Senate Intelligence Committee Invites Increased Polygraph Screening

As noted by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, “the Senate Intelligence Committee’s markup of the 2013 intelligence authorization bill includes 12 provisions that are intended to combat unauthorized disclosures of classified information.” Among these provisions is a requirement that within 120 days of enactment, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) provide to the Senate and House intelligence committees an assessment of:

“…the practical feasibility of extending the use of the polygraph to additional Executive branch personnel and standardizing the questions used during polygraph examinations regarding disclosure of classified information and contact with the media;”

This is a virtual invitation to the executive branch to expand polygraph screening. It seems likely that in the current political climate, any proposed expansion of polygraph screening that DNI James Clapper might recommend would be approved by Congress. Clapper has already directed that a question about disclosure of classified information to members of the media be incorporated in polygraph screening examinations conducted by US intelligence agencies.

Instead of increasing its reliance on the pseudoscience of polygraphy, Congress should be instructing the DNI to terminate it. As the National Research Council concluded in 2002,“[polygraph testing’s] 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.”

POGO on Polygraph Screening

Dana Liebelson and Adam Zagorin of the Project on Government Oversight report on Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper’s recent decision to use polygraphs in an attempt to detect and deter media leaks. co-founder George Maschke is among those interviewed for this article.

Director of National Intelligence Orders Polygraph Question on Media Contacts

On 25 June 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced (PDF) that he is “mandating that a question related to unauthorized disclosure of classified information be added to the counterintelligence polygraph used by all intelligence agencies that administer the examination (CIA, DIA, DOE, FBI, NGA, NRO, and NSA).”

Although Clapper’s announcement does not specify what the mandated question will be, his spokesman, Shawn Turner, told Jeremy Herb of The Hill that “officials will be asked during the lie-detector tests whether they have disclosed classified information to members of the media.”

Herb reports that both Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) voiced support for Clapper’s announced polygraph expansion.

However, the National Research Council in 2002 concluded that “[polygraph testing’s] 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 polygraph has a dismal track record when it comes to plugging leaks. In a 1982 leak investigation, members of the National Security Council (which is not covered by DNI Clapper’s recent announcement) were instructed to submit to polygraph interrogations in the course of an investigation into who leaked classified information to the New York Times. A Marine lieutenant colonel on the NSC staff, Robert McFarlane, failed the polygraph. Twice. And it nearly destroyed his career. It was only when the Times’ publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, himself a former marine, confirmed to President Reagan that McFarlane was not the Times’ source, that McFarlane was exonerated. The leaker was never identified, and the polygraph served only to misdirect investigators.

It should be noted that polygraph accuracy has not improved in the 30 years since that botched leak investigation. However, knowledge of how to fool the lie detector is much more widespread nowadays. See’s free book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector (1 mb PDF) for details. If anything, polygraph dragnets for leakers are less likely to succeed today than they were during the botched Reagan era investigation that nearly destroyed Colonel McFarlane’s career.