Former CIA and State Department analyst and frequent news commentator Larry Johnson raises the question and forwards a letter from AntiPolygraph.org’s George Maschke. This article is also posted on Johnson’s blog, No Quarter.
Polygraph “testing” of eight of nine Greensboro City Council members appears set to begin this week in an ostensible attempt to discover who amongst them provided an investigative report on the city’s former police chief to the local News & Record newspaper. To date, none of the city council members have responded to George Maschke’s e-mail cautioning them about polygraphy’s lack of scientific basis, inherent bias against the truthful, and vulnerability to simple countermeasures.
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.
Dana Priest, the Washington Post intelligence reporter whose Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on the CIA’s secret prison network set up to evade U.S. and international law led to a polygraph hunt for leakers at CIA, answered, among others, a question about polygraphs in an on-line chat session held on Thursday, 27 April 2006:
Gaithersburg, Md.: With the firing of Mary McCarthy last week by the CIA, there’s been mention in articles about the use of polygraphs at the agency during their investigations into leaks.
From personal experience, I can say that the machine is not fool proof by any stretch of the imagine. Several years ago, while going through the security clearance process, I was subjected to the polygraph. I failed it the first time, for what the examiner said, was an issue involving questions on terrorist and subversive activity. What nonsense! The second time I failed because I was, according to a different examiner, not being fully truthful about having dealt drugs. Again, what nonsense! On the third attempt, I did pass the polygraph. The problem? I did, in fact, not tell the truth – at the time (though not today) I was doing quite a large amount of popular “club drugs.”
My question for you is, my experiences aside, how effective do you believe the polygraph to really be?
Dana Priest: Well, the CIA thinks they are reliable enough to use in security checks. But courts don’t recognize them. And George Shultz, the former secretary of state, vowed to leave government if ever he was subjected….so go figure. controversial to say the least.
The latest issue of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board publication, Integrity Bulletin (Vol. No. 25) includes mention of a cadet who beat the polygraph:
CASE NO. 18 FALSE INTO [sic] TO OBTAIN CERT
Cadet R informed his fellow cadets that he beat the polygraph test and had passed it even though he lied when asked about cheating on his taxes. Following an investigation, his agency terminated his employment and the Board denied him certification for providing false information in connection with obtaining certified status.
WOOD TV news reporter Brad Edwards reports on the case of Jason Burns, who reports that he was punched on the campus of Hope College in Holland, Michigan by two men who taunted him because he is homosexual. After he reported the attack, Holland police asked Burns to submit to a lie detector “test.” See, “Alleged hate crime victim talks about incident.”
It appears that CIA officer Mary McCarthy was not the source of Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s information on the CIA’s secret prisons. In “Dismissed CIA Officer Denies Leak Role,” Post staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith and Dafna Linzer report that she denies it, and the CIA is not alleging it. Excerpt:
A lawyer representing fired CIA officer Mary O. McCarthy said yesterday that his client did not leak any classified information and did not disclose to Washington Post reporter Dana Priest the existence of secret CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists.
The statement by Ty Cobb, a lawyer in the Washington office of Hogan & Hartson who said he was speaking for McCarthy, came on the same day that a senior intelligence official said the agency is not asserting that McCarthy was a key source of Priest’s award-winning articles last year disclosing the agency’s secret prisons.
McCarthy was fired because the CIA concluded that she had undisclosed contacts with journalists, including Priest, in violation of a security agreement. That does not mean she revealed the existence of the prisons to Priest, Cobb said.
Cobb said that McCarthy, who worked in the CIA inspector general’s office, “did not have access to the information she is accused of leaking,” namely the classified information about any secret detention centers in Europe. Having unreported media contacts is not unheard of at the CIA but is a violation of the agency’s rules.
In a statement last Friday, the agency said it had fired one of its officers for having unauthorized conversations with journalists in which the person “knowingly and willfully shared classified intelligence.” Intelligence officials subsequently acknowledged that the official was McCarthy and said that Priest is among the journalists with whom she acknowledged sharing information.
Priest won the Pulitzer Prize this month for a series of articles she wrote last year about the intelligence community, including the revelation of the existence of CIA-run prisons in East European countries. The Post withheld the names of the countries at the Bush administration’s request, and it attributed the information to current and former intelligence officials from three continents.
The articles sparked a wide-ranging CIA investigation that included polygraphing scores of officials who worked in offices privy to information about the secret prisons, including McCarthy and her boss, CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson. Nowhere in the CIA statement last week was McCarthy accused of leaking information on the prisons, although some news accounts suggested that the CIA had made that claim.
Though McCarthy acknowledged having contact with reporters, a senior intelligence official confirmed yesterday that she is not believed to have played a central role in The Post’s reporting on the secret prisons. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing personnel matters.
Smith and Linzer also note that the polygraphing of a CIA Inspector General is not unprecedented:
Fredrick P. Hitz, who was inspector general at the CIA from 1990 to 1998, said his office was the subject of a leak inquiry after The Post wrote about a classified report he submitted to Congress on the Aldrich H. Ames espionage case. “I was polygraphed several times, as were some of my staff,” Hitz said in an interview. No source for the leak was found and the investigation was terminated.
For discussion, see The Polygraph and the Mary McCarthy Case on the AntiPolygraph.org message board.
In “Moves Signal Tighter Secrecy Within C.I.A.,” New York Times reporters Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti write that CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson is among the employees polygraphed in the Agency’s ongoing leak hunt. Excerpt:
WASHINGTON, April 23 — The crackdown on leaks at the Central Intelligence Agency that led to the dismissal of a veteran intelligence officer last week included a highly unusual polygraph examination for the agency’s independent watchdog, Inspector General John L. Helgerson, intelligence officials with knowledge of the investigation said Sunday.
The special polygraphs, which have been given to dozens of employees since January, are part of a broader effort by Porter J. Goss, the director of the C.I.A., to re-emphasize a culture of secrecy that has included a marked tightening of the review process for books and articles by former agency employees.
As the inspector general, Mr. Helgerson was the supervisor of Mary O. McCarthy, who was fired Thursday after admitting she had leaked classified information to reporters about secret C.I.A. detention centers and other subjects, agency officials said.
Mr. Goss and the C.I.A.’s deputy director, Vice Adm. Albert M. Calland III, voluntarily submitted to polygraph tests during the leak investigation to show they were willing to experience the same scrutiny they were asking other employees to undergo, agency officials said. Mr. Helgerson likewise submitted to the lie-detector test, they said.
But Mr. Helgerson’s status as the independent inspector general — a post to which he was appointed by the president and from which only the president can remove him — makes his submission to a polygraph even more unusual.
L. Britt Snider, who served as inspector general from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview on Sunday night that he had not been given a polygraph in that position, though he said he was given an initial polygraph when he arrived at the agency in 1997 as special counsel to the director.
“I’ve never heard of it, and it’s certainly unusual,” Mr. Snider said. He called it “awkward” for the inspector general to be, in effect, investigated by the agency he ordinarily investigates.
But Mr. Snider and another former senior intelligence official said that it would not be improper if Mr. Helgerson had volunteered for the polygraph to set an example for others.
Reached by telephone on Sunday, Mr. Helgerson declined to comment and referred a reporter to a C.I.A. spokesman, who said he could not comment on any aspect of the leak investigation.
Further details about the inspector general’s polygraph test could not be determined.
Mr. Goss has repeatedly expressed unhappiness with what he sees as the laxity of C.I.A. employees and retirees in discussing agency matters. He has taken up the cause of tightening information controls across the board, partly in response to calls from the White House, the Congressional intelligence committees and the presidential commission on weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Helgerson’s office, which investigates accusations of lapses in the ethics or performance of agency employees, has investigated some of the most serious controversies of recent years, including cases involving accusations of detainee abuse.
Since a 1989 change following the Iran-contra scandal, the C.I.A.’s internal watchdog has been confirmed by the Senate and has reported to the Congressional intelligence committees as well as to the C.I.A. director, a shift intended to assure the position’s independence.
Among the subjects handled by Mr. Helgerson’s office was a report completed last year that faulted senior C.I.A. officials for lapses in the failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Mr. Goss kept the report classified and did not punish any of those named.
Former officials say the inspector general’s office has also referred more than half a dozen cases of detainee abuse to the Department of Justice, but officials there have taken no action, except for a pending prosecution of one agency contract employee charged with beating an Afghan prisoner who later died.
The “single-issue” polygraphs, which are distinct from the routine polygraphs given to agency employees at least every five years, have been conducted by the C.I.A. Security Center but with close supervision from Mr. Goss’s office, one official said. Like other current and former intelligence officials, he was granted anonymity to discuss classified events at the agency without fear of retribution.
It should be noted that CIA director Porter Goss and deputy director VADM Albert M. Calland III’s “volunteering” to be polygraphed to “show they were willing to experience the same scrutiny they were asking other employees to undergo” was political theater. They both ran zero risk of failing the polygraph. No CIA polygrapher would be so stupid as to flunk the director or deputy director. Those who polygraphed Goss and Calland would have known that it was their own jobs that were on the line.
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.Â