Opinion Rights

The Torture Business: Asylum-Seekers and the Government-Industry Revolving Door in Interrogation

Crackoala, deviantart; Kate Ausburn, flickr
Written by Vera Wilde

The criminal justice system is supposed to apply especially stringent standards of proof and rule in order to best uphold liberty. “Double jeopardy” — the legal idea that you can’t be tried for the same charge twice — doesn’t apply to most of our lives. Rather, personal history rhymes. Alcoholics usually kick the bottle several times. Divorcees often remarry. Criminals were themselves crime victims at higher rates than the general population, although most crime victims don’t go on to become criminals. People often repeat behavior they know rather than trying new things. Maybe because fear of the unknown tends to be our greatest fear, maybe because change is hard, maybe because rewards make more of an impression than punishments. We don’t know why. And we don’t know why American interrogators come home to interrogate.

Patrick T. Coffey — a polygraph interrogator and trainer who served at least six Mideast deployments to countries including Iraq, Lebanon, and Qatar — runs an American polygraph business that specializes in immigration. As a Christian, Coffey is especially concerned about the well-being of Syrian refugees. As a polygrapher, he targets asylum seekers who claim to have been tortured. In other contexts, federal law prohibits this form of interrogation.

The 2005 Violence Against Women Act prohibits police from interrogating rape victims using polygraphs as a condition of proceeding with investigation. The reason for this Congressional ban on polygraphing rape victims is that police were subjecting rape victims to so-called “lie detector” tests — and refusing to investigate cases when results were unclear or negative—in spite of the tests’ insufficient scientific basis. This practice dates back at least forty years.

In light of revelations suggesting that federal polygraphers lag behind the new national standard banning such interrogation, 31-year CIA veteran polygrapher John Sullivan lamented the lag. “Where is the line? That depends on the polygrapher and the agency. It can be a slippery slope. At a certain point, the government can justify almost anything.”

Interrogating people who have been traumatized about their trauma is not a good idea. It doesn’t generate useable polygraph results because you might expect a trauma victim to have noisy physiological responses once the stress of trauma is triggered. And having authorities tell you that you’re lying can also be a form of trauma in itself.

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Coffey, who considers his work polygraphing torture victims to be humanitarian, says he only supports asylum seekers who he deems truthful. He charges for his polygraph services either way. His webpage on a popular polygrapher website, Polygraph Place, claims “Coffey is a pioneer in the applied use of the computer polygraph testing procedure in resolution of” what he calls “Asylum & Other Immigration Issue Credibility Testing.” It also says Coffey founded a polygraph training organization called Immigration Credibility Assessment Registered Examiners (I-CARE).

Because of the high stakes of criminal justice cases — life and liberty — polygraph results are not considered sufficiently evidence-based to be admissible in most criminal courts. But some immigration judges will consider them anyway, even in asylum cases where the case outcome may indeed be a matter of life or death. This acceptance is harmful because it creates incentives for torture victims seeking asylum to subject themselves to potentially traumatizing interrogations. And the same people conducting those interrogations may have trained the interrogators who ran American torture programs in the first place.

Double jeopardy may only apply in the criminal justice system. But the rules of fair play apply to our shared moral and legal norms everywhere. They say torture shouldn’t pay. And it definitely shouldn’t pay twice.


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About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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The Torture Business: Asylum-Seekers and the Government-Industry Revolving Door in Interrogation

by Vera Wilde
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