Polygraph Results Often in Question: CIA, FBI Defend Test’s Use in Probes

Today’s lead story in the Washington Post by staff writers Dan Eggen and Shankar Vedantam takes a critical look at expanding governmental reliance on lie detectors. The article is cited here in full, interspersed with commentary. A discussion of this article is also available on the AntiPolygraph.org message board here.

Polygraph Results Often in Question

CIA, FBI Defend Test’s Use in Probes

By Dan Eggen and Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 1, 2006; A01

The CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies are using polygraph machines more than ever to screen applicants and hunt for lawbreakers, even as scientists have become more certain that the equipment is ineffective in accurately detecting when people are lying.

Instead, many experts say, the real utility of the polygraph machine, or “lie detector,” is that many of the tens of thousands of people who are subjected to it each year believe that it works — and thus will frequently admit to things they might not otherwise acknowledge during an interview or interrogation.

Many researchers and defense attorneys say the technology is prone to a high number of false results that have stalled or derailed hundreds of careers and have prevented many qualified applicants from joining the fight against terrorism. At the FBI, for example, about 25 percent of applicants fail a polygraph exam each year, according to the bureau’s security director.

The article does not make it clear whether the 25% polygraph failure rate referenced means 25% of all applicants (included those disqualified before they reach the polygraph stage) or if it is only 25% of those polygraphed who are failing. If the latter is the case, then the information provided by the FBI’s security director indicates a major change. In 2002, the FBI’s pre-employment polygraph failure rate was reportedly on the order of 50%. Somehow, that rate may have been cut in half. Are there fewer liars applying to the FBI (not that we think anything close to half of applicants are lying about disqualifying information)? Not likely. The halving of the polygraph failure rate could only be explained by a bureaucratic decision to arbitrarily adjust the failure rate downward.

The polygraph has emerged as a pivotal tool in the CIA’s aggressive effort to identify suspected leakers after embarrassing disclosures about government anti-terrorism tactics. The agency fired a veteran officer, Mary O. McCarthy, on April 20, alleging that she had shared classified information and operational details with The Washington Post and other news organizations, a charge her lawyer disputes.

CIA officials have said that McCarthy failed more than one polygraph examination administered by the CIA, but the details surrounding those interviews remain unclear. Dozens of senior-level CIA officials have been subjected to polygraph tests as part of the inquiry, which is aimed at identifying employees who may have talked to reporters about classified programs, including providing information about the agency’s network of secret prisons for terrorism suspects.

“The reason an officer at CIA was terminated was for having unauthorized contact with the media and the improper release of classified information,” said Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman. “Don’t think in terms of a failure of a polygraph being the reason for termination — the polygraph is one tool in an investigative process.”

If the CIA does not terminate people for failing lie detector tests about unauthorized contact with the media or unauthorized disclosure of classified information, then is it not in the interest of all CIA employees who fail the polygraph to make no admissions?

In the popular mind, fueled by Hollywood representations, polygraphs are lie-detection machines that can peer inside people’s heads to determine whether they are telling the truth.

The scientific reality is far different: The machines measure various physiological changes, including in blood pressure and heart rate, to determine when subjects are getting anxious, based on the idea that deception involves an element of anxiety. But because an emotion such as anxiety can be triggered by many factors other than lying, experts worry that the tests can overlook smooth-talking liars while pointing a finger at innocent people who just happen to be rattled.

In settings in which large numbers of employees are screened to determine whether they are spies, the polygraph produces results that are extremely problematic, according to a comprehensive 2002 review by a federal panel of distinguished scientists. The study found that if polygraphs were administered to a group of 10,000 people that included 10 spies, nearly 1,600 innocent people would fail the test — and two of the spies would pass.

The above example from the National Academy of Sciences report, The Polygraph and Lie Detection (see pp. 5-7), wherein the polygraph correctly identifies 8 out of 10 spies but also wrongly implicates 1,600 innocent people was intended to illustrate the base rate problem in statistics, where even an accurate test can deliver unreliable results when used on a large population to screen for a rare condition. This example assumes, for illustration purposes, an 80% accuracy rate for the polygraph. The NAS was by no means claiming that polygraphy is so accurate as that. And the availability of simple countermeasures that polygraphers cannot detect makes it all the more unlikely that any actual spies will be included among those who “fail” the polygraph.

“Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies,” the panel concluded.

This is the key finding of the NAS report. One that federal agencies have studiously ignored.

Polygraph test results are also generally inadmissible in federal courts and in most state courts because of doubts about their reliability. Statements or admissions made by test subjects during a polygraph session, however, can often be used by prosecutors at trial, according to legal experts.

But even critics of the polygraph concede that it can help managers learn things about employees that would otherwise remain hidden. That aspect of polygraph testing lies at the heart of its continuing appeal, said Alan Zelicoff, a former scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who quit because he believed that polygraphs are unethical.

Dr. Zelicoff didn’t just quit. He was retaliated against and pressured into resigning because of his public criticism of polygraphy, including his 27 May 2003 Washington Post op-ed piece, “Polygraphs: Worse than Worthless.” See his article The Polygraph vs. National Security (17kb PDF) on the Federation of American Scientists website, discussion of which is available here, for more on the retaliation he encountered.

Although polygraph tests involving national security are supposed to be about a handful of questions involving espionage, Zelicoff said the tests take hours: “In each and every test, what happens is after question two or three the questioner will pause and very deliberately take a long hard look at the chart and take a deep breath and sigh and say, ‘You did really well on question one, but on the second question, about whether you released classified information, I am getting a strange reading. Tell you what — I am going to turn the machine off and I am going to ask whether there is something you want to get off your chest.’ ”

“That is what the polygraph is about,” said Zelicoff, who has testimony from several employees who are angry about the tests. “It is about an excuse to conduct a wide-ranging inquisition.”

The subjective opinions of polygraph examiners play a huge role in whether people are said to pass or fail, said William Iacono, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who has extensively studied the technique. As evidence, Iacono said that polygraph tests rarely find problems among senior staff members at organizations, even as 30 to 40 percent of applicants for entry-level positions fail.

“The director of the CIA just took a test,” said Iacono. “How would you like to be the examiner who gave him a test and say he failed? What kind of a career would you have?”

Professor Iacono is precisely right. When the director of the CIA submits to a polygraph “test,” it’s just for show. He need not fear a false positive outcome because his odds of failing are zero. No polygrapher in his right mind is going to accuse his director of deception.

The president of the American Polygraph Association, T.V. O’Malley, said polygraph technology is held to an unfair standard in many cases, and he compared it to mammograms and other medical screening procedures that are imperfect but valuable in detecting problems. He also acknowledged that some of the polygraph’s value is simply in prompting people to tell the truth.

“It’s kind of like confessing . . . to a priest: You feel a little better by getting rid of your baggage,” O’Malley said. “The same thing often happens with a polygraph examination.”

Mary O. McCarthy didn’t “feel a little better” after making admissions to her polygrapher. She got fired. Since the CIA indicates that employees are not fired simply for failing the polygraph, employees who fail are likely to feel better if they keep their mouths  shut.

Charles S. Phalen Jr., the FBI’s assistant director for security, said the polygraph is a vital component of the bureau’s security program.

“This is the most effective collection tool that we have in our arsenal of security tools to identify disqualifying behavior and disqualifying activities,” Phalen said. “I will never sit here and say this is a perfect tool because it’s not. . . . In and of itself it won’t produce the truth, but it’s a way at getting at the truth.”

The polygraph is only “a way at getting at the truth” if a person chooses to make admissions. Otherwise, its all pseudoscienific flapdoodle. In the words of retired CIA polygrapher John Sullivan, “Polygraph is more art than science, and unless an admission is obtained, the final determination is frequently what we refer to as a scientific wild-ass guess (SWAG). Yet the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other agencies that rely on this nonsense are wrongly excluding from employment those who make no disqualifying admissions, simply because their polygraph charts zigged when they should have zagged.

The ubiquity of polygraph testing in the federal government is due in large part to spy scandals that rocked the government over the past dozen years, including those involving Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert P. Hanssen at the FBI. Ames was allowed to continue working despite questionable polygraph results, whereas Hanssen was never given a lie-detector exam during his long FBI career.

Aldrich Ames’ polygraph results only became “questionable” after he was exposed as a spy by more traditional investigative means. Aldrich Ames passed his polygraphs while spying for the Russians. Twice. Attempts by polygraphers to rationalize this by claiming that he did show deception but somehow managed to talk his way out of it are intellectually dishonest attempts to rationalize a colossal failure of the polygraph. See, “Could the Polygraph Have Caught Aldrich Ames” at pp. 37-39 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector.

Previous efforts to implement wide-scale testing were met with fierce opposition not only from rank-and-file employees but also from senior government officials. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan scaled back an order requiring thousands of government employees to submit to polygraphs after Secretary of State George P. Shultz threatened to resign if ordered to take one.

As part of changes implemented after Hanssen’s arrest in 2001, the FBI now conducts about 8,000 polygraph tests each year, most of which involve current employees, applicants and contractors. All applicants and new employees undergo a polygraph at the FBI, and nearly every employee — including the director — is subject to a new test every five years, officials said.

The CIA enacted broader testing policies after Ames’s unmasking. At the Department of Energy, which implemented changes as a result of the Wen Ho Lee case, about 20,000 employees are currently eligible for mandatory polygraph screening tests. (Lee, a former nuclear weapons scientist, was held by the government for purportedly smuggling weapon-design secrets to China; all but one charge was dropped.)

Regarding the use of polygraphs in the investigation of Wen Ho Lee, see “The Case of Wen Ho Lee” beginning at p. 54 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector.

The Department of Energy is considering scaling back its program to focus on 4,500 employees with access to the most sensitive information, in large part because of the 2002 analysis by the federal panel, according to a congressional report released last week.

Many scientists who criticize polygraphs as a screening tool say the machines can be effective when used as part of a “guilty-knowledge test.” In a bank robbery investigation, for example, suspects could be quizzed in multiple-choice tests on whether they knew if the weapon used was a gun or a knife, whether the money taken was $10, $1,000 or $10,000.

Focused questions that test whether people have memory of an event yield far more reliable results than open-ended screening tests that rely on emotions that can be triggered by a wide range of factors, said Iacono, who added that the federal government has resolutely refused to use the guilty-knowledge test. Officials have declined to describe the kind of tests McCarthy underwent at the CIA.

Regarding the Guilty Knowledge Test, see “The Body on the Stairs: A Pedagogical Detective Story” (2.2mb PDF), Chapter 21 of the 1st edition of Professor David T. Lykken’s seminal work on polygraphy, A Tremor in the Blood: Uses and Abuses of the Lie Detector.

Iacono said conventional polygraph tests have little scientific validity but allow examiners to say, “I am getting the sense you are holding something back; is there something you want to tell me?”

“When people hear that, they admit things it would be difficult to get in any other way,” he said. “People will confess to crimes or make admissions about themselves or other people. They may reveal suspicions about a co-worker or explain they did something they should not have done. The government loves that.”

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

As public awareness that polygraph “testing” is a sham grows, its utility for getting admissions can only wane. Please join AntiPolygraph.org in helping to spread the news.

3 thoughts on “Polygraph Results Often in Question: CIA, FBI Defend Test’s Use in Probes”

  1. All the initial news reports said that McCarthy confessed to the offense of unauthorized contact with reporters and the crime of disclosing classified information.

    The confession came only after she failed a polygraph exam. Her confession after failing the polygraph shows that she is also guilty of lying to federal investigators, a crime for which Martha Stewart spent five months in a federal prison and six months under house arrest.

    When McCarthy decided to lie to federal investigators while wired to a polygraph, she must have had some notion of how she would decieve the machine. Did she practice how to beat a polygraph? Did she use drugs to try to beat the polygraph? The shock that her lies were detected by the machine must have shaken her so badly that she shifted strategy from deception to cooperation, but that cooperation occurred only after her attempt at deception failed.

    She should have Martha’s old bunk at camp cupcake.

  2. I’ve just read your story about the high failure rate in polygraph testing.
    I’m 69 years old, taught school for 36 years, applied for a job through a contractor, waited a year for the polygraph to be scheduled.

    I had it yesterday.

    According to the examiner, I’m a terrorist, I’m hiding something, I’m not focusing on the test (only been waiting 8 months since the completion of the background investigation by DOD). Can’t tell you how humiliated and disappointed I am. Moved here to take the job. Thank God I don’t need it.
    (Retired teacher). Guess I’ll just mosey on back to New York. Sad thing is, I’m a first generation American, my parents and grandparents were immigrants who arrived in Ellis Island 6 months after it opened. How proud I was when I was accepted to work for my government. I never believed the horror stories about the poly. Well, live and learn.

  3. I found your site after seeing t.v. talk show Dr phill tormenting a grandfather,and claiming he had sexually molested 3 generations of his family ,”Jack Treemacko was in the audiance,Dr Phill anounced were gona shut down the show right now and conduct a lie detector test,IT WILL TAKE TWO HOURS.,after the add break lo-and behold Dr Phill conducted the worst case of televisual show trial Ive ever seen ,he ”Dr Phill whiped the ignorant audiance ,’audiane into frenzy mode.The puzzled and scared old man pleaded his inocence ,but Phill would have none of it.He kept telling the grandfather he was lieing,and kept harrasing the old man who said he only came on the show to settle a family despute and was only telling the truth,that he never molested his middle age daughtr,”who was in a state of utmost destress ,having believed her grandpa to have done things to her in her early child hood,she broke down and people breaking down on stage and audiances baying for blood and outraged family members like the son inlaw I saw declareing you will never see your grandson ever again,ands threatening to inform law inforcement,are good for ratings .While dear old jack treemacko just sat in the audiance feeling very pleased with himself and peered at the camera like a snake.The good Dr Phill’ self rightiuos as ever,kept refering back to the snake Jack Treemacko, And insisting that lie detectors are fullproof,’or words to that efect,’to which Trimacko gave afirmative answers ,”yes.Dr phill” government agencies use em F.B.I, C.I.A.”and soliciting J.Treemacko coment on his credentials.I.E. ”you work for the F.B.I.” ,and how long he served there.The poor old man pleaded he had not touched any children in an inapropriate way,but Phill and his by now rabid audiance and the old fellows family were having none of it.The poor old man said my father in heaven knows I did’nt do any of it,and when I meet him in heaven on judgement day he will tell me I’m inocent and youll be there Dr Phill,to which Phill just said .Why don’t you just tell the truth.A daughter in tears,a son cursing his grandpar in law,Dr Phill telling the poor old man that after the show he would informe the authorities.”I can’t take risks when children are involved.The old feller ended up regreting to consent to the lie detector,and said so.After I saw this,I searched the internet and found your site ,what I READ ONLY CONFIRMS what I suspected ,but you provided the proof.Dr Phill’s show is detsurbing and so is his’ exhibit .A. Jack Treemacko ,please keep an eye on the Dr Phill show and his tacktics,I GUESS IT’S TRUE SOME DR’S MAKE YOU WELL OTHERS MAKE YOU SICK.

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