Three years ago, a man asked Doug Williams for help. He was a Department of Homeland Security agent, he said, under investigation by his employer for letting a friend pass through customs with contraband. Would Williams help him pass a lie detector test?
Williams, a former Oklahoma City police officer and the owner of Polygraph.com, was a self-professed expert in beating the test. On a video posted on his website, he told potential customers, "I can teach you how to pass, nervous or not, no matter what."
So he agreed to help, saying that he was operating under the assumption that the man was telling the truth and was innocent of the accusations. But two days into the training, when his new client told him he was planning to lie to federal investigators, Williams snapped.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing, dumbass? … Do you think you have like a lawyer confidentiality with me?" Williams told the man, who was an undercover agent, according to a federal indictment. "I haven't lived this long and fucked the government this long, and done such a controversial thing that I do for this long, and got away with it without any trouble whatsoever, by being a dumb ass."
But, dumbassery ensued. After repeatedly stating that he knows he shouldn't be helping the agent, Williams followed through with the training anyway.
It was the beginning of the downfall of Polygraph.com, and the first strike against Williams, who was sentenced to two years in prison this week for helping customers beat the polygraph, something he had been doing for over 30 years. The complicated story behind the case outlines a field where the lines between freedom of expression, conspiracy, and matters of national security are often blurred.
According to the indictment, the main purpose of Williams' business was "to defraud the United States and to obtain and maintain positions of Federal employment for Williams' customers for which they did not qualify, and the salary attendant to such positions, through materially false and fraudulent statements and representations." Williams pleaded guilty to all charges in May.
Prosecutions of this kind are rare, and controversial. In the last such case from 2013, a Little League coach from Indiana was sentenced to eight months in jail for helping over 100 people beat the polygraph tests, including federal intelligence officers, child molesters, and law enforcement applicants.
In that case, the judge acknowledged that there are "gray areas" between what is protected under the First Amendment and what constitutes an attempt to defraud the federal government. There are dozens of explainers online about how to pass one of the tests.
"There's no question that Doug Williams could not be prosecuted for all the provocative things that he said about polygraph exams," Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum, told Fusion. "The key question is: when working with individual clients did he in effect enter into a concerted effort to break the law."
George Maschke, founder of AntiPolygraph.com, an informational website, watched the trial as it happened in Oklahoma City. While he says some of the things Williams said on the audio tapes, which were played during the trial, were indefensible, the government's motivation behind its prosecution was to silence him.
"Doug Williams was targeted for prosecution because the government didn't like his speech about polygraphy," Maschke said. "He was publicly critical of it and teaching people how to protect themselves against it with information that the government doesn't want to be known." As proof of this, Maschke points to the repeated attempts undercover agents made in convincing Williams to work with the DHS agent who planned to lie to the federal government.
Not surprisingly, Williams has claimed that his prosecution is "an attack on his First Amendment rights," adding that it "was brought to punish and silence me because I have the audacity to protest the use of the polygraph."
The technology, which was invented in 1921, has been riddled with issues. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that states and the federal government could ban the use of polygraphs as trial evidence, citing uncertainties about their accuracy. By then, a majority of states had already banned polygraph evidence, a number which has only grown since then. Yet the technology is still frequently used outside the courtroom for interrogations and new employee screenings within government agencies. About 70,000 federal employees are still polygraphed by the federal government every year, despite a 1988 federal law that bans employers from testing their employees in most circumstances.
Science groups have repeatedly found that the test is "insufficient" for lie detection. In a notorious case, a serial killer in Washington state took and passed the test in the mid-80s, only to continue with his killing spree, while an innocent man who failed it was dragged and scrutinized in the media until DNA evidence later cleared him of the crime. Forty eight people had died by the time police realized the man who passed the polygraph years earlier was the real killer.
In essence, calling the polygraph a "test" is inaccurate, Williams argues. A better word for it would be an "interrogation technique," which measures someone's physiological response to a answering a certain line of questioning. Either with the right training or the right natural disposition, like that of a sociopath or a pathological liar, anyone can give the machine the "correct" signals and pass.
"The more well developed your sense of conscience, the more likely you are to flunk a polygraph examination, and the more of an old thief and the more hardened your conscience the better the your chances of passing it," Williams said in a segment he filmed with Bloomberg Business last month.
“I have the dubious distinction of being the only licensed polygraphist to ever tell the truth about the so called ‘lie detector,’” he wrote in a book he self-published last year. “And the truth is, the polygraph is no more accurate than the toss of a coin in determining whether a person is telling the truth or lying.”
The push to prosecute people who teach how to beat the machine has come as part of the Obama Administration's focus of purging the government of "inner threats," meaning employees who might become spies, leak sensitive information to the press, or otherwise become corrupt, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told McClatchy in 2013.
Among the papers that were seized from Williams' Oklahoma office, federal officials found that at least 20 of his former clients had applied for federal government or federal contractor jobs. At least half of them were hired, including an undisclosed number hired by the National Security Agency.
During a second undercover operation, an undercover federal agent told Williams he was trying to get hired by Customs and Border Protection, but that he had worries about the polygraph test. Williams said:
Oh, no problem, I've taught a lot of those guys. In fact, there's a lot of government agents - FBI, Secret Service, NSA, all of those alphabet agencies - that have already retired, that I taught, years ago. And I know what I'm doing and you will pass with no problem.
After that, the undercover agent admitted that he had previously helped smuggle cocaine into a prison, and that he had once gotten "a blow job from a 14-year-old girl" when he was an adult. In response, Williams told him to "Keep that shit to yourself. I mean, why would you ever say something like that anyway? If you're gonna do that, save yourself the trouble, don't even go." The two continued the private training session afterward.
Statements like those are likely to be seen by the law as moving "from general advocacy to potential conspiracy," Paulson of the First Amendment Center said.
Williams assured the agent that he could help him get the job even "if you're the biggest heroin dealer in the fucking United States." At the end of the training session, the undercover agent asked Williams if he could refer others to his business.
"I would wait until you know for sure you got the job before you tell anybody," he responded.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.