Special Forces Units Ignore Bureaucrat Memo, and Save Lives

By signing a memo Oct. 29, 2007, James R. Clapper Jr. exposed U.S. military personnel to greater-than-necessary danger as they served their country in Afghanistan, Iraq and other hot spots around the world.

Then an Under Secretary of Defense and now our nation’s Director of National Intelligence, Clapper designated the polygraph and its hand-held cousin, the Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System, as the “only approved credibility assessment technologies” in DoD. At the same time, he sent a dangerous message to U.S. troops: “Stop using the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer.”

Fortunately, some of our nation’s bravest warriors sided with common sense and opted to ignore The Clapper Memo. One of those who did was, until recently, a member of the Army Special Forces whom I will call “Joe” (not his real name).

Trained in counterintelligence and as an interrogator, this former SF operator used CVSA to conduct nearly 500 interrogations of enemy combatants and third-country nationals — more than anyone in the U.S. military — while serving in Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq and regularly working 18-hour days from 2004 to 2009.

Joe agreed to speak with me on condition of anonymity about his firsthand experience with CVSA and why Department of Defense leaders are wrong to keep the technology now used by more than 1,800 U.S. law enforcement agencies out of the hands of people in uniform.

“I was still downrange when that memo came out,” said Joe, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity.

After learning of the memo, Joe said he went to his commander and asked one question: “You want me to stop?”

His commander replied, “Hell no, don’t stop! You’re just not using it anymore, right?”

Despite Pentagon orders to the contrary, Joe’s SF commanders wanted him to continue using CVSA for one primary reason: They knew it was far superior to PCASS when it came to dealing with various types of detainees, captured enemy combatants, third-country nationals and others who could pose threats to U.S. and allied troops in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.

“The craziest thing about this whole deal was that it became such a controversy that, for us to continue to go up there and continue to fight — to say, ‘Hey, we need to use this,'” — “we were ordered to stand down and not even mention the words anymore,” Joe said.

Why the stand-down order? Because, according to Joe, someone in Army leadership was more willing to rely upon laboratory studies commissioned by officials and agencies with vested interests in the continued use of the polygraph instead of trusting operational research like that Joe conducted almost daily.

One of the often-cited studies that proves his point, “Assessing the Validity of Voice Stress Analysis Tools in a Jail Setting,” was conducted by University of Oklahoma Professor Kelly R. Damphousse using funds from a noncompetitive $232,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

For their participation in the 2007 study, inmates at the Oklahoma County Jail received candy bars as rewards but faced no real jeopardy, a factor that makes or breaks the validity of the test.

In places like Iraq, where CVSA worked so effectively for SF operators, Joe said, he could tell an interview subject, “Hey, you’re gonna be here for a really long time and convicted as a terrorist if I find out you’re lying to me.” Conversely, he could say, “You’re gonna go home tomorrow if you clear this chart.” In other words, jeopardy was clearly present. Not candy bars.

Not surprisingly, Joe isn’t the only soldier who shares Joe’s opinions about the polygraph and CVSA.

One “Anonymous Fort Bragg CVSA Examiner” sent me the message below soon after I published my first serious piece about the polygraph-CVSA controversy April 9, 2009. It appears unedited below:

“I was one of the first US Army soldiers trained on the CVSA system back in 2005. I have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and have used the CVSA in both theaters. Despite the unofficial “ban” on the system by the Army polygraph examiners, my commander and chain of command have supported and continue to support the CVSA.

“Over the past 4 years I have conducted over 200 CVSA exams, and kept records and logs of each exam as required by SOP. My CVSA exams have been accurate at least 94% of the time, because the information I developed from the CVSA was independently confirmed by other evidence we developed during our operations. And that is either Deceptive or Not Deceptive.

“Unlike the PCASS, there are no flashing lights, and no inconclusive results when you use a CVSA. The CVSA always lets you know whether a subject is Deceptive or Not Deceptive. Oh, did I mention some buddies from Fort Campbell who are also CVSA examiners went through PCASS training and they refuse to use it because it simply does not work. The whole PCASS concept is a joke, and when they went to PCASS training the instructors got pissed when they asked informed questions about the CVSA and polygraph.

“We will not risk our lives on a piece of junk that was put together by eggheads who don’t have a clue about the real world, and have probably never been to a combat zone. The CVSA is accurate, and has been instrumental in obtaining legal (by the book) confessions from the tests I have conducted. I have used it to get confessions from bombers , spies, infiltrators, killers, and other low life’s. They break down quickly once they know that you know the truth, and they confess.

“The CVSA has helped us round up more bad guys than I care to count. It is well regarded by Army SF and NSW, because it works. It has saved the lives of US personnel, ask any of the guys who have conducted the hundreds of CVSA exams in Iraq.

“I forgot to mention that the polygraph examiners go crazy when they find out we are using it. They will fly into our AO waving their regulations, and our chain of command boots them in the ass, and they leave with their tails between their legs. It is funny these clowns are more concerned about protecting their turf than they are about us and our mission. I am surprised the Army leadership puts up with the bullshit. They have ZERO successes to point to, only failures.”

Days later, another confidential source provided me a copy of an After Action Report written by an “insider” at Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility following a 30-day test of the technology in 2003. It’s summary included the praise below:

“During the test period, it was obvious that CVSA would become an invaluable tool for focusing the efforts of intelligence collection. By virtue of utilizing the CVSA equipment and training, interrogations could be focused on areas where deception if indicated, versus wasting time and energy on avenues of exploitation that would have little to no value. The outcomes of the 30 day test period has shown outstanding results, and has generated a high degree of interest and satisfaction among the intelligence community.”

I also received a copy of a letter written by a high-ranking interrogation official (name withheld) who served at GITMO while CVSA was tested there. He listed seven distinct advantages of CVSA (shown unedited below) over the traditional polygraph system:

1. It is more portable.

2. It is less intrusive (microphone as opposed to galvanic, heart, blood pressure, and breathing monitors).

3. Less training required for the examiner.

4. The test is easier to explain to the subject before the test is administered.

5. The test results are easier to explain to the subject. (The charts for both control questions and relevant questions can be shown and explained. This makes post test questioning much easier.)

6. There are no inconclusive test results.

7. The examiner can identify the questions to which the subject’s answers appeared to show deception. This helps to focus additional questions and subsequent interrogations. (The polygraphers would not identify the questions to which the subject appeared to be deceptive when answering. They would only say the test showed “No deception indicated, deception indicated or inconclusive.”

That same GITMO interrogator included the paragraph below as his closing statement:

“My opinion based upon my observation is that CVSA is superior to the polygraph when used as a tool in the interrogation process. Consequently, I conclude that those who wish to remove CVSA from the “interrogator’s tool box” are more interested in protecting their turf than they are in gathering intelligence that protects the American people.”

The pro-CVSA opinions above stand in stark contrast to official answers I received in response to questions asked about the Army’s use of the portable lie detectors.

Appearing carefully-constructed and thoroughly-coordinated, they arrived in my inbox in early May 2009 — after 27 days and the exchange of dozens of e-mails — from U.S. Central Command. The person delivering the answers was Maj. John Redfield, an Air Force PAO assigned to CENTCOM.

Asked whether officials at the joint command considered PCASS effective after one year of use, CENTCOM responded as follows:

“The comments from forward commanders and their principal intelligence advisors regarding the value of PCASS have been very favorable. In Iraq and Afghanistan, PCASS has proven its value; aiding in the identification of individuals with inimical interests to the U.S. government and our allies has allowed commanders to take actions to reduce the risks these individuals posed.”

Asked if CENTCOM had plans to continue, expand or otherwise modify the use of PCASS devices in the field, they wrote:

“CENTCOM published guidance which authorizes the use of PCASS in our area of responsibility. The continued use and any expansion of use will be decided by commanders on the ground and those ready to deploy after consultation with their military service leadership. CENTCOM does not envision modifying the use of PCASS, as our current policy permits the use of the device as a screening tool in some very specific situations on specific individuals and under specific conditions. To expose those specifics would endanger the lives of American military personnel.”

Asked if PCASS has been credited with directly saving any American lives or thwarting any enemy operations, CENTCOM replied as follows:

“Unlike a bulletproof vest, PCASS is not a stand-alone tool which one can point to and give credit for saving lives. PCASS is an aid which complements other techniques and is a device which is complemented by other procedures. Together these tools have aided intelligence personnel in the identification of locally employed persons who were corresponding with violent extremist organizations, foreign intelligence and security services, and criminal elements. There is no way to measure how many lives were saved by taking positive action against individuals who would pass friendly information to persons who would then use that information to attack or attempt to disrupt U.S. and coalition military operations.”

In stark contrast to the official message coming from headquarters, Joe told me SF operators would “rather go back to the stubby pencil and taking an educated guess” than use PCASS.

One of the major flaws in the technology that cause Joe and others to discount PCASS can be found in polygraph training, Joe said.

“If you can trick yourself into thinking you’re a bomber,” Joe said, “then why can’t you trick yourself into thinking you’re not and trick that machine?”[Note: To see the training scenario Joe cited from the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment (formerly the DoD Polygraph Institute) at Fort Jackson, S.C., click here.]

Joe added that he thinks rank-and-file polygraphers would embrace CVSA if given the opportunity.

“If you take PCASS operators and CVSA operators, cross-train ’em and, at the end of that, give ’em some time to work with the equipment in the field, I would say 95 to 96 percent of them guys — because, you know, some people just don’t like change if they were PCASS guys first — will tell you that the CVSA is a much better piece of equipment.

As for those who remain opposed to CVSA, Joe had this message: “Anybody looking out for the welfare of the soldier and really looking at this open-minded (would) see that the CVSA is the best tool for the job,” he said.

I asked Joe what he would say, if given the chance, to our nation’s leaders in Washington about the prohibition on the CVSA use by U.S. troops.

“I would testify in front of Congress that this piece of equipment is essential for HUMINT personnel on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “If they want to save lives, they’ve got to put this piece of equipment back into that theater. Every unit should have this equipment.”

Fortunately, Joe told me that SF operators are skilled in knowing how to keep equipment “off the books.” One can only hope that some of the CVSA computers remain in use.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Stay tuned! The information in this and previous articles I’ve written and published about the polygraph-CVSA controversy represents only the “tip of the iceberg.” More will appear in my upcoming book about this controversy, “Turf War: Detecting Lies and Deception.”


  • To read true stories about the use of CVSA technology on the Arabian Peninsula during the past decade, click here.

  • To read this author’s previous posts about the polygraph-CVSA controversy, click here.


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