“FBI Polygraphs May Trap Spies — or Careers”

Washington Post staff writer Dan Eggen reports on FBI polygraph policy. Excerpt:

It seemed like a routine polygraph screening. Mark Mallah and his colleagues, members of an FBI counterintelligence unit in New York, were hooked up to lie detector machines and quizzed about drug use, contacts with foreigners and other subjects deemed vital to their roles in protecting national security.

The test turned out to be anything but ordinary for Mallah. The 10-year FBI agent said he was accused of being deceptive on the lie detector examination, prompting a suspension from his job and a full-scale investigation that included 24-hour surveillance and interrogations of family and friends.

When he was finally cleared and reinstated 19 months later, Mallah said, he quit.

“I didn’t have any desire to work for an organization that would do that to me,” said Mallah, who left the FBI in 1996 and now practices law in San Francisco. “They never produced any evidence or came forward with anything, but the polygraph still undermined my career. . . . I was effectively ruined.”

In the wake of charges that veteran agent Robert P. Hanssen had spied for Moscow since 1985, the FBI is embroiled in a debate over how far to expand its use of polygraph tests of employees with access to sensitive information.

Some analysts and lawmakers argue that more aggressive use of the devices might have stopped Hanssen — who was never required to take a lie detector test during his 25 years with the bureau — much earlier, possibly limiting the damage he allegedly caused. But skeptics say that allegations such as Mallah’s underscore the danger in relying too heavily on polygraph devices, which are not considered reliable enough to be used in court.

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