Transcript

618:

Mr. Lie Detector
Transcript

Originally aired 06.09.2017

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/618

Act One. Relevant Questions.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life.

Douglas Williams

I'm going to take your mind to a state of enhanced mental imagery. You will clearly remember everything I tell you, and you will do everything that I tell you to do. I want you to imagine being on a beautiful deserted beach.

I want you to picture yourself lying on a beach chair, staring out at the ocean. You're watching the waves gently rolling into the shore. Wave after wave, gently rolling into the shore. And with each wave, you're becoming more and more relaxed, calm, and at peace. You can feel yourself relaxing now. You're watching wave after wave gently rolling into the shore. And you are now totally relaxed, calm, and at peace.

I'm now going to count from one to five. And when I get to the count of five, you will remember to do what you have been trained to do, and you will be awake, alert, and absolutely confident that you will pass your polygraph test. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Ira Glass

This is Douglas Williams, and this is part of a story created by the podcast Love + Radio, a story put together by Jacob McClelland, Ana Adlerstein, Steven Jackson, and Nick van der Kolk. If you don't know about Love + Radio, they're masters at doing these stories that unfold and slowly reveal what they're about over time with no narration. And this story does that beautifully.

And we're just going to jump in and start our show with this. Quick warning that we've unbeeped some curse words in this internet version of the program. If you prefer a beeped version-- maybe you're listening with kids-- it's at our website.

The story begins when the guy at the center of it, Douglas Williams, is in his 20s, and joins the police force in Oklahoma City.

Douglas Williams

I actually couldn't believe they actually paid me to do it. I loved it so much, especially the first year. They sent me to New York City for polygraph school at the National Training Center of Lie Detection in New York City. And in 1972, I became a certified polygraph expert.

So after that, I just was running polygraph examinations for criminal suspects, police applicants, and all internal affairs investigations. When you're working in internal affairs, you've narrowed your circle of friends down to a big fat zero because the police officers are all frightened of you, too, because they've seen you come into their little break room prior to their shift change. And I walk out then walked in there quite a few times, and they'd be in there shooting pool and having fun, talking to one another, and I'd walk in and it'd get dead silent. Everybody would look at me.

I'd run two or three tests a day. Some days I didn't have any at all to run. But that's all I did was run polygraph tests.

I became very cognizant of the fact that fear has a very distinct smell. I've heard it described as a mixture of shit and spinach, and that's a pretty close description. It truly does have a very distinct odor. The smell lingered in my office. I smelled it every day. It was there when I closed up the office at night. It was there when I opened up the office in the morning, almost like a fog or something.

I got really good at doing what I did. I mean, I could literally scare the hell out of people with that thing. For instance, one of the props they told you to use was a little plastic heart like the doctors have in their office that comes apart and shows the left ventricle and the right ventricle and the cutaways and what-have-you. And it gets you that, and leave that sitting on your desk.

When you get into your interrogation, you tell everybody that comes in, you tell them, OK, now, when you lie, you'll not be able to control yourself. And you reach over there and you get that little heart, and you take it apart and you put one part in your left hand and one part in your right hand. And you start getting them, and you say, OK, now, you know when you lie-- when you lie, your heart's going to start beating faster and faster and faster and faster and faster. And you slam those pieces of heart back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster and faster, and you will not be able to control it. You will not be able to lie to me without your heart going bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

It was just so dramatic, but I tried it a few times. It actually worked pretty good. It got people's attention. I don't know if it was because of the demonstration or because they just thought, man, I'm talking to a crazy man here.

It's a damn good interrogation technique. Since we can't beat the hell out of people physically, let's just beat the hell out of them psychologically and coerce them into a confession. So that's what the polygraph is. It's a psychological billy club that will coerce a person into a confession. It's not a lie detector, and we're stupid if we use it as such, but there are occasions when it's real good to put pressure to bear on a criminal to get a confession.

Jacob Mcclelland

So I see you have some gear here.

Douglas Williams

Yeah. Let me just-- so basically, what we have here is a very antiquated, very crude instrument. It was invented in 1922, and it hasn't changed significantly since it was invented in 1922. The polygraph test itself-- poly meaning many, and graphos meaning tracings, is what the polygraph stands for. So the many tracings that the polygraph records are your blood pressure, your pulse rate, sweat activity on your hand, and your breathing.

Next thing we're pulling out here is GSR electrodes. They record what's known as the galvanic skin response, which is basically just increase or decrease in the sweat activity in your hand. This here is just a cardio cuff, similar to what the doctor uses to test your blood pressure in a doctor's office.

So what we have here is a machine that can watch you breathe, watch two fingers on your right hand sweat, and watch your heartbeat. So the more heinous the crime under investigation, the more likely an innocent person is going to fail.

Jake, if you're accused of molesting the 11-year-old neighbor girl, Sally, you're already in a state of shock because just the accusation alone's enough to ruin you. You're sitting there thinking, oh Lord, what will happen to me? I mean, what about my job, my neighbors, my friends, my family? This is just unbelievable. So you're stressed to the max already. You're already starting to sweat just thinking about it.

Jacob Mcclelland

I'm already sweating.

Douglas Williams

Exactly. Just thinking about this situation has already got you stressed out, and it's just an imaginary situation. Imagine if it were real.

Jacob Mcclelland

When did your doubts in the polygraph first begin to manifest?

Douglas Williams

I'd been at it for a while. And of course, I knew I could control my breathing, but I never could figure out for sure how to control the cardio and blood pressure and the GSR until a friend of mine came in, talking about the pucker factor and tighten up the anal sphincter muscle when he was under stress.

And so after he left, I just hooked myself up to the polygraph and pumped up the air in the cuff and tightened up my anal sphincter muscle like I was trying to stop a bowel movement, and lo and behold, there was a most gigantic, wonderful, naturally-occurring cardio rise accompanied by a GSR rise. So just by simply tightening up your anal sphincter muscle, you can cause a reaction at will. Then all you had to do was figure out the appropriate time to do it. It takes an a-hole with a little training to beat an a-hole with a little training.

Shortly thereafter, I quit. I wrote a letter of resignation. I was a cryptographer in the military studying cryptography, so I started each sentence with a different letter, just as my own little private joke. If you looked at the first letter of each sentence in my resignation letter, it spells out "bullshit."

And I commenced my crusade. I bought a polygraph instrument. I got an old 1967 Chevy Panel Truck. I rigged it up, where I could live in it, and made me a little fold-down bed, porta-potty. Put me in some water supply. Put me in a little Coleman camp stove and a little homemade desk that I could fold my bed out and put my little homemade desk up there and put my typewriter on there. So I would just live in my little '67 Chevy Panel Truck and work construction jobs enough to keep body and soul together.

And I would just moved from city to city. Started down in Houston, and then Dallas, and Fort Worth, and Indianapolis, then Chicago, and various other places. Every city had their own talk show host. And then back then, out in front of every convenience store, there used to be a whole bank of payphones. I conducted hundreds of radio talk shows standing in a phone booth outside 7-Eleven clerks, swatting off mosquitoes and what-have-you.

Every time I went on a radio talk show, I was a great success. I'd light up the phones like crazy. Everybody had a horror story about a polygraph test. Then I would put on seminars. The seminars would be very simple. I'd done them in union halls, churches, people's living rooms. I've had as low as five people and as high as close to 5,000.

I have a polygraph up there. I'd say, OK, here's the deal. I'm going to teach you, in five minutes or less, how to control every tracing on this polygraph chart. Then I'd look around the audience and I'd find the one who had the most skeptical look on their face, and I'd point to them and I'd say, you don't believe a damn word I'm saying, do you? They'd kind of shrug or something. And then I'd say, come up here. Come up here. Then, OK, here how the photograph works.

Jacob Mcclelland

OK.

Douglas Williams

Come over here and get you hooked up to this machine. Just lean forward and raise both arms. Let me get finished hooking up here and we'll-- so what we're going to do today is, I'm going to set you down here on this little chair and I'm going to hook you up to this so-called lie detector. And in just a matter of a few minutes, I will teach you how to control every tracing on the polygraph chart by simply using what I call mental imagery. So we'll explain more about that here in a minute. Let me get around here and hook up this--

In order for you to pass this test, you've got to-- telling the truth has nothing to do with it. You've got to produce for the polygraph examiner what he expects to see from a truthful person on this chart. The premise behind the polygraph is that, if you are lying, you will have a reaction on the relevant questions and no reaction on the control questions.

Now, what are the relevant questions? Well, the relevant questions are obviously those that pertain to the pointed issue. For instance, if the test is about whether you leaked the information to The Washington Post, then the questions would be pertaining to that leak. Did you tell The Washington Post reporter about the president's speech? Do you know anyone who had access to the president's speech that may have given it to The Washington Post? On and on.

They will then intersperse questions called control questions. The control questions are innocuous questions that have nothing to do with the pointed issue. They are completely irrelevant. Have you ever lied to anyone in authority to keep from getting in trouble? Have you ever stolen anything? All those types of irrelevant control questions.

And then what I want you to do is just basically relax on the relevant questions and then show me a nice little reaction-- think of something frightening-- on the control questions. So here we go. I want you just to close your eyes and relax.

I want you to picture yourself lying on a beach chair, staring out at the ocean. You're watching the waves gently rolling into the shore. Wave after wave gently rolling into the shore.

Now, I instruct you to do this. When you hear the relevant questions and label the relevant questions and answer the relevant questions, you will only picture yourself lying on this beautiful beach, and you will only see the waves gently rolling into the shore. Relevant questions, wave after wave. Relevant questions, gently rolling into the shore. Relevant questions, totally relaxed, calm, and at peace.

Open your eyes. You know that relaxed feeling you've got right now?

Jacob Mcclelland

Yes.

Douglas Williams

The way to trigger that is to simply label the questions as relevant questions in your mind before you answer them. And then you've got to be able to manipulate a reaction on the control question. So in order to manipulate a reaction on a control question, I want you to live through your most frightening experience or your worst fear on the control questions, OK? What kind of frightening scenario are you going to run through your mind?

Jacob Mcclelland

Going spelunking and losing my flashlight.

Douglas Williams

Oh, that would do it. I would absolutely-- there would be claw marks. My fingernails would be gone, and I'd be stark raving mad in a matter of about five minutes.

OK, so that's what you're going to do. Now, what we're going to do instead of asking you actual questions, I'm just going to say, "relevant," and you'll think "relevant" in your mind and answer yes. And then I'm going to say, "control," and you'll think "control" in your mind and answer no on the control questions, OK? OK. Now we're going to put some air in the cuff here. And then we're going to get this show on the road.

Relevant.

Jacob Mcclelland

Yes.

Douglas Williams

Relevant.

Jacob Mcclelland

Yes.

Douglas Williams

Control.

Jacob Mcclelland

No.

Douglas Williams

Control.

Jacob Mcclelland

No.

Douglas Williams

Above all else, the devil hates to be mocked, and I'm mocking him. I'm showing them for the frauds and the con men that they are, and they despise me for it. The things that motivated me to stop using this and start fighting it were in part my guilt for having done it and trying to make restitution for all that I'd done, but also the knowledge that people were being absolutely destroyed by this in so many ways.

I used to hear them brag in their polygraph meetings that, well, I hit the local drugstore for 50 tests to fail two openings. What that means is they've called 48 other people liars when they may or may not have been lying just so that they can continue to run polygraph tests at $250 a whack. Polygraph operators were just ripping people off and destroying people's lives just so that they could unjustly enrich themselves.

In 1985, I was finally invited to go testify in Congress.

Judge

For the consideration of the bill HR 1212, which the clerk will report by title.

Clerk

A bill to prevent the denial of employment opportunities by prohibiting the use of lie detectors by employers--

Douglas Williams

There was a big gallery. A lot of news people and stuff back there and a lot of spectators and stuff. And during the first two or three testimonies, there was a hubbub in the back, kind of like a murmuring and people talking to one another like they weren't paying attention because they were all spouting the same old company line and everything.

Congressman

This is a rights vote, and what separates us from the Soviet Union is a debate that's going on in this House today.

Douglas Williams

And so I start. And I still remember how I started. I said, my name is Douglas Gene Williams, and I plead guilty to crimes against humanity. I was a right-wing terrorist. I tortured thousands of people, documented more confessions than most Gestapo agents, violated countless constitutional rights, and had absolutely no regard for human dignity. I was a well-trained terrorist. And my weapon of choice was the polygraph.

And I noticed, as I was going through that, the murmuring stopped. It became dead silent. And then I started with the rest of my testimony. And I sat there and waxed eloquent for quite some time.

Now, I remember when I finished testifying, there was a horrific uproar from the crowd. Flashbulbs going off, people saying, we want to interview you, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It was amazing. And then here comes Chairman Martinez, wading through the crowd. Then he said, we've never had a polygraph operator come up and testify to the truth of the problems with the polygraph. And he said, I really think this is the missing element that will enable us to get this bill passed into law.

It was just unbelievable. That testimony there led to me going on CBS Night Watch and, just a few months after that, going on CBS 60 Minutes and radio talk shows. It was an unbelievable response.

Reporter

Just how easy is it to lie and get away with it? And is it possible to beat a lie detector test?

Douglas Williams

It's a sad, sick joke, this antiquated last vestige of witchcraft.

Reporter 2

Doug Williams, a former police sergeant and polygrapher, has performed more than 6,000 tests. He knows as much about lie detector tests as anyone. And he says they don't work.

Reporter 3

Well, Jack, it would be unethical to tell you exactly how to beat it. But the bottom line is that you can control it with breathing and the tightening of certain muscles.

Douglas Williams

And after that--

[BEEPING]

It sounds like we're about to run out, but I felt like there was finally a very real chance of destroying this terribly abusive, evil industry. And I was successful in doing that to a large part in 1988. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act was passed. And it put hundreds and hundreds of polygraph examiners out of business.

Jacob Mcclelland

Where were you when you heard that that was going to become law?

Douglas Williams

I was laying on the couch, and I was watching the news.

Tom Brokaw

Lie detectors. They've been around for a long time now, 75 years.

Douglas Williams

And it said--

Tom Brokaw

But a majority of states don't allow--

Douglas Williams

--the Senate passed into law in the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, which prohibits the use of the polygraph in the private sector. It is now a federal crime if an employer requires an employee to submit to a polygraph examination.

It was almost like I was picked up off of that couch and just raised above the heads of these millions of people who no longer had to be subjected to this trauma, and that I was just being held up there, and now I could live. It was a physical sensation as well as an emotional and mental sensation. I could feel myself literally physically being lifted up off of that couch. It was almost as though I could hear the cheers and the laughter and the joy coming from all these people. It was an amazing experience.

If you'll look back in history, anybody that's ever done anything-- and I'm not putting myself in their shoes or elevating myself to their status at all-- but like Solzhenitsyn or Mandela or some of the other ones who had spent their life in protesting and dissidence-- and I'm reminded of that picture of the Chinese man in Tiananmen Square a number of years ago. There he stood, hand up, stop, hand up in front of the tank, whole line of tanks.

Now, he knew that wasn't going to end well for him. He knew that was not a rational act. But something inside of him compelled him to stand up in front of that tank and raise his hand in protest, and I can totally relate to that.

I was charging windmills. I mean Don Quixote was mentally healthy compared to me. I really did. I looked at myself as a guerrilla soldier, waging a one-man war against what I saw and still see as an oppressive, abusive industry. And I vowed to myself that I would do whatever it took, for as long as it took, to destroy that oppressive industry.

In 1996, the internet was just beginning to get started and I registered the domain name polygraph.com. I am the first one to ever put what they call an ebook on the internet. I charged $47.45 each, and I sold in excess of $200,000 worth of books every year for about--

Recording

This call is from a federal prison.

Douglas Williams

My name is Doug Williams, and I'm the only licensed polygraph examiner to ever tell the truth about the so-called lie detector. Before you take a polygraph test, you must get properly prepared. Remember, failing to prepare is simply preparing to fail. So go to the store page of this website, get my manual and online video or DVD, look them over a few times--

And then, I guess by popular demand, people kept calling me and writing me and emailing me and saying, man, I understand what you're saying in the manual, but I need to know for sure that I can pass this test. This is the only hurdle I have to pass. I said, well, I've got my own polygraph. I'll just set up my own little deal and bring them in and let them practice on it and make sure they know what they're doing.

It worked out real good for everybody. I was making a lot of money and they were getting their jobs that they went for. So yeah, I did that for about 14 years, all the way up to the time I was thrown in prison.

Jacob Mcclelland

But by this point, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act was already in place. Why continue with that fight?

Douglas Williams

It wasn't a fight. It was a service at that point because people had to take a polygraph test to get every kind of job with the police department, intelligence agencies, the Secret Service, on and on and on, and they knew that it was a joke. So yeah, it was a service. And it was still somewhat of a crusade because I would love to see, and I have advocated that we expand the Employee Polygraph Protection Act to protect all employees, not just private employees.

Jacob Mcclelland

Would folks come here to Norman to come to your training or would you go to them?

Douglas Williams

Both. Most of them, by far, came here because I hate to fly, so I would charge an exorbitant amount of money if I had to go somewhere else, so most of them came here.

Jacob Mcclelland

How much would you charge per session?

Douglas Williams

$1,000 if they'd come to me, $5,000 if I have to go to them.

Jacob Mcclelland

Was there anybody-- did you ever have a client who could never figure it out? Who could never learn the techniques?

Douglas Williams

No. Well, you just saw. What's to learn? What's to learn here? Can you think of losing your flashlight when you're spelunking? Can you think about laying on the beach? Can you do those two things, Jacob? Oh, whoa, I don't know. That's pretty hard there. Let me see. Think I'll be able to do that? Yeah.

The United States of America versus Douglas G. Williams, a dramatic reading. "First Undercover Operation." "On or about October 15, 2012, Undercover A placed a telephone call to Williams' telephone number listed on the Williams' website, which connected Williams to his personal cellular telephone."

It was a series of calls, actually, over a period of days.

"Undercover A told Williams that he was an inspector at an airport and was under investigation for allowing a friend to pass through customs with contraband. Williams promised to assist Undercover A to get ready and told Undercover A, 'There's not going to be one problem at all.' Undercover A informed Williams that he intended to lie to investigators about his involvement in illegal smuggling."

And he just kept calling and kept calling. He was the first-- the only-- the first one-- only one that had ever come out and said to me that he intended to lie. Nobody else had ever said anything like that.

"Williams chastised Undercover A, saying, 'What the fuck do you think you're doing, dumbass? Do you think you have like a lawyer confidentiality with me?' Williams continued, 'I haven't lived this long and fucked with the government this long and done such controversial shit and got away with it by being a dumbass.' Williams then threatened not to conduct the training for Undercover A, stating, 'I don't know if you've got sense enough to keep your damn mouth shut.'"

He was so pathetic, his pleading voice. And he kept calling me back and kept pleading and kept pleading and kept pleading.

"After Undercover A asked if there was any way Williams would train him, Williams stated, 'I'm just working on the assumption that you're telling the truth.'"

See, that protects me. You don't have to turn around and say, yeah, like I told you, I'm a lying son of a bitch. What the fuck was the reason for that, unless you wanted it on the record that I was knowingly teaching someone how to lie and cheat?

About three hours later, I called him back and I said, you are a believer, right? He said, yes. And I said, well, I'll tell you what. I'll help you out here because I just don't want to see you have to suffer for one mistake and be accused of things that you didn't do. And so--

"On or about October 27, 2012, Williams met Undercover A at a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, for private, in-person training. Williams stated, 'Now that we're alone in private, tell me what this is all about. First thing's first. You got my money?" God, Steven, I hope you make me a good documentary because this is such bullshit and I'm so fucking sick of reading it, I can't even begin to tell you. You can leave that in the tape if you like.

You know, at that point in time, there was not any-- he hadn't told me all this other stuff. They got me in there under false pretenses, saying I already knew about this. There wasn't anything else. Then when I get in there, he said, I've been doing this for quite a few times, and I've been making money doing this, blah, blah, blah. And it's just off-the-wall stuff. I was confused, upset, and like I said, I felt obligated to follow through with the training that he had contracted me to do.

"During the training, Williams instructed Undercover A, 'Do not change your story. Do not tell on yourself. And do not admit to ever seeing me or talking to me or anything else.'"

And when it was all over, he gave me a big ol' hug and thanked me for helping him. I even put on my Twitter that I helped another person withstand another traumatic polygraph experience. I didn't think there was anything wrong with anything I did.

Pause for dramatic effect. "Second Undercover Operation." Man, is this the biggest pile of bullshit I ever saw in my life.

"On or about February 5, 2013, Undercover B placed a telephone call to Williams' personal cellular telephone. Undercover B told Williams that he was employed as at county sheriff and he was applying for a job with the border patrol. During a conversation, Undercover B told Williams that he was worried about answering questions the CBP might ask relating to sex and drugs. Williams told Undercover B, 'I will get you ready. Don't tell me anything that will disqualify you, and I can train you how to pass if you're lying your ass off, so don't worry about that fucking bullshit."

Yeah. He arrived at the appointed time, knocked on the door, and I told him to come in. And then I go through my little exercise and have him close his eyes and read off the little script. I said, OK, think of something frightening on the controls. And that's when he'd said that he had got sexual favors from a 14-year-old girl when he was driving her home, and that he had smuggled cocaine into the jail.

"Undercover B tried to further explain his concerns but was interrupted by Williams, saying, "Oh god, please help me. Shut the fuck up. Quit worrying about all that stuff. Listen, I'm fixing to put it all positive, OK?' Williams added, 'I don't give a damn if you're the biggest heroin dealer in the fucking United States.'"

Why are you saying this? Why are you talking like this? And I just lost it. I went crazy in front of him. If you come in here and make these stupid confessions to me, I'm going to give you absolution, you son of a bitch. I'm going to lick my finger and I'll put the sign of the cross on his forehead and I was like, [BABBLING]. Go in peace, my son. [BABBLING], doing my best imitation of a priest speaking in Latin.

He was sitting there, wide-eyed, and he was getting more pink by the minute. And then finally, I just got right down in front of his face and put my nose right next to his and I said, you about ready to stop this crap and go catch your airplane? "Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I am." And he grabs his backpack and runs out the door and then here comes five federal agents in bulletproof vests.

They had this long, drawn-out search warrant all printed up. And they told me, well, this could all be over today if you just cooperate. And I said, man, I don't know what you mean by cooperating. I don't know what I've done. Well, will you talk to us about this? And I said, no, I don't-- I'm not talking to you at all. You call my attorney.

Reporter

Up front at 9:30 tonight, a federal investigation has targeted Doug Williams' work. Williams says the federal government alone spends $150 million on polygraph screenings for people working with classified information, but points to the recent cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden as proof the polygraph is far from a foolproof way to stop intelligence leaks. Williams and another anti-polygraph crusader are under federal investigation for their role in teaching techniques to pass the so-called lie detector.

Douglas Williams

I do not and will not knowingly assist anyone to lie or train anyone to lie. But by far, the majority of people who are called liars are innocent, truthful people that are falsely branded as liars simply because they're nervous.

Reporter

Williams says he refuses to teach people who tell him they want to lie and won't stop working to end the use of the machine he believes is based on faulty science.

Douglas Williams

They went ahead and indicted me. And the rest of the story you know. They were threatening all sorts of stuff like, OK, well, this guy-- bear in mind, he really wasn't applying for a job. He was already a customs and border patrol agent, but he was claiming that he was trying for a job. They were saying, OK, well, you're helping this guy get a job that he wasn't qualified for, and this job pays $60,000 a year, and he'll be working there for 30 years, so you're going to have to forfeit to the government 30 times $60,000.

Boy, that can bring pressure to bear on you. And so it was one of those deals where I said, OK, shoot up here amongst us. One of us has got to have some relief. I had pled guilty trying to save myself from being in debt to the government for like $17 million.

Jacob Mcclelland

You were a trained interrogator for many years in the police department. This was your job. You were a professional. Couldn't you tell if a client was unscrupulous?

Douglas Williams

Boy, you name me one person on the face of this earth that isn't unscrupulous in one degree or another. So how am I going to determine the degree of unscruples? Give me a dying break. You're a trained interviewer. Can you tell at what point I'm BSing you and what point I'm not? No, you can't, and nobody can, in spite of what they say.

Ana Adlerstein

OK. So Doug, I just want to go back and, when you first started out training people, did you have any ground rules you drew from?

Douglas Williams

No, I had no ground rules because I never saw the necessity of having any ground rules because no one ever came in and told me they were going to lie, and I never told anyone I was going to teach them how to lie.

Ana Adlerstein

And you didn't ask any questions?

Douglas Williams

OK. You're going to paint me in whatever corner you want to paint me. You just go ahead and paint me. But I never told anyone to lie, nor did anyone tell me they were going to lie, and the government knows that very well because they've interviewed 5,000 people that I trained. Not one of them ever told me they were going to lie. So--

Ana Adlerstein

Doug--

Douglas Williams

OK, god.

Ana Adlerstein

I'm not mounting a federal investigation against you.

Douglas Williams

Well, you certainly are. You're sitting there, saying that it was incumbent upon me to inquire as to whether or not a person is guilty of a crime when they come in and learn about how to pass a polygraph test. It is not incumbent upon me to do that. That is not my job, nor is it my responsibility. I'm neither ethically or legally required to do that.

Ana Adlerstein

But were there lines to yourself that you were uncomfortable with crossing?

Douglas Williams

I never crossed any lines. What lines did I ever cross? None.

Hello.

Jacob Mcclelland

Hey, Doug. How you doing?

Douglas Williams

Well, I'm 71 years old and I'm in federal prison. How the hell do you think I'm doing? I was sentenced to two years. I got about another four or five months before I finish my sentence. You hear all the racket in here? 250 guys crammed into a 2-story building about the size of a small apartment complex, living in 12 by 9 rooms, two men to a room. So it's always in the background a constant uproar.

I'm in here with a bunch of nonviolent drug offenders or crooked bankers, tax cheats. This is a work prison. All I have to do is clean the windows in the visiting room of the administration building. It takes me about 15 minutes, and then I'm done. Then I go out and work out. I work out twice a day. My goal is to leave here in better shape physically, emotionally, spiritually than I was when I came in here, if, for no other reason, than to show them they can't beat me. But I stay pretty busy. I do a lot of reading.

Just parenthetically, prisoners are probably the best reviewers of literature that there is because that's all they do is read. They spend hours and hours and hours reading.

Jacob Mcclelland

Have you given any trainings?

Douglas Williams

Oh, yeah. I've trained quite a few people, yeah, including some of the officers here, because it turns out they are subjected to polygraph examinations on occasion themselves.

Jacob Mcclelland

And you just do it without a polygraph machine? You just do the mental imagery stuff?

Douglas Williams

I can teach them without a polygraph. I've done it for years, [INAUDIBLE].

Jacob Mcclelland

You do it in the cafeteria or in your room or?

Douglas Williams

Wherever. I've beat them everywhere.

Jacob Mcclelland

Do you feel that, if you have indirectly helped someone actually deceive a polygraph operator, that that's a small price to pay for undermining this machine?

Douglas Williams

Well, let's put it this way. I have proved conclusively that the polygraph is absolutely worthless as a lie detector. So if there's a crime committed here, the crime is the fraud perpetrated by the polygraph operators in convincing our government and our criminal justice system to rely on an instrument that they know, and I have proven, is absolutely worthless.

Jacob Mcclelland

So that sounds like a yes.

Douglas Williams

Well, hell yes.

Jacob Mcclelland

Do you have anything you want to add before we call it a day?

Douglas Williams

No, just to reiterate once again that I am, in fact, a political prisoner. I am in prison because I have protested the loudest and the longest against the polygraph. Now, if they think throwing me in prison for a couple of years is going to stop me from doing that, they are terribly wrong. If you think I've protested the loudest and the longest before, wait till I get out.

Ira Glass

That story was produced by Love + Radio. Part of their upcoming season. A quick footnote to the story. Doug says in the story that the polygraph was invented in 1922, but he's misremembering. It's actually 1921.

And also, in case this wasn't clear, he was not the only person to testify to Congress in the 1980s about polygraphs. In particular, there was research by a guy named Leonard Saxe that was very important.

It is true that lie detectors are unreliable at their main job, detecting lies. Innocent people can get nervous and fail. Guilty ones can pass. If you aren't already listening to the Love + Radio podcast, they have many, many powerful, morally complicated stories, produced and edited beautifully, a whole archive. You can find them at loveandradio.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

Coming up, Comey? You Hardly Know Me. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Mr. Lie Detector, about hiding and revealing lies. There was an interesting moment at James Comey's testimony this week before the Senate Intelligence Committee when Senator Mark Warner asked the former FBI director why he felt it was necessary to write up notes immediately after each time he met with Donald Trump. As part of his answer, Comey said--

James Comey

I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting and so I thought it really important to document.

Ira Glass

In the back and forth that followed, Senator Warner summarized Comey's statement this way.

Mark Warner

So in all your experience, this was the only president that you felt like, in every meeting, you needed to document because at some point, using your words, he might put out a non-truthful representation of that meeting?

Ira Glass

OK, I'm just going to stop this right there because that is not using his words. The word Comey used was lie. The words that Warner used were non-truthful representation. That's just how toxic the word is, the whole idea of lying is. One of the president's spokespeople responded to Comey's testimony by saying, quote, "I can definitively say the president is not a liar."

But you know one of them is lying, either the president's team or the former FBI director, under oath. Either the president asked for Comey's loyalty and pressured him to drop an FBI investigation, or he did not.

As we've learned in this program today, polygraphs will not help us get to the truth of this matter. At some point, the only hope is that a liar comes forward and admits the truth in a situation like this.

Act Two. Where the Rubber Meets the Road.

Ira Glass

Which brings us to Act two of our program. Act Two, Where the Rubber Meets the Road.

This next story is about a guy who-- I say this with respect-- probably would not do very well on a lie detector test, Theo Greenly. Nice guy. Lives in LA. Makes a living as a bartender. And he told us about this lie that had been eating at him for a while, involving a cousin of his. Sean Cole explains.

Sean Cole

Before I get to the lying part, I first have to tell you about Theo's cousin. He's an artist, famous, as artists go, named Kenny Scharf. Kenny came up in the '80s in New York with the likes of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He's done a lot of street art like Keith Haring. Except Kenny's stuff is a lot more psychedelic-- trippy collages of cartoon monster faces, super colorful. And he's done huge murals all over New York, and some in LA and Brazil. A recent canvas of his sold for $100,000.

Theo Greenly

I've always admired Kenny.

Sean Cole

This is Theo. He's in his early 30s, so about 25 years younger than Kenny. And he'd heard about Kenny for years before he met him. They lived in different cities. Theo had grown up seeing his cousin's art. Kenny seemed like a big deal.

Theo Greenly

To be honest, I guess I've always been a little bit intimidated by him because he lives such this really cool, big life, it seems to me. And so any time I'm around him, I'm always a little quiet and tense. I just never really felt fully comfortable around him.

Sean Cole

Which goes along with the kind of person Theo is in general. During our interview, he used the word "neurotic" twice and the word "anxious" five times, especially as regards to this thing that happened with Kenny a couple of years ago.

Theo was at Kenny's house in LA with a bunch of other relatives, some birthday party or something, and they were just standing around talking-- Theo, his mom, his aunt, and his famous, exuberant cousin.

Theo Greenly

And I think it was Kenny's idea, or maybe my mom's idea to be like, hey, how about some karbombz on your cars?

Kenny Scharf

Karbombz!

Sean Cole

Karbombz. That's Kenny in a YouTube video.

Theo Greenly

K-A-R-B-O-M-B-Z.

Sean Cole

It's this project Kenny's been doing for maybe four years now. He paints his loony cartoon faces on the sides of people's cars with spray paint. This is more from YouTube.

Assistant

So what number karbomb is this?

Kenny Scharf

What is this, 85? I've done almost 200 cars already.

Sean Cole

Sometimes he paints eyelids over the headlights with a nose and mouth underneath.

Kenny Scharf

So bring me your car. I'll do your car.

Sean Cole

He does it for free for really anyone who asks him to. Just makes you sign an agreement saying you won't, like, tear the door off and sell it to an art gallery. He doesn't want money attached to it. All of his volunteers-- or victims, as he calls them-- are super into the idea. Theo's mom and aunt were super into it.

Theo Greenly

And I was sort of into it. I was into it, but I remember I didn't want a big, giant thing on the side. I was thinking more of maybe a little secret one up on the top. And he goes, well, then nobody's going to see that. And I thought, oh, yeah, OK. What did you have in mind?

Sean Cole

They finally decide on two of Kenny's standard characters, one on each side of the car. The first looks like a Nike swoosh with eyes and a mouth that he calls Yike. The other is basically a cartoon comet hurtling through space, known as Speedy. Kenny starts with that one. He picks up a can of spray paint, walks up to Theo's 2008 Toyota hatchback, and sprays a bright green line from the nose of the car all the way to the back. At which point, he looks at Theo and says, no turning back now!

Theo Greenly

I really wanted to like it. I wanted to want it, and I wanted to be cool. And I wanted to think, oh, what a cool, fun thing. All right, you know? Karbombz!

Kenny Scharf

Karbombz!

Theo Greenly

But I didn't feel that way.

Sean Cole

Kenny paints the whole outline of this shooting comet, rounded front, and these lines radiating off of it along the whole length of the driver's side.

Theo Greenly

And he filled it in, and it was pretty phallic was my first thought. Then I was like, you know, just shut up, Theo. Don't be immature. This is cool and fun. But then he put on a nose, and he does this circle at the front. And I remember just thinking that it looked like the reservoir tip of a condom.

Sean Cole

Theo didn't say anything. He kept his game face on because, again, he wanted to be game.

Theo Greenly

I was trying to be that person, but I'm not that person-- a cool, hip, fun, artsy, exciting person.

Sean Cole

That lie he told himself isn't the lie the story's about, but it's a pretty big one.

Theo posed for pictures in front of the car-- find them on Instagram, #karbombz-- and then said goodbye to Kenny and got on the road to pick up his then-girlfriend, Shelly, for dinner.

Theo Greenly

So I was driving over there. I was like, well, do I like this? It kind of looks like a condom to me is one of the thoughts I have, but it's not just this alarm of, oh my god, it's a condom. It's a condom. It's a condom. It's a condom.

Sean Cole

Right.

Theo Greenly

So I was leaning towards not really liking it. But I tend to have that reaction to any change at first. I don't think I've ever gotten a haircut and just been like, oh, great.

Sean Cole

Theo parks near Shelly's house, goes and meets her at her door. It may be worth noting that they had only been together about a month.

Theo Greenly

And then she comes out and she sees-- we're walking towards the car, and then I see her spot the car and just stop dead in her tracks. And she just stares at it, then she stares at me, then she stares back at the car, and she's like, what is that? And I said, that's my car. My cousin painted a racing stripe on it with spray paint. He's a famous artist. And she was like, Theo, your cousin is not a famous artist.

She was not a fan. She was like, no way. We ended up walking to dinner. She didn't even want to go in the car. She didn't want to be seen in it.

Sean Cole

Shelly's reaction was a blow. They broke up not long after that-- not because of the car. But Shelly was merely the first in a movie montage of horrified-- or, at least, confused-- friends and strangers, many of them curious as to why he had a condom on his car.

Theo Greenly

I could tell when somebody was thinking it. People would look at it and just kind of be like, oh, well, that's-- that's nice. I'd say, thanks. Yeah, my cousin painted it. He's a famous artist. They'd say, oh, yeah. Does he, um-- does he always paint, uh-- it looks like, um-- and I'd say, a condom? And they'd say, yeah, like a condom.

Sean Cole

Theo's roommate freaked out. People at the restaurant where he worked didn't know what to make of it. And of course, as problems go, this isn't the most urgent one facing the world today. Basically, a relative had given Theo this gift that made him miserable. But just to underline, this is all happening in Los Angeles, where, to paraphrase an old adage, wherever you go, there is your car. There was no escaping scrutiny.

Theo had to drive to work, to the store, to friends' houses, and probably he would have felt uncomfortable with any bright green graffiti painted on his car, attracting sometimes yelly attention from strangers. But the condomness, the phallicicity of this particular cartoon, it just carried an extra freight with it.

Theo Greenly

The thing is, Kenny's art, there's no fear of sex.

Sean Cole

Yes.

Theo Greenly

But I'm terrified of sex.

Sean Cole

Of sex? Really?

Theo Greenly

I mean, not really, but it's just I'm not as comfortable about just showing my sexuality--

Sean Cole

Got it.

Theo Greenly

--just out. I'm not that kind of person. I'm not outgoing about that.

Sean Cole

Nor outgoing at all. As he was parking once, a couple of methed-out tweaker guys told him how much they liked the car, which felt like its own kind of put-down.

Theo Greenly

And then I decided to do something about it.

Sean Cole

This was about six months after Kenny painted the car. Theo googled how to remove spray paint from a car. And as with so many problems, the answer is nail polish remover. But he didn't buy enough to get the job done and so, after a few hours, he managed to scrub just half the condom off. The back half. He'd have to come back for the rest later. Still, he was relieved, like an enormous, bright green prophylactic was lifted off his shoulders.

Theo Greenly

And then I was going to work one day, and I get a call from my aunt. And she's like, hey, Theo, it's Gayla. What happened? Were you in an accident? I was like, no, I wasn't in an accident. She said, oh. Well, I'm with Kenny right now and he says that your car is on the internet and that you had your door replaced. You must have been in an accident.

And I'm trying to put this together. I'm like, wait, what? How'd he see my car?

Sean Cole

Someone had taken a picture of Theo's car, put it on Instagram-- #karbombz-- and Kenny happened across it and thought, why is half the paint missing? Theo tells his aunt Gayla, I'm fine, and rushes off the phone. But it was only a matter of time before Kenny caught up with him.

The next family gathering at Kenny's place, Theo pulls up to the house, and all his relatives' cars are parked out front, about half of them with karbombz on the side, making Theo feel even worse. It was like he had betrayed the tribe. Theo spent the whole party trying to avoid his cousin, but finally Kenny came up to him and said, what happened to your car?

Theo Greenly

And so I said, I had to take the paint off because some kids or somebody tagged it with a paint pen.

Sean Cole

So kids graffitied over his painting is what you told him?

Theo Greenly

Yeah. And then he says, well, do you want to come over to my studio again and we'll repaint it? And my heart sank.

Sean Cole

Remarkably, while Theo had come to the party prepared with a lie, he hadn't imagined how Kenny might respond, like a chess player who'd only bothered to think one move into the future.

Theo Greenly

And I feel guilty about the whole thing. I feel bad that I lied to Kenny. I feel bad that I defaced his art.

Sean Cole

Do you want to come clean to Kenny?

Theo Greenly

Yeah. I do want to come clean. I'm terrified to do so. But I think it's the right thing to do.

Sean Cole

Two days later.

Kenny Scharf

Hello.

Sean Cole

Hello.

Kenny Scharf

Hello.

Sean Cole

How are you, Kenny?

Theo Greenly

Hey, Sean.

Kenny Scharf

Good. How are you, Sean?

Sean Cole

Theo goes back into the studio in Los Angeles with Kenny this time. So the two of them are now sitting across from each other. And I'm in a studio in New York. I can't see them. But I can tell Theo's nervous. I'm nervous. For one thing, Kenny had left a message for Theo beforehand saying, since we're meeting up anyway, why don't I just repaint your car outside the radio station? Theo did not return that call.

Kenny Scharf

How many karbombz are there now?

Sean Cole

We had told Kenny the story is about the karbombz, but it's really more about Theo. And after a while, I tried to ease us into the topic at hand.

Sean Cole

And has anyone ever sort of expressed any sort of buyer's remorse or--

Kenny Scharf

Their spouses.

Sean Cole

Oh, is that right?

Kenny Scharf

They've gone home and they were like, she hates it, and they'd been painted over. But it's only happened a couple times.

Theo Greenly

Well, I've got to say, you know, part of this--

Sean Cole

I really didn't expect Theo to cut to the chase this quickly.

Theo Greenly

I've got to come clean with you. I've got to level with you, because a big part of this today is, there's something that I've been wrestling with and have felt really guilty about having--

Kenny Scharf

It's OK.

Theo Greenly

--known how to tell you.

Kenny Scharf

Whatever. Tell me.

Theo Greenly

When I took off the paint--

Kenny Scharf

Right.

Theo Greenly

--I told you that it was because some kids tagged graffiti on it. And that's not true.

Kenny Scharf

OK.

Theo Greenly

I lied to you, and I feel really bad about that. I was getting a lot of attention from it. My girlfriend flipped out. People were joking that-- because, you know, it's pretty phallic. That side of it is.

Kenny Scharf

You know what? People say that. It's not really supposed-- that's not the intention, but I don't mind that people think that.

Theo Greenly

Well, I was wondering about that.

Kenny Scharf

Yeah. Everyone thinks that Speedy's a condom.

Theo Greenly

They do?

Kenny Scharf

Not everyone, but I've gotten a few comments.

Theo Greenly

That's what I was getting. And I was like--

Kenny Scharf

A condom?

Theo Greenly

Yeah. And I could--

Kenny Scharf

Where the nose is the reservoir tube? Is that it?

Theo Greenly

Exactly! Exactly.

Kenny Scharf

That's so funny. Just so you know, you could just tell me, hey, I've got to take this off. It's a little too much.

Sean Cole

Kenny said this happens all the time. People paint over their karbombz or get in accidents or just get rid of their cars. It's like any graffiti. You can't expect it to be there forever. In fact, listening to Theo wring his hands all over the place, Kenny was surprised he drove around with the Speedy character for as long as he did.

Theo Greenly

Well, the reason why is because I wanted to be a fun, cool, exuberant person. But I think I kind of realized I'm not. I'm more subdued and--

Kenny Scharf

Blend. You want to blend.

Theo Greenly

I do create-- yeah, well I want my-- I don't want to be-- did you say blend or bland?

Kenny Scharf

Blend. Well, both.

Theo Greenly

Yeah, both. I don't want to be bland.

Kenny Scharf

Well, why not just do another non-"phallic," quote, unquote, image?

Theo Greenly

I don't feel like I can handle it.

Kenny Scharf

Well, then take it off. It's OK, really.

Sean Cole

This is really the thing you want most when you lie to someone and then confess-- to be absolved not just of the lie, but of the supposedly terrible thing you were covering up in the first place.

The day after this conversation, Kenny invited Theo down to see a mural he was painting in Koreatown and he saw Theo's car in the flesh. He asked Theo to remove the rest of the condom-- sorry, the comet-- immediately just because he felt like his work was being misrepresented. Theo understood and complied. And now Theo doesn't feel like he's misrepresenting himself, either.

He still has the other cartoon on the passenger side, but if you happen to see him driving around LA and you only catch a glimpse of the driver's side of his car, you'd never know there was anything interesting about him at all.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is one of the producers of our program.

Act 2.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Karen Duffin. Our team includes Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Michelle Harris, Seth Lind, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Senior producer is Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I was making balloon animals at a party this week that we had here at the office, and every balloon that I started twisting, Torey just kind of freaked out, saying--

Theo Greenly

It's a condom. It's a condom. It's a condom. It's a condom.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "LIE DETECTOR" BY THE MIGHTY CAESARS]