could explain the apparent corruption effect. That is, thus discriminating against honest police recruits through polygraph screenings may cause more hiring of dishonest officers. That would explain why these officers later get the same rate of brutality complaints as their non-polygraphed counterparts. But then they’re better able to get out of these complaints rather than having them sustained—by lying. In this way, police polygraph screenings may systematically contribute to the problem of American police perjury, aka “testilying.”
Generalizability is an open question. But if this result generalizes to other contexts, then it likely contributes to a number of other, serious security problems. For example, federal agencies with polygraph programs could be selecting employees who will be better able to avoid consequences for wrongdoing by lying under questioning.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is accountable instead to the legislative branch—to Congress. It is uniquely independent in its audit capabilities vis-a-vis the military, Department of Defense (DOD), and intelligence community. The National Academy of Sciences and other researchers have been unable to acquire bias and efficacy data directly from federal agencies or indirectly through the courts. But GAO could acquire this data by auditing or investigating federal polygraph programs.
Individual Congresspersons have the power to trigger GAO audits and investigations, making this process accessible. However, DOD has increasingly circumscribed GAO’s powers, and that seems to be an escalating trend. Nonetheless, liberal democratic political institutions must check and balance the power of these programs in the public interests of due process and national security alike. Bad apples should not be able to institutionalize bias. And anti-corruption programs should not increase corruption.
Judge Kavanaugh’s ironic history of defending the same polygraphs he now calls unreliable suggests that—if confirmed to the US Supreme Court—he would defer to dishonest executive power.
Following sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump ordered the FBI to conduct a one-week investigation, briefly postponing Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation vote with the November midterm elections clock ticking. Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she passed a lie detector test. Kavanaugh called polygraphs unreliable—noting their inadmissibility in federal court. That’s not what he thought of them when he decided my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case requesting polygraph program records.
Writing for the US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit on May 20, 2016, in Sack v. Dept. of Defense (DOD), Kavanaugh upheld the District Court’s ruling that federal polygraph records could be withheld because transparency would cause the specific harm, under the Exemption 7(E) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), of disclosing “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations” whose disclosure would reasonably “risk circumvention of the law.” But DOD’s arguments were disingenuous. Scientific consensus for the past ninety years has been that polygraphs are insufficiently evidence-based. It’s no secret that there is no unique physiological lie response to detect. Yet, federal agencies demand most of their polygraph records remain secret, ostensibly because polygraphs are important law enforcement tools.
If the government holds data that would explain this contradiction, making it public would advance science. If the government does not hold data that contradicts long-standing scientific consensus on polygraphs’ unreliability, then withholding data on federal polygraph programs’ bias and efficacy merely perpetuates corruption. Evidence shows polygraphs are prone to bias, fraud, and abuse. Research also shows they can even backfire—apparently increasing police dishonesty. In this context, non-transparency undermines rather than protecting law enforcement.
My National Science Foundation-supported doctoral dissertation and postdoctoral research on bias and corruption in polygraphs and policing led me to file open records requests under FOIA with several federal entities including the CIA, FBI, and DOD, for polygraph program data. These agencies fought transparency and won. Ultimately, they won because Kavanaugh decided in their favor—even though their arguments hinged on the premise that polygraphs promote security. The National Academy of Sciences’ 2003 report on the scientific evidence on polygraphs invalidates this premise.
How ironic that polygraphs should come back to haunt Kavanaugh when, as he says, they’re unreliable. He’s right. Their unreliability in screening jeopardizes national security programs by wrongly implicating many innocent people, while also missing security threats like spies. It undermines due process by wrongly implicating innocent people, like the late death row exoneree Dave Keaton. At the same time, it leads police away from investigating guilty people, and casts untoward doubt on the credibility of honest victims and witnesses. Its continued use makes law enforcement look incompetent, because it’s common knowledge that polygraphs are unreliable. Polygraphs thus damage law enforcement. So it’s weird to protect them just because the government claims—contradicting all publicly available evidence—that the opposite is true.
As a federal appeals court judge, Kavanaugh had a chance to act in the public interest as a member of an independent judiciary—protecting national security and promoting due process by checking executive branch overreach. He blew it, choosing instead to bolster executive power based on lies. Past behavior predicts future behavior, and this holds true for judicial behavior. Thus Kavanaugh would be a bad Supreme Court Justice, because he would undermine judicial independence.
Amidst the spectacacle of sex crime accusations and the partisan refusal to investigate them in due time with due process, Kavanaugh promises—if confirmed—to protect the executive branch rather than balancing it. Many legal experts including Kavanaugh have long agreed that a sitting President cannot be indicted. But Kavanaugh’s historical deference to the executive is more distinctive. A judge who defers to dishonest executive power undermines democracy. That is what Kavanaugh did in my case. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent for the U.S. government as a whole.
To the Senators considering whether to confirm Kavanaugh as a US Supreme Court Justice this week: Consider his history as a judge when you consider his future as a judge. As a federal appeals court judge, Kavanaugh undermined national security while citing it as his reason for letting government secrecy prevent progress in scholarship and accountability in governance. In the present political climate, many fear that President Trump wants to confirm a Supreme Court Justice who will defend him even when he’s wrong—someone who will defend an emperor with no clothes. That’s exactly what Kavanaugh’s history of defending executive secrecy around polygraph programs suggests he would do.
The role of the independent judiciary in the American government is to check and balance the executive and legislative branches. By failing to speak truth to power when DOD lied about the importance of polygraph programs for law enforcement, Kavanaugh showed he won’t fulfill that role. Polygraphs are unreliable. His history with them shows Kavanaugh is, too.
Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near the national interest, especially when it comes to sex crime allegations. But Kavanaugh defended their secrecy and importance as an appeals court judge.
Polygraphs continue to hold a bizarre and misguided centrality in the unfolding drama between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In her Senate Judiciary Committee testimony last week, Dr. Ford claimed to have passed a polygraph. Kavanaugh responded to Senator Harris’s question that yes, he would take one at the Committee’s request—but noted that they’re unreliable and inadmissible in federal court.
Then in a letter Tuesday night, Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley accused Dr. Ford’s lawyers of “withholding material evidence,” repeating his request for recordings of her taking a polygraph among other things. Grassley pegged his request to the committee’s receipt of a letter suggesting Ford committed perjury when she told senators she had never advised anyone on how to take a polygraph. As the brief FBI investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh has concluded, Republican leaders plan to vote on the nomination any day. Dr. Ford’s credibility matters.
But Kavanaugh is right: Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near issues of vital importance to the national interest. Or sex crime allegations—much less their intersection in this case. I know because I conducted National Science Foundation-sponsored doctoral dissertation research on polygraph bias, research that featured in Wired on Monday and a McClatchy national investigative series in 2012. Ironically, Kavanaugh was the federal appeals court judge who decided one of my polygraph open records requests cases (Sack v. DOD, 2016).
Kavanaugh defended polygraph program secrecy after the DOD lied to the Court, saying polygraphs are important law enforcement tools. The truth—as he apparently knows after all, when his own future is at stake—is that polygraphs are unreliable. That’s why the National Academy of Sciences, evaluating the scientific evidence on polygraphs in 2003 at Congress’s request, concluded that polygraph screening programs at the National Labs would undermine the very national security they sought to promote by wrongly implicating large numbers of innocent people while also missing spies. Polygraphs are neither accurate enough for mass security screenings, nor reliable enough for use in individual criminal cases.
They’re also vulnerable to abuse and fraud. Death row exonerees like Dave Keaton and Shabaka Waqlimi lost years of their lives in jail suffering under death sentences for crimes they did not commit, because police had abused the intimidation tool of the “lie detector” to generate a false confession from a black teen (in Dave’s case), and to direct police investigation away from a likelier white suspect and towards an innocent black man (in Shabaka’s). Federal polygraphers have complained to the government itself that polygraphs have been similarly abused as hammers in Iraq and Afghanistan to send presumably innocent people to places like the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Veteran polygrapher John F. Sullivan once ran an operation inside the CIA targeting polygraphers who were manufacturing false confessions and charts. Because the science of polygraphs is so shaky and the processes surrounding them so nontransparent to begin with, addressing bias, fraud, and abuse in these programs remains difficult.
Although the U.S. government exports polygraphs as part of its anti-corruption programs worldwide, my research suggests that police polygraph programs actually increase corruption. But because federal polygraph program data remain secret—thanks to judges like Kavanaugh—it’s been impossible for independent researchers to assess the efficacy of federal polygraph programs. If the apparent causal effects of police polygraph programs are any indication, these other polygraph programs may also backfire.
So polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near issues of vital national importance, such as who attains a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also don’t belong anywhere near sexual assault or harassment, or any other serious allegations. They are insufficiently evidence-based.
While often presented as diagnostic tests, polygraphs are really intimidation tools used in interrogations. Investigators should not intimidate and further traumatize alleged crime victims. Rather, they should do evidence-based forensics to investigate criminal allegations with due process. That is in everyone’s best interests. The wrongly accused and the truthfully traumatized both deserve the full protection of the law. And society deserves investigations that use credible methods to determine facts.
Judges are supposed to ensure that valid investigations using reliable tools take place and result in justice. But Kavanaugh already had a chance as a federal appeals court judge to check and balance executive branch dishonesty by disclosing polygraph program records—records that could have helped hold the government to account where it was abusing its power and lying to the Court about it. He blew it, and that’s no lie.
This introduction curates the next five posts. My name is Dr. Vera Wilde, and I’m a transparency activist and polygraph researcher. I hold a Ph.D in American Politics from the University of Virginia, and was also the appellant in Sack v. DOD, a 2016 federal appellate court ruling authored by Judge Brett Kavanaugh. (As a sidenote: Information environment overload, urgency, and other factors mean that it makes most sense to publish this all now and hope the message gets where it needs to go instead of going to gatekeepers, if it needs to get somewhere…)
The first of these posts, “Deference to Deception,” is about how Kavanaugh’s judicial history as a judge shows he would compromise the independent judiciary. He exhibited undue deference to a dishonest executive branch in Sack v. DOD (2016), one of my polygraph open records cases. He wrote an opinion for the majority granting DOD’s request to maintain secrecy because they call polygraphs an important tool for law enforcement. But the scientific consensus for ninety years has been that polygraphs are unreliable. This suggests Kavanaugh would be a dysfunctional Supreme Court Justice when it comes to checking abusive executive branch power, because he failed to do so in the past.
The second, “Deceiving Due Process: Polygraphs Put Junk Science in the Limelight,” is about how polygraphs continue to play a central role in this national saga. That’s wrong, because they’re junk science. Polygraphs don’t belong anywhere near important issues. Yet people on both sides of the aisle continue to be guilty of using polygraphs for their purposes when it serves them, and then suddenly remembering that they’re unreliable when it doesn’t. That’s also how polygraph programs sometimes seem to work in several agencies: They provide cover to target people under falsely neutral, scientific pretenses.
The third, “Bad Apples and Bad Barrels: Bias and Corruption in Polygraphy,” summarizes my original research. Polygraphs are vulnerable to bias, abuse, and fraud. As anti-corruption programs, they backfire. There’s a government office—the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—that helps address such problems. They just need one Congressperson to ask them to do it.
The fourth, “Truth Matters: The way polygraphs are currently being used in politics, everyone loses,” takes a broader view of why, if polygraphs are junk science and Kavanaugh defended them as a federal judge, everyone loses no matter what happens next in his confirmation hearings. If the Democrats succeed in blocking the nomination because one of Kavanaugh’s accusers passed a polygraph test, everyone loses because junk science affected national politics. Conversely, if the Republicans succeed in ramming the confirmation through before the midterms, the newest Supreme Court Justice will be one who knowingly let the executive branch lie in Court and bowed down to, instead of balancing, its abuse of power in the polygraph case Sack v. DOD.
And the fifth is an open letter to apparent swing Senators on the Kavanaugh confirmation vote. If other people think it’s right and important, then they’re gratefully welcome to use the same sorts of arguments to reach out to the same sorts of people. A swing Senator—whose political trajectory will be forever affected by how he or she votes on the Kavanaugh nomination—should step back after making this decision, and recognize that junk science adversely affects national politics. Ask GAO to audit federal polygraph programs for bias and efficacy. Bring science back.
A sixth post is implied, agitating for better institutions to imbue policy with science. It was unclear to whom one would address such agitation, however, if not to the people who authorize public institutions in a liberal democratic society. And how that might work in an anti-intellectual democratic society deepens the puzzle. One cannot simply call for a revolution of scientists, for scientific institutions, too, are vulnerable to corruption—and scientists to human error.
However, as a growing cadre of people are noticing, the corruption entrenching all of our most dire collective action problems as a civilization today is not an information problem. From climate change and mass surveillance to campaign finance reform and drug policy, contemporary institutions failing to integrate scientific evidence into public policy is the number one threat to humanity among other species. If we channeled a little bit of the resources America currently spends on national security into solving this problem—which is also in itself a national security and fiscal responsibility problem—then it would pay dividends in savings and in lives.
Or, “Jane Doe: A Series.” Oils on stretched canvas, various sizes. (One of these is rather large, three are varying degrees of small, and most are 40 x 60 cm or 40 x 50 cm. My big ruler has gone missing. And this should really be photographed all together on a wall for scale, but not today.)
If you’re one of those people who prefers to make up your own stories about art—respect—stop reading.
This painting series title comes from an investigative series on polygraphs to which I contributed in 2012, from a report of disturbing abuse. Before it was said, I helped make this report public.
She was one of the brightest students at a leading university when the Central Intelligence Agency offered her a job as a counter-terrorism analyst. But first, the 19-year-old was warned, she had to undergo a polygraph test to determine whether she could be trusted.
Instead of scrutinizing her ability to guard government secrets, polygraphers asked about her reported rape and miscarriage, the woman recalled. Over at least eight hours in three separate sessions, polygraphers repeatedy demanded to know her innermost thoughts, even after she started sobbing in shame.
“At one point, one of the polygraphers said to me, ‘Turn on the light inside so I can see,’ ” said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld. “I was amazed at how creepy and invasive the whole process was.”
Reports like these make one wonder what the incidence is of polygraph abuse. Earlier this week on AltGov2, I published an essay curating recently released interviews about polygraphs that, along with some of my other research, feature in Mark Harris’s latest article in Wired, “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings.” As noted there—
In my previous work as a postdoctoral police researcher, I’ve heard police proudly describe how they still use polygraphs against rape victims they don’t believe, even though the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prohibits public officials from making sex offense investigation or prosecution contingent on a victim taking a polygraph test. It’s impossible to know how frequently police continue to use polygraphs on victims and witnesses, including in cases (like rape) or in ways (like contingency) where that is immoral or illegal.
Ultimately, counting the cases may not be as useful as recognizing the broader phenomena of which this seems to be a part…
No where to go
no one to tell
this feminism thing
isn’t going so well.
While it may be a very, very good time to be a woman (in Berlin), it still has its risks. Luckily, risks can be managed… And sometimes even enjoyed.
It will be fun, for example, to plan the launch party for my second poetry book. Even though it’s risky to think it will be done soon; it’s risky to publish it at all. Anyone who makes art knows, when you’re doing it right, it feels really risky. (When you’re doing it right, it still feels really good!)
“Arjen”. Oils, nail polish, gold leaf, silver flake, and wax on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas. This painting is not new, but improved: I added melted wax dripping down on what was originally intended as a WikiLeaks logo reference (since it drips), thinking to complete the portrait… And it cracked. I know I’ve painted with melted wax intended for this purpose before. And that doesn’t usually happen. So… Maybe I shouldn’t have simply poured from the regular candle instead of using the actual art supply source for this… Maybe there is a difference between table candle wax and art wax, after all. If you want to know if I’m going to redo it to fix the problem I created here, well, it’s none of your beeswax.
A tangential invitation: As there has been no news in a while on my dear friend Arjen’s missing person case as far as I know… I’m going to prepare a few of the poems I think of as his to perform at Sunday Slips this week. If anyone else wants to come to enjoy (good company), risk (making art), and honor / appreciate / think of Arjen kindly… I have a fly-swatter and a silver bikini that say it will be fun.
Yesterday was Reunification Day, celebrated here in Berlin—as is the tradition—with Antifa’s vocal response to a Nazi demonstration, followed by fireworks. (Thanks Thomas for good company at the counter-demo, and Karo for pointing out this painting needed more color… I fixed it.)
AltGov2 features my essay “Warning Shots of Corruption: Releasing and Revisiting the Polygraph Interviews that Launched My Dissertation Research.”
As Mark Harris recently observed in his Wired article featuring some of my research — “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings” — federal agencies have generally attempted to keep their polygraph program data from researchers, especially vis-a-vis bias and efficacy. Federal courts have fairly consistently backed them up, citing the vital role polygraph programs play in law enforcement. However, at the same time, it is longstanding government and scientific consensus that there is no such thing as a lie detector, and polygraph programs actually jeopardize the very national security that they are intended to promote. Researchers can thus neither purport to comprehend nor effectively contest this supposedly vital nature of polygraph programs to law enforcement, without greater transparency of the federal program polygraph data that apparently disproves all of the canonical governmental reports on polygraphs—from the 1965 U.S. Committee on Government Operations’ to the 2003 National Academy of Sciences’—as well as most of the scientific literature on psychophysiological deception detection for the last fifty years.
This unified front of non-transparency, and the Catch-22 of secret justifications for keeping this secrecy intact, is exemplified by Sack v. United States Department of Defense. Attorney Kel McClanahan argued this case on my behalf, Circuit Judges Tatel, Griffith, and Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit Court decided it, and Judge Kavanaugh authored the ruling on May 20, 2016. Judge Kavanaugh’s defense of non-transparency here is important in the context of his current status as a prospective U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Much has been made recently, and incorrectly, of his regard for polygraphs (e.g., “Brett Kavanaugh Once Said Polygraphs Are A Good Tool. Now He Says They’re Unreliable“; “A False Charge on Polygraphs“). Mr. McClanahan has already corrected the record on some of these confusions: This case was primarily about researchers’ access to federal polygraph program data that was denied under Exemption 7(E), as well as students’ access to educational requestor status when they file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The latter is not directly an issue of transparency, but rather of access to public records requesting processes—a means of promoting transparency. Thanks to Mr. McClanahan’s persistence, Judge Kavanaugh kept the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the District Court before him from unfairly stratifying student access to FOIA without statutory basis in a way that would have hurt students’ access to public records. The DOD had refused to classify me, when I was a graduate student requesting records, as an educational requestor, citing an OMB Guideline on student requests. Kavanaugh ruled out that this guideline lacked statutory basis, and that it even seemed OMB was trying to manufacture a reason to charge students more than teachers. Kavanaugh called out corruption where he saw it, telling them that he knew FOIA was “grossly overburdened,” but they couldn’t “provide relief for the FOIA bureaucracy on the backs of students.” That was logical, fair, and egalitarian. This set an important precedent for future students to have more effective access to public records requests.
However, without transparency in the form of responsive records disclosures, FOIA access itself is ineffectual or worse. It could even be conceived of as a resource-capturing diversion, if responsive records are not disclosed when they should be through request processes that take time, money, and intellectual resources. On this score, Kavanaugh wrongly enshrined non-transparency in the law, undermining the principle of accountability of government to which public servants in democracies owe their highest commitment.
Exemption 7 lets the Government withhold records compiled for law enforcement purposes, if they can show that producing those records would cause a specified harm. Under 7(E), that harm is disclosing “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations.”
In section III paragraph 2 of his opinion ruling that withholding the records fits under 7(E), Kavanaugh says the Government made that case. But there is no evidence that they did. Disclosing federal polygraph program data would not harm law enforcement. Rather, polygraph programs themselves, according to the National Academy of Sciences’ 2003 polygraph report, harm law enforcement by generating too many inaccurate results to be good for security in contexts such as screening National Lab employees for spies—both missing too many real spies and implicating too many innocent employees.
Bias and efficacy data on federal polygraph programs that was not made available to the National Academy scientists or other researchers might show problems with bias and efficacy. But this would hurt polygraph programs, not law enforcement in the sense the Court means. Perhaps because most polygraphers are current or former law enforcement, law enforcement seem to have trouble telling the difference. Yet it is bias and backfiring programs such as polygraph programs, not disclosing information about these problems, that undermine rule of law and national security.
In section III paragraph 4, Kavanaugh says “The reports at issue in this case assist law enforcement agencies in taking ‘proactive steps’ to deter illegal activity and ensure national security. As the Government notes, law enforcement agencies use polygraphs to test the credibility of witnesses and criminal defendants.” But rather than deterring illegal activity, polygraphs make a mockery of law enforcement who use them because it is widely known that they do not work. This makes law enforcement look unprofessional and ineffective, encouraging illegal activity.
Moreover, to the extent that law enforcement agencies really use polygraphs to test witness and defendant credibility, releasing data on polygraphs’ bias and efficacy should either help bolster law enforcement’s credibility—or cause law enforcement to question their use of polygraphs. If the data are so good that they prove polygraphs are much better than scientists have long thought they are, then law enforcement should be excited to release that data in order to deter illegal activity and promote national security, according to Kavanaugh’s own logic.
In section III paragraph 5, Kavanaugh says “The Government has satisfactorily explained how polygraph examinations serve law enforcement purposes.” But explaining that would require showing data on polygraph programs that contradicts everything scientists know about how they undermine security. That is exactly what Kavanaugh permits the Government to refrain from doing.
In the same paragraph, he goes on to claim “It has also explained how the reports assessing the efficacy of those examinations and identifying needed fixes likewise serve law enforcement purposes” by helping “ensure that law enforcement officers optimally use an important law enforcement tool.” But again, unless the government’s data on polygraph efficacy contradicts everything scientists have known about polygraphs for fifty years, this non-transparency in efficacy data merely covers up inefficacy. Kavanaugh is effectively helping law enforcement cover up their incompetence, protecting “the man behind the curtain” with judicial non-transparency.
In section III paragraph 9, Kavanaugh repeats his faith in non-transparency (and the District Court’s before him). He says that releasing even “reasonably segregable” parts of reports on polygraph efficacy “whether pertaining to the strengths of polygraphs, their weaknesses, or anything else—would create ‘at least a risk that subversive individuals will be armed with advanced knowledge of the procedures used by the United States to screen applicants for sensitive employment positions and security clearances’ ” (Sack v. Dept. of Defense, 6 F. Supp. 3d 78, 91 (D.D.C. 2013)). But this is utterly illogical. Letting researchers evaluate programs consistently charged with bias and inefficacy does not help subversives. Rather, promoting freedom of information, scholarship, and the advancement of science in a free society improves the functioning and accountability of government including law enforcement in that society. Kavanaugh does not seem to understand how democracy works.
Government secrecy around federal polygraph programs guards weakness, not strength. That weakness is already publicly known. Defending it with non-transparency undermines rather than strengthening national security.
It is the role of federal judges to check and balance governmental power in other branches when citizens ask them to. In this case, Judge Kavanaugh was asked to check several executive branch abuses of power. In one area—OMB’s imaginative FOIA fee structure guideline limiting student access to public records requests—he forced the executive to back down and stop denying students their rightful educational requestor status. But in another—the application of Exemption 7(E) to permit DOD to withhold polygraph program data—he upheld non-transparency in a way that hurt national security… But bowed down to its chant in the name of the status quo.
The form of national security that Kavanaugh defended in this decision was an emperor with no clothes.
Mark Harris’s Wired article “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings,” featuring some of my polygraph research, runs today.
Very happy to be off social media; but also very appreciative of the efforts going on there and everywhere to recognize, celebrate, and find Arjen. It’s been really nice to be with good people at Hack42, the fabulous hackerspace where he helped me get an artist residency in 2015, and think of him.
It’s the least of anyone’s worries, but I have felt like I should wait for him to finish my second poetry book, Vagabonding. Some of the poems are his, and part of the dedication. So he has an ownership stake in my work, although he’s not the owning type and would deny it gracefully…
But I also thought he would stumble out of the woods any day going: “Dudes! I was camping. What is wrong with you? Chill out.” And if that were going to happen, it probably would have happened. So maybe I should just finish the book.
Meanwhile, here are some more poems from adventures with my love R. Thinking of my favorite vagabonds.
Walking downtown for food at night,
we stumble across its ugly light.
Guards with semis and machine guns pace
outside the fencing around its face.
Projected up against a wall,
red, white, and blue enthrall
with missing stars and wrong-numbered stripes.
At least you cannot see the pipes.
But the half-empty bookshelves are plain to see
through open curtains. It occurs to me
this, too, is a display of power.
Some would hide their ignorance.
Never a country known to cower,
the bloated Merkan embassy
displays its dumb indifference.
The long arc of history bends black.
Austrian police are here where country ends
to help keep brown people back.
“Blood, wine, ticking time”
The Red Sea is not red.
The hope here is not dead.
It probably used to be,
from coral and algae,
dead kings and dead books.
But the reefs are dying everywhere
along with tourism here and there
where terror scares people away.
We saw it last summer in France,
the lavender fields swaying a yellow-brown dance
from too much rain,
and what if a truck should come again?
The wine-dark Mediterranean, too,
is no longer wine-dark,
though we couldn’t see through.
It was more like thyme honey
in how it looked darker, far away.
The world has no less blood in it now than then,
no less life. There are no fewer stories to write.
But we see differently as the waters change.
As we change them, and are changed.
Time now means disruption.
Mere weeks ago, every day it seemed like my second poetry book was nearly ready. Then I started finding holes, places where I hadn’t quite told the story like I’d thought, like I meant to, like it lies whole in my heart. And other things happened in the world. In response to old holes and new events, I did what I do: I wrote new poems. Most of which are not good enough to post, and all of which will need time and rewriting before I can even decide whether or not to include them in the manuscript. So that finishing-the-book-by-September thing didn’t happen. But here are a few more new poems.
“If you should die”
If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll hunt you down and kill you.
“But I’m at peace!” your ghost will say,
grinning from the deep blue.
I’ll drag it up and string it out to dry in harshest sun.
I’ll stretch it out to wrap around the shivering none
of our knowing where you’ve gone and what you’re up to these days.
Don’t think I won’t do it. I have my ways.
If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll drive a stake into your heart.
Don’t think you won’t feel it from the start.
I’ll hammer out the gold in your soul
to make jewelry. Sand your bones to bowls.
I’ll bunch and twist your hair into brushes.
Sell your organs to the Russians.
You’d better come back, someday.
I left with three full back-up drives on me.
When I got away, they were all empty.
It’s just as well.
There’s no one to tell.
And perhaps always it is better
to start a blank letter
when events interrupt
in a manner abrupt
and what you were saying
is trumped by surveying
Let your mind deplane.
It’s a new Old World to join again.
“What if there were poetic justice?”
Would there still be police to address mere crime,
if we could get at the real thing all of the time?
Would blacklists even need to be found
for their authors to rot underground?
Would eagles descend like for Telemachus
to scratch out the faces of those who mock us?
Or would the world look much like this,
except some people just wouldn’t exist?
“Looking for Land”
The painted waves surprise me
with their steady pink and purple brush-strokes,
unmoving lakes of turquoise, yellow-green, and peach,
fields of water-lily likeness.
I look closer, quicker, out the window
as they fly by between wet wheat
and damp beige houses—
Because the light in the sky sparkles with laughter,
it is impossible that you are dead.
Yet you’re more Democritus than Aristotle,
and would laugh just as brightly after
I said “red sky at morning, sailors take warning;
red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
Be night, be night, be night.
Do not be the red sky of death over
a frozen body floating without breath.
It is quite impossible, although men fall,
that you should have paddled down a fjord
toward an Arctic sea and then toward
the bottom, a rush of water and all
the heaviness of life, the freezing pull,
the heft of a forced salt mouthful
too many and too fast
for even you to last.
Do not make your home in the sea
when you know your home is here with me.
Will you make your place
here in the new space
between knowing and not knowing
if you’re coming or going,
went well or badly,
died for helping dissidents tell the truth,
or slipped away to secretly relive some youth?
Delighting in travel, accounting for nothing to no one,
but still helping others in need on the rocky sea
when you stumble across each other having lost and won,
like I helped you and you helped me?
Do not tell me if you fought and lost,
if you were frightened or forced to pay the ultimate cost.
Because you’re in the light, so you’re with me in the day—
laughing, one, making fun.
But I still hope you’re the night, anyway.
Safe and warm, with someplace to stay,
having decided to rest and stay away.
Tell me, someday, if you can, how to help you there.
You know we can sit in stillness if you tell me where.
When we first heard you were missing, I lit a candle like we used to do,
and prayed and tried to talk to you. In my daydream that sleepless night,
you comforted me. You were resting, you said, on a soft bed
under a starry sky beneath a shimmering silver tarp.
And I thought leaves, thought we’d find you
half-buried with late summer silver and green
and a sharp hiking stick or something metal jutting up
shining through some non-lethal muck,
but surely with two simply broken legs and only just out of water.
Then they said you had bought a folding kayak.
Later a fisherman found your things just out to sea.
But now I think the shimmering silver tarp with which you comforted me,
its warm blanket enveloping your warm embrace and steady face
when I cried out shaking your shoulder to know where you were and come,
must be not water and its grave.
Must be only time rippling over,
time that shines warm even in Nordic nights,
time that you will take to come clearer,
to fight and fly through some awful danger, cold as death,
and finally then come nearer again to the friends
who would have wanted to get you warm and dry
if ever you should have fallen.
We believe in you.
You are not allowed to die.
You are just too good a guy.
This poem isn’t going in the book, but goes with this painting that is apparently going on the blog.
Both were inspired by that time I developed sphenoid sinusitis after pitching paintings that not a single gallerist in sub-zero Cologne would even look at this February, and subsequently: lost my wallet and stuff in the station right out of my hands cos I probably had blind spots I didn’t know about, cried all the way home on the train from the pain, went partially deaf, and generally had a medical emergency without it occurring to me I was having a medical emergency. (I thought it was a migraine, and then a cold, and then…) Then socialized medicine saved my life with a surgery that didn’t bankrupt me because I have subsidized health insurance as a freelance artist. (It was about ten euros. Germany is cool. Charité is awesome.)
Silly poem, silly story. Still, I liked the metaphor enough to write and paint it. I think we all have snakes inside us capable of striking when we don’t see them coming. And experiences or times when we need help but don’t actually have the expertise to convey what’s going on, to get it. It’s just a particular instance of one of those universal experiences that art is supposed to convey, in order to drum up empathy among humans for humans. (Humans are ok.) Not bad work, if you can get it. Better, perhaps, if you can’t… And do it as an outsider for its own sake.
The gravel road behind my face
leads to my red third eye.
The bucking snake there rises up
to strike and kill the sky.
What fire kindles behind my eye?
Days from dead
inside my head
with pain and dread.
Raising scales that throb and pound,
the rattle makes its warning sound.
Help—at last I cry and moan.
That was its poison, and my koan.
It was my voice it feared the most.
I killed the snake. I am its ghost.