Customs and Border Protection Polygraph Screening: A Critical Commentary on the Center for Investigative Journalism’s Recent Reporting

On 4 April 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting published two articles by Andrew Becker on U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s pre-employment polygraph screening program. The first, which has garnered considerable attention and was featured on Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast, is “During polygraphs, border agency applicants admit to rape, kidnapping.”1 Becker’s reporting is based primarily on an internal report by CBP’s polygraph unit (formally titled the Credibility Assessment Division). This document, first obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, is available on as a word-searchable PDF file. Becker opens the article:

One [CBP applicant] admitted to kidnapping and ransoming hostages in the Ivory Coast. Others said they had molested children or committed rape. And one, as he prepared for survival in a post-apocalyptic world, contemplated assassinating President Barack Obama.

These are among the thousands of applicants who have sought sensitive law enforcement jobs in recent years with the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection.

In many cases, these people made it all the way through the hiring process until one of the last steps – a polygraph exam. Once sitting with a polygraph examiner, they admitted to a host of astonishing crimes, according to documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The records – official summaries of more than 200 polygraph admissions – raise alarms about the thousands of employees Customs and Border Protection has hired over the past six years before it began mandatory polygraph tests for all applicants six months ago. The required polygraphs come at the tail end of a massive hiring surge that began in 2006 and eventually added 17,000 employees, helping to make the agency the largest law enforcement operation in the country.

Continue reading Customs and Border Protection Polygraph Screening: A Critical Commentary on the Center for Investigative Journalism’s Recent Reporting

  1. The Daily Beast ran with the less sensationalist title, “On Polygraph Tests, Would Be Border Patrol Agents Confess to Crimes” []

Can Polygraphs Really Keep Racists Out of Law Enforcement?

Shane Sullivan
Coopertown, TN police chief Shane Sullivan

News organizations across America yesterday carried an Associated Press story about how the police chief of a small town in Tennessee was using polygraphs to “weed out racists” from the hiring process:

Police Chief’s Polygraph Targets Racist Applicants

By SHEILA BURKE Associated Press
COOPERTOWN, Tenn. March 8, 2013 (AP)

A police chief hired to rebuild a tiny Tennessee department dismantled by scandal is using a lie-detector test to keep racists off his force.

Coopertown Police Chief Shane Sullivan took over the department in November, becoming the 11th chief in as many years. He was hired on the heels of a series of police scandals that for a few months left Coopertown with no police at all. Years before that, a mayor was voted out of office after the local prosecutor accused him of racism and running a notorious speed trap.

Law enforcement experts say Sullivan’s polygraph approach is unusual, though some departments use the devices for other purposes during the application process. Others try to root out bias in other ways. One polygraph expert warned that lie detectors can’t accurately predict racism for reasons that include people’s inability to recognize their own racism.

Sullivan said he doubts racists will even apply for the force if they know about the tests.

“I think the polygraph will definitely keep these people from applying,” the 39-year-old chief said.

And he believes the policy is working, because he says it’s already discouraged some applicants. “I’ve told a couple of ones about the polygraph who have not called me back.”

The fact that an applicant didn’t call back after being told about the polygraph requirement doesn’t necessarily mean that the applicant was a racist afraid of being caught by the lie detector. In fact, that is very unlikely to be the case. As the article goes on to explain, the polygraph question is not whether one holds racist attitudes, but whether one has committed a hate  or race-based crime. Presumably, very few law enforcement applicants, even those with strong racial biases, have committed such crimes. It’s quite possible that the applicants lost interest for other reasons, such as low pay and poor career prospects with the tiny, trouble-plagued department. Continue reading Can Polygraphs Really Keep Racists Out of Law Enforcement?

Russia Today on Polygraph Screening in the United States

Marina Portnaya of Russia Today (RT) reports on polygraph screening by the federal government of the United States. Those interviewed include retired CIA polygraph examiner John Sullivan, McClatchy reporter Marisa Taylor, and Professor Stephen Fienberg, who headed the National Research Council’s Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph:

Ironically, the Russian interior ministry is repeating America’s folly by requiring that Russian police candidates submit to polygraph “testing.”

Obama Administration Blows Off Criticism of Polygraph Screening

DNI James R. Clapper
Director of National Intelligence
James R. Clapper


Marisa Taylor of McClatchy Newspapers reports that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is drafting a new national policy on polygraph screening. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is drawing up a new national polygraph policy in the wake of allegations that federal agencies are pushing legal and ethical limits during screenings of job applicants and employees.

The decision by National Intelligence Director James Clapper to draft a new policy comes after his office conducted a review of federal polygraph programs and after McClatchy detailed allegations of polygraph abuses. Clapper’s review found “inconsistencies” across the government that led him to order a new policy, but it also found that “all programs were operating appropriately,” Clapper’s public affairs office said in a statement to McClatchy.

But a congressman who’d asked Clapper to look into alleged polygraph abuses said the director was being “dismissive” of a more serious problem with the way the federal government conducts its screenings. In its statement, Clapper’s public affairs office said the inconsistencies “related to administrative practices, rather than the substance of the polygraphs.” The review was completed between July and August.

“This is a non-response,” said Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat. “I’m really concerned that throughout the intelligence community there has been an unwillingness to ask critical questions about polygraph.”

Independent national-security experts agreed that Clapper appeared to be downplaying legitimate concerns about the federal government’s use of polygraph. Several of them who read a draft of the policy obtained by McClatchy said it would do little to crack down on overly aggressive polygraph interrogations. In fact, it appears to allow agencies to continue current practices with few new requirements and may even grant agencies more latitude in some instances.

“It does not address polygraph abuses at all,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Given that polygraph testing is not going away, a new policy should grapple directly with the problems it poses.”

McClatchy has made a draft of the proposed new polygraph policy available here. The policy takes no account whatsoever of the National Research Council’s determination 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.” Instead, America’s top intelligence officer seems to think that so long as polygraph chartgazers at various federal agencies perform their rituals in a uniform manner, everything will be hunky dory.

Perhaps the most significant specific policy measure in the draft is section E.3: “A favorably completed and adjudicated polygraph examination conducted by an agency, in accordance with this directive, shall be reciprocally accepted by all other agencies.” This raises the question, if polygraphy is so reliable, then why should not an unfavorably completed and adjudicated polygraph examination also be reciprocally accepted by all other agencies?

McClatchy has also made available the non-responsive reply that Director of National Intelligence Clapper sent to Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey. Holt is one of few members of Congress with a hard science background (a Ph.D. in physics), and it is refreshing that he hasn’t been deceived by Clapper’s snow job.

McClatchy Investigative Series on Polygraph Screening

McClatchy Newspapers investigative reporter Marisa Taylor has published a new series of well-researched articles on federal polygraph screening programs:

Apart from numerous interviews, Taylor’s reporting is also based in part on federal records sought and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by University of Virginia researcher Katelyn Sack. These documents may be downloaded from National Security Counselors (scroll down to the section, “Polygraphy and Polygraph Examiners”).

Taylor’s reporting also features a letter from Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who has a Ph.D. in physics, to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, asking for a briefing “on the research and development efforts underway in the [intelligence community] to move us beyond the use of such an unreliable instrument as the polygraph.” Making reference to Marisa Taylor’s earlier reporting on abuse by polygraph operators at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Holt also wrote to Inspector General of the United States Intelligence Community J. Charles McCullough III asking “1) whether there is any truth in these reports of polygraph abuse at NRO, 2) whether any other IC elements are using such tactics, 3) whether any polygraphers have engaged in actions in violation of any applicable laws and regulations, 4) whether the use of such tactics was ordered by any IC manager, 5) and whether polygraphers were receiving rewards, accelerated promotions or other incentives to force non-counterintelligence related information from polygraph subjects.”

The abuses documented in Taylor’s reporting highlight the need to terminate America’s misplaced reliance on the pseudoscience of polygraphy. Make-believe science yields make-believe security.

Chris French on Polygraph Screening of Sex Offenders

Professor of psychology Chris French writes for the Guardian on why mandatory polygraph screening of convicted sex offenders is a bad public policy choice. Excerpt:

It is clear that offenders only have to spend five minutes on Google to realise that experts generally agree that polygraph testing is in fact not a reliable technique for detecting deception. If such testing becomes mandatory, it is inevitable that this truth about polygraphs will become widely known among offenders. From then on, any effect that unfounded belief in the effectiveness of the technique had in terms of increasing disclosures is likely to disappear.

To make matters worse, techniques exist to beat the test. Once the underlying rationale of the test is understood, steps can be taken to either augment the psychophysiological response to control questions (eg via self-induced physical or mental pain) or else reduce the response to relevant questions (eg using mental training, such as meditation).

 Indeed, polygraphs are easily beaten, and information on how to do so is freely available here on, among other places. Authorities in the US, UK, and elsewhere would be wise to terminate their misplaced reliance on the Emperor’s-new-clothes technology of polygraph “testing.”

Tom Chivers on Lie Detectors

In “The Awkward Truth About Lie Detectors,” Tom Chivers of The Telegraph comments on the growing use of lie detectors to screen sex offenders in the United Kingdom. The money quote:

Polygraphy relies on suspects believing that lie detectors work, which in turn relies on them not knowing how to use Google (or reading this article).

Sen. Grassley Calls for DoD IG Inspection of NRO Polygraph Program

Sen. Charles E. Grassley

In a follow-up to her excellent investigative series on polygraph practices within the National Reconnaissance Office, McClatchy reporter Marisa Taylor writes that Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) thinks that the DoD inspector general should investigate whether NRO is in compliance with DoD polygraph regulations:

WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials are scrambling to look into allegations of abusive polygraph techniques by a spy agency but so far they aren’t heeding calls for a more in-depth investigation.

Pentagon officials met Thursday with the National Reconnaissance Office after a McClatchy investigation found that the spy agency was pressuring its polygraphers to obtain intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees, possibly in violation of the law and Pentagon regulations.

McClatchy found that the National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with bonuses.

The agency, which oversees the nation’s spy satellites, collects the information for employee security clearances, but it isn’t supposed to be pursuing the more personal information, instead asking directly only about spying, terrorism and the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

Even though it’s aggressively collecting the private disclosures, when people confess to serious crimes such as child molestation they aren’t always arrested or prosecuted, McClatchy’s investigation revealed.

The articles prompted one prominent congressman to call this week for an investigation of the agency’s polygraph program. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he thought that the Pentagon’s inspector general should look at whether the National Reconnaissance Office was in compliance with Defense Department polygraph rules. The Pentagon oversees the agency’s polygraph program even though the agency is a unique mix of CIA and Air Force employees.

“The polygraphers should have clear rules and regulations about the topics they can and should cover in their work,” Grassley said.

He added that he wanted the inspector general to review how the agency handled confessions to crimes and “make sure those rules are adequate and clearly communicated to employees.”

It should be noted, however, that the DoD inspector general was made aware of the problems with the NRO’s polygraph practices in November 2011. If the DoD IG has not yet conducted an investigation, can it be trusted to do so now? Isn’t more direct Congressional oversight called for at this point?

Taylor goes on to discuss the DoD e-mails received by, citing Mark Zaid, who represents former NRO polygrapher Mark Phillips. Zaid opines:

“The email traffic conveys the distinct impression that senior officials within the polygraph community do not understand the nature of the specific allegations against NRO’s practices,” he said. “To some extent that is not surprising, given no one with oversight authority in the intelligence community has yet to speak with my client.”

A message thread for discussion of the NRO polygraph matter is available on the message board. Registration is not required, and anonymous posts are welcome.


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.”