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NPR on FBI Polygraph Policy
Mar 15th, 2001 at 5:49pm
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On Wednesday, 14 February 2001, National Public Radio's All Things Considered program considered FBI polygraph policy. That segment is currently available on-line in RealPlayer format (14.4 | 28.8). has also prepared the following transcript, which is posted for non-commercial, discussion purposes only.

"FBI & Polygraphs"
National Public Radio, All Things Considered
14 March 2001

Noah Adams: It's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

Linda Wertheimer: And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The FBI may polygraph more employees since an agent was charged with spying for Russia. Robert Philip Hanssen is accused of passing secrets to Moscow for fifteen years. He was never given a lie detector test in that time. Attorney General John Ashcroft says the FBI will use polygraphs more often, and that has sparked a debate. NPR's Barbara Bradley reports.

Barbara Bradley: For thirty years, John Sullivan hooked up CIA agents to a polygraph machine and asked some questions. He watched as the machine measured their pulse rate, whether they perspired, or breathed harder. After 6,000 examinations, Sullivan is convinced they work.

John Sullivan: We have identified spies in every venue of the CIA security process. We have identified applicants. We have identified staff employees. We have identified military detailees. We have done it.

Barbara Bradley: And Sullivan says a polygraph probably would have flagged Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence expert accused of espionage. Hanssen was never tested because, unlike the CIA, National Security Agency, and Energy Department, the FBI does not conduct routine polygraphs on current employees. Attorney Jonathan Turley, who has represented several alleged spies, isn't at all sure that a polygraph would have caught Hanssen, but he says it is a great investigative tool, because it elicits confessions. For example, an FBI agent in Los Angeles, R.W. Miller, failed four polygraphs and finally confessed to passing secrets to the Russians.

Jonathan Turley: Many people believe that polygraphs just look deeply in your soul, and so if people hold back a secret for years, this is really the moment that they have long dreaded, and when that polygrapher says, "You're coming up deceptive," it often comes just bubbling out, where people will incriminate themselves in the most extraordinary ways.

Barbara Bradley: But often, people will look guilty when they're really not: about fifteen percent of the time, according to Attorney General Ashcroft. Mark Mallah says that's what happened to him. Mallah was a ten-year veteran of the FBI. In 1995, after CIA officer Aldrich Ames was caught, the FBI gave a lot of its agents a polygraph test. Mallah says he was nervous because the stakes were so high.

Mark Mallah: If for some reason, the examiner incorrectly states that you're being deceptive, you know, your whole career is on the line. So by nature it's -- it does produce some anxiety.

Barbara Bradley: The polygraph examiner said Mallah was deceptive when he was asked about contacts with foreign agents. After a second polygraph, he was put on leave. FBI agents searched his house, interviewed his friends. He was sometimes followed by a helicopter when he left his home. The investigation ended nineteen months later, with no evidence of espionage. But Mallah believed his career was ruined, and so he quit. He says polygraphs force you to do the impossible: to prove a negative.

Mark Mallah: I tried to tell them that they had the burden of showing me and of proving that these allegations, you know, had some basis to it, and they continually and constantly always said, well, it's up to you to prove that the polygraph is wrong. So, it leaves you in a completely untenable -- an impossible situation.

Barbara Bradley: As the FBI considers the costs and benefits of polygraphs, it need look no further than the CIA, which requires its employees to take a polygraph every five years. Jeffrey Smith, a former General Counsel at the agency, says after the Ames case, the CIA reviewed all the polygraphs, and decided many now looked deceptive. The CIA then asked the FBI to conduct criminal investigations of those people, believed to be in the hundreds. Sometimes, it took years, and in the vast majority of cases, no problem was found.

Jeffrey Smith: Those individuals, in effect, had their lives put on hold, and in some instances suffered enormously: they couldn't be given good assignments, they couldn't be sent overseas, they couldn't be promoted. These were loyal, patriotic citizens who had devoted their lives to the CIA, and frankly, in many cases, it was just a tragic disruption of their careers.

Barbara Bradley: Smith does think polygraphs are the most effective tool to ferret out problems, but he and others say they are not a silver bullet. Not only do they catch people who aren't spies, but they also miss people who are. For example, Aldrich Ames passed his polygraphs with ease. Still, on one point, most everyone agrees: polygraphs deter agents from criminal activity. And according to Paul Minor, who was formerly the FBI's chief polygraph examiner, it might have headed off the most recent security breach.

Paul Minor: If they'd had a polygraph testing program, Hanssen may never have done what he did, because he would have been afraid that on his five year update for his clearance -- update -- that he would have had to undergo a polygraph test, and he would then be in big trouble, because he probably wouldn't be able to pass such a test.

Barbara Bradley: Unless, of course, Hanssen could beat the polygraph. Barbara Bradley, NPR News, Washington.

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Paste Member Name in Quick Reply Box George Maschke (Guest)

Re: NPR on FBI Polygraph Policy
Reply #1 - Mar 15th, 2001 at 6:29pm
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I would be interested to hear from either John Sullivan or Paul Minor -- or anyone else who thinks that a polygraph screening "test" probably would have flagged Robert Philip Hanssen -- on what basis they believe this to be so.
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A polygraph would never have caught Hanssen
Reply #2 - Mar 15th, 2001 at 9:32pm
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It has become a very well known fact that Hanssen is an extraordinarily intelligent man (maybe not the most patriotic of lads, but brilliant nonetheless). Had he been working for CIA and been required to take a polygraph, it would have only added to the intillectual high or challenge he got by engaging in such spying activities. He would have no doubt, just like Ames, educated himself fully on polygraph procedure, practiced etc.. and fooled any examiner.

Unfortunately, the backlash of all this Hanssen spying is going to make the polygraph situation much worse before it gets any better. Thanks Bob. Many in the intelligence community know full well that to keep their jobs they will have to learn counter-measures.
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Paste Member Name in Quick Reply Box George Maschke (Guest)

Re: NPR on FBI Polygraph Policy
Reply #3 - Mar 16th, 2001 at 5:16pm
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FP, I don't know what might have motivated Bob Hanssen to allegedly commit espionage. Speculation that he did it for the thrill and challenge seems to be based on scant evidence. But I can agree with you on this:
He would have no doubt, just like Ames, educated himself fully on polygraph procedure, practiced etc.. and fooled any examiner.

As a counterintelligence agent, Hanssen would have had a professional interest in polygraphy, and he may well be thoroughly familiar with polygraph countermeasures already.

Last modification: George Maschke - 03/16/01 at 09:16:28
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How to Send Feedback to NPR
Reply #4 - Mar 16th, 2001 at 5:07pm
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If you found the NPR segment interesting and would like to see more coverage of this topic, send an e-mail to the producers of All Things Considered and let them know! The address is: .

Last modification: George Maschke - 03/16/01 at 09:07:11
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NPR on FBI Polygraph Policy

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