“Spies Get Past Polygraphs, Panel Says”

Reuters health and science correspondent Maggie Fox reports. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lie detectors may work in some cases, but they are too flawed to use for general security screening and could let through skilled spies, an independent panel said on Tuesday.

Not only do polygraphs cost many honest people a government job, but there are spies and criminals who probably know how to deceive them, said the National Academy of Sciences panel, appointed at the request of the Department of Energy.

“Someone who passes a polygraph is often treated as if he were no longer a security threat,” Kevin Murphy, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, told a news conference. “We believe that is not justified.”

“It means that if there were spies or major violators in their organization, they are not catching them,” added Stephen Fienberg, chairman of the committee and a professor of statistics and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “This is clearly a problem for national security.”

The skill or technique of the questioner, and the equipment used, makes no difference, the report concluded.

“We stress that no spy has been caught yet using a polygraph,” said Kathryn Laskey, an associate professor of systems engineering and operations research at George Mason University in Virginia.

The academy committee, made up of lawyers, psychologists, engineers and other professionals who had no experience with polygraphs, spent a year and a half studying the issue. They interviewed polygraph experts at the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, as well as at the Energy Department, and reviewed previous studies.


It is clear that agencies rely heavily upon them.

“The U.S. federal government, through a variety of agencies, carries out thousands of polygraph tests each year on job applicants and current employees, and there are inevitable disputes that are sometimes highly publicized when someone ‘fails’ a polygraph test,” the panel wrote.

“The polygraph seems to have received undue deference,” said Fienberg.

He said people believe having to pass a polygraph test acts as a deterrent to would-be criminals and spies, and the committee could not say whether this was indeed the case.

Murphy said thousands of people had likely been turned down for government jobs for flunking a polygraph test — tens of thousands when local police and law enforcement departments were included.

“Certainly many are turned away erroneously,” Fienberg added.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *