In an on-line discussion in 2001, Washington Post reporter Vernon Loeb mused, "I think it's only a matter of time, by the way, before we get our first 'polygraph spy'--that is, someone who is so pissed off at the way his career has been unfairly ruined by polygraphers that he gets his revenge by betraying his country." In fact, it appears that this has already happened. The CIA forced employee Edward Lee Howard (1951-2002) to resign in 1983 after he failed a polygraph screening examination. This began a series of events that ultimately led to his defection to the Soviet Union two years later. The following is Chapter 4 of Howard's book (edited by Richard Coté), Safe House: The Compelling Story of the Only CIA Operative to Seek Asylum in Russia (Bethesda, MD: National Press Books, 1995), which describes his polygraph experience with the Agency. Page numbers are provided in curly braces for reference purposes.

For discussion, see Edward Lee Howard: A CIA Polygraph Spy.


Chapter Four

Those Wiggly Lines


I was fired by the CIA just before I was scheduled to depart for my deep cover assignment at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. My employment was terminated solely on the basis of a series of four conflicting polygraph tests administered at Langley in March of 1983. The CIA just told me to resign. It was a great shock. To this date, they have never given me a reason for my dismissal.

Because no machine can unerringly recognize when a person is lying, and because its results are unpredictable and inconclusive, polygraph results are not admissible as legal evidence in the United States and many foreign countries. But don't try to tell this to the CIA, which attributes almost mystical powers to the polygraph. To give you an idea of what went on, let me tell you about the polygraph and how the CIA used it on me.

The polygraph test is based on the theory that there are physical reactions to lying which can be consistently identified and accurately measured.

The machine itself is a recording device which measures certain physical responses to being questioned: breathing rate, blood pressure and sweating. The subject is seated, and a pneumograph tube is fastened around his chest to measure his respiration rate. An ordinary blood pressure cuff measures pressure and pulse, and electrodes attached to the fingers measure increased sweat-gland activity, which reduces [sic, correct "increases"] the skin's ability to carry electrical current. The output {44} of these sensors is recorded in the form of wavy ink lines on a strip of moving paper. An interrogator asks a series of yes/no questions, and the polygraph record is later evaluated by one or more interpreters.

According to several polygraph experts I have spoken with since my firing, many factors can affect the accuracy of a polygraph test. If it records emotional stress, for example, that stress could be the result of lying--or of a fight with a loved one, a recent fender-bender or financial problems. Pathological liars, on the other hand, show almost no bodily response when telling lies, the experts say. Ordinary nervousness, physical or mental abnormalities, discomfort, excessive pretest interrogation or even indifference to a question can all affect the accuracy of a polygraph test. To top it off, the "lie detector," as it is often referred to, can fail to detect lies seventy-five percent of the time if the subject takes a mild tranquilizer before testing.

The testing procedure itself has to be very carefully conducted in order not to influence the results. The room used for the test should be plain, quiet, comfortable and private. The examiner's role is also important. He should be unemotional, consistently objective and thoroughly trained in scientific interrogation to reduce the chance for human error.

The CIA routinely uses polygraphs to screen its employees for security risks. New employees are tested before they are hired, before they embark on major assignments, and at routine, five-year intervals. When I took my pre-employment polygraph, I told the CIA all about my use of cocaine and marijuana in South America, my occasional overuse of alcohol and some minor, boyhood thefts. I met all of their hiring criteria, passed their polygraph test, and was hired.

All CIA officers are tested before they leave for service in a socialist country and immediately upon their return. In April of 1983 I knew I was going to Moscow and also knew {45} that I was due for a routine polygraph test. Oddly enough, no one had said anything to me about the test, and I was all set for Moscow. I knew the policy, so I called the security section and said, "Shouldn't I have a polygraph?"

They said, "Yes." That was my mistake. If I hadn't said anything, I probably wouldn't be in the position I'm in today. I took the test and thought it went just fine, because the polygraph operator, a pleasant man in his late twenties, smiled, shook my hand and wished me a good trip to Moscow. But two days later my office phone rang, and someone from the security section said that they'd like me to take another polygraph.

I said okay, walked downstairs, and was greeted by an older man. He said that some of the indications of the first test didn't look quite right to the interpreters. There were some signs of deception about crime, he said. I took the second test, and the operator, who was thoughtful and considerate, said, "There's still some problem areas here. There's something about crime you're hiding. Go home and write down every crime or theft you've ever committed."

When I joined the CIA I was required to list every item I had ever stolen (like the time I was nine and stole some carrot seeds) and every law I had ever broken, no matter how trivial (like drinking a couple of beers while driving home). I completed the list and returned it to them. I couldn't see what on earth they were getting upset about, as I had been totally honest about each and every misdeed in my past, including my drug use in South America and my occasional abuse of alcohol.

For thirty months, the CIA had been training me to commit crimes against the Soviet Union, including techniques to carry on surreptitious break-ins and steal information. When they asked me about crimes, it's possible that I had some {46} subconscious feelings which the polygraph brought to the surface. I'll never know.

In any case, things continued to deteriorate, and I was called in to take a third test. By this time, I was getting nervous about the call-backs, and I asked my mother-in-law, a physician, to prescribe me a mild tranquilizer. I took one of the pills just before taking the third test. This one was administered by a real, hard-ass son-of-a-bitch they called, "The Hammer."

In a military "command voice," he told me: "Sit down. Face front. Don't look at me. Don't look to the side." He sounded and acted like a drill instructor, and he tried to intimidate me. When he asked me if I had taken drugs that day, I answered "yes," and told him about the prescribed tranquilizer. He hit the roof, because he knew (although I didn't at the time) that taking a mild tranquilizer can usually enable a person who lies to beat the polygraph.

The Hammer questioned me again and again about drug use and drinking, and on Friday, April 29, 1993 [sic, correct "1983"], he gave me yet another polygraph test--my fourth. Apparently he was pleased with this last one, and he thanked me for coming, smiled, and shook my hand as I left.

I was so relieved that this testing ordeal was over that I went to a grocery store in nearby McLean, Virginia, bought some snacks and a bottle of good champagne and went home to celebrate with Mary and my in-laws, who were visiting us at the time. We all relaxed, had a good time, and celebrated our imminent move to Moscow.

On Monday afternoon, May 2, 1983, I got a call to report to the CIA personnel office. I walked in the door and asked, "What's up?" They demanded that I resign on the spot or they would fire me. They refused to tell me why I was being fired, and they didn't say anything about drugs or alcohol. They never talked to my supervisors to see if I was having {47} any problems at work (I wasn't). They simply informed me that the Agency wanted my resignation, and that there was no avenue of appeal.

The Agency didn't offer me another, less-sensitive assignment, or any kind of probation. They didn't tell me what I did wrong, nor offer me any way to clear my good name. They didn't even offer me the two weeks' notice you'd give a bag boy at a supermarket. I was dismissed, effective immediately.

Security officers escorted me to a secretary's desk, and I saw that she was already typing up my résumé. Ex-CIA officers are not permitted to list the CIA as an employment reference, so she asked me what I wanted to have listed as my most recent position. "Economic specialist with the State Department," I said, numbly.

That was it. I wasn't going to Moscow. I wasn't going anywhere--except out the door. End of career. I had been driving a CIA car, and they asked me for the keys at once, then and there. I had to take the bus home.

I was kept on the payroll through the end of June, when I left Washington for New Mexico. Before I left the capital, they requested that I visit the CIA staff psychiatrist, just to make sure I wasn't overly angry about being fired. Their attitude seemed to be, "We stuck a knife in your back and won't tell you why, but don't take it personally."

They also told me over and over again to come in for a physical examination, but by that time, I wanted nothing more from them. I was sick of the CIA and everything associated with it. But they kept calling the house, asking Mary to help get me in for a physical.

I made several calls to the embassy in Moscow after my firing. Foreign service officers and embassy staff frequently have to call back and forth between the embassy and the {48} State Department in Washington. In the United States, we had a telephone number which we could dial from anywhere in the United States and be connected directly to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It was a conventional, "open" (unprotected) phone line used for routine, unclassified conversations, so we assumed that the KGB listened to those calls. At the Moscow end, a Marine guard answered the phone and made the connection to the proper extension in the embassy.

I had several friends at the embassy, one of whom was Jim Smith. When I told Jim that I was not coming, he told me that he had already heard about it and asked what had happened. I didn't tell him about the polygraph tests, but I shared with him that I was angry about the whole affair. "The assholes don't believe me," I said, "and I've been asked to resign."

I knew that there were suspected KGB agents at the embassy, because the CIA suspects all Soviet employees to be potential spies. If I had been in contact with the KGB before I defected--and I was not--I would never have been crazy enough to contact a KGB officer over an open telephone line through the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

The CIA had trained me to be a sophisticated spy. If I had wanted to contact the KGB, I would have done so secretly. I would have made a covert phone call to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City, or I would have called via a pay phone, but I would never make a call to the KGB via the U.S. embassy on an open line. No professional intelligence officer is that stupid.

When the CIA called yet another time to get me to take a physical examination, I said to myself, "I'll give them the message in no uncertain terms that I don't want their damn physical." I called the embassy on the special line, got the Marine guard, and asked to be connected to the CIA Chief {49} of Station in Moscow. He was not in and I left a message: "I'm not taking my physical." He, of course, already knew that my assignment had been canceled--but now, the KGB almost certainly knew, too.

Under a reciprocal agreement, the United States government must notify the host country when each of its staff members arrives and departs. Consequently, the Soviets knew that a foreign service officer named Edward Lee Howard was due to arrive in Moscow in June, 1983 to take the position of second secretary of the embassy. My call to the CIA station chief about the physical effectively revealed to the Soviets that my job was to have been a deep-cover CIA officer. I made that call deliberately and in anger, because they kept calling me to have the physical and I wanted to get their attention. I did.

Langley quickly learned that I had made this call to the embassy. They called me at my home and said, "We have to see you, and you know why." I went in and met with the deputy chief of the Soviet division. He lectured me about this supposed telephone security violation, and I told him I made the call to get them to stop harassing me about the physical.

That telephone call put my name at the top of the CIA's "disgruntled ex-employee" list. And the KGB, who now knew that the CIA's prospective deep-cover officer in Moscow had been fired and was resentful, probably put me on their "we-need-to-talk-to-this-guy-as-soon-as-possible" list.

The KGB had to wait over two years for that talk--but talk, we did.