WASHINGTON — The U.S. military conducted hundreds of polygraph tests on detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan despite doubts about whether innocent civilians could be accurately separated from accused terrorists, documents obtained by McClatchy Newspapers show.
The Air Force alone tested more than 1,000 detainees in Iraq to determine whether they were involved in terrorist attacks on U.S. military personnel or whether they should be released. As the screening was under way, polygraphers voiced concerns about the results, in part because they were posing questions through interpreters in a war-torn country.
“I have serious questions as to the accuracy of exams done in this environment,” wrote one polygrapher who was involved in 240 of the tests over two deployments. “I think the decision was made to contribute to the war effort … with little regard to the problems associated with doing these.”
The polygraphers’ observations from 2004 to 2008 offer yet another example of the U.S. military’s controversial detainee-interrogation policies overseas in the wake of 9/11. Their experiences also raise broader questions about the growing use of polygraph abroad — often with the encouragement of the U.S. government.
The U.S., for instance, has agreed to pay for polygraph machines to boost the Mexican government’s crackdown on drug cartels. U.S. military officials have urged the Afghan and Iraqi governments to use polygraph screening to root out corrupt officials and terrorists despite concerns that the tests aren’t reliable.
The American Polygraph Association announced this month that its membership grew significantly this year, in part because more foreign polygraphers are signing up. The professional organization said that almost one-quarter of its membership was now foreign, indicating “the expanding use of polygraph testing around the world.”
The Air Force’s polygraph testing in several Iraq military prisons dates at least to 2004, only months after revelations of abuses by American prison guards at Abu Ghraib. By then, the Bush administration also had authorized harsh interrogation methods on detainees at Guantanamo.
The Air Force polygraphers often worked at the behest of military interrogators, who determined which detainees would be tested and what questions would be asked. In the documents, the polygraphers didn’t mention the earlier controversies over detainee interrogations or the abuses by guards at Abu Ghraib, nor did they accuse the interrogators of abuses. However, they described the interrogators as prone to rely on the polygraph tests to support their own conclusions about detainees’ guilt or innocence.
At times, several polygraphers said, important information was unearthed, including about attacks that killed troops. One wrote that the tests “saved lives and contributed to the deaths and captures of many insurgent leaders and operators.”
But others said they doubted their own conclusions about detainees.
“It was frustrating at times because I felt as if the results of my work did not amount to anything that really contributed to the war on terror or our efforts in Iraq,” wrote one who tested 90 detainees. “I can’t remember which test was the least important because there were honestly so many exams that just didn’t seem to have impact.”
Despite such misgivings about wartime polygraph testing, the U.S. government also authorized the use of handheld devices in Iraq and Afghanistan that were considered even less reliable than the traditional machines were. The documents don’t say what type of equipment the Air Force used, and the government had redacted portions of the documents. Katelyn Sack, a University of Virginia polygraph researcher who provided the documents to McClatchy, said the Air Force appeared to have used traditional machines.
One of the polygraphers worried that military personnel were falsely implicating people. In one case, interrogators claimed that a detainee was arrested with a “large cache of weapons.” It turned out that the man lived in a neighborhood where several people were rounded up.
“The ‘weapons cache’ was either an accumulation of weapons found in all the homes, or was found in one of the homes but attributed to each of the individuals detained at the same time,” the polygrapher wrote. “The interrogator told me that these ambiguous reports are not unusual. … He told me that it could very well be that this particular detainee didn’t have any weapons at all in his home.”
One polygrapher — who screened 110 detainees in 2005 and 2006, including at Abu Ghraib — said the polygraph test results had no impact on detainees at Abu Ghraib because interrogators “already knew” from other evidence that the detainees were guilty.
“Interrogators wanted to use the failed polygraph (what they suspected would be a failed polygraph) as a ‘hammer,’ ” the polygrapher wrote.
Another polygrapher said a test “ ‘cleared’ an old man … wrongly ‘fingered’ by a jealous neighbor.”
“Despite the results he was sent to Abu Ghraib prison,” the polygrapher said.
In an internal memo, the Air Force said 46 percent of the detainees were deemed to have been lying. Yet 90 percent of the tests were based on “extremely generic, anonymous and perishable reporting,” according to the memo.
One polygrapher said the interrogators sometimes told the detainees they’d failed when they had not.
But the Air Force pressed ahead and temporarily authorized a controversial technique that intelligence agencies use during polygraph testing. The Air Force said in the memo that the technique, known as the relevant/irrelevant test, was used with “great success” in Afghanistan. But some Air Force polygraphers in Iraq raised questions about it.
The technique, which the National Security Agency uses, often shows people as being deceptive, known as “DI,” according to one polygrapher. The NSA also sent polygraphers to Iraq, the documents show.
“I felt as if I were unfairly administering a ‘DI’ test to an individual who might actually” not be lying, an Air Force polygrapher wrote. Unlike the Air Force results, the National Security Agency tests on detainees in Iraq “are not reviewed by anyone, are not sent forward to their headquarters and are not filed in any database,” another polygrapher wrote.