CIA Officer Admits Media Contacts in Post-Polygraph Interrogation

While there is broad agreement amongst scientists that polygraph “testing” has no scientific basis, and the National Academy of Sciences has recently confirmed that polygraph screening is completely invalid, there is no question that the polygraph can be useful for getting admissions from those who can still be convinced that the polygrapher can see their soul. While such duping is becoming increasingly difficult as knowledge of “the lie behind the lie detector” spreads, it appears to have succeeded in the CIA’s polygraph dragnet aimed at identifying employees who have made unauthorized media contacts.

In an article titled “C.I.A. Fires Senior Officer Over Leaks,” New York Times reporters David Johnston and Scott Shane mention, among other things, the role of the polygraph in the firing of CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON, April 21 — The Central Intelligence Agency has dismissed a senior career officer for disclosing classified information to reporters, including material for Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in The Washington Post about the agency’s secret overseas prisons for terror suspects, intelligence officials said Friday.

The C.I.A. would not identify the officer, but several government officials said it was Mary O. McCarthy, a veteran intelligence analyst who until 2001 was senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council, where she served under President Bill Clinton and into the Bush administration.

At the time of her dismissal, Ms. McCarthy was working in the agency’s inspector general’s office, after a stint at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an organization in Washington that examines global security issues.

The dismissal of Ms. McCarthy provided fresh evidence of the Bush administration’s determined efforts to stanch leaks of classified information. The Justice Department has separately opened preliminary investigations into the disclosure of information to The Post, for its articles about secret prisons, as well as to The New York Times, for articles last fall that disclosed the existence of a program of domestic eavesdropping without warrants supervised by the National Security Agency. Those articles were also recognized this week with a Pulitzer Prize.

Several former veteran C.I.A. officials said the dismissal of an agency employee over a leak was rare and perhaps unprecedented. One official recalled the firing of a small number of agency contractors, including retirees, for leaking several years ago.

The dismissal was announced Thursday at the C.I.A. in an e-mail message sent by Porter J. Goss, the agency’s director, who has made the effort to stop unauthorized disclosure of secrets a priority. News of the dismissal was first reported Friday by MSNBC.

Ms. McCarthy’s departure followed an internal investigation by the C.I.A.’s Security Center, as part of an intensified effort that began in January to scrutinize employees who had access to particularly classified information. She was given a polygraph examination, confronted about answers given to the polygraph examiner and confessed, the government officials said. On Thursday, she was stripped of her security clearance and escorted out of C.I.A. headquarters. Ms. McCarthy did not reply Friday evening to messages left by e-mail and telephone.

In January, current and former government officials said, Mr. Goss ordered polygraphs for intelligence officers who knew about certain “compartmented” programs, including the secret detention centers for terrorist suspects. Polygraphs are routinely given to agency employees at least every five years, but special polygraphs can be ordered when a security breach is suspected.

The results of such exams are regarded as important indicators of deception among some intelligence officials. But they are not admissible as evidence in court — and the C.I.A.’s reliance on the polygraph in Ms. McCarthy’s case could make it more difficult for the government to prosecute her.

And in “CIA Officer Is Fired for Media Leaks,” Washington Post reporter Dafna Linzer mentions that “CIA officials said the career intelligence officer failed more than one polygraph test and acknowledged unauthorized contacts with reporters.”

Polygraph advocates will point to this case as a success for the polygraph. And in terms of obtaining Ms. McCarthy’s admission(s), they may well be correct. However, it remains doubtful whether the polygraph can be credited for having “detected” a leaker. One would have to ask, how many other CIA employees who did not speak with the media failed polygraphs on this topic? And how many who did speak with the media nonetheless passed their polygraphs?

In addition, McCarthy may have been identified prior to the polygraph by other means, such as the NSA’s ongoing illegal domestic surveillance program. On 28 December 2005, independent journalist Wayne Madsen reported:

NSA spied on its own employees, other U.S. intelligence personnel, and their journalist and congressional contacts. WMR has learned that the National Security Agency (NSA), on the orders of the Bush administration, eavesdropped on the private conversations and e-mail of its own employees, employees of other U.S. intelligence agencies — including the CIA and DIA — and their contacts in the media, Congress, and oversight agencies and offices.

If a leaker within the CIA were actually identified through such illegal means, a “failed polygraph” would provide the perfect cover.

To discuss this story, see The Polygraph and the McCarthy Case on the AntiPolygraph.org message board. 

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