Customs and Border Protection Polygraph Failure Rate Pegged at 60%

Customs and Border ProtectionOn Thursday, 11 March 2010, in testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, it was disclosed that the failure rate associated with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pre-employment polygraph screening program stands at 60 percent. New York Times correspondent Randal C. Archibold reports, among other things:

Polygraph examinations, which officials call an important tool to help weed out bad hires, were administered to about 15 percent of applicants by the end of 2009.

That was an increase from the 10 percent of the previous year, but made possible only because hiring slowed for the first time in several years.

James F. Tomsheck, who is in charge of internal affairs for Customs and Border Protection, said that about 60 percent of candidates failed the test and were turned away, including some who officials believed had ties to criminal organizations.

Senator Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee that held the hearing, described the failure rate as “alarming to me.”

“It is to me, too, sir,” Mr. Tomsheck replied.

He said the agency had 31 polygraph examiners but needed 50 more to reach a goal of screening all new hires.

In addition, he said, the agency is far behind in conducting periodic background checks of current law enforcement employees.

He also proposed giving periodic polygraph examinations to those employees but said that Congressional authorization and financing would be needed.

In assessing the significance of the 60% polygraph failure rate, it is important to bear in mind the 2002 finding of the National Academy of Sciences that polygraph screening is completely invalid. Upon completion of a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence on polygraphy, the NAS advised that “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.”

Applying polygraph screening to all CBP applicants will not solve the problem of corruption within the organization. Polygraphy is highly vulnerable to countermeasures, and members of criminal enterprises seeking to infiltrate CBP will likely fool the lie detector. Meanwhile, given polygraphy’s complete lack of scientific underpinnings and inherent bias against the truthful, many well-qualified applicants will be wrongly excluded from the agency. Anecdotally, AntiPolygraph.org has heard from a number of CBP applicants who report having been falsely accused of deception.