“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.

Webster Commission Report Publicly Released

The Commission for the Review of FBI Security Programs, better known as the Webster Commission, has delivered its report to the Attorney General, and it may now be downloaded as a 1.14 MB Adobe Acrobat (PDF) file from the U.S. Department of Justice website at:


Substantive discussion of polygraph policy begins at p. 67 of the report (p. 79 of the PDF file).

An HTML version of the report is also available on the Federation of American Scientists website at:


Polygraphs for Congress?

In an article entitled “FBI agents urge more scrutiny for Condit,” Washington Times staff writer Jerry Seper reports that members of the FBI Agents Association have pointed out to the Senate and House intelligence committees the hypocrisy of requiring FBI employees to submit to polygraph interrogations while Congress exempts itself from this requirement. Excerpt:

FBI agents questioned yesterday why Rep. Gary A. Condit, who has acknowledged having an affair with a Washington intern who has been missing since early May, continues to receive highly classified intelligence data as a member of a key House committee.

The agents, in letters to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asked whether the California Democrat had become a national security risk.

“The national security is indeed paramount when we consider necessary measures to protect our intelligence secrets,” the agents said in the letters. “A careful balance must be engineered. However it is only logical to insist that those with the broadest access to the most sensitive information be subjected to the greatest scrutiny.”

Members of Congress chosen by party leaders for the House and Senate intelligence committees are exempt from the usual polygraphs and intrusive questions wielded by executive branch investigators.

The letters were forwarded to Congress by members of the FBI Agents Association, which has been critical of efforts to force widespread polygraph screening of FBI employees. Many rank-and-file agents believe that widespread polygraph testing carries a substantial risk of what they have described as “irreparable harm” to innocent employees.

Calls for increased polygraph testing came from members of Congress and elsewhere after the arrest of FBI Agent Robert P. Hanssen as a Russian spy. The FBI has since ordered the tests for agents and bureau executives who have access to confidential intelligence information.

The agents, in the letters, said Senate and House intelligence committee members and their staffs have “substantially greater access to extremely sensitive, classified intelligence information which contrasts strikingly with all but the access of the top echelon of FBI executives.”

“Most FBI special agents have little or no routine access to classified information,” the agents noted. “Many have greatly restricted, compartmentalized exposure to specific intelligence programs or operations. All have undergone thorough security background investigations, up-dated at 5-year intervals.”

The agents said the security background checks for FBI agents contrast with Senate and House procedures and suggested that the intelligence committee members and their staffs be required to undergo thorough background investigations and periodic polygraphs as a condition of service.

“What are the possible objections to such procedures given the tremendous amount and sensitivity of the information to which you and your staff have access?” the agents asked.

“FBI Describes Polygraph Failure Rate as ‘Surprisingly Low'”

Lenny Savino of the Knight Ridder Washington bureau reports. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON – “Less than 25” top FBI officials and other personnel in sensitive positions failed to pass polygraph exams initiated in the wake of the Robert Hanssen spy case, according to senior bureau officials.

Failure to pass could mean either that the findings were inconclusive or that polygraph subjects “showed deception,” officials told Knight Ridder Newspapers on Friday, speaking on condition that they not be named. They would not say how many of the polygraph exams indicated FBI personnel might be lying.

More than 500 FBI personnel took the tests, ordered in March by former FBI director Louis Freeh after criticism from Congress that most veteran agents had never taken a polygraph exam.

There’s no way to tell what a normal failure rate would be for the FBI, but a senior official characterized the preliminary failure rate as “surprisingly low.”

The questions asked dealt with “counterintelligence issues” such as unreported contacts with foreign nationals, and not with lifestyle issues such as unreported marijuana smoking.

Mueller is expected to endorse more reliance on polygraphs, required only in recent years of new recruits only.

Former FBI director William Webster, who is conducting a review of agency counterespionage procedures that allowed Hanssen to spy undetected, is also expected to recommend more polygraph exams.

The current round of tests focused on officials and support staff exposed to “extremely sensitive information or sources,” according to Freeh’s memorandum ordering the polygraphs, plus all personnel leaving for long term overseas assignments or returning from them.

“We realize it’s probably a necessary step in security given what happened with Hanssen,” said Nancy Savage, president of the FBI Agents Association, of increased use of polygraph exams at the bureau. She cautioned that they should not be “the sole indicator of trustworthiness.”

That can happen, said Mark Mallah, a former FBI agent accused in 1995 of being an Israeli agent largely on the basis of a failed polygraph exam and cleared two years later.

“In the FBI’s misguided zeal to corroborate polygraph charts and convict me,” Mallah wrote Mueller and the Judiciary Committee last week, “they flouted due process, demonstrated an incompetence borne of arrogance, distorted my statements[,] and fabricated evidence.”

For discussion of this article, see the AntiPolygraph.org message board thread, On the FBI Polygraph Failure Rate.

Washington Post Endorses Polygraph Screening

Today’s Washington Post editorial, “Mr. Hanssen’s Plea” carries with it an implicit endorsement of polygraph screening. Excerpt (emphasis added):

Fixing…vulnerabilities [in FBI security procedures] is the task ahead. No system can ensure perfect security. There will be smart and unscrupulous would-be spies at an organization the size of the bureau who find cracks to slip through. But the bureau’s resistance to the sort of security measures imposed on other agencies with sensitive missions made it too easy for Mr. Hanssen. It seems crazy that Mr. Hanssen could rise through the ranks of the bureau’s most sensitive sections without ever taking a polygraph exam. Mr. Hanssen spent lavishly on a stripper with whom he was friendly, while also carrying large amounts of debt and doing renovations on his house — all without setting off alarm bells. How could he and the few hundred other FBI officials doing this most sensitive sort of work not have been subject to more rigorous scrutiny?

The FBI is now requiring polygraph exams for roughly 500 such officials. This is a start. A number of continuing reviews will undoubtedly make other recommendations for tightening security further. The key will be actually to implement the reasonable suggestions that emerge. Such sensible proposals for reform have been floated before but always incompletely implemented. The price of such negligence is too high.

The editors of the Washington Post need to realize that expanded reliance on pseudoscientific polygraph “tests” — with their inherent bias against the truthful and susceptibility to easily-learned countermeasures — is an extremely poor start to fixing vulnerabilities in FBI security procedures. Indeed, it is counterproductive. You can help set the Washington Post editorial board straight on polygraphs by sending a letter to the editor at letters@washpost.com. (Letters to the Washington Post must include your home address and home and business telephone numbers.)

Polygraph “Testing” Part of Hanssen Plea Bargain

In an article titled “Plea Bargain is Planned in FBI Spy Case,” Washington Post staff writers Brooke A. Masters and Dan Eggen report that Robert P. Hanssen will plead guilty to espionage charges. Excerpt:

The government has dropped its demand for the death penalty and Hanssen, 57, has agreed to sit for extensive debriefings and polygraph tests with FBI, CIA and other U.S. counterintelligence agents, sources said. Hanssen’s family will receive benefits through his government pension, they said.

“For the government, this is an excellent outcome,” said former federal prosecutor Joseph DiGenova. “You’ll be able to polygraph him and find out if he is telling the truth about what he says he did not compromise.”

DiGenova’s credulous belief in polygraphy is disturbing. Before counterintelligence officials attempt to dupe Hanssen (himself a senior counterintelligence officer) with a polygraph “test,” they might ask him whether he knows how to beat the polygraph (see Chapter 4 of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector to find out how).

The damage done by Hanssen to U.S. security interests may be compounded by our counterintelligence community’s superstitious belief in polygraphy.

“Experts Disagree About Lie Detector”

Associated Press correspondent Jesse J. Holland reports on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s 25 April hearing on “Issues Surrounding the Use of Polygraphs.” Note that the only scientific expert among the witnesses who spoke was Professor William G. Iacono. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON (AP) – The FBI might have started earlier to investigate Robert Hanssen, the agent accused of spying, if the bureau hadn’t resisted subjecting its agents to routine lie detector tests, advocates of the polygraph tests told a Senate panel Wednesday. “It is my opinion that in a security screening polygraph, Robert Hanssen would have reacted with greater than 99 percent certainty,” said Richard Keifer, a past president of the American Polygraph Association.

Opponents of polygraphs say innocent people who are nervous can fail easily, and spies can find out from libraries and the Internet how to manipulate lie-detector test results to their advantages.

“Someone who is clever enough to be a spy should be clever enough to learn these simple techniques to beat a polygraph,” said William Iacono, a psychology professor from the University of Minnesota.

“FBI Polygraphs May Trap Spies — or Careers”

Washington Post staff writer Dan Eggen reports on FBI polygraph policy. Excerpt:

It seemed like a routine polygraph screening. Mark Mallah and his colleagues, members of an FBI counterintelligence unit in New York, were hooked up to lie detector machines and quizzed about drug use, contacts with foreigners and other subjects deemed vital to their roles in protecting national security.

The test turned out to be anything but ordinary for Mallah. The 10-year FBI agent said he was accused of being deceptive on the lie detector examination, prompting a suspension from his job and a full-scale investigation that included 24-hour surveillance and interrogations of family and friends.

When he was finally cleared and reinstated 19 months later, Mallah said, he quit.

“I didn’t have any desire to work for an organization that would do that to me,” said Mallah, who left the FBI in 1996 and now practices law in San Francisco. “They never produced any evidence or came forward with anything, but the polygraph still undermined my career. . . . I was effectively ruined.”

In the wake of charges that veteran agent Robert P. Hanssen had spied for Moscow since 1985, the FBI is embroiled in a debate over how far to expand its use of polygraph tests of employees with access to sensitive information.

Some analysts and lawmakers argue that more aggressive use of the devices might have stopped Hanssen — who was never required to take a lie detector test during his 25 years with the bureau — much earlier, possibly limiting the damage he allegedly caused. But skeptics say that allegations such as Mallah’s underscore the danger in relying too heavily on polygraph devices, which are not considered reliable enough to be used in court.

“Ashcroft on Polygraph Testing”

n his electronic newsletter, Secrecy News, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy reports:


Attorney General John Ashcroft gave a qualified endorsement to polygraph testing at the FBI at a press conference yesterday.

“It’s my understanding that there have been cases in the past that polygraphing did not work on. I think you could name them. So the polygraph is not a sure way. The polygraph is said to have about 15 percent false positives and has an impact on the way an agency operates,” he said.

“Nevertheless, I believe that there are applications for polygraph that are important, and the director and I have agreed that because of the national security involved and the risks involved and the very important consequences of breaches, that we should elevate the use of polygraph in certain cases as it relates to the Bureau.”

His remarks on polygraph testing and the Hanssen case are posted here:


Attorney General Aware of 15% False Positive Rate

In an article entitled “FBI to Expand Polygraph Testing After Spy Case,” Reuters correspondent James Vicini notes that Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a press conference that he knows polygraph screening “tests” to have a 15% false positive rate. (Ashcroft’s actual words were, “The polygraph is said to have about 15 percent false positives…”) This being the case, on what ethical basis does he allow federal law enforcement agencies to arbitrarily terminate the applications of applicants who “fail” the “test” and blackball them? Excerpt:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI, embarrassed to discover one of its agents allegedly sold secrets to Moscow for 15 years, will expand the use of polygraph tests and will more closely audit access to computers and other information, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said on Thursday.

He told a Justice Department news conference that he and FBI Director Louis Freeh had agreed on the interim measures after last month’s arrest of Robert Hanssen, a 25-year FBI veteran and counter-intelligence expert.

Justice Department officials said the expanded use of polygraphs and tighter security access to information would go into effect immediately while former FBI and CIA chief William Webster reviews what changes should be made at the FBI.

Ashcroft said polygraph testing was not a perfect tool.

He said the tests have a 15 percent rate for “false positives” — showing deception when someone is not really lying — and that in some past cases the tests have failed to uncover espionage.

That appeared to be a reference to former CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who was given a polygraph test, but was not detected, at a time when he was spying for Moscow. He was sentenced in 1994 to life in prison.