Opinion Rights

Government Suppression of Potentially Disruptive Independent Research

Patrik Goethe, unsplash; Hustvedt, wikimedia commons
Written by Vera Wilde

My experiences conducting independent, National Science Foundation-sponsored dissertation and postdoctoral research on bias in technology — including national security implications and showing the CIA lied to Congress — suggest the need for stronger researcher and free speech protections in a free society.

Government Suppression

Explicit government suppression of scientific research is a health and safety problem in the U.S. For example, Congress bans the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from studying firearms deaths. This even though we have over 10,000 homicides and over 30,000 suicides annually from firearms — making guns probably more lethal to Americans than international terrorism and police use of force combined by at least an order of magnitude. And that’s just direct suppression.

Indirect government suppression of scientific research is also a problem. After years of unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, I found a lawyer willing to help me sue the DoJ, CIA, FBI and DIA for what turned into several years in an effort to obtain polygraph program data for my National Science Foundation-supported dissertation research. The agencies refused to release the data — and their nontransparency featured in a national investigative series. I completed my dissertation using other data and methods.

(Note: This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, University of Virginia Raven Society Fellowship, University of Virginia Society of Fellows Fellowship, Louise and Alfred Fernbach Award for Research in International Relations, and William McMeekin, Michael & Andrea Leven, and Bernard Marcus Institute for Humane Studies Fellowships.)

Harassment, Intimidation, Threats

While conducting a survey of Virginia state-licensed polygraphers, I received phone calls from a gentleman claiming he was the General Counsel of the American Polygraph Association. He suggested I stop my research. He claimed people in the Department of Defense were wondering if I was a spy. I finished my research and changed my name to Vera — Russian for faith.

When interviewing experts on polygraphs — including the co-chair of the National Academy of Sciences report on the subject and a former CIA director (twice) — I was unable to reach the former Department of Defense (DOD) researcher whose racial bias study on polygraphs appears to have been suppressed. I asked NAS administrators who had worked on the polygraph report why I could get these other folks, but not Sheila Reed. She was the DOD scientist who discovered evidence of possible racial bias in federal polygraphy. NAS said they had spoken with her for their research, and she had seemed reticent, hesitant — intentionally difficult to reach.

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Like Sheila Reed’s, some of my research showed evidence of possible bias in tech. So decisions that seem neutral and scientific sometimes cloak prejudice or plain old cognitive bias. But all my experimental research on racial bias in polygraphs — four survey experiments, a lab quasi-experiment (and another lab quasi-experiment on a related hypothesis) — turned up null results. No evidence of systematic racial bias.

I can’t get that research published, though. Because it’s not the right kind of data. Journal editors want to see a different sample — like using polygraphers as subjects. I got institutional approval to collect that data in a secret field experiment as a Ph.D. student. It was so risky I had to pitch it twice in person before my institutional review board would approve. And in the end, I didn’t feel safe running the experiment. I kept waking up in a cold sweat. I later found out there was a federal sting ongoing at the time against polygraph opponents. I might have been targeted for my research — but as an old-hat FOIA requester, I know by now that it would be next to impossible to find out. Unless I’m arrested.

If I could get the observational data I’ve been requesting for years, I could probably get my research published. But Sheila Reed found the observational data showed racial disparities while the experimental data did not. The government is probably afraid giving me their data will replicate Reed’s result, raising more questions about racial disparities in polygraphy than it settles. Endemic interoperability problems in law enforcement databases also might make federal polygraph program data too messy for it to actually be feasible to share.

Ironically, the surveillance state is really bad at collecting usable data on itself.

Ironically, the surveillance state is really bad at collecting usable data on itself. Click to Tweet

Institutional penalties

My old boss at Harvard told me the chair of his home department back at UCLA wanted to commit me because I had blogged that people lied to Congress.

I proved it in a cache of materials released to McClatchy as part of my 100% legal cooperation with reporter Marisa Taylor for her national investigative series on polygraphs in 2012. Nobody noticed. I worked largely off the record. And when I got mad and started blogging about it after the Homan Square revelations reminded me the interrogation abuses my research documented were both domestic and international, information about them was still being withheld from the public, and interrogation best practice reforms have yet to be implemented to make things right — I got fired.

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Actually, I got directed to resign for the greater good, because “the organization can’t be associated with someone who appears to have been a whistleblower.”

Social stigma

Probably because I had worked largely in secret, it was news to me that I was a whistleblower. That last conversation with my old boss was the first time anyone had used the term to refer to me, to my knowledge. Suddenly, my life made sense — the crazy stuff, like my phone redirecting when I tried making calls after I blogged about and documented CIA lying to Congress. I’d been disowned by academia — not just my old boss, but my old friends — like a bad dog (or a democratic hacktivist).

I’m still not sure I am a whistleblower. Whistleblowers are people who call out abuses from within organizations. I’ve always been on the outside. I’ve only turned over materials that were mine to disclose or that were already public domain. All I did was try and try again to tell the truth.

To paraphrase Orwell — when telling the truth is treated as a revolutionary act, it’s a good indication that there’s a lot of lying going on.

About the author

Vera Wilde

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

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Government Suppression of Potentially Disruptive Independent Research

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