"Polygraph Screening in Light of the Robert Hanssen Espionage Investigation"
Over the last week, the world has learned of the Robert Hanssen Espionage investigation. I, as is the case for most of the lay public and for most employees of the FBI, do not know Mr. Hanssen nor have I had any connection to or knowledge of the investigation that led to his arrest. Before I directly address the subject of this note, I would like to comment on a few peripheral issues so as to alleviate any confusion about what my thoughts are on these subjects or motivation for putting these present thoughts into writing. If the allegations are proven to be true, they represent a heinous betrayal of trust and an unbelievable criminal action on the part of one of our own with profound national security implications for our country. Admittedly, even the retelling of this story is shocking, even prior to its having been formally proved in a judicial setting. Two questions recently asked in the aftermath by the lay press are "How could this have occurred over fifteen plus years and go undetected through the vast majority of that time?" and "What steps should the FBI take to substantially reduce the likelihood of this happening again?" Contained within the context of the last question are frequently occurring references to polygraph screening of Bureau employees and whether or not the FBI is out of step with others in the Intelligence Community with regard to its current polygraph policies. I very strongly believe that the last question and answer are completely irrelevant and that the only meaningful question seeks to address whether the members of the "community" are in line with reason and logic, not with each other. With an appropriately crafted question in mind, it may well be that the answer would have the majority conforming to the practices of the minority, and not the reverse. The rhetoric of recent days has suggested that the "problem" lies within "the culture" of the Bureau, which has traditionally been reluctant to impose polygraph screening programs on its employees. In spite of the recent espionage debacle, I believe this area concerns what "is right" and not that which "is a problem" within the Bureau and that furthermore this has nothing to do with "the culture" of the FBI, but its collective intelligence and discernment which has properly led to it having resisted imposing polygraph screening programs on its employees.
In the balance of this note, I will attempt to present the viewpoint of myself and others who are deeply concerned with national security and believe that answers to the aforementioned questions need to be provided, but strongly believe that it is critically important that logic prevail in this time of shock and dismay. There no doubt exists pressure from various sources to "do something" and to quickly take some action, albeit, perhaps even an irrational action. If one is to examine the lay press and editorial accounts of the past week, this pressure has already begun in earnest. The situation reminds one of the relevant temptation as described by and attributed to Salman Rushdie: "When thinking becomes excessively painful, action yields the fastest remedy." It is the sincere hope of this author that this note will support those who have refused to take such action in the past and are resolute in opposing it in the future.
The question has frequently arisen as to whether Mr. Hanssen was administered polygraph exams during the period of alleged espionage and/or during his FBI career. This question is then followed with suggested analysis about what effect his having been given a polygraph exam(s) would have had on the course of this investigation and whether any of this demonstrates a need to change the present Bureau policy of not routinely administering polygraph exams to its employees. Again, as with most other questions regarding Mr. Hanssen, I do not have personal or other knowledge as to whether he has been given polygraph exams. The logic of the issue does not require that I do. Either he was or he was not. If he was, then he like so many other traitors was allowed to continue his activities following having been found non-deceptive on an exam(s). If he was not administered an exam(s), in a rather perverse sort of (lack of) logic, it has been suggested that this demonstrates that Bureau employees should be given them in the future. Should the latter situation exist, i.e., that Hanssen had not been polygraphed, I suggest it be viewed in the context of he, likewise, was most likely not subjected to astrological chart readings, palm readings, tea leaf readings, or the readings of entrails as practiced by the ancient Romans. There now exists no more compelling reason to institute a program of wide spread polygraphy than there does implementation of any of these other divining activities.
Aside from and in addition to there being no cause for such precipitous action, I strongly believe (as I have stated before in the case of FBI applicants) that there is NO evidence whatsoever that polygraph screening has any validity as a diagnostic tool. In addition to the general considerations and relevant scientific community opinion(s) I have raised before in connection with applicant screening, I believe a detailed analysis of the issues of polygraph sensitivity and specificity through the principles of Bayesian statistics and receiver operator curves (admittedly, well beyond the scope of this note and its form) will completely debunk the notion that this tool has any validity. For reasons that I have previously provided, I further feel that any notions of a deterrent effect and utility in obtaining confessions/admissions for polygraph screening are at best, far overstated. On a final note regarding validity, a very prestigious panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences has just undertaken (for the US Government) an analysis of the validity of polygraph screening. Whether this panel ultimately concludes (as I believe it likely will), as do I about polygraph validity, I think it will be considered premature (if not presumptuous and ultimately embarrassing to the Bureau) for a new polygraph screening program to be instituted before this group has hardly begun its work.
In the analysis of the merits of a given program, it is logical that the cost/benefit ratio of that program be examined. Such is true for a polygraph screening program as well. If as I and others claim, polygraph screening has no validity has a diagnostic tool, then its benefit will be exceedingly low and the costs associated with such a program would also have to be exceedingly low to make the cost/benefit ratio acceptable and a basis for instituting or continuing such a program. In fact the potential costs are quite the opposite---very high. The aforementioned statistical analysis that I referred to would indicate that with assumptions made most favorable to polygraphy, that one could expect to have roughly 50 to 100 times as many false positive determinations (i.e., an innocent employee wrongly found to be deceptive on a polygraph examination) as true positives (e.g., a spy found to be deceptive and therefore identified). Although one can reduce the number of false positives (i.e., increase specificity), it is impossible to do this without reducing the sensitivity of the test, making it almost virtually impossible that under such conditions a spy will be identified as a result of a polygraph exam. At the very least any false positive results will invariably lead to careers being sidelined, but will most likely lead to some careers and lives being ruined. I would call to your attention the case of Mr. Mark Mallah, a former special agent of the FBI who claims to have been wrongly accused of activities related to espionage. This investigation stemmed from what may well have been false positive polygraph results. In addition to other materials available to you, I would refer you to Mr. Mallah's personal account of these matters (http://www.antipolygraph.org/statements/statement-002.shtml). Although I suspect that every effort would be expended to reduce the number of false positives (with the aforementioned and necessary accompanying loss of sensitivity), false positives will occur and some of our employees will be victimized. I will say as strongly as I possibly can that a reasonable cost to benefit ratio analysis of polygraph screening will indicate that such a program is altogether unviable. But on a hypothetical plane, I would pose the question to you: "Even if polygraph had a high benefit (ability to catch spies, which I adamantly claim it does not), and ergo a more acceptable cost to benefit ratio, how many spies would we have to catch to justify the ruining of one employee's (and his family's) life? Or conversely, how many lives would we be willing to ruin to catch one spy? These are ethical decisions, not scientific considerations, but ones that would have to be made and taken responsibility for. The good news is that the moral dilemma I pose for you is really not one at all. The necessary benefit (test sensitivity) to require such an ethical choice is not real or present, leaving you, the Director, and other executives not having to face this excruciating choice.
I would like to close on a personal note. I intend to retire from the FBI in the next several months. Amongst many other things, I plan to become engaged in both the scientific inquiry and public discourse surrounding polygraph screening. As such, I suppose it could be said that I do not have a personal stake in whether polygraph screening is implemented or not in the Bureau and that I could easily and perhaps wisely save my commentary for my post Bureau life. Although I suppose it is tempting to do so, I believe that because decisions will/are being made imminently and because the welfare of those I care for and will leave behind with my retirement is at stake, I cannot in good conscience remain silent on this issue. Although I don't expect my views to be singularly compelling (nor should they be) in the overall decision-making process you are undertaking, I do appreciate any consideration you might give this viewpoint.
Dr. Drew C. Richardson
Supervisory Special Agent