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Dr. John Morgan, assistant director for science and technology at the National Institute of Justice, agrees that the CVSA has not been subjected to a thorough scientific evaluation. “There is no objective data to provide the basis for voice stress or polygraph as a reliable method for detecting deception or stress,” Morgan told TAS.
The most rigorous studies on the CVSA, such as Victor L. Cestaro’s for the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s for the National Institute of Justice, have not thoroughly tested the device. The Cestaro study relied on a mock crime scenario “in the absence of jeopardy.” The National Institute of Justice study had one real world component which found that the CVSA accurately detected stress in 45 out of 45 cases. Both studies found that while it detects stress, they could not confirm the detection of deception.
To the strict empiricists, the lack of scientific verification of the CVSA is a sufficient case against its use. John Palmatier, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida polygraph examiner and critic of the new technology, argues that without scientific backing, the CVSA could be a gimmick. While it may well elicit confessions, that “does not mean that the device itself discriminates between what is true and what is deceptive,” Palmatier wrote in an article for an American Bar Association journal.
Still, Palmatier admits in the article “there is as yet no definitive answer” whether the CVSA is “a modern technological innovation or ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes.’” Palmatier’s primary concern is that the CVSA could be a mere prop used to browbeat confessions from interviewees. He wrote, “Almost anything can be portrayed as a magic device that will enable its user to see what is true.” While Palmatier depends on the polygraph for his livelihood, he told TAS that “if the CVSA worked I’d be using it.” Could the CVSA ever be a proper tool? “Given the proper research and the proper development, maybe someday, but not right now,” he said.
Even if the CVSA is a scam, its devoted users find it worth spending thousands on training and multiple machines. “If it’s a prop, it’s an expensive prop,” Humble said. The aforementioned Guantanamo supervisor pointed to its utility, “If it’s a prop, and it works, oh well.” Schaumburg Detective Rago said of the prop accusation, “For me, it works, so I might as well use it.” Though critics are dismissive of the CVSA, the conflict over the device boils down to very different perspectives: utility versus scientific reliability.
WHILE CRITICS DISMISS voice stress as scientifically unreliable, the polygraph — the Pentagon’s equipment of choice — offers little or no advantages. The polygraph is known for its unreliability, from the countermeasures which can render exams inconclusive to its failures to catch notorious interviewees, such as Aldrich Ames.
In the case proscribing polygraph exams as admissible evidence, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “To this day, the scientific community remains extremely polarized about the reliability of polygraph techniques….[T]here is simply no way to know in a particular case whether a polygraph examiner’s conclusion is accurate, because certain doubts and uncertainties plague even the best polygraph exams.”
Compounding widespread scientific doubt of the polygraph is the National Academy of Sciences findings on the polygraph’s use for security screening. Commissioned by the Department of Energy, the 2003 study found evidence for the polygraph’s validity “scanty and scientifically weak.”
The Academy found that most government polygraph research is conducted by those invested in the polygraph’s success. Pointing specifically to the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute (DoDPI), the study reported that
These pointed questions about the polygraph’s scientific validity are nearly identical to the Pentagon’s arguments against the CVSA.
DoD personnel may help explain this inconsistency in DoD policy. DoDPI’s chief of special studies, Frank Horvath, is the former president of the American Polygraph Association, the professional organization of polygraph examiners. The office upon which the DoD relies most for its scientific studies on the polygraph and the CVSA is a steadfast defender of the polygraph. And other federal agencies cite DoDPI studies in rejecting the CVSA.
Humble and others interviewed by TAS believe most polygraph examiners are biased in favor of the polygraph even after their careers wind down, as most law enforcement and military polygraphers open private practices after retirement. If CVSA gains in use and credibility, many examiners like Palmatier could be out of business. “You’re talking about guys who are attached to this as a retirement bonus program,” said the Guantanamo supervisor, “You’re immediately in a rice bowl issue and fur starts to fly. DoDPI’s going to protect itself there and they have a monopoly.”
While the CVSA has its skeptics, the former executive director of the National Institute for Truth Verification is still a believer. David Hughes, a former police captain who is no longer with NITV as when TAS began reporting on the story, continues his support for CVSA, despite being engaged in a legal dispute with Humble.
THE PENTAGON HAS THWARTED military attempts to expand CVSA use. The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) showed a particular interest in developing the CVSA for the field, receiving an NITV briefing August 24, 2004. SOCOM requested and received funding to miniaturize the equipment into a handheld Field Interrogation Support Tool. This program is listed in the fiscal year 2005 budget for the Defense Acquisition Challenge Program (DACP), and was reported by Special Operations Technology magazine and as recently as October 15 in the St. Petersburg Times.
Sensing DoD opposition in the early months of 2005, SOCOM commissioned a survey of domestic law enforcement agencies utilizing the CVSA. In March 2005, independent researchers contacted agencies across eight states. The researchers reported to SOCOM that domestic agencies warmly recommend the CVSA as an investigative tool. A researcher familiar with the survey said that, based on this research, “Without this tool, it slows down criminal investigations, and somebody’s kid is not going to come home, that’s domestically and internationally.” On average, those surveyed perceived the CVSA as more than 91% reliable.
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