By Joseph Finder
The spy business, when you get right down to it, is all about separating the truth from the lies. So you’d think our spies would be better at it than they are.
There aren’t too many real-life Alan Lightmans (he’s the hero of the Fox TV show “Lie to Me”) who can take a glance at someone and determine from his microexpressions whether he’s hiding something. The polygraph is famously unreliable. Even the C.I.A. doesn’t really trust it.
When a Soviet K.G.B. agent defected to the West in 1964 and claimed that the Russians had nothing to do with Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the C.I.A. didn’t believe him. The results of his polygraphs were inconclusive. They suspected he was a double agent, so they imprisoned him in solitary for four years, subjected him to sensory deprivation, gave him LSD and who knows what else. But he never broke. Finally, years later, they decided he was for real and paid him off.
In a novel I published in 1993 I had a secret C.I.A. project that used the functional M.R.I. scan as a lie detector, a concept I thought was pretty far-out at the time. Six years later scientists at the University of Pennsylvania began studying it for real, and now neuroscientists at Columbia, Stanford, Georgetown, and other places think there may be something to the idea of using M.R.I. scans to detect minute changes in the flow of oxygenated blood to the cerebral cortex when we lie. The Pentagon is financing a project that measures brain waves in about a second to detect dishonesty. They’ve already issued hand-held lie detectors for use by our troops in Afghanistan. A little screen shows red for deception, green for truth and yellow for “not sure.” No reports yet as to whether it surpasses the accuracy of the Magic 8 Ball. And a company called No Lie MRI is planning to start a network of Vera Centers where people can go to be brain-scanned for truthfulness.
But what if someone figured out a way to do it from a distance, the way you can use parabolic microphones to eavesdrop on a conversation from hundreds of yards away? Why not? After all, scientists have figured out how to measure the brain’s electrical activity without putting electrodes into the skull.
Imagine: No more torture, er, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” No more rubber truncheons. We’d be able to tell just by being in the same room whether someone — a spy, a terrorist, a politician — is lying to us.
Then again … that might spell the end of press conferences by politicians. And who in Washington would dare authorize funding of a technology that might put politicians out of business?
It’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Joseph Finder is the author of 10 thrillers, including “Buried Secrets,” to be released this month.