An FBI Veteran Comments on the Pentagon’s Polygraph Push

In “Paranoia in the Pentagon,” security consultant and 25-year FBI veteran Jim Dooley lampoons the Defense Intelligence Agency’s decision to greatly expand its polygraph screening program:

The Pentagon, speaking as a single scary voice, says that it needs more polygraph studios. They need them to catch the spies. What spies? The spies it just knows are everywhere, in the Army, in the Navy, in the CIA, and even in the ranks of the presumptive spy catchers, the FBI. Colonel Clousseau suspects no one, but he is no fool; everyone is a suspect.

I would say that The Pentagon is likely to get everything it wants, being the Pentagon, studios, machines, operators, especially operators, with all but the dentist’s chair contracted out. Too bad. In the gigantic incomprehensible incoherent mess of stuff the Pentagon gets, this idea falls flat in the zone of pernicious blunder.

It would be bad enough if it were just another example of security theater, similar to TSA airport screening. ‘That vial of suntan lotion, not that one miss, the one that says SPF 45, it’s too big.’ ‘No it’s not, it says 3 ounces right on it.’ ‘Are you telling me?’ ‘No, I guess I have a flight to catch, where can I throw it away.’

As it is, I don’t imagine that the Pentagon, which after is all there to conduct wars, is the most fun place to work. You never really know, though. I have a friend Lee who told me that the most fun he ever had was the year he spent flying Helicopters in Viet Nam. He showed me pictures of the bullet holes in the canopy of his Cobra to prove it. Whatever, however the work-a-day world once was in the Pentagon, the polygraph is about to make it a lot worse.

My own experience in the FBI with the polygraph was uniformly bad. One of the first substantial cases on which I worked was a kidnapping case. The kidnappers left some confusion as to where they wanted the ransom package dropped and we got it wrong. We dropped the package of money on top of some railroad workers who thought that it was their lucky night. Realizing our mistake we interviewed the workers who denied knowing anything about the money. The polygraph cleared them. Several weeks later, one of them confessed, implicating the other. Each one said that from the start the other one threatened to kill him if he said anything. I still don’t know which one I really believe.

In the early 1980’s I discovered in New York that investigation by polygraph was a la mode in trying to sort out who among the many Russian immigrants were spies. The polygraph kept saying they all were and it was making for a lot of work. Some of us with a more skeptical turn of mind said it couldn’t be. It is hard enough to handle one spy, trying to separate wheat from chaff from money grubbing from score settling from outright lies. The KGB can’t be operating all of these people. Besides, what could a butcher on West 14th Street have that would interest the KGB.

A polygraph expert from Washington came up to explain it all to us. He told us that the polygraph is right 97% of the time and it is really right 99% of the time. He was only claiming 97% to be on the cautious side. The whole exercise depends on the operator. Now if you can figure that one out, you are a lot smarter than I am. I ended up figuring that a Russian coming up from Brighton Beach on the subway to visit our polygraph ‘studio’ was too damn scared to ever ‘pass’ a polygraph, whatever it means to pass a polygraph.

I won’t say though that the polygraph landing on the Pentagon isn’t worrisome. It won’t turn up many spies. Spies know all about beating filters, it’s what they do. But it will produce suspects, the almost clean, whose working lives will be cast up into some goofball MI expert’s in box for disposition.

‘Just tell me the truth. Is that really a 3 ounce vial of suntan lotion, or is just a teeny bit bigger. Then we can all go home, only you won’t be coming back.’

Do you think this won’t result in a little more disorientation down there in the Pentagon? I do.

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