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Opening Statement on Polygraph Screening of
Supervisory Special Agent Dr. Drew C. Richardson,
FBI Laboratory Division,
before the
United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts
on the 29th day of September, 1997.

My name is Dr. Drew Campbell Richardson. I am a Supervisory Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I have spent the vast majority of my professional career as a scientist within the FBI Laboratory. In that capacity I have worked in the areas of chemistry, toxicology, polygraph research, and hazardous materials response. Although willing to address matters of concern in any of these areas through your questions, it is on polygraph issues that my opening statement will focus.

Polygraph, as practiced by the FBI and others, is generally used for two purposes: (1) criminal specific-issue testing, and (2) Applicant and/or personnel screening. It is the latter practice that I will largely address. Before I do, I have just a few comments about the former application.

Although I and other scientists believe that there is a role for the use of polygraph to support criminal investigations, I believe that considerably more effort should be expended to utilize information-based tests than the currently used emotion-based tests. I believe that the probable-lie control question test, which is the mainstay of Bureau polygraphy, has the ready potential for great psychological abuse of polygraph examinees. If this questioning format is to be utilized, I believe that, in contrast to present practice, at the very least, every examination should be video and audio recorded. I have previously submitted to your staff a scientific article entitled the The Control Question Test (CQT) polygrapher's dilemma. I believe that this article is germane to your inquiry for two reasons: (1) It raises doubts about the ethics of a commonly used polygraph technique and Bureau practice; and (2) It is a classic example of inappropriate censorship by prior FBI Laboratory management. By which I mean, that although the subject content of this article was found to have merit, and although it was published under my co-authors name in a major international scientific journal, my own name as a co-author was deleted simply because the article was critical of one component of commonly used Bureau polygraph practice.

Thus I question aspects of the validity and ethical practice of Bureau polygraph examinations as applied to criminal tests, but it is truly the area of personnel screening that I find without any merit at all. Polygraph screening is used by the Bureau to screen employee applicants in the areas of counterintelligence matters (espionage) and life-style issues (drug usage, etc.). With regard to polygraph screening, I submit the following to you:

1. It is completely without any theoretical foundation and has absolutely no validity. Although there is disagreement amongst scientists about the use of polygraph testing in criminal matters, there is almost universal agreement that polygraph screening is completely invalid and should be stopped. As one of my colleagues frequently says, the diagnostic value of this type of testing is no more than that of astrology or tea-leaf reading. 

2. If this test had any validity (which it does not), both my own experience, and published scientific research has proven, that anyone can be taught to beat this type of polygraph exam in a few minutes.

3. Because of the nature of this type of examination, it would normally be expected to produce large numbers of false positive results (falsely accusing an examinee of lying about some issue). As a result of the great consequences of doing this with large numbers of law enforcement and intelligence community officers, the test has now been manipulated to reduce false positive results, but consequently has no power to detect deception in espionage and other national security matters. Thus, I believe that there is virtually no probability of catching a spy with the use of polygraph screening techniques. I think a careful examination of the Aldrich Ames case will reveal that any shortcomings in the use of the polygraph were not simply errors on the part of the polygraph examiners involved, and would not have been eliminated if FBI instead of CIA polygraphers had conducted these examinations. Instead I believe this is largely a reflection of the complete lack of validity of this methodology. To the extent that we place any confidence in the results of polygraph screening, and as a consequence shortchange traditional security vetting techniques, I think our national security is severely jeopardized.

4. Because of the theoretical considerations involving false positive results and because of anecdotal stories told to me by self-alleged victims of polygraph screening, I believe that the Bureau is routinely falsely accusing job applicants of drug usage or drug dealing. Not only is this result irreparably harming these individuals, but it is likely denying the Bureau access to qualified and capable employees. Although these individuals do not have an inalienable right to Federal Government employment, they do have an inalienable right to just treatment by their government.

5. I believe that claims of cost effectiveness, and the utility of polygraph screening are altogether wrong, reflect misplaced priorities, and lead to activities that are damaging to individuals and this country.

I think the aforementioned problems with polygraph continue to exist within the Bureau and elsewhere for the following reasons:

1. Polygraph research (direction, funding, and evaluation), training, and operational review is controlled by those who practice polygraphy and depend upon it for a living. This is tantamount to having the government's cancer research efforts controlled by the tobacco industry. Independent scientific experts must be (and have not been) consulted to obtain an objective view of polygraphy.

2. Within the Bureau, polygraph examiners who have little or no understanding of the scientific principles underlying their practice, report to mid-level managers who are largely ignorant of polygraph matters. These in turn report to executives, who have real problems for which they seek needed solutions (e.g., the need to protect national security from the danger of espionage, and the need to hire employees with appropriate backgrounds). These executives are left unable to evaluate that polygraph is not a viable solution and do not comprehend that ignorance and mis-information are built into their own command structure.

3. The fact that the human physiology is marvelously wonderful and complex, that polygraph methods have been able to accurately record this physiology for most of this century and beyond, and the fact that computerized acquisition and evaluation of this data is now available, in no way compensates for the vast shortcomings of polygraph applications and questioning formats. State of the art technology utilized on faulty applications amounts to nothing more than garbage in, garbage out.

In conclusion and because of all these considerations, I would recommend that the Bureau administratively abandon polygraph screening, support meaningful research related to criminal-specific testing, and would call upon this body, either through immediate legislation or through further hearings dealing specifically with polygraph matters, to begin the process of producing A Comprehensive Polygraph Protection Act.  Such an act could protect employees and applicants for Federal jobs from the abuses that this Senate has previously protected other Americans from.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to address this body, and I look forward to entertaining any questions you might have. Home Page > Reading Room