Note: this statement originally appeared on NoPolygraph.com. For further reading about Mark Mallah's polygraph experience, see his 24 July 2001 letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
Mark Mallah was an FBI Special Agent from 1987 to 1996. Early in 1995, a routine polygraph screening examination incorrectly deemed him "deceptive" on the issue of unauthorized foreign contacts and triggered a nearly two year investigation of him. The following is his account and commentary:
In January 1995, the FBI asked me and the other agents in the Foreign Counterintelligence division to take a polygraph test. It was to be a routine national security screening to ensure that no one was supplying information to foreign intelligence services. When the test ended and the examiner surveyed my charts, he thought they indicated "deception" on unauthorized contact with foreign officials. He questioned me about it, and I told him that I had never had any unauthorized contacts, not even close. The charts would be reviewed by headquarters, he advised, but he believed they would judge them "deceptive."
About two weeks later, the FBI instructed me to report to Washington, DC for additional polygraph testing. At this point, I had no idea of the scale of the investigation unfolding. Two consecutive days of polygraph examinations and lengthy interrogations ensued. The examiner erroneously insisted that I was deceptive on unauthorized foreign contacts and even on other unrelated matters. The FBI placed me on administrative leave with pay, pending further investigation.
A major investigation followed"major" in the sense that it was a top priority case commanding extensive resources. Believing the FBI would objectively review the facts and have no choice but to exonerate me, I cooperated eagerly. After a full day of polygraphs, interrogations, and a three hour train ride home, FBI Agents appeared at our home that same night and asked for our consent to search it, which my wife and I provided. This unleashed a search team of about seven agents, many in raid jackets. The search lasted about three hours and ended well after midnight. I allowed the FBI to take detailed financial records, appointment books, personal calendars, daily "to-do" lists, my innermost thoughts expressed in personal diaries, personal correspondences, and numerous other items. Following the search and for about two months afterward, I was under surveillance twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. For at least a week during that time, a small airplane circled above our home every morning, then buzzed above me wherever I went.
The FBI interviewed numerous friends, acquaintances, former roommates, colleagues, and my family. The Bureau accused one friend of being an accomplice and gave him a polygraph test, which he "passed". They showed up unannounced and surprised my wife at her place of work, asking to interview her right then and there. She agreed to be interviewed later. During her interview, the FBI asked her to take a polygraph, which she declined, since she did not trust the device. The FBI asked both of my brothers to take a polygraph test. One agreed, and he "passed." An Agent told one of my friends that there was "significant evidence" against me. This same agent told my brother he was certain that I was guilty.
Five months into the investigation, I returned to work as a Special Agent, again entrusted with a "top secret" clearance, a gun, and a badge. The reinstatement seemed to mark the end of the investigation, and my vindication, but it did not. As soon as I returned, the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) for Counterintelligence told me that the foreign contacts issue was still "unresolved." "Unresolved" despite the FBI having had unlimited access to every aspect of my personal and professional life for the prior five months.
After my reinstatement, I inquired regularly into the status of the investigation, i.e. when it would finally end. In response, FBI Headquarters wrote to me in October 1995, the investigation now eight months old. They stated that I was "the subject of a security reinvestigation involving [my] inability to resolve issues relating to [my] associations with foreign nationals as well as [my] susceptibility to coercion as a result of [my] concealment of these matters." I answered that my being entrusted with a "top secret" clearance belied their conclusions. How could I hold a "top secret" clearance and at the same time be "susceptible to coercion" as a result of concealing such serious matters? I also noted that after eight months of investigation, the FBI had yet to produce one speck of information as to just exactly who these foreign nationals were that they kept citing, what information I had supposedly compromised, when I had supposedly compromised it, and in what manner I had supposedly done so. Judging from their letter, the FBI sought to impose on me the burden of disproving their accusations, details about which they never provided.
No specifics were ever provided, as they were non-existent in the first place. The investigation continued, and I resumed my inquiries. After inching through various stages of the bureaucracy, it concluded in September 1996, 20 to 21 months after it began. The final outcome was a letter of censure and a two week suspension for a trivial administrative issue and a minor detail from my FBI employment application. Most significantly, the letter of censure was silent about unauthorized contacts with foreign officials, the national security issue which launched the investigation and was its raison dÍtra. Investigators produced of course zero corroboration for any issue which the polygraph deemed me "deceptive."
Shortly after the investigation, I voluntarily resigned from the FBI with a clean record. If I were to re-apply for a position with the FBI in the future, I would receive a positive recommendation for reinstatement, the most favorable status possible.
A Disturbing Experience
The experience was highly disturbing on a personal level for all the obvious reasons- it was invasive, my reputation was under constant assault, my career completely undermined, my integrity placed under suspicion, and I was definitively accused of sins which run completely against my values. This was, to say the least, a stressful and challenging odyssey.
Perhaps even more disturbing are the larger implications. Nothing more than unsubstantiated polygraph charts launched a major investigation which squandered a vast amount of resources. I estimate that the FBI spent far in excess of $1 million dollars on the case. This would be an acceptable price of protecting national security if the polygraph had a history of accuracy and success, and my case was just an unfortunate exception. But in all its history, the polygraph has not detected one single spy. Ever. It is batting .000. Worse than that, it lulled the intelligence community into a false sense of security in the Aldrich Ames case, a CIA employee ultimately convicted of espionage. He "passed" the polygraph, and continued spying thereafter.
With the polygraphs dismal record, with the entire weight of outside scientific expertise convinced that polygraph screening does not work and is prone to accusing innocent people, with nothing more than self-serving theory behind it, the FBI, its Polygraph Unit, and other government practitioners should be held accountable to Congress for "uses and abuses of the lie detector," to quote the subtitle of Dr. David Lykkens book, A Tremor in the Blood. I found this lack of accountability, this freedom to level unsubstantiated charges and instigate a furious accusatory process without having to answer for the results, both irresponsible and chilling. My experience is not unique. Other individuals within the FBI and in the intelligence community have had their lives needlessly rocked by the whimsical dance of the polygraphs pens, not to mention the dozens of unsuspecting applicants whose aspirations are ambushed by the machine. More are certain to come.
The Polygraph and the Alternatives
The polygraphs susceptibility to error is well established by scientific research. Its recordings do not measure truth or deception. They measure fluctuations in blood pressure, respiration, and sweat response. Period. The examiner then interprets those fluctuations in an attempt to infer truth or deception. Since no physiological pattern is known to be unique to deception, but could also represent anger, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, and other emotional states, the interpretations and inferences of the examiner are notoriously prone to error. Entrusting it with the protection of our national security is delusional.
Sound and objective investigation is the best way to safeguard against the risk of espionage. Spies and others who pose security risks are generally not stable, well-adjusted people. They are troubled and leave tracks. Many desire more money and a grander lifestyle than their salary allows, such as Aldrich Ames, owner of a $540,000 home purchased with cash, and a large drinking problem. They might have a need not only for money but to feed their ego, such as John Walker. Even those supposedly in it for ideology get paid. Asset checks, credit checks, reference checks, periodic interviews of associates and friends, good source development, and other investigative techniques are far more trustworthy indicators of a security risk than a polygraph machine.
Whether it is screening applicants or screening employees, the polygraph is a failure. I suspect that its days as a screening tool are deservedly near an end. If the experience I endured leads to its elimination as a screening device, then I will have considered it all worthwhile.
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