I took multiple polygraph tests during my 30-year career as an intelligence officer with the CIA. The theory behind the poly is that basic bodily functions (breathing, heart rate, etc) react if you lie.

Every test followed the same procedure. I sat in a comfortable chair, got hooked up to the machine, and answered all the examiner’s questions with a simple yes or no.

The test makes you dig into your subconscious to determine why you react to certain questions. You never know if you are really reacting or if the examiner is trying to psyche you out for reasons you don’t know.

Inevitably stressful.

Here’s a protip: Never drink coffee before taking a polygraph test. You don’t want to feel any more jittery than you already do or make your heart race for no other reason than a morning latte. No bathroom break, either.

Without so much as a molecule of caffeine, I blearily stumbled into my first polygraph test, the one that would determine if I was honest enough to be offered a job at CIA.

The chair was a giant cushy recliner. The polygraph instrument was a cross between a suitcase and an electrocardiogram machine.

After the first round of questions, the examiner left the room (normal procedure) leaving me hooked up and unable to get out of the recliner. There was a two-way mirror so somebody was watching me.

Meh. I closed my eyes.

The examiner woke me up about 20 minutes later.

I passed.

Years later, I yawned during a test. The examiner barked, “Why did you do that?”

“I’m tired,” I said truthfully. “I haven’t had any coffee today.”

After I passed, he told me that yawning is a technique to defeat the machine.

On to Aldrich Ames

Arrested in February 1994, Aldrich “Rick” Ames was a career CIA officer who spied for Moscow, selling out a raft of important agents helping the US understand the threat from a nuclear-powered Soviet Union. No ideological saint here; Ames sold secrets to support his drinking habit, lavish lifestyle and newish Colombian wife.

Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames mugshot, Feb 1994. Source: FBI.gov

He was a “mole,” a spy within his own intelligence service. Currently serving a lifetime sentence for treason and fraud, he is responsible for the deaths of good people. Read the FBI report on him:

I am not impartial. I hope Ames is lonely and dejected and his prison food is noxious.

The years-long hunt for a traitor inside CIA was documented in CIRCLE OF TREASON by CIA officers Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille. I highly recommend it.

The point which I am taking too long to make is that Aldrich Ames was polygraphed as a possible suspect during the hunt. He passed. Twice.

When asked about his inexplicable wealth, he claimed that his money came from his wealthy in-laws, who were giving him a “free ride.” His claim was fact-checked, and yes, his in-laws were rich.

When asked about foreign contacts, “Rick explained that he had been introduced to numerous people in Colombia when he and his wife visited her family. He added that he had no idea whether any of them were employed by Colombian security services, and suggested to the polygrapher that this might explain his reaction to the question. The polygrapher accepted this explanation.”

He never defeated the polygraph machine, he defeated the examiners.

Interestingly, Ames was dumbfounded when he was finally arrested. He was sure he had outsmarted the mole hunters.

AI as lie detector

Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems to be able to do everything from coding a website to drive a car and write a novel. (I’m investing as soon as it can do laundry and clean toilets)

It can spot deception, too.

Lemonade Insurance depends on its “AI Jim” claims bot to spot fraud. The company’s blog tells how AI Jim flagged a fraudster who submitted multiple claims using fake accounts and even disguises. “AI Jim caught him red handed” and information was turned over to law enforcement. https://www.lemonade.com/blog/the-sixth-sense/

According to researchers in Israel, a new technology that measures “the movement of facial muscles is 73% accurate at detecting when a person is telling a lie.” https://neurosciencenews.com/lie-detection-neurotech-19679/

The technology assesses the tiny involuntary twitches that LIESPOTTING author and expert Pamela Meyer calls “emotional leakage.” She writes “The problem (for liars, anyway) is that much of the time we can’t anticipate our feelings—our emotions catch us by surprise.”

What about voices assessed by AI? Changes in tone, inflection, speed of speech, etc. All these minute vocal changes can be giveaways, too.


If the counterintelligence team hunting for a mole inside CIA had had AI lie detection tools back then, they almost certainly would have identified Ames as the mole long before his arrest in 1994. Ames wouldn’t be able to control his “emotional leakage.” That would be enough to intensify interest in him and reassess his polygraph tests.

Moreover, the team could have narrowed the scope of the hunt sooner, too, as other suspects were crossed off the list more swiftly.

Last words

In the future, will AI lie detection be so reliable that it has the final say, instead of a human as was the case when Ames passed his polygraphs?

That could be a slippery slope.

As AI deception detection tools go mainstream, I hope we treat them just as that—tools. We can’t become wholly dependent on them. Let’s not surrender the human critical thinking skills that ultimately caught traitor and spy Aldrich Ames.

Mystery author newsletter

I think we have something in common.

We both love a great mystery!

Join the Mystery Ahead newsletter.

2 x month | book news & must-read mystery reviews

Check your email for a warm welcome and your Bonus gift! All the best, Carmen

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This