WASHINGTON — Federal agents, as part of an Obama administration crackdown on security violators and leakers, have launched a criminal investigation of instructors who claim they can teach job applicants how to pass lie-detector tests.
The criminal inquiry, which has not been acknowledged publicly, is aimed at discouraging criminals and spies from infiltrating the U.S. government by using so-called polygraph-beating techniques, which are said to include controlled breathing, muscle tensing, tongue biting and mental arithmetic.
Authorities have targeted at least two instructors, one of whom has pleaded guilty to federal charges, several people familiar with the investigation said.
Investigators confiscated business records from the two men, which included the names of as many as 5,000 people who had sought polygraph-beating advice. U.S. agencies have determined that at least 20 of those people applied for government and federal contracting jobs, and at least half of that group was hired, including by the National Security Agency (NSA).
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By attempting to prosecute the instructors, federal officials are adopting a controversial legal stance that sharing such information should be treated as a crime and is not protected under the First Amendment in some circumstances.
“Nothing like this has been done before,” John Schwartz, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, said of the approach in a June speech to a professional polygraphers’ conference in Charlotte, N.C. “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.”
The undercover stings are being cited as the latest examples of the Obama administration’s emphasis on rooting out “insider threats,” a catchall phrase meant to describe employees who might become spies, leak to the news media, commit crimes or be corrupted in some way.
The federal government previously treated such instructors as nuisances, partly because the polygraph-beating techniques are unproven. Instructors have openly advertised and discussed their techniques online, in books and on national television. Up to 30 people or businesses nationwide claim in Web advertisements that they can teach someone how to beat a polygraph test, according to U.S. government estimates.
In the past year, authorities have launched stings targeting Doug Williams, a former Oklahoma City police polygrapher, and Chad Dixon, of Indiana, who is said to have been inspired by Williams’ book on the techniques, people familiar with the investigation said.
Dixon has pleaded guilty to federal charges of obstructing an agency proceeding and wire fraud. Prosecutors indicated they plan to ask a federal judge to sentence Dixon to two years in prison. Williams declined to comment, other than to say he has done nothing wrong.
While legal experts agree authorities could pursue the prosecution, some accused the government of overreaching in the name of national security.
The federal government gives polygraph tests to about 70,000 people a year for security clearances and jobs, but most courts won’t allow polygraph results to be submitted as evidence, citing the machines’ unreliability. Scientists question whether polygraphers can identify liars by interpreting measurements of blood pressure, sweat activity and respiration. Researchers say the polygraph-beating techniques cannot be detected with certainty, either.
Citing the scientific skepticism, one attorney compared the prosecution of polygraph instructors to indicting someone for practicing voodoo.
“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?” asked Gene Iredale, a California attorney who often represents federal defendants. “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. 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.’”
In his speech in June, Customs official Schwartz acknowledged that teaching the techniques — known in polygraph circles as “countermeasures” — is not always illegal and might be protected under the First Amendment in some situations.
But instructors may be prosecuted if they know their students plan to lie about crimes during federal polygraphs, he said.
The Obama administration’s Insider Threat Program is intended to deter what the government condemns as betrayals by “trusted insiders” such as Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the agency’s secret communications data-collection programs. The administration launched the Insider Threat Program in 2011, after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government-secrecy group.
As part of the program, employees are being urged to report co-workers for a wide range of “risky” behaviors, personality traits and attitudes. Broad definitions of insider threats also give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of conduct other than leaking classified information.
Documents in Dixon’s case are filed under seal in federal court, and prosecutors did not return calls seeking comment.
People familiar with the investigation said Dixon and Williams had agreed to teach undercover agents how to pass polygraph tests for a fee. The agents then posed as people connected to a drug trafficker and as a correctional officer who had smuggled drugs into a jail and had received a sexual favor from an underage girl.
Dixon wouldn’t say how much he was paid, but people familiar with countermeasures training said others generally charged $1,000 for a one-on-one session.
Dixon, 34, also declined to provide specifics on his guilty plea, but he said he had become an instructor because he couldn’t find work as an electrical contractor. During the investigation, his house went into foreclosure.
“My wife and I are terrified,” he said. “I stumbled into this. I’m a Little League coach in Indiana.”
Prosecutors plan to ask for prison time even though Dixon has agreed to cooperate, has no criminal record and has four young children. The maximum sentence for the two charges is 25 years in prison.
Williams, 67, has advertised his teachings for three decades, even discussing them in detail on “60 Minutes” and other national news programs.
He testified in congressional hearings that led to the 1988 banning of polygraph testing by most private employers.
Some federal officials questioned whether people who taught countermeasures should be prosecuted.
Although polygraphers, who are known as examiners, are trained to identify people who are using the techniques, “There’s absolutely nothing that’s codified about countermeasures,” said one federal security official with polygraph expertise, who asked not to be named. “It’s the most ambiguous thing that people can debate. If you have a guy who’s nervous about his test, the easiest way out of it for the examiner is to say it’s countermeasures, when it’s not.”
The security official described Williams as a “gadfly” known for teaching ineffective methods. Polygraphers say that one of Williams’ signature techniques produces erratic respiration patterns on a polygraph test. Demonstrating their disdain for his methods, many polygraphers call the pattern the “Bart Simpson.”
“Prosecutors are trying to make an example of him,” the official said. “It serves to elevate polygraph to something it hasn’t been before, that teaching countermeasures is akin to teaching bomb making, and that there’s something inherently disloyal about disseminating this type of information.”