Edward Snowden

US targets lie-detector coaches following Edward Snowden affair

Washington targets instructors who say they can coach candidates to pass tests in crackdown on security staff following Snowden affair

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 August, 2013, 9:52am

US federal agents have launched a criminal investigation into instructors who claim they can teach job applicants how to pass lie-detector tests as part of the Obama administration's unprecedented crackdown on security violators and leakers.

The criminal inquiry, which has not been acknowledged publicly, is aimed at discouraging criminals and spies from infiltrating the US government by using the polygraph-beating techniques, which are said to include controlled breathing, muscle- tensing, tongue-biting and mental arithmetic.

The undercover stings are being cited as the latest examples of the Obama administration's emphasis on rooting out "insider threats," referring to employees who might become spies and leak to the media such as Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the agency's secret data-collection programmes.

The Obama administration launched the offensive in 2011 after US Army private Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified documents and sent them to WikiLeaks.

So far, the 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. US agencies have determined that at least 20 of them applied for government and federal contracting jobs, and at least half of them were hired, including by the National Security Agency.

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, which guarantees free speech.

"Nothing like this has been done before," John Schwartz, a US Customs and Border Protection official, said of the legal approach. "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 federal government previously treated such instructors only as nuisances, partly because the polygraph-beating techniques are unproven. Instructors have openly advertised and discussed their techniques and as many as 30 people or businesses claim they can teach how to beat a polygraph test, the US government estimates.

Authorities have launched stings targeting Doug Williams, a former Oklahoma City police polygrapher, and Chad Dixon, an Indiana man who is said to have been inspired by Williams' book on the techniques, people who are familiar with the investigation said. Dixon has pleaded guilty to federal charges of obstructing an agency proceeding and wire fraud. Prosecutors plan to ask a federal judge to sentence Dixon to two years in prison.

Williams, a self-professed "crusader" who has railed against the use of polygraph testing, and who has openly advertised his teachings, said he has done nothing wrong.

Several people familiar with the investigation said Dixon and Williams had agreed to meet with undercover agents and teach them 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 favour from an underage girl.

Dixon declined to say what he was paid but it is thought people involved with countermeasures training generally charge US$1,000 for a one-on-one session.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I somehow imagine I was committing a crime," Dixon said.

A Wisconsin police chief, Russell Ehlers, sold a video while off-duty that discussed countermeasures, but he said he had recently stopped selling it after hearing about the criminal investigation. He said he had wanted to help "good" police candidates pass the test and added that innocent people were routinely accused of lying during polygraph tests.