Bruce Ivins, Polygraphy, and Special Interests

As you (probably) know, the Department of Justice released on Friday the “final report” for the “Amerithrax” investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks. Much of the report details evidence against the late Dr. Bruce Ivins, who the FBI alleges was the sole perpetrator of the attacks.

I say “alleges”, of course, because Ivins was never actually convicted, or even indicted; he committed suicide before either had occurred.

Over the weekend, a lot of people on various websites have taken issue with parts of the investigation, the report, and its findings. Some of these folks lean rather heavily towards the conspiracy-theorist end of things, about which the less said, the better. Others have rather more reasoned and rational criticisms, and it’s some of these that need, I think, to be read with a fairly jaundiced eye.

Why? For the most part, they’re coming from people with axes to grind, or who represent special interests whose causes are furthered by taking umbrage at one or more parts of the investigation and its findings.

The article published Saturday by is a good case in point – it takes (great) offense not at the suggestion that Ivins passed a 2002 polygraph about his involvement in the case by using “countermeasures”, but at the claim that such deception was eventually identified after the fact. Obviously, as anyone who’s visited their site knows, this is what you’d expect – they exist, basically, to discredit or debunk polygraphy and other forms of scientific “lie-detection”. (Or should that be “scientific” lie-detection?)

Now, I doubt whether you can always detect the use of countermeasures to a polygraph, but I suspect quite strongly that you actually can, if they’re used badly. In fact, if you search around the web – or even elsewhere on the website – you’ll encounter anecdotal accounts of people who’ve “failed” examinations because they were accused of using countermeasures or deception techniques… techniques promoted by the website itself, I might add.

I’m not going to go into the details of polygraph countermeasures, but one of the basic ideas is to intentionally produce physiological responses at certain times, in response to certain “control” questions, to confuse or deceive the polygraph operator. There are no absolutes in interpreting polygraph results; everything is relative. Skew the reference samples, and, well… interpretation is going to be something of a challenge, I suspect; this is, after all, the whole point of using such countermeasures.

One of the things that the article seems to gloss over is the (potential) effects of Ivins’ mental condition on the polygraph exam. They mention that he was not on prescription anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication during the polygraph – and that even if he was, the effects of such medications on polygraph examinations have never been studied.

What I think they’re (intentionally) overlooking is the very real possibility that Bruce Ivins was, and I’m being very serious here, mentally infirm. Having read a lot of emails and transcripts and so on involving Ivins, and read a lot about his activities and behavior, I am pretty confident that he was not altogether mentally fit, and that his suboptimal mental state existed (well?) before 2002, when he was polygraphed. I mean, I’m no licensed mental-health effort, but some of Ivins’ actions and emails seem to suggest pretty darn strongly that he had at least mild schizophrenia…

I’m not trying to cast aspersions on the dead or anything, but I think it’s very possible that Dr. Ivins was crazy, to put it bluntly, and I’m very confident that mental illness is a very serious bar to an accurate and honest polygraph examination.

“Did you mail a letter containing anthrax spores to Tom Brokaw?”, the polygraph examiner asks.
“No, I did not”, responds Ivins.
“It was Thagmar the Magnificent”, thinks Ivins, of his alter ego who only appears after 5pm, when the drugs start wearing off.
No deception indicated, notes the examiner, because Ivins believes his answer is, in fact, true.


“Did you send a letter containing anthrax spores to Tom Brokaw?”, the polygraph examiner asks.
“No, I did not”, responds Ivins.
“The USPS sent the letter”, thinks Ivins to himself, “I just put it in the mailbox.”
No deception indicated, notes the examiner, because Ivins again believes his answer is, in fact, true.

(It should be noted that the DOJ has never posited any reason why Ivins chose the anthrax-letter recipients that he did. Daschle and Brokaw are sort-of, almost explained by some sort of ill-defined animosity on Ivins’ part towards New Jersey and New York, supposedly, but there seems to be absolutely zero motive offered for choosing the National Enquirer, in Florida, as a target. With Ivins dead, voices in his head make as good an answer as any, I suppose.)

I also suspect that the DOJ could be telling the truth about the inexperience of the polygraph examiner who administered the test to Ivins in 2002. I also suspect that hindsight, in this case, really is 20/20. Would you necessarily expect that a leading expert in a government laboratory would be insane, delusional, or out of touch with reality? Would you look for signs of that? And if this world-renown expert prefaces the examination by adding that he’s thoughtfully stopped taking his anti-nervousness and anti-depressant medications so as not to affect the exam results, might that not affect your interpretation of those very results?

A couple years later, when that same subject has emerged as a leading suspect, and more information has become available about his erratic behavior, is it not plausible that you might look back at the original exam results and re-interpret them in a less-benign light? That plays right into one of the main assertions of the anti-polygraph activists, after all – that there is little science in polygraphy, but that it’s mostly a subjective art of interpretation, subject to human factors.

Look, I agree that “lie-detectors” of whatever stripe are inherently flawed and unreliable. But I can’t help feeling that are letting their animosity towards the DOJ and FBI color their interpretation of the Amerithrax report, in large part because it suits their purposes to do so.

The same is true of a lot of the other analyses and criticisms of the report that are out there, or will soon be. I’m not suggesting all these criticisms are unfounded – though I’ve seen at least one that is; rather, I’m suggesting – urging – that, as with most things in life, you consider the source, before deciding who’s telling porkies, and how far-reaching the “conspiracy” to “frame” Ivins was.

Published in: Geekiness, General | on February 22nd, 2010| 3 Comments »

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  1. On 2/28/2010 at 2:18 am Thomas Said:

    Tangentially, what I’m trying to figure out is if the claim is that polygraphs are unscientific, what is the need to employ countermeasures? You don’t need to trick a liar out of their own lie.

  2. On 2/28/2010 at 2:23 am Nemo Said:

    Think of “employing countermeasures” as synonymous with “inserting observer bias”; screwing with the perceptions of the polygraph examiner.

  3. On 3/12/2010 at 2:14 am Thomas Said:

    well, yes, I get what the attempt is aimed at. I just don’t understand the need to add bias into a sham. If it’s a sham then let them do what they will, claim what they will, and then you say, “that’s all fine and nice. Too bad it’s all a bunch of hooey. See ya.”

    Now, if the claim is it really works but is perhaps not accurate to a rigorous enough degree of certainty then I can see the need to employ countermeasures.

    that’s all I’m getting at.