“The Truth About Polygraphs”

Charles P. Pierce writes on pre-employment polygraph screening in the cover story of the 3 August 2003 edition of the Boston Globe Magazine. Excerpt:

WAS HE SWEATING?

Of course he was sweating.

But he didn’t want to be sweating, and he didn’t want his heart to race this way, because he knew what that did to his blood pressure, and he knew that he was in a situation here in the Boston office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Everybody there knew him from the days when he’d been the law-enforcement equivalent of a phenom pitcher straight out of the minors. So they knew why he was standing there, and he knew why he was standing there, and they knew that he knew. He was standing there because there was a man behind a closed door with a machine that claimed to know the truth of him better than he did. And he wasn’t sure what the machine knew about him that he didn’t know. He knew this situation well. He’d been trained to put suspects in this kind of a box.

Once, when he was 16 and at a party, he’d smoked a little weed. The joint came by — maybe once, maybe twice — and he’d taken a puff. Maybe two. It was a long time ago and hard to remember, but it was long before he’d become interested in law enforcement and long before he’d become so good at it. It was long before he’d graduated from Northeastern University summa cum laude with his degree in criminal justice and long before the co-op job with the DEA. He’d planned on entering the DEA upon graduation but was tripped up by the budget shutdown of the mid-’90s.

It was long before he’d gone to work for that antidrug task force down on Cape Cod, long before he’d grown his hair long and his beard out to go undercover to chase the speed labs and the dope-running boats, and it was long before someone had waved the gun at him in the crack house in New Bedford. It was long before he’d gotten a pilot’s license because he’d heard the DEA had an air wing, and he thought he might like to be part of that, too. It was long before the awards and the citations, and it was long before he’d applied for the full-time job at DEA when the government reopened for business.

He sailed through all the preliminary background checks and the physical test and scored in the 90th percentile on the oral examinations. And then they’d strapped him to a polygraph and asked him about any drug use, and he’d told them about when he was 16 and the joint came by at the party. He knew there were cameras on his eyes. He knew there were sensors in the seat. He gave his answer. The polygrapher looked at the machine and frowned.

There’s a problem right here with this question, the examiner told him. There were “issues” with regard to his answers about his “past drug use.” Why don’t you go out and think about what the problem might be, the polygrapher suggested gravely. That was how he came to be here, sweating, in front of all the people who knew him so well.

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