Just Say 'No' to FBI Polygraphs

The Risks Outweigh the Rewards

by George W. Maschke
9 May 2003

If you are thinking of going to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), you need to know that part of the Bureau's hiring procedure is that you must pass a pre-employment polygraph screening test. "So what?" you may ask. You have nothing to hide, so why should you be worried about a polygraph test?

Well, you have good reason to worry. A U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel of leading psychologists and statisticians recently conducted a thorough review of polygraph screening and found it to be completely invalid. In fact, in its report, The Polygraph and Lie Detection, the NAS even likened polygraph testing to a shamanistic ritual. In reaching its conclusions, the NAS echoed the testimony of FBI polygraph expert Dr. Drew C. Richardson before the U.S. Senate back in 1997: "[Polygraph screening] is completely without any theoretical foundation and has absolutely no validity...the diagnostic value of this type of testing is no more than that of astrology or tea-leaf reading."

But the FBI continues to judge the honesty and integrity of applicants for employment based on this voodoo science. In fact, since the NAS published its report, the Bureau has actually increased its reliance on polygraphy.

The risk for those taking the polygraph is substantial. Fifty percent of FBI special agent applicants who pass their Phase I and Phase II testing and receive a conditional offer of employment go on to fail the polygraph.1 What happens if you lose the polygraph coin toss?

  1. You will be disqualified from FBI employment for life;
  2. Your polygraph failure will be recorded in your permanent FBI HQ file;
  3. You will be blacklisted from employment with other federal law enforcement agencies, and may have difficulty finding employment with local agencies as well;
  4. You will have difficulty ever obtaining any job that requires a security clearance. When background investigators do a National Agency Check, they will learn that you have an FBI HQ file; upon obtaining your file, they will see that you failed the polygraph. No security clearance adjudicator is eager to put his or her neck on the line by granting a clearance to someone who "failed" a polygraph test.

The FBI polygraph is a risk not worth taking. Until the Bureau scraps the polygraph, if you are seeking a career in law enforcement, you would do well to steer clear of the FBI.



1. See Mondics, Chris, "FBI seeks to rebuild its image," Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 May 2002, and Geracimos, Ann, "A special kind of education," Washington Times, 23 December 2002. For discussion of these articles, see the message board thread, FBI Polygraph Failure Rate Reportedly Near 50%.