WASHINGTON — She was one of the brightest students at a leading university when the Central Intelligence Agency offered her a job as a counter-terrorism analyst. But first, the 19-year-old was warned, she had to undergo a polygraph test to determine whether she could be trusted.
Instead of scrutinizing her ability to guard government secrets, polygraphers asked about her reported rape and miscarriage, the woman recalled. Over at least eight hours in three separate sessions, polygraphers repeatedy demanded to know her innermost thoughts, even after she started sobbing in shame.
“At one point, one of the polygraphers said to me, `Turn on the light inside so I can see,’“ said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld. “I was amazed at how creepy and invasive the whole process was.”
Last year, more than 73,000 Americans across the country submitted to polygraph tests to get or keep jobs with the federal government, although such screening is mostly banned in the private sector and widely denounced by scientists. Many of the screenings probably aren’t as harsh as the CIA applicant described, but polygraphers at a growing number of U.S. agencies are asking employees and applicants questions about their personal lives and private thoughts in the name of protecting the country from spies, terrorists or corrupt law enforcement officers.
The federal government describes polygraph testing as an imperfect but effective way of preventing its secrets from being leaked at a time when almost 5 million people have been approved to access classified information. Many people who undergo polygraph tests describe them as one of the most emotional, terrifying and shameful experiences in their lives. Polygraphers routinely coax people into revealing secrets or experiences they haven’t told their friends, relatives or therapists. The polygraphers record the sessions and keep details of the results, sharing them across the government when someone applies to different agencies.
Scientists, however, don’t know whether polygraph machines can tell whether someone is lying or even withholding information. Some independent studies have concluded that polygraph testing is no more accurate than a coin toss.
Despite such doubts about the tests, Congress and the courts no longer aggressively scrutinize the usually secretive federal polygraph programs. People who undergo the tests often can’t get access to information about their interrogations, and most are barred from filing complaints in federal court.
The National Academies urged federal agencies in 2003 to stop using the tests as a screening technique. The organization, which advises the U.S. government on scientific matters, examined thousands of polygraph studies and concluded that the risk of innocent people failing the test, and spies passing it, was too high.
Since then, 15 agencies — from the National Security Agency to the FBI to the Postal Inspection Service — either have continued or expanded their polygraph screenings, McClatchy found. Many of the agencies now target a growing number of private contractors as well. Only the Department of Energy dramatically scaled back on screening after its own scientists protested.
“The federal government obviously has ignored the scientific consensus,” Stephen Fienberg, the chair of the National Academies’ polygraph panel, told McClatchy. “What we showed, without equivocation, is that the polygraph machine is too blunt an instrument to be relied on for screening.”
The federal government itself hasn’t reached a consensus on the best approach, or even the ethical limits, of screening more than 70 years after adopting the practice. McClatchy interviewed dozens of polygraphers, national security experts and people who’ve been screened and found vast differences in how the tests are conducted.
Six agencies, including the Department of Energy, try to stick to national security questions, such as whether someone has leaked classified information or has inappropriate relationships with foreigners, McClatchy found. These polygraphers are supposed to avoid delving into other personal matters, such as sexual conduct and psychological issues.
Bruce Held, the director of intelligence and counterintelligence for the Department of Energy, said he wanted to avoid relying on draconian security measures that might unintentionally encourage spying by alienating his employees.
“What we’re looking for is whether you are a spy, terrorist or saboteur, not whether you have some peccadillo in your life,” said Held, a retired CIA officer.
The nine other agencies that still use polygraph screening, however, see it as crucial in rooting out applicants or employees who are hiding crimes or deviant or unstable behavior that should bar them from certain jobs. These agencies delve into personal conduct such as past drug use, sexual perversions, undisclosed crimes and financial problems.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service once asked only national security questions but recently decided to start asking its special agent applicants more personal questions. David Bogue, the head of the service’s polygraph program, said polygraph screening helped the agency root out “potential insider threats” and hire people who were “trustworthy and suitable.”
Details about how the U.S. government conducts polygraph screening are rarely discussed publicly, because many polygraphers cite the need to protect national security and many people who’ve been screened fear being identified. Many federal agencies, including the CIA and FBI, declined to grant McClatchy interviews or respond to basic questions, such as how many people they polygraph.
To prevent abuses in such a secretive culture, inspectors from the government-run National Center for Credibility Assessment routinely scrutinize polygraph programs. William Norris, the director of the center, said inspectors interviewed top officials and reviewed a sampling of test results to ensure that “ethical, professional and technical standards” were being met. Federal polygraphers also receive more than three months of training at the center.
A McClatchy reporter, however, spoke to veteran polygraphers from a wide array of agencies who described how they often rely on their own instincts and experiences to determine the relevance of a topic, comparable to a skillful police interrogation of a criminal suspect. Some polygraphers, for instance, think that asking someone about being raped could be legitimate in certain circumstances. Others disagreed.
“Where is the line? That depends on the polygrapher and the agency,” said John Sullivan, a retired CIA polygrapher of more than three decades. “It can be a slippery slope. At a certain point, the government can justify almost anything.”
One Defense Intelligence Agency employee accused a polygrapher last year of jumping to the wrong conclusions during her screening because she’s a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin, according to a copy of her complaint. The polygrapher accused her of trying to deceive him when she countered that she was telling him the truth.
The woman, an intelligence officer, previously worked with polygraphers who told her that even truthful people can be seen as having deceptive responses because they second-guess themselves. As a result, she said in the complaint, she concentrated on providing honest responses. However, the polygrapher said he thought she was using what are known as “countermeasures” to prevent him from reading her test results.
The woman no longer works for the Defense Intelligence Agency but she asked not to be named because she still works for the federal government. When she appealed and asked the Defense Intelligence Agency to view the tape, the agency restored her national security clearance.
“Polygraphers aren’t trained scientists,” said Fienberg, who’s a nationally respected statistician. “They haven’t a clue what impact an interrogation has on people’s likely responses.”
Coming tomorrow: As polygraph screening flourishes, critics say oversight and accountability have been abandoned