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Federal polygraph programs are secret even to researchers

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, at 8:27 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, at 8:39 p.m.

— It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the federal government.

Information about polygraph screening is so guarded by the agencies that use it that job applicants who are tested are urged not to tell anyone. The news media are denied basic information, such as how many government employees are screened, because it’s “sensitive” and could jeopardize national security.

Researchers are told they can’t get studies about how it works. Even the National Academies, the organization set up to advise the federal government on scientific matters, faced stiff resistance when it reviewed polygraph testing. As a result, the academies compared the polygraph profession to the “priesthood keeping its secrets in order to keep its power.”

“It’s a siege mentality,” acknowledged Gordon Barland, a retired federal polygraph researcher who supports polygraph screening but also pushed for greater transparency on some of the data.

Many of the 15 agencies that rely on polygraph testing for job applicants and employees say they’re protecting screening methods from spies or terrorists who might figure out how to infiltrate the government. An unknown number of government polygraph studies remain classified because of this fear. But critics and even some supporters say the federal government should be more open about its programs given the growing use of polygraph screening and the continued scientific controversy over it.

Barland, one of the most prolific government polygraph researchers, asked government officials to publish several classified studies on polygraph screening that he participated in. They declined.

Other government researchers who’ve pushed for publishing such studies also have been turned down, Barland said. Some have left the government in frustration. Researchers and academics generally think it’s essential for studies to be published and peer reviewed. Barland said the government would have benefited from publicizing several of the studies because they demonstrated that polygraph screening worked, but he blames labor unions and civil libertarians for making polygraphers gun-shy.

“They don’t want to give critics any more ammunition,” he said.

Job applicants and employees also are denied the recordings of their polygraph screenings and the charts that polygraphers relied on to determine whether they’re lying. If they want any other records about sessions, they have to file open records requests. Nonetheless, documents often are withheld or redacted for national security reasons. The information is so guarded that people who are polygraphed are urged to “maintain confidentiality” and not to tell co-workers, relatives or friends, documents obtained by McClatchy show.

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