“National Academy on Polygraph Testing”

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy discusses the National Academy of Science’s polygraph report in his Secrecy News e-mail publication:


The polygraph is a flawed instrument that is “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results,” according to a new report of a National Academy of Sciences panel.

The report, prepared for the Department of Energy, is likely to lead to the rescinding of polygraph requirements that were adopted in 1999 to address security defects at the DOE national laboratories.

The authors distinguish between the use of the polygraph for generic security screening — which they find unwarranted — and its use in investigations of specific incidents — for which they find experimental support in some circumstances.

Methodologically, polygraph screening is not a scientific procedure that adheres to fixed standards. Thus, “we have seen no indication of a clear and stable agreement on criteria for judging answers to security screening polygraph questions in any agency using them,” the National Academy report stated.

Admittedly, polygraph screening “may be useful” for “deterring security violations, increasing the frequency of admissions of such violations, deterring employment applications from potentially poor security risks, and increasing public confidence in national security organizations.”

However, the utility of the polygraph for these purposes “derives from beliefs about the procedure’s validity, which are distinct from actual validity or accuracy.”

By contributing to the exposure of such unfounded beliefs, the new report ironically tends to subvert this type of polygraph utility.

The full text of the new report, “The Polygraph and Lie Detection,” is available in a rather inconvenient format here:


The executive summary may also be found on the Antipolygraph.org site here:


Last year, Congress required the Energy Department to prescribe new polygraph regulations that “take into account” the findings of the NAS study within six months of its release. See:


Accordingly, Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici called on Energy Secretary Abraham to heed the study’s conclusions.

“Given the findings of the Academy’s study and the continuing dissatisfaction with DOE’s existing polygraph program, we urge you to place high priority on the development of a new, significantly scaled-back program that focuses on the use of the polygraph as an interrogation tool and not for employee screening,” the Senators wrote on October 8.

Polygraph screening of current and prospective employees is most widespread within U.S. intelligence agencies, where it is generally a precondition for employment involving access to intelligence information. As such, it serves as a ritual of initiation and can generate a sense of camaraderie.

The polygraph examination also functions to acculturate employees into the values of the intelligence bureaucracy.

So, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency has lately asked examinees questions such as “Do you have any friends in the media?” The preferred answer, it is clear, is No.

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