A Rejoinder on Polygraph

Dear Mr. Aftergood:

Having been a polygraph examiner with the CIA for thirty-one years, I have been reading with interest the material you have been presenting re polygraph.

At the 10 October 2002 press conference announcing the results of the NAS study on polygraph, Dr. Kathryn Laskey made the statement that no spy has ever been caught as a result of polygraph testing. Dr. Laskey was quoted in The New York Times (twice), The Washington Post, Washington Times and Wall Street Journal on the following day.

Drew Richardson seemed to embellish Dr. Laskey's quote in commenting that not only had no spy ever been caught, but none ever would be caught through the use of polygraph. Richardson also noted that Laskey's comments were echoed by many of the other panel members. Re Richardson's latter comment, to my knowledge, Dr. Laskey's comment was not echoed by anyone at the press conference.

In Doctor Zelicoff's 27 May 2003 "Polygraphs -- Worse Than Worthless," which appeared in The Washington Post, he also alluded to this quote.

In an attempt to try and set the record straight, I called Dr. Laskey. When she did not return my call, I wrote to her. Ultimately, I did speak with her. When I told her that I took exception to her comment, her immediate response was, "As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back."

I advised Dr. Laskey that incidents in which spies have been caught through polygraph are a matter of public record, specifically, Sharon Scranage and Jim Nicholson. There are others, but those two were featured in The Washington Post stories.

Dr. Laskey claimed that she had never heard of Sharon Scranage, and I found this surprising. Before ending our conversation, Dr. Laskey, said, "I guess I will have to write a letter."

I am still waiting.

My attempts to "set the record straight" with The Washington Post and William Safire of the NY Times failed. I then wrote to Dr. Paul Stern at NAS. Dr. Stern said that he didn't know whether Dr. Laskey's statement was true or not, and that the NAS study did not speak to the issue of any spies being caught through the use of polygraph.

My reply to Dr. Stern asked two questions: To what issue and for whom was Dr. Laskey speaking when she made her comment? And, if you don't know whether or not her statement was true, in the name of intellectual honesty, how can you let it stand?

Dr. Stern did not reply.

Aldrich ("Rick") Ames' letter to you also got my attention. I knew and worked with Ames. In my book Of Spies and Lies, I cite a test that I did for him in which I caught a Czech double agent who had been trained to beat the polygraph. I tested and identified another of Ames' agents who turned out to be a double agent. In the book, I also cite a test in which one of my colleagues caught a Bloc agent who had applied to work for the CIA.

Dr. Zelicoff's comments re Ames in his "The Polygraph vs. National Security" are a little off the mark. To my knowledge, Ames was tested three times, not more than five, as Dr. Zelicoff states; once, before he began spying for the Russians and twice after. It should also be noted that Ames did more than 90 percent of the damage he did in the interval between his first and second tests. I know of no security procedure that would have stopped Ames' first venture into espionage.

Dr. Zelicoff's comment , "Scientists objected strongly, as they knew that polygraph had never caught a spy," is in error. Dr. Paul Stern didn't know whether or not a spy had ever been caught by a polygraph test, and he ran the NAS study.

I do not question Dr. Zelicoff's sincerity, but his statement includes a degree of hyperbole as well as factual errors, as described above.

Mr. Aftergood, I am not a rabid proponent of polygraph and know, better than most, its limitations, but there is another side to the polygraph story which, in all fairness, deserves a hearing.

Yours truly,

John F. Sullivan
Author of OF SPIES AND LIES: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam