WASHINGTON — The announcement that Anita Faye Hill had taken and passed a lie detector test on her allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas caused an uproar Sunday on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but experts were quick to point out that while the polygraph is considered a valuable investigative tool its accuracy can vary widely.
Lie detector tests are not admissible as evidence in federal courts or in many state proceedings, and the ultimate impact of Hill taking such a test in the bitter fight over Thomas' confirmation remains to be determined.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a committee member, predicted that Hill's lie detector test would prove significant. "It may not be admissible in a court of law, but it is certainly going to weigh heavily on the minds of a lot of senators," he said.
Thomas' Republican supporters, on the other hand, denounced what they characterized as a dubious political trick. And they moved immediately to prevent it from becoming a factor in the ongoing committee hearings.
"You can find a polygraph operator to do anything you want him to do, just like you can find a pollster," declared Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), one of Thomas' most ardent supporters. "To throw that into the middle of a Supreme Court nomination as though it's real, legitimate evidence is highly offensive . . . exactly what a two-bit slick lawyer would try to do."
Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) agreed and overruled one of his fellow Democrats, Thomas critic Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio, when he tried to get a reference to the polygraph test entered into the hearing record.
"If we get to the point in this country where lie detector tests are the basis upon which we make judgments . . . we have reached a sad day for the civil liberties of this country," Biden said.
Since the charges essentially come down to Thomas' word against Hill's, with no direct evidence brought forward thus far to resolve the conflict, the issue of her credibility has become paramount.
President Bush said earlier in the day that it would be "a stupid idea" for both Thomas and Hill to take lie detector tests to help determine which one was telling the truth about the sexual harassment that Hill alleges Thomas inflicted on her when she served as his aide at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s.
"If the idea is challenging the word of one over another, to use the lie detector test in that way, I reject it," Bush said.
Although Leahy called the test results a "very significant development," several polygraph experts noted that the accuracy of the test depends on the expertise of the person administering it. And two polygraph experts challenged the competency of the examiner who tested Hill.
Paul K. Minor, a private security consultant who for nine years headed the polygraph division at the FBI, administered the test at the request of Hill's attorneys. He asked the University of Oklahoma law professor if she had fabricated her allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her by repeatedly asking her for dates and by discussing his sexual prowess with her in explicit and often vulgar terms.
"She answered no. There was no indication of deception to any of the relevant questions," Minor told reporters outside the hearing room where the committee was meeting. "It is therefore my opinion Ms. Hill is truthful."
While he is considered to be an expert in his field, Minor's reputation is not without controversy.
In July of 1980, Minor, who was then with the FBI, administered two polygraph tests to Herman Sillas, then the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, to determine the veracity of allegations that he had taken a $7,500 bribe from a prison inmate several years earlier. Sillas resigned after failing both polygraph tests.
At the request of Sillas' attorneys, the results were later examined by other experts who concluded that the tests had been improperly administered and the results "seriously flawed," according to Dr. Chris Gugas, chairman of the National Polygraph Assn.
Another expert, Lynn Marcy, who was then president of the American Polygraph Assn., was called in to administer the test for a third time and the results of that test indicated that Sillas was telling the truth.
"We filed complaints against Minor with the FBI and asked the American Polygraph Assn. to investigate him," said Richard Hickman, a San Francisco-based polygraph expert who, along with Gugas, reviewed the results of Minor's test.
Hickman said the way in which Minor phrased the questions he put to Sillas, along with what he remembers as being "serious" shortcomings in the methodology Minor used, raised doubts about his competence at the time.
A spokesman for the FBI, however, said that Minor had retired from the bureau in 1987 with his record there unblemished.