Polygraphs are notoriously unreliable, useful in practice mainly because the mere idea of a lie detector test can scare people into telling the truth. This is underscored by the wide variety and seeming effectiveness of anti-polygraph "countermeasures," which can help anyone pass regardless of truthfulness. Now Feds are going after instructors of polygraph-beating technologies, as part of a crackdown on "insider threats."

McClatchy revealed the extent of the polygraph-beating crackdown in an article on Friday. It was spawned in part from a Customs and Border Protection investigation into corrupt employees who had tried to use polygraph countermeasures—some successfully—to infiltrate agencies on behalf of drug smugglers and others. The crackdown is part of the Obama Administration's massive "Insider Threat Program," which uses McCarthy-esque tactics to try to prevent future Edward Snowdens.

Two instructors have been subjected to sting operations, in which federal agents posed as criminals trying to beat a polygraph: well-known polygraph countermeasure instructor Doug Williams, and a small-time instructor named Chad Dixon. Dixon has pleaded guilty to federal charges of "obstructing an agency proceeding" and wire fraud, and authorities are asking for him to be sent to prison for two years, according to McClatchy.

More troubling is the apparent sting operation on George Maschke, an American living in the Netherlands who runs antipolygraph.org, a repository of polygraph criticisms and countermeasures. From McClatchy:

George Maschke, a former Army Reserve intelligence officer who’s a translator and runs a website that’s critical of polygraph testing, said he also suspected he’d been targeted although he’d done nothing illegal.

In May, the translator received an unsolicited email in Persian from someone purporting to be “a member of an Islamic group that seeks to restore freedom to Iraq.”

“Because the federal police are suspicious of me, they want to do a lie detector test on me,” the email read.

The emailer asked for a copy of Maschke’s book, which describes countermeasures, and for Maschke to help “in any other way.”

Maschke said he suspected the email was a ruse by federal agents. He advised the person “to comply with applicable laws,” according to an email he showed McClatchy.

You would hope that if the government discovered employees and investigation subjects have been beating polygraph tests with a simple manual or class, they'd reevaluate the wisdom of using the tests, not go after the instructors or critics. But that'd be so hard.

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