Trying to make sense of the story of Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn is hard; trying to look for the angles in the media’s reporting of the story is worse.
The New York Times [nyt] summarizes the story.
Compressing it down further: an American officer applied for a job with the CIA and told them – during a “lie detector” test, no less – that he had murdered an Afghani villager suspected of being a bomb-builder, then concealed the murder. The Army investigated the claims and decided not to charge Golsteyn, and then Golsteyn went on Fox news and said he had committed the crime, at which point The Army charged him with murder.
That’s my dry and simple take on it: boy kills man, confesses to murder, the system tries to hide it for him but he brags publicly and now he’s in trouble. Various war pigs have weighed in and lured Donald Trump into the discussion as well, suggesting that Trump pardon Golsteyn for the murder. Now that a spotlight is shining on the whole sordid affair, The Army is doubtless sitting back thinking “there’s not enough whitewash to put a second coat on this!”
What’s weird, to me, is that some of the press are reporting this as a matter of “rules of engagement.” [mil]
An Army board of inquiry recommended a general discharge for Golsteyn and found no clear evidence the soldier violated the rules of engagement while deployed in 2010. This would have allowed Golsteyn to retain most of his retirement benefits under a recommended general discharge under honorable conditions.
Wait, what? There are no “rules of engagement” that say “war crimes are permitted.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, himself a Marine veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, stepped in on Golsteyn’s behalf, writing a letter to the Army secretary and making scathing public comments about the case, calling the Army’s investigation “retaliatory and vindictive.”
So much for the “rule of law”, Rep. I guess he doesn’t realize that taking someone prisoner, then shooting them, is illegal.
There are three things that freak me out a bit about this story:
- Donald Trump is perceived as a defender of the military
- The CIA still uses polygraphs in employment screenings? Holy shit, didn’t they get the memo that polygraphs are pseudo-science?
- This guy is so stupid that he admits to a murder on television, then expects to get away with it? Does he think he’s a presidential candidate, or something?
Though he was cleared of a law of armed conflict violation, the board found Golsteyn’s conduct as unbecoming an officer.
Well, duh, that’s why he was applying for a job at CIA!
The Times has a lot of mummity-mum about how this sort of behavior undermines “the rule of law”:
The biggest casualty of Mr. Trump’s interference could be the image of American justice in Afghanistan, where 14,000 American service members are still advising, assisting, fighting and, in some cases, dying.
Abdul Karim Attal, a member of the Helmand provincial council, said in a telephone interview on Sunday that a pardon for Major Golsteyn would “give logic to those who say they are waging war against the Americans in Afghanistan because the Americans are not even committed to their own justice system.”
Oh, dear, “hearts and minds” again? Listen, there isn’t anyone in Afghanistan who believes the Americans are committed to any justice system except Mao’s “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” What the fuck is The Times even talking about, trying to pretend that there is an “image of American justice in Afghanistan” that might be tarnished? The Afghanis have been bombed into a state of realism.
Another trope The Times deploys is the standard “there were casualties!”:
Major Golsteyn was in Afghanistan in 2010 during the battle for the city of Marja in the volatile Helmand Province. The battle was huge – more than 15,000 American, Afghan, British, Canadian, Danish and Estonian troops assaulted the Taliban stronghold. Over the next several months, dozens of Americans were killed and hundreds were wounded.
Taliban or civilians killed? No mention. Dozens of Americans killed and hundreds wounded justify an atrocity. Now, this is not a full-fledged attempt to justify an atrocity; The Times is just putting those numbers on the page so that people will think “oh, well maybe Golsteyn was upset.” Or something.
That was Operation Moshtarak [wik]
When launched, the operation was called a “new war model”. Afghan and NATO officials had assembled a large team of Afghan administrators and an Afghan governor that would move into Marja after the fighting, with more than 1,900 police standing by. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in”, said American commander Stanley McChrystal. The capture of Marja was intended to serve as a prototype for a new type of military operation.
Hearts and minds.
Sure, but they’re a really handy fig-leaf for screening out people that you’d rather not employ for reasons that might look discriminatory.
As I understand it, the idea is that anything permitted by the rules of engagement is, by definition (according to the US) not a war crime.
There’s a reason your government passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, aka “Hague Invasion Act”… The US arrogates to itself the right to decide what is or isn’t a war crime. Spoiler alert: if the US does it, it isn’t a war crime.
Well, as long as the candidate doesn’t know the lie detectors are bullshit you might actually get something out of them. A kind of placebo truth serum. On the other hand you might get the sort of awkward confession you really didn’t want to hear. “Sorry, you’d be overqualified if only you knew how to keep quiet.”
Presumably it said “Freedom and Democracy” on the box in the same way tins tend to be labelled “Fresh and delicious.” And hopefully everybody, with the possible exception of McChrystal, adjusted their expectations accordingly.
there is an “image of American justice in Afghanistan
Yes, of course there . Major Golsteyn is the epitome of it though a drone taking out a wedding party is a valid contender.
The CIA still uses polygraphs in employment screenings? Holy shit, didn’t they get the memo that polygraphs are pseudo-science?
My knowledge is two or three years out of date but I believe that polygraphs are popular all across the US Federal Gov’t where security is a concern. Some departments probably still use the MBTI. It can be incredibly hard to take someone’s toys away from them when they “know” that they work.
And hey, as komarov @3 says, a polygraph can work if you have an operator who is good at cold reading and the victim actually believes they work. Essentially they function as some kind of voodoo (placebo or nocebo?). They are complete pseudo-science but like a witch’s curse or a medium’s trance you can fake out the victim and convince them that you “know”. It can easily convince others who are desperately searching for firm anwsers in an uncertain environment. If used properly by a good conman a gussied-up coke bottle would work as well.
As something of an aside, the, IIRC, US National Research Council has a report out on the validity of “forensic” sciences written by a committee of real scientists. To summarize their conclusions, just about everything you see on CSI either has no validity at all or there is not enough evidence to to accept that it works well enough that it should be used in a justice system. Reading entrails might work as well. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12589.html
Currently Forensic Science is an oxymoron to be polite.
What worries me is what is the false positive rate with the bloody things? As of about 5 years ago we did not even have any decent reliability figures for finger print analysis after about 120 years let alone for some mad-scientist contraption like a polygraph.
Marcus Ranum says
Presumably it said “Freedom and Democracy” on the box in the same way tins tend to be labelled “Fresh and delicious.”
NON-GMO! Tactical Freedom and Democracy! (contents may have settled during shipping and handling)
Curt Sampson says
Even better? A photocopier. (This may not even be fictional; it’s an allegedly true story that was being passed around by detectives when David Simon was doing research for his book Homicide.)
Marcus Ranum says
I’ve encountered variations on that story before. In one of them, the person being interrogated was a Vietcong.
The obvious thing to do is to require that the CIA waterboard any job applicant. That way, their staff psychopaths get to have their fun, and any prospective employees will come in the door with an improved understanding of the value of torture.
CIA Executive: “Why can’t we get good employees anymore?”
Interrogator: “Because they all confess to having smoked dope.”
CIA Executive: “Damn, we’re going to have to just outsource everything.”
Anybody remember the dowsing-rod bomb detectors we sold to the Iraqis?
These people do not give the least shit about the truth. But stage props have their uses…
Whatever you want it to be. That’s the point.
@ 8 Dunc
Sorry Dunc, it was getting late and I was not clear. My worry, at that point about the false positive rate was aimed at the US Gov’t employees who have the requirement for yearly security screenings. You could be working for NASA and get a false positive hit. and lose a career.
The more serious problem is that in the US one can get sent to prison or even executed partly based on totally crap evidence from a polygraph.
If the operator or the powers that be want to get a hit I would not call that a false positive, more criminal behaviour.
We really do not know the “real” false positive or false negative rates. I do not think that people using them even understand the concept. This is similar to finger print analysis where the analysts, at least in the US but I think it applies world wide, claim a zero error rate.
People, such as police officers, really believe in these things and by extension they affect how investigations go and what goes before the courts.
Anybody remember the dowsing-rod bomb detectors we sold to the Iraqis?
Hey that was you guys, not us. We got underbid. I swear I read a report of one of them being still used in Baghdad about two or three years ago.
@ Curt Sampson
It may be apocryphal but I can see it working.
BTW, there is a woman who has just been charged with “Pretending to be a witch” in Northern Ontario. She was unlucky as apparently that part of the criminal code was repealed just after she was charged. The police said it seemed like the most appropriate charge.
To be honest, I don’t understand why it would be repealed though it might be intended to protect some members of the current Provincial Gov’t.
Ieva Skrebele says
Some years ago I did Internet research* about polygraphs, because I was just curious about how they are supposed to work. The first thing I found out about this topic were forum posts saying something approximately like this: “I’m aware that this technology is unreliable pseudoscience. I’m not planning to lie and I don’t really have anything to hide, but I absolutely must pass the test in order to get a job. I’m afraid about a false positive. Can you give me an advice on how to act and what to do in order to pass the lie detector?”
The problem with this placebo truth serum is that it can cause real harm for innocent people.
I’m glad this crap doesn’t exist in my country, because otherwise it could make me pretty damn nervous. In general, I’m not anxious or nervous about tangible tests. If, in order to get a job, I needed to get a good score in a mathematics exam or get through a job interview where I explain my qualifications, I’d be calm knowing that I control the situation—an exam score depends upon my knowledge and isn’t just a matter of blind luck, same goes for job qualifications and prior experience. But a polygraph test in the exact opposite—it’s a matter of luck, yet simultaneously it also depends upon your performance in such ways that you cannot possibly control it, heck you cannot even influence much. A lie detector test is exactly the kind of thing that would make me very nervous.
* “Internet research,” the modern day euphemism for “I read something about this topic, I feel like I’m educated, but in reality I really have no clue what I’m talking about.”
A lie detector test is exactly the kind of thing that would make me very nervous.
And well it should. I am no expert but I have done a little bit more research probably including some of the published literature about it because a friend was asked by the police to take a polygraph test so I did some quick refresher reading. Plus, I have an academic background in the flavour of psychology that lets me make a bit of sense of it.
Essentially the polygraph, the photo copier and my gussied-up coke bottle are all about the same. It depends not on the device but the operator.
My advice to my friend was do not even think of taking such a test. He has the type of personality who feels guilty if it rains. If the damn thing did work sociopaths and psychopaths and Donald Trump would be able to pass with flying colours.
jrkrideau, @ #9:
Yeah, I understood that, I’m just being rather more cynical about the whole process… The idea that you could have a career-ending false positive is based on the assumption that there’s some kind of objective and invariant mapping between either the output of the machine and the outcome of the interview, or the outcome of a single interview and the result of the process as a whole. I don’t accept either of those assumptions.
Firstly, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about “false positives” in relation to polygraph tests, because they’re not objective tests which can produce incorrect results, they’re just random noise generators whose output is interpreted more-or-less arbitrarily. You might as well ask about the false-positive rate of tea-leaf reading. The outcome of the polygraph test itself is whatever the operator wants it to be, and you can bet that those polygraph operators are at least as sensitively attuned to the desires of their superiors as the average drug-sniffing dog.
Secondly, the polygraph test is just one part of the interview, which is itself just one part of the overall screening process. There is almost endless scope for re-doing, re-evaluating, or varying the weight of any given piece of “evidence” in order to produce the desired outcome – although there is almost certainly some convoluted administrative process which contrives to give the impression of objectivity. Nobody is going to get fired as the result of a single interview, unless the organisation really wants to get rid of them. (And even then, I would assume that there’s another convoluted administrative process to at least make it look like a slow, deliberative process.)
The other deeply suspect assumption underlying the idea that somebody could lose a career because of a false-positive on a polygraph test is the assumption that the people and organisations using them actually believe them to be accurate and reliable. I strongly suspect that more-or-less everybody involved (at least higher up the org chart) knows perfectly well that they’re horseshit, and that they remain in use precisely because they are bureaucratically useful and easily manipulated horseshit.
The analogy here is not to some rules-based system like D&D or Warhammer, where you roll 2D10 and look up the results on the Polygraph Outcomes table on page 957 – “Oh dear, you rolled double zero, I’m afraid you’re fired”. No, I believe the correct analogy is to the RPG Paranoia, where the GM periodically has people roll dice (accompanied with copious note-taking and theatrical muttering) just to keep them nervous, and then ignores the results does whatever they were going to do anyway.
Ieva, @ #10:
I believe that that is its main purpose. I believe that the secondary purpose is to provide bureaucratic arse-covering for decisions taken for reasons that you can’t officially admit to. Don’t want to hire Leroy because you’re racist? Want to get rid of Becky because she wouldn’t sleep with you? Worried that Rob knows about your misuse of funds? Just apply Polygraph(TM), and the problem is solved!
Now, I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that various government departments do sometimes fire people essentially at random just to keep everybody else on their toes (because occasional random punishment is great for motivation!), but I would bet a fairly large amount of money that that’s not going to happen to anybody they particularly want to keep.
Curt Sampson says
Brilliant! It hadn’t occurred to me what good training that game would be for modern politics and US. government.