Normal Topic Consequences of "Failed" Polygraph (Read 3975 times)
Paste Member Name in Quick Reply Box Mark Mallah
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Consequences of "Failed" Polygraph
Mar 30th, 2001 at 10:20pm
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Regarding security clearance determinations, Mr. Renzelman stated:

"You got all sorts of things that are used in addition to polygraph to make the decision..."

This is disingenuous.  As a practical matter, a "failed" polygraph will forever haunt your career, no matter how much exculpatory evidence surrounds it.  Saying that it is one factor among many is true in the same way that Saddam Hussein's vote is one among many in his cabinet.

In my own case, the FBI had a choice:

1) believe that I truly lied on the polygraph and hid my espionage from all my friends, family, and colleagues who were interviewed about me and attested to my character and honesty, and that I successfully concealed my espionage from all my financial records, appointment books, correspondence, and personal journals, and concealed it from all the other numerous investigative techniques used in the investigation of me, OR,

2) the polygraph was wrong.

Guess which choice the FBI made for two years? 

In addition, I have no doubt that despite my exoneration (which the FBI had no choice about since there was no evidence), the polygraph people are still claiming that the charts don't lie and that I must have done something.

Regardless, do not believe that the polygraph is merely one factor.  It is given inordinate and disproportionate weight, probably because to do otherwise would be to confront reality, too frightening a prospect to the polygraph community and its supporters who would rather cling to their delusions.

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Paste Member Name in Quick Reply Box George W. Maschke
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Re: Consequences of "Failed" Polygraph
Reply #1 - Apr 3rd, 2001 at 7:46am
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You're absolutely right. The argument that the polygraph is only one factor in security clearance determinations is indeed disingenous. At the same public meeting of the National Academy of Sciences at which Mr. Renzelman spoke, Dr. Alan P. Zelicoff of Sandia National Laboratories also gave a talk on polygraphy, and in response to a question by one of the panel members provided the following anecdote:

A positive polygraph is simply very very hard to live down [words indistinct]. In the few cases, historically, at Sandia -- I've followed three cases that I know of over the past ten years where people have failed their polygraph. These all happened to people -- happened to be people -- that were working in the intelligence section of the national laboratory. They all lost their jobs at the intelligence section. They were moved out to work elsewhere that they considered to be less satisfying. Now the reason was not because they were a spy. Certainly the reason was not because they were being deceptive or in any way trying to fool the polygrapher, but rather because the perception was that they were simply no longer trustworthy.


There is a level of suspicion that is generated among decision makers that is just simply hard to live down.

Dr. Zelicoff's entire presentation may be listened to in RealPlayer format begining at about 23 minutes into the following file:

and continuing at:

The undue significance attached to polygraph chart readings in security clearance (as well as hiring) determinations is explained in part by Lykken's Law, regarding which see pp. 74-75 of the 2nd edition of A Tremor in the Blood. The following passage sums it up:

Uncertainty is painful to the decision maker. Complicated evidence can only be evaluated subjectively and subjectivity leads to doubt and disagreement. One longs for some straightforward, definitive datum that will resolve the conflict and impel a conclusion. This longing not infrequently leads one to invest any simple, quantitative, or otherwise specific bit of evidence with a greater weight than it deserves, with a predictive power it does not really possess. In decision making, the objective dominates the subjective, the simple squeezes out the complicated, the quantitative gets more weight than the nonmetrical, and dichotomous (yes/no, pass/fail) evidence supersedes the many-valued. This is Lykken's Law

Aldrich H. Ames also provided an insightful commentary on this phenomenon in his letter dated 28 November 2000 to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy in Government Project:

Most people in the intelligence and CI business are well aware of the theoretical and practical failings of the polygraph, but are equally alert to its value in institutional, bureaucratic terms and treasure its use accordingly. This same logic applies to its use in screening potential and current employees, whether of the CIA, NSA, DOE or even of private organizations.

Deciding whether to trust or credit a person is always an uncertain task, and in a variety of situations a bad, lazy or just unlucky decision about a person can result not only in serious problems for the organization and its purposes, but in career-damaging blame for the unfortunate decision-maker. Here, the polygraph is a scientific godsend: the bureaucrat accounting for a bad decision, or sometimes for a missed opportunity (the latter is much less often questioned in a bureaucracy) can point to what is considered an unassailably objective, though occasionally and unavoidably fallible, polygraph judgment. All that was at fault was some practical application of a "scientific" technique, like those frozen O-rings, or the sandstorms between the Gulf and Desert One in 1980.

By publicly exposing polygraph "testing" for the fraud that it is (as we are doing here on we can nullify the utility of the polygraph as a responsibility-avoidance mechanism for decision makers.

George W. Maschke
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Consequences of "Failed" Polygraph

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