Home Page > Reading Room
The following document is a memorandum to Dr. Donald M. Kerr, the FBI Assistant Director for the Laboratory Division, from FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dr. Drew C. Richardson, the FBI's leading scientific expert on polygraphy. In September 1997, Dr. Richardson testified before the U.S. Senate that polygraph screening is "completely without any theoretical foundation and has absolutely no validity."

David Tenenbaum had unsuccessfully sought release of this memorandum in a lawsuit stemming from unsubstantiated government allegations that he was an Israeli spy; polygraph abuse figures prominently in his case. While the FBI unexplicably withheld this document from Mr. Tenenbaum's counsel, the James Madison Project has recently obtained most of it under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FBI has withheld a significant portion of this document. In the copy from which the following transcription has been prepared, redacted portions are annotated "b2" in the margin. The b(2) exclusion of the FOIA allows for the withholding of information which is "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency."

The FBI's redaction of this document raises the question, "Why does the Bureau fear releasing Dr. Richardson's uncensored expert opinion to the American people?"

One key opinion not redacted is the following:

"...I believe it is imperative that we take a proactive role in evaluating what is being done through polygraph screening, evaluate whether this product is in fact victimizing individuals and jeopardizing national security, and advise the end users of the limitations they should place upon their utilization of polygraph results. I believe it is not only logical that we do this, but that we have an ethical responsibility to do so...."

Dr. Richardson's warning has gone unheeded at FBI Headquarters.


Monday, September 13, 1999


To:       Dr. Donald Kerr
               (copy: Mr. Tom Kubic)

From:  Dr. Drew Richardson

Re:        Polygraph Screening


       As you may recall, approximately two years ago following my testimony before the U.S. Senate regarding captioned subject and shortly after you assumed your present position, I spoke with you about my concerns regarding the Bureau's use of the polygraph examination. These concerns revolved around but were and are not limited to the Bureau's use and reliance on the results of polygraph examinations in applicant investigations. During our relatively brief conversation, I largely reviewed the elements of the opening statement I gave during the aforementioned testimony. My concerns (both then and now) regarding polygraph screening run the gamut covering the lack of theoretical foundation for practice, to a lack of any demonstrated validity as a diagnostic tool, to general concerns about the ethics of common practice to the lack of due process and fairness to polygraph examinees as it relates to the use of polygraph results. Furthermore I am concerned about the confusion, if not outright misrepresentation offered by proponents of the use of polygraph screening, as to what the scientific research literature would indicate about the validity of polygraph screening, the utility of polygraph screening, and what the summary opinion of the relevant scientific community is regarding the use of polygraph screening. I suppose my greatest concerns relate to what I believe will be or may have been the likely real damage to national security if polygraph results are to be believed in the counterintelligence side of screening and to individual examinees stemming from the use of life style (drug issues, in particular) side of polygraph screening. There are few things that I have written or said, that given the opportunity to modify after two years, that I would not change to some degree. My own continual reflection on the captioned subject and the related experiences of polygraph examinees and others has served to make this situation the exception and only to reinforce the beliefs, opinions, and assertions that I offered in the original opening statement and in my comments to you. Approximately two weeks ago, I spoke to your deputy, Mr. Tom Kubic, regarding a number of subjects to include a somewhat updated version of the conversation I had with you regarding polygraph screening. In order to update you on this matter(s) and at the strong urging of Mr. Kubic, I have decided to provide you with this written communication.

       In the past two years, I have heard directly or indirectly from and continue to hear from a large number of individuals who come to me (telephonically, email, in person) to relate how they or someone of their acquaintance has been victimized by the use of the polygraph examination. These individuals include those applying for Bureau positions (Agent and Support) from within and outside of the Bureau, individuals from within the FBI Laboratory or those applying for Laboratory positions, past and present employees, relatives (parents, siblings, in-laws) of applicants, highly respected individuals currently working for the Bureau in contract positions related to high profile missions who are seeking full time employment with the Bureau, Bureau field applicant coordinators troubled by polygraph use, and others. Additionally, I have heard directly or indirectly from individuals seeking employment with other federal and state agencies, from concerned or interested scientists, attorneys, and those representing the media and Congress. Those from the latter two groups have been referred to the Bureau's Office of Congressional and Public Affairs Office, and all have been advised that I do not represent official policy or am in any way currently and officially involved with the Bureau's polygraph program.

       In general, the concerns expressed have arisen from polygraph examinations administered in connection with Bureau applicant investigations, and the disputed outcome relates to the examinee having been found deceptive about some aspect of the Bureau's policy regarding the use or selling of drugs. A variation of this theme involves both applicants and employees who have been given polygraph screening examinations and found to be deceptive about some counterintelligence issue. These stories will almost always include accounts of the trauma and duress caused these individuals and their families stemming


from these polygraph examinations and frequently will include what amounts to allegations of improper treatment and/or conduct during the interview and interrogation phases of the polygraph exam.

       As I will point out to the individuals contacting me, I do not know in their cases or with the group as a whole what ground truth is regarding the issue for which they were deemed to be deceptive or what was the nature of how their exam was conducted, reviewed, and reported. Without further background investigation and without these exams being properly recorded (audio and video) and/or independently monitored, it would be difficult for anyone other than the examinee to know the former and for the examinee and those involved in the conduct and review of the polygraph exam to know the truth about the latter group of issues. This having been said, I tend to give some degree of credence to some portion of these claims for the following reasons:

  1. I am quite aware of the theoretical shortcomings (base rate considerations, etc.) of polygraph screening and am aware of the poor results of polygraph screening as evidenced by the only relevant scientific research that has examined it.
  2. Others and I have been approached by a large number of individuals with similar complaints and stories.
  3. The individuals who contact me will almost always suggest as a remedy and logical next step in their applicant process that a full field investigation be done focusing on areas in which they were found to be deceptive in a polygraph examination.
  4. These individuals are frequently willing and anxious to have their stories told in highly publicized forums, e.g., in the print and production media, in letters to high government executive and legislative branch officials, in Congressional testimony, and even in judicial proceedings in which they would be subject to cross-examination in an adversarial setting.

It is my feeling that for particularly the third and fourth above listed reasons (which reflect the thinking and motivations of the examinee/applicant and not simply this author) that these individuals are not acting in a manner that would indicate that they were hiding or would be embarrassed by the truth, but may well be victims as they universally allege. Furthermore, these stories are often related to me by family members or others familiar with the examinee, who indicate the "deception indicated" result is inconsistent with their knowledge of the individual involved. No one aspect of this reasoning is a compelling basis to dismiss out of hand any one polygraph result, but I believe that for all of these reasons as applied to a large number of applicants, it is time for us to reconsider what we are doing in this area, and how this information is being used by the Bureau.

       I realize that polygraph utilization by the Bureau is determined by high level executive policy and is at least in part driven by the needs and beliefs of end-users within the Bureau to include the Personnel Division, the Inspection Division, the Criminal Investigative Division, and the National Security Division, and the field programs managed by these Headquarter components. Although it is the Personnel Division and its field components that most largely utilize polygraph screening within the Bureau, I believe the Laboratory Division has a unique and special responsibility in this process. As a result of being the producer of this product and the only group which can reasonably be expected to evaluate or reevaluate the scientific merits of the product, I believe it is imperative that we take a proactive role in evaluating what is being done through polygraph screening, evaluate whether this product is in fact victimizing individuals and jeopardizing national security, and advise the end users of the limitations they should place upon their utilization of polygraph results. I believe it is not only logical that we do this, but that we have an ethical responsibility to do so. I believe that such an evaluation is every bit as important as the process you recently described regarding examining fingerprint identification, document identification, hair identification, etc. in a quantitative, digitized format allowing for inferential statistics to be applied to these disciplines. Although I believe these efforts as you described them are critically importan[t] [TWO LINES REDACTED]

       When we last spoke of this matter, prior to my having been contacted by the numerous self-alleged victims during the past two years, you asked me if I was proven to be right [REST OF LINE REDACTED]


[MOST OF LINE REDACTED; Note: Sen. Grassley had stated in his 21 October 1997 letter to FBI Laboratory Director Kerr that "[i]f Dr. Richardson is correct, polygraph screening should be banned from the FBI." It seems likely that the preceding redacted text refers to Dr. Kerr asking Dr. Richardson whether he believes that the Bureau should end polygraph screening.] My answer at the time was yes and still remains affirmative, although I believe the window of opportunity for such action is closing. As I indicated at the time, I believe the Bureau can figuratively "turn lemons to lemonade" in the process. Although we as an agency did not lead the federal government into polygraph screening (in fact were one of the last to implement such a program), I truly believe that we can show leadership and moral certitude, by having thoroughly evaluated the process through tens of thousands of applicants processed, [MOST OF LINE REDACTED] I believe that we (the Bureau and you the executives who make such decisions) could rightly take credit for difficult but courageous action while minimizing the Bureau's liability for any past uses of polygraph screening. In the past two years, applicants who have failed polygraph exams have become increasingly aware of one another's plights, have educated and organized themselves through internet web pages and user groups, have publicly contemplated class action suits, and have drawn the attention of Congress and the media. These things coupled with the intense media focus on the proposed polygraph screening program in the DOE National Laboratory system will only serve to focus intense scrutiny on the Bureau's own polygraph program. I believe that the Bureau has only a finite period of time to evaluate its own program before it is ultimately evaluated from outside. [TWO-THIRDS OF PAGE REDACTED]









Transcription and HTML by Home Page > Reading Room