NSA Employee Punished Following Inconclusive Polygraph

In an article titled “Security access denial at issue,” Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz writes, among other things, about the case of an NSA employee who was accused of espionage and forced out following inconclusive polygraph results. Excerpt:

U.S. intelligence agencies are abusing rules on access to classified data to punish employees who upset security officials or who go against prevailing bureaucratic viewpoints, according to three officials who say they were unfairly forced out.

Another NSA official, a 17-year specialist involved in highly classified work, was punished and forced to retire after his clearances were suspended based on an “inconclusive” polygraph test indicating he might be a spy and saboteur.

The NSA wouldn’t comment on either case.

Without access to classified information, all three officials could not continue in their jobs.

“There is no doubt in my mind that security clearances are used as a weapon by various agencies to push away a perceived problem,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who has defended numerous federal employees on security-clearance issues.

In most cases, there is no legal recourse to claims made by security officials whose power over clearances is virtually unchecked, Mr. Zaid said. Appeals procedures vary among agencies and are very limited. In almost all cases, clearances are never restored.

The NSA employee, a mathematician who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name, said that after the polygraph, he was forced by the agency to work in the NSA motor pool.

“I was accused of sabotage and espionage and very specifically asked who my handler was,” the former NSA official said.

The NSA mathematician said his superiors asked security officials to let him work on unclassified NSA projects, but was told he must continue “pumping gas and washing buses.”

“It’s punishment, and it’s punishment for having done nothing wrong,” the former official said.

“The Truth About Polygraphs”

Charles P. Pierce writes on pre-employment polygraph screening in the cover story of the 3 August 2003 edition of the Boston Globe Magazine. Excerpt:

WAS HE SWEATING?

Of course he was sweating.

But he didn’t want to be sweating, and he didn’t want his heart to race this way, because he knew what that did to his blood pressure, and he knew that he was in a situation here in the Boston office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Everybody there knew him from the days when he’d been the law-enforcement equivalent of a phenom pitcher straight out of the minors. So they knew why he was standing there, and he knew why he was standing there, and they knew that he knew. He was standing there because there was a man behind a closed door with a machine that claimed to know the truth of him better than he did. And he wasn’t sure what the machine knew about him that he didn’t know. He knew this situation well. He’d been trained to put suspects in this kind of a box.

Once, when he was 16 and at a party, he’d smoked a little weed. The joint came by — maybe once, maybe twice — and he’d taken a puff. Maybe two. It was a long time ago and hard to remember, but it was long before he’d become interested in law enforcement and long before he’d become so good at it. It was long before he’d graduated from Northeastern University summa cum laude with his degree in criminal justice and long before the co-op job with the DEA. He’d planned on entering the DEA upon graduation but was tripped up by the budget shutdown of the mid-’90s.

It was long before he’d gone to work for that antidrug task force down on Cape Cod, long before he’d grown his hair long and his beard out to go undercover to chase the speed labs and the dope-running boats, and it was long before someone had waved the gun at him in the crack house in New Bedford. It was long before he’d gotten a pilot’s license because he’d heard the DEA had an air wing, and he thought he might like to be part of that, too. It was long before the awards and the citations, and it was long before he’d applied for the full-time job at DEA when the government reopened for business.

He sailed through all the preliminary background checks and the physical test and scored in the 90th percentile on the oral examinations. And then they’d strapped him to a polygraph and asked him about any drug use, and he’d told them about when he was 16 and the joint came by at the party. He knew there were cameras on his eyes. He knew there were sensors in the seat. He gave his answer. The polygrapher looked at the machine and frowned.

There’s a problem right here with this question, the examiner told him. There were “issues” with regard to his answers about his “past drug use.” Why don’t you go out and think about what the problem might be, the polygrapher suggested gravely. That was how he came to be here, sweating, in front of all the people who knew him so well.

“Failure of the Polygraph”

Attorney Mark S. Zaid discusses polygraph policy in this op-ed column. Excerpt:

In the wake of the FBI’s embarrassment at having one of its own caught spying for the Russians, former FBI director William Webster was appointed to head a commission to find out what went wrong. The commission concluded that lax security allowed Special Agent Robert Hanssen to elude capture. In an anticipatory response, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that the FBI will dramatically increase the use of lie detectors, beginning with more than 1,000 of its employees. Such a move would be a substantial mistake. Continuing expansion of polygraph use guarantees the demoralization of the work force and the destruction of the careers of many innocent and loyal federal employees.

The FBI implemented its present policy in March 1994, in the wake of the Aldrich Ames CIA spy case, and then expanded testing following Hanssen’s arrest. The FBI claims that fewer than 10 exams have raised red flags among the 700 who were tested, but no details have been provided. Yet no scientific evidence exists demonstrating that polygraph screening tests, whether administered during the application process or as part of a routine security reinvestigation, have any validity. Studies undertaken for the Department of Defense’s Polygraph Institute, which trains FBI polygraphers, reveal that screening tests fail time after time.

In fact, the polygraph determines whether a person is lying with accuracy only slightly greater than chance. Moreover, studies have repeatedly shown that the polygraph is more likely to find innocent people guilty than vice versa.

Even Attorney General John Ashcroft has admitted that polygraph tests have at least a 15 percent false positive rate. That means a significant percentage of truthful individuals will be falsely labeled and investigated as drug users, terrorists and spies, oftentimes without any opportunity to respond.

In 1997 the FBI laboratory’s polygraph unit chief swore to a U.S. military court that “(a) the polygraph technique has not reached a level of acceptability within the relevant scientific community, (b) scientific research has not been able to establish the true validity of polygraph testing in criminal applications, (c) there is a lack of standardization within the polygraph community for training and for conducting polygraph examinations.”

The next year, the government told the U.S. Supreme Court that polygraph evidence should be inadmissible because of its inaccuracy. Thus a serious inconsistency exists between this position and the government’s extensive use of polygraphs to make vital security and preemployment determinations.

Today the outcry for increasing the use of polygraph examinations arises in the context of catching spies. The fact is that even had Hanssen taken a polygraph — in his 25 years with the FBI he never did — the likelihood is that he would have passed.

Mr. Zaid represents a number of plaintiffs who have filed suit against the U.S. Government over its pre-employment polygraph policy. For details, see the AntiPolygraph.org Polygraph Litigation page.

“Can They Fool the Polygraph?”

Diana Ray reports in the 2-9 June 2001 issue of Insight magazine. Excerpt:

The FBI is requiring employees to undergo increased polygraph testing as a result of security lapses, but cool liars are able to evade detection by the simple machines.

Polygraph testing did not keep Aldrich H. Ames from selling CIA secrets to the Russians before his arrest in 1994. He passed the tests with flying colors while employed by the agency. And testing didn’t prevent FBI counterspy Robert Philip Hanssen from reported treason — because, during his entire 25 years with the bureau, he never was required to take one. Recently indicted, Hanssen is charged with selling secrets to the Soviet Union and then Russia during a period of 16 years, right up to his arrest in February.

After the uncovering of Hanssen, former FBI director William Webster was tasked to investigate FBI security procedures. In the interim, the bureau announced, it would require 500 employees with access to confidential data to undergo polygraph tests during a 60-day period, including Louis Freeh, the bureau director. That was to begin late in March. Although the 60-day deadline wasn’t met, only Freeh remained to be polygraphed as Insight went to press, according to FBI spokesman Paul Bresson. Freeh announced he would retire in June after 27 years with the FBI.