Fourth-generation Methodist minister Douglas Gene Williams was excited about sharing the word of God with a new audience starting last Friday. They’ll probably be more interested in his other gospel — beating so-called “lie detectors” or polygraphs. They’ll certainly be captive. Doug is serving a two-year sentence after federal agents entrapped him in Operation Lie Busters, a seven-figure sting targeting polygraph opponents. His case raises troubling questions about politicized prosecution, free speech, and national security.
Doug’s Congressional testimony contributed to passing the 1988 Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA). The EPPA saved millions of Americans from being subjected to polygraph interrogation as a condition of employment every year. But it didn’t cover criminals, suspects, or victim-witnesses in policing, government employees, or people in security-related fields — money, drugs, and guns. As a consequence, “deception detection” remains a $3-4 billion/year industry — and growing.
In his testimony, Doug confessed to crimes against humanity including torture as a former police polygraph interrogator. It’s not hard to imagine how threatening the courage of his convictions might be to law enforcement today. Local and state police leaders are failing to embrace firing officers who kill unarmed civilians — and letting those officers use the appeals processes available to them — as a best practice that helped Milwaukee avoid another Ferguson. Federal law enforcement leaders are failing to lead them by holding high-level federal officials accountable for documented law-breaking and lying to Congress about it.
Doug’s courage seems to be so threatening to the status quo that they’d rather call him crazy than deal with the hard realities — and threat to their bottom lines — his work poses. This is a classic totalitarian move, and people in the U.S. need to know that our government is making it.
Myth: People who get court-mandated mental health treatment as a condition of release must be a threat to themselves or others.
Reality: The court released Doug for an extended period between his plea and his imprisonment, suggesting he was not considered a threat to himself or others. Yet one condition of his release will be seeking court-mandated mental health treatment. The Stasi and Soviets used to institutionalize political opponents, trying to damage their credibility by making them look crazy. That sort of thing seems to be happening in the U.S. now. Some accounts suggest they’ve been ongoing in CIA and FBI history.
Of course, some activists who are convinced the government is out to get them really are experiencing serious mental health problems. The two realities aren’t mutually exclusive. Staying well while contesting a government determined to protect its flawed justice apparatus would be a challenge for anyone.
And it could also be considered a form of mercy to give someone counseling if you’re going to take away their livelihood. For decades, Doug has made money teaching people to beat the polygraph. When he gets out, he won’t even be allowed to do that work for free, as he’s also been doing for many years.
Myth: Free speech is a right in America. You don’t have to earn it, and you can’t lose it by making the wrong people mad.
Reality: Another condition of Doug’s release will be not talking about polygraphs anymore.
Denying political opponents free speech is another totalitarian move. People need to know that in the United States today, the KKK can fundraise using PayPal, but WikiLeaks cannot. And they need to know that the NRA can teach people how to shoot, but Doug Williams can’t teach you how to beat the polygraph. This despite gun violence killing tens of thousands of Americans annually. Polygraphs don’t work anyway, so teaching people to beat them is not a national security threat.
Myth: National security programs promote national security interests. Federal law enforcement operations protecting those programs from opponents do the same.
Reality: Polygraph programs — like all mass security programs for low-prevalence problems — jeopardize national security. Federal law enforcement operations protecting those programs do the same.
Above all, the American people need to know that the backfiring security programs going on in our name don’t have to keep going. We live in an imperfect world, and our country and its political system are imperfect. But they can get better, as we all can, all the time.
To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, democracy is coming to the surveillance state.