Andrew Zajac of the Chicago Tribune reports on the CIA’s reliance on the polygraph in its efforts to detect and deter unauthorized truth-telling. This feature article is cited in its entirety:
Polygraphs target leak cases
U.S. intelligence, FBI use tool to police their ranks, but some say it is vulnerable to abuse
By Andrew Zajac
April 29, 2006
WASHINGTON — When CIA officials sought to ferret out who leaked secrets to a journalist, they quickly turned to a polygraph test to winnow the pool of likely suspects, including longtime analyst Mary McCarthy.
The outcome of McCarthy’s test is not known, and her lawyer, Ty Cobb, declined to comment. But McCarthy, who had announced plans to retire, acknowledged unauthorized contacts with reporters, according to the CIA, which fired her last week.
Long used in criminal inquiries, pre-employment screening and security investigations, polygraph testing has assumed a new importance in secrecy-obsessed Washington, particularly after leaks from the CIA and the National Security Agency led to headline-grabbing news stories late last year.
The prospect of being subject to a polygraph exam, which can be an exceedingly unpleasant process, is among the factors would-be leakers and whistle-blowers now must weigh when deciding whether to reach out to reporters if they can’t find a receptive audience elsewhere, those familiar with the workings of Washington say.
“The Justice Department doesn’t want to hear it. The [congressional] oversight committees don’t want to hear it. So you have to decide if you want to go to the press, [but] because of the pressure of the polygraph, that’s not an easy thing to overcome,” said a retired CIA officer. “It’s an ugly, intrusive weapon.”
A CIA spokesperson said that agency’s polygraph program “operates under strict guidelines with standardized policies and procedures.”
Even advocates of using polygraph tests acknowledge that they can be rigged to “flunk” subjects, that the technology is hardly foolproof and that the results can be open to interpretation.
Most notoriously, former CIA agent Aldrich Ames, whose sale of secrets to the Soviet Union led to the deaths of at least 10 people, passed at least two polygraph tests while aiding the Soviets.
`The most productive tool’
Despite its flaws, the polygraph is “the most productive tool” in a security investigation because “it directly challenges the statements of the individual,” said Charles Phalen, the FBI’s assistant director for security.
“Sometimes people beat this thing,” he acknowledged. “But people beat other security measures too.”
The FBI plans to increase the number of lie-detector tests it gives to employees as part of periodic reinvestigations of them, he said.
The polygraph works by measuring changes in a person’s blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and skin conductivity while questions are posed. The theory is that lying is stressful, and that the string of sensors attached to the body will pick up the physiological changes reflecting attempts to deceive.
In a 1998 ruling, the Supreme Court did not dismiss the validity of polygraph testing outright but said there “is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable. . . . The scientific community and the state and federal courts are extremely polarized on the matter.”
The National Academy of Sciences said in 2002 after an 18-month study that polygraph exams are dangerously unreliable and the U.S. government should cease depending on them to screen for security risks.
CIA employees are given polygraph tests as a condition of employment and periodically thereafter, depending on the sensitivity of the work they do.
Flushing out news sources
In recent months some agency employees, including McCarthy, have been subjected to a so-called “single-issue polygraph” in an effort to flush out sources for a Washington Post article last year.
That story detailed aspects of a secret international prison system operated by the CIA in cooperation with various foreign governments.
In January, CIA Director Porter Goss told Congress that the article had caused critical damage to national security, and he ordered an in-house investigation.
The agency said McCarthy admitted discussing classified information with unauthorized people in violation of a secrecy agreement signed by CIA employees. The agency has not said specifically that she was a source for the Post’s secret prisons story, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Cobb, McCarthy’s attorney, said she was not a source for that story.
The leak investigation is only the latest wave of turmoil to hit the CIA.
The agency had been under fire for intelligence failures preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for providing flawed intelligence in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and for allegedly mistreating detainees under its control.
In such a politically tense atmosphere, the use of lie-detector exams can be a problematic method for getting at the truth, said Janine Brookner, a Washington lawyer and former CIA station chief who successfully sued the agency for employment discrimination in her own firing.
`Their easy way out’
Brookner said the polygraph test is attractive because it’s fast compared with such other investigative techniques as gathering information through interviews and research.
“They always use it when the agency’s in trouble,” she said. “That’s their easy way out. They don’t have another quick alternative. But it’s not really a fix. . . . I do not think it’s very reliable. It’s very open to interpretation and it’s very open to abuse.”
Brookner said people who administer polygraph tests for the agency earn promotions and bonuses based on getting “admissions out of you, or what they interpret as admissions.”
A CIA representative declined to comment, saying the agency does not discuss personnel issues.
One former CIA case officer said polygraph questions can be crafted to elicit anxiety or, alternatively, to avoid sensitive topics, thereby rigging the test.
“It’s used as a human resources management tool,” the former case officer said. “Making certain polygraphs difficult if not impossible to pass for those people who are not toeing the line, the agency creates a method by which it can push people out the door.”
Agency employees can be called back for repeated examinations, each one videotaped, some involving multiple examiners and including screamed questions. “They can always outlast you,” the former case officer said. “Eventually the government is going to win.”
The CIA representative said the polygraph is used for security and not to deal with personnel issues.
“The notion that the CIA polygraph is used as a political tool is absurd,” she said.
Copyright Â© 2006, Chicago Tribune