FBI Citizens’ Academy – Week 3

Week #3: FBI Polygraph Program, Domestic Terrorism, and Counter-Espionage

Get some popcorn and a drink ’cause this one’s a long one. Lots to cover in one little evening…

We started off with the FBI’s polygraph (aka: lie detector) program. I came into the presentation with an admitted sort of doubt about “lie detectors” thinking they weren’t far from hypnosis and other voodoo jazz (sorry if you’re into voodoo or jazz…it’s just a saying). Boy was I wrong. The Agent was compressed from a 2-hour time slot down into 1-hour, so he had to fly through the introductory part in order to get to the meat and potatoes: an actual demonstration of a polygraph examination. The precursor material wasn’t drab either…especially since he kept our resident “conspiracy theorist” at bay! We were taught that as with other relatively unregulated industries out there, polygraph examination has a lot of phonies and/or folks who take the “2 day weekend course at a community college” and claim to be an examiner. Apparently there is a TON of science, experience, and knowledge that go into being a successful examiner. The scary thing is that the Agent hinted to the notion that some examiners who are perceived as “official” (i.e. other smaller agencies or companies) have been known to have some of these lesser-experienced examiners who are responsible for the end result: “yes” or “no” about whether or not they’re lying. The FBI requires strict and detailed certification and training for its examiners. They also require the examiner’s results to be sent to another FBI reviewer to review the exam results; someone who has no personal involvement or knowledge, who just simply interprets the polygraph data (the squiggles you’re probably thinking of from seeing tests in TV/movies).

Some interesting facts about polygraph exams (at least from the FBI perspective):

  • Exams are 100% voluntary. If a person was forced to take one (physically or mentally), they’d never get accurate results since strict body control is required (breathing, attention, etc.) of the participant.
  • Exams are done in a as-plain-as-possible room…no windows, no posters, no sounds. Just the examiner, the machine, and the examinee. Utmost concentration and calmness is required.
  • The Agent emphasized that they use the polygraph exam strongly to help clear people’s names. You might think it’s always a sort of guilty until proven innocent scenario…the FBI Agent interrogating the mob leader or something classic. More often than not though, it can be the FBI examining a parent in a missing child case to give the parent something to stand on when they say “it wasn’t me” (an accusation which seems to always rear its ugly head in all of those cases). They also use it to weed out suspects in order to not waste resources investigating a particular person (or, conversely, to increase resources on someone). Given the FBI’s limited resources, they have to play their cards very specifically and efficiently in order to be successful.
  • Exams are not admissible in court, but more often than not, the pressure a guilty person feels while being examined leads to a confession or at least extra commentary that can be used. No one other than the examiner and the examinee (and interpreter if needed) are allowed in the room for purposes of maintaining complete concentration and limited distraction. The Agent always disarms and dis-badges for a couple reasons: to not intimidate or distract most folks, but also because of the aforementioned seclusion and the likelihood of the examinee being a very violent and dangerous person. You don’t want a gun within an arm’s reach of that sort of person. Remember, it’s voluntary so there are no handcuffs or restraints.
  • All FBI Agents are required to undergo random polygraphs…some more than others depending on their job. All new FBI applicants must take one too. In fact, the Charlotte office screens all new FBI applicants for all of NC.
  • The FBI has an approximately 95% accuracy rate for polygraphs–one of the highest rates in the world. The particular Agent giving our presentation was somewhere in the 98% range. Arguably one of the best in the world.
  • All polygraph questions are yes or no questions. You absolutely cannot ask a question that requires a long drawn out or detailed answer other than yes or no and get any sort of useful result. The trick is asking the correct specific yes or no question that triggers responses that indicate a lie or truth.
  • The FBI is 100% digital in its polygraphs. Everything is run through a laptop that has high security biometric lock devices so the Agent is the only one with access. It all displays and reads just like the old fashioned paper versions (a little needle scratching out a pattern on a scrolling sheet), it’s just all digital now and very portable.

The Agent went over the topic of defeating a polygraph exam. He said there are certainly ways that are taught to certain folks who may need to defeat one (terrorists, spies, etc.), but the FBI extensively trains its examiners on the latest known techniques (usually learned through interrogating folks who try to use them). He said most of the “tricks’ are so obvious that it’s not even funny and the exam will end immediately when he sees it. They’ll either restart the exam over and over or just cancel it if the person can’t do it right. Things like distracting yourself, doing odd breathing patterns, odd and/or controlled speech patterns, etc.

The polygraph machine monitors 4 biometric aspects: breathing, sweat, heart rate, and movement (you sit on a pad that detects the slightest movement) to indicate fidgeting or other odd behavior. Movement doesn’t get analyzed for “lying” or not, but it tells the examiner if the examinee is moving too much and skewing the other readings.

The Agent explained how the bio measures will tell-tale a lie. He said think of your wildest sexual fantasy…all the sensations you remember (or fantasize about) and what it triggers inside you. Now think of what happens if someone asks about it or brings it up. Your brain pulls it front and center for at least a split second, no matter how concentrated you are. Memories are accessed and your body reacts. Now think of this in terms of a bank robber. If they actually did the crime, they’ll have a memory of doing it: gearing up, kicking open the door, pointing a gun at people, maybe even shooting it, the smells, the screams, the rush they get. There’s a memory in the guilty person’s head. The Agent’s job is to ask the right yes or no question that triggers that memory, and then WHAM, the machine will show it off when their body starts reacting to it. This is, in a sense, how the polygraph works and where the skill of a good examiner comes largely into play–being able to ask those questions and trigger biometric responses. The other trick is not asking as bluntly as “are you a terrorist?” Most true terrorists believe so strongly in what they’re doing that they do not consider themselves a terrorist. Same thing with a rapist or child assaulter. What they’re doing is not viewed as wrong in their messed up heads, so the Agent has to ask questions that trigger memories of their wrong doings (if any).

It finally came time to show an actual exam and one person was chosen. A guy was hooked up to the machine and sat in front of the class facing away (to be as non-distracted as possible). The read-out was displayed on a projection screen for us to see…just like what you see on TV/movies. Four lines of data, some squiggling pretty good, others just barely moving. The Agent asked the guy to write a large number on a sheet of paper…nothing secretive, just clear and obvious. He wrote a large “5” and it was placed in front of him to stare at. Once the exam began, the Agent simply asked “did you write a 1?” The guy would answer “no” to each and every question, right on through the number 5, to simulate the “lie.” Watching the read-out, his bio displays were a little erratic, but started settling down with each question. When he got to “did you write a number 5?” and the guy answered “no,” everything jumped; some items more than others, but there was a noticeable uptick in all readings. They finished the exam and the Agent reviewed the results. He said it may look like a small response, but it was a simple lie…nothing to it. Now imagine a bank robbery or something much more graphic and sensory. The jumps are usually blatantly obvious. So there it was, right in front of me…a lie detector test working.

Next was the domestic terrorism and joint terrorism task force programs. Touchy touchy subject…and the Agent acknowledged that. This is basically the part of the FBI that folks might say “labels some specific groups of US citizens as terrorists.” Things like militia extremists, KKK and Black Panther extremists, abortion clinic protester (pro and against) extremists, etc. The key word that I picked up on here is “extremists” and it was used to describe each group of domestic terrorist. The Agent made an effort to point out that much of what these “domestic terrorists” do and stand for is 100% legal and protected by one right or another. For instance, militias were highly scrutinized by the class…questioned is a better term. The Agent acknowledged that it is perfectly fine to start, run, and be in a militia. It’s fine for a militia to organize and even “train” in a para-military fashion. He eluded to the notion that the vast majority of militias (in the US, of course) are perfectly legal and are not considered domestic terrorists. The few that do get the honor of being deemed a domestic terrorist possess specific qualities, some qualities that on their own are not necessarily illegal, but when grouped with one or two illegal activities, kick things into domestic terrorist mode. For instance, a big catch for militias is the possession of “illegal stockpiles of weapons and ammunition” (using the Agent’s words here). What he meant (but did not clarify sufficiently to my dismay) was the stockpile of illegal weapons. Class III weapons without the proper paperwork. That’s usually the FBI’s “in” to bring them down. Mix those weapons with anti-government speech and some other individually harmless but grouped together bad traits, and you’ve apparently got a domestic terrorist.

Now, of course I went into this presentation with a small chip on my shoulder…being a “gun guy” and all. I don’t take lightly to government documents being released that call folks terrorists who possess certain traits…some of which I possess! I would like to consider myself as far form a “terrorist” as possible. So to have someone point the guilty stick at me, I don’t like that (to say the least). So I sat there digesting this presentation as the Agent fed it (both verbally and a PowerPoint presentation). I paid particular attention to the militia part as I really don’t even come close to fitting into the KKK or Black Panthers…and while I have convictions about abortion, I don’t see myself ever protesting at a clinic. I’m not in a militia, but I certainly possess, by the FBI’s standards presented to us, some traits that militia folks also have. The big difference is that I don’t have any illegal weapons and my will to overthrow the US government is relatively subsided for now (that’s supposed to be funny right there <— ). Since this program, the Citizens’ Academy, is supposed to be a community outreach, I was really hoping they’d try to calm the masses about calling US citizens terrorists. I hate to say that I think they failed. While a good number of the folks in the class are obviously left-leaning and more than likely anti-gun, there are a good number of us who seem to be on the other side of the equation…arguably closer to the threshold of being a militia domestic terrorist (again, by the FBI’s standards). You’d think they’d want to take the opportunity to put us at ease and take the good message back to our communities (i.e. this forum) and try to spread the word that despite what the media and other radicals would like to have us believe, the FBI and the US government don’t think everyone who owns a gun and believes in liberty is a terrorist. Now, let me interject here and say that I could read between the lines of the presentation and I do honestly believe that last part: that they don’t think we’re all terrorists. I see that you have to do illegal things to be considered illegal (again, typically weapons laws). Add to those illegal things some actions/beliefs that are considered relatively radical (marching on DC and overthrowing the government), I can see how someone could be called a terrorist. I don’t want to debate the merits or flaws of that here, but as it was presented to us and as it exists today, I can see reason behind the logic. The problem is that they are not packaging it up and presenting it in a more easily stomached fashion.

I regret that I did not get a chance to voice this concern during the presentation. Other folks kept the Agent plenty busy with questions…some stupid, and others not so much. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity later, not that I expect an entire federal entity to change on one man’s observation.

To round out the presentation and the second topic of the night, the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) was presented. The biggest piece I took away from this is what exactly that long name means. It sounds cool and invokes images of Jack Bauer. But what it really means is the cooperation between different entities to investigate and prevent terrorism of any kind: domestic or foreign. Again, given the FBI’s limited resources, they must pool together with other agencies, namely state and local authorities to deal with bigger problems like terrorism. As we learned from 9/11, the huge government we have also needs to play nice with itself, meaning separate agencies must share data and help one another if problems are going to get solved without the loss of American life (again).

The final topic of the night was the counter-espionage program. AKA: the anti-spies. I’ll be honest, I had no clue that the FBI was involved in this business. I thought spying was all up to the CIA. On the contrary, the FBI is tasked 100% with counter-espionage for the US and its state secrets. The Agent who presented looked, acted, and talked like the ideal Agent in my head. He was solidly built, had a flat top, looked like he’d had his nose broken from sports or rough brawling, and let a few cuss words slip out through passion for the topic. He discussed security clearances and just how high his is (very high!). The infamous “need to know” basis was discussed. All “secret” and “top secret” files are just that: need to know basis. Just because someone has a certain clearance doesn’t mean they get to sit around reading top secret files like they’re reading a tabloid. In most cases, the only people who know the details or even the existence of certain cases are two or three Agents in the whole building (out of 150-ish).

The Agent presented a few slides of infamous spies busted in the past 20 years….what they did, how much money they made, and their sentences. We hit a shocker moment when we saw a guy busted for spying for Israel! Everyone had the same reaction: “but they’re an ally!” The Agent was waiting for this and the next slide was a graph of other countries spying on the US over the past few decades. It used to be a small amount…just the big dogs: US, Russia, China, UK, etc. As of 2005, 106 out of the recognized 196 countries of the world spy on the US. Just here in NC in the Charlotte region alone, we have over 200 companies that deal in some sort of product that is considered defense-related and are therefore targets for this sort of state secret spying. He also pointed out that since some command office (I can’t remember the name) moved to Bragg in the past couple of years, NC has the highest concentration of flag officers anywhere in the world outside of the Pentagon. That alone is a reason for spies to be attracted to an area. So needless to say, NC is a hotbed for spy activity. Who’dathunkit?!

The Agent also went over a few recent cases. One notable case was this one of a guy serving in the Navy based at Ft. Bragg: http://goo.gl/Xlpww Somehow they caught on to his nefarious actions and set him up…almost classic TV sting operation style. They finally calmed the base commander down when they told him about the spy and got him to allow the guy to stay on base at his job while the FBI weaved a huge trap for him. They moved him to a new corner office that was laden with monitoring devices. They had an undercover Agent pose as a Chinese spy who would pay this deuchebag for the intel he siphoned his way. They let him make 4 meetings with the undercover at a local motel where they had an adjacent room full of cameras and listening devices…just like a movie. They busted him on the 4th meeting because he was about to be deployed and they didn’t want to risk losing him. They actually had a picture of him being faceplanted into the table right in front of the hidden camera…face all smooshed into the wooden table, in Navy uniform, American flag right there on his shoulder. The Agent half blew a fuse and said “and this is what really pisses me off…look right here (pointing to the flag in the picture)…he’s doing this crap while wearing our flag! That just steams me in a bad way!!!” Classic! When talking about how they raided him, they said the undercover got up and said he’d be right back. He pretended to smash open a door but then caught himself…saying “no, it was more like this” and he pretended to be using a hotel door key card and having trouble with it! He said the stupid card actually had issues and the spy heard them trying to access the door. He couldn’t run anywhere but he started shoving the money under his seat to try to hide it. So when they finally get the door open and raid him, he looks like a bird sitting on a nest made of money! Hilarious!

…to be continued…


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