The fact that Christine Blasey Ford’s lawyers refused to release the results of her polygraph exam until the day before her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month caused some suspicion. And when we finally got a look at them, a lot of Judge Kavanaugh’s supporters were confirmed in their suspicions.
It turned out that Ford’s examiner, former FBI agent Jeremiah Hanafin, only asked her two relevant questions. And that’s not how most folks imagine polygraph exams are supposed to go.
But, surprisingly, while Ford’s exam was indeed irregular in ways that render it a worthless scam, the number of questions asked isn’t one of them and, in fact, focusing on that only distracts from Hanafin’s real trick.
The Truth About “Lie Detectors”
Even if Ford’s exam had been entirely on the up and up, despite the credence most people give them, polygraph tests are something of a joke among serious research psychologists. The American Psychological Association will tell anyone who cares to listen (which unfortunately isn’t many) that “most psychologists and other scientists agree that there is little basis for [their] validity.”
The APA has such a dim view of the procedure in part because, though research indicates that a polygraph exam can detect deception better than chance, there’s still a significant likelihood of error. And doing better than flipping a coin isn’t all that great when someone’s reputation is on the line.
Polygraphs are unreliable because, contrary to what they’re usually called, they do not detect lies. They only measure physiological responses, such as heart and respiratory rates, that intensify when you’re nervous. To quote the widely ignored experts one more time, “there is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception.”
More Questions, Less Reliability
But, if we ignore the experts’ dismal assessment of this whole profession, there was nothing at all odd about Hanafin asking Ford only two relevant questions. In fact, asking as few relevant questions as possible is standard operating procedure, and all polygraph examiners seem to claim that’s because the more questions asked, the less reliable the exam becomes.
That seems counterintuitive at first but, with a little reflection, it makes perfect sense. The more questions asked, after all, the more comfortable the subject is likely to become with lying to the examiner. Hence, asking many questions allows a liar to get used to lying as any nervousness subsides. Moreover, asking exactly two relevant questions is precisely what’s called for by the particular version of the exam Hanafin used: the “You Phase Zone Comparison Test” or ZCT for short.
The manual produced by the Department of Justice laying down the proper procedures for polygraphs administered by federal agencies says the ZCT must consist of five questions, two of which are called “relevant questions,” which are the ones about which the examiner is trying to determine the subject’s truthfulness. Two of the others are control questions, constructed to test how the subject reacts to queries that do and don’t make him nervous. The remaining question is called a “sacrifice relevant question,” which is used to prepare the subject for the two relevant questions but gets ignored when the test is scored.
After administering the exam and recording the results, the examiner crunches the numbers. The outcome is supposed to represent the difference between how the subject reacted to the relevant questions and how he reacted to the controls. If the crunched numbers make it look like the subject had a nervous reaction to the relevant questions rather than a normal one, the ZCT brands him a liar.
If Hanafin’s report is to be believed, he followed all of the Justice Department’s protocols when he administered Ford’s exam. So, contrary to what many of Kavanaugh’s supporters thought, there was nothing inappropriate or crafty about the number of relevant questions Ford was asked. The problem isn’t what Ford’s examiner didn’t do during the exam, it’s what he did before it started.
The Real Tricks
Hanafin departed from ZCT protocols by giving Ford time writing up a statement describing what she claims happened the night in question and then interviewing her about her statement before administering the exam. That might not seem so bad until you realize that interviewing someone is just asking them a lot of questions.
So Hanafin did exactly what he wasn’t supposed to do; he asked Ford a lot of questions about the subject on which he was testing her truthfulness. The only difference being that Ford wasn’t hooked up to the machine for most of the too-many questions she was asked. Since he also had her spend time writing her story down, his irregular procedures would likely have had an even worse effect on the test’s validity than simply asking a lot of relevant questions during the exam.
If Ford was lying, Hanafin essentially allowed her to spend an undisclosed but significant amount of time practicing doing so immediately before she had to face the actual exam; not just verbally in answer to his questions, but also in writing. Thus, she had the opportunity to get accustomed to the story she intended to tell, along with the intrusive questions her examiner would ask, rendering the exam results worthless.
Hanafin seems also to have departed from ZCT procedure by asking Ford the most general possible relevant questions about her written statement, rather than focusing on specific aspects of her story.
He chose as his relevant questions: “Is any part of your statement false?” and “Did you make up any part of your statement?” The examples of proper relevant questions for the ZCT provided in the Justice Department manual, however, are all excruciatingly specific and are supposed to test “the possible direct involvement of the examinee.” For example, “Did you steal that Mustang?” Indeed, even the following question, which is much less general than the relevant questions Hanafin chose, isn’t labeled a relevant question in the Justice manual: “Regarding whether you stole that Mustang, do you intend to answer each question truthfully?”
The manual, instead, categorizes it as a “sacrifice relevant question”; the one used to prepare the subject for the actual relevant questions but isn’t counted at all when the test is scored.
It seems likely that, if Ford was lying, she would be much less nervous about the completely general questions Hanafin asked her concerning the truth of her overall written statement—questions that didn’t refer to any of her specific allegations against Kavanaugh or even make any reference to the man she would be falsely accusing—than she would be about any number of very specific question Hanafin might have asked, such as: “Did Brett Kavanaugh throw you on the bed and attempt to sexually assault you that night?”
All the more so, given how the process of writing down her allegations and being interviewed by Hanafin would have given her time to get comfortable telling the phony story.
In an interview with Fox News, Hanafin responded to the red herring issue of why he only asked two relevant questions during Ford’s exam by explaining the ZCT is the “most validated polygraph” exam. In his report on Ford’s results, he includes an impressive-sounding paragraph mentioning the studies that are supposed to support that claim.
But, of course, these studies would have been conducted following standard procedures rather than the routine Hanafin used and, hence, are worthless as a means to vouchsafe the legitimacy of Ford’s exam. In reality, Hanafin covertly violated the rule against asking a lot of questions; allowed his subject more time to get used to telling her story by first writing it down; and asked her the most general possible relevant questions concerning the truth of her written statement without mentioning the man she would have been accusing falsely, or referring to any of the heinous actions she would be attributing to him that might have made her nervous were she lying.
More Hanafin Dissembling
In his report on Ford’s polygraph results, Hanafin claims he conducted his interview after she wrote her statement “in an effort to formulate the relevant questions.” But that’s a nonsense justification. Hanafin could have chosen his relevant questions based on her written statement alone without going to the further trouble of interviewing her or simply skipped both by getting her story from her attorneys.
Indeed, Hanafin even told Fox News that he discussed which questions were appropriate with Ford’s attorneys the night before her exam! So what possible purpose was achieved by having Ford write out a statement and then asking her numerous questions about it other than making her comfortable both with her examiner and her story to make sure the results of his number-crunching elicited a favorable result?
Moreover, how can the claim in his report that he interviewed Ford in order “to formulate the relevant questions” be true given that nothing about the interview played any role in the questions he wound up choosing?
Remember, Ford’s relevant questions were completely general ones about whether her written statement was true and made no reference to the details contained in it, let alone to anything he might have discovered while interviewing her. So nothing he learned in the interview played a role in determining the relevant questions he chose. The justification Hanafin offers in his report for interviewing Ford is disingenuous at best.
Hanafin also told Fox News that he’s “done some work” for Ford’s attorneys “in the past.” But he closes his eyes while saying it, then looks down and to the side, and says “and um” before continuing. To me, he seems obviously nervous when mentioning his previous work for Ford’s lawyers. If you find this consideration not worth much, I’m probably inclined to agree. But my point in making it is, as untrustworthy as it may be, it’s worth more than the obviously rigged exam Hanafin administered to Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser that’s supposed to make us believe that Kavanaugh is the despicable human being Ford is trying to say he is.
Hanafin’s departures from procedure not only destroyed any validity the ZCT might have; they also only make sense if he was trying to make sure Ford wasn’t branded a liar by the exam he was about to administer. But if there was any doubt about Hanafin’s motivations, the nonsensical and obviously false justification he gave for interviewing Ford in his report closes the book on them.
As a result, Hanafin’s absurdly justified pre-exam procedures reveal something disturbing about both his ethics and those of Ford’s attorneys; who apparently make it a habit of using him to convince people that their clients aren’t lying and definitely aren’t stupid enough to not know what they’re paying for. Hanafin’s nonsensical explanation for why he interviewed Ford suggests he’s lying better than any polygraph exam could.
Hopefully, Ford herself will be investigated for perjury, since plenty of reasons have emerged to think she’s lying. And since Hanafin’s report was submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Hanafin’s explanation of why he interviewed Ford appears untruthful, he may very well have committed a felony. In any case, the Senate has ample grounds for further investigation. Whatever professional bodies Hanafin and Ford’s attorneys belong to should be investigating their ethics as well; assuming, that is, that they even expect their members to have any.