Note: this statement originally appeared on StopPolygraph.com. "Brad Balfour" is a pseudonym.
Here is a rather lengthy summary of the negative experiences I have had with polygraphs in federal law enforcement. Be forewarned that the level of detail may appear to be excessive. This is intentional. I wanted to do my best to convey as much about the actual polygraph experience as possible, and focus less on what I did after the fact to contest the results. This way, if you do choose to pursue employment in federal law enforcement, at least you will know what to expect.
My first polygraph experience was during the hiring process for the position of Special Agent with the United States Secret Service. At the conclusion of my panel interview, one of the recruiters spoke with me in private. "You have to realize that you are barely a year out of college and have a lot less experience than many of the other applicants. We have a lot of accountants and lawyers applying for this position. So don't be disappointed if you don't get selected. Just re-apply when you get some more experience." I thanked the recruiter for her time, and headed on out. When I got home, there was a message on my answering machine. The caller identified himself as a Special Agent Recruiter with the Secret Service, and told me to call him, or page him if it was after hours. It was late, so I paged. I was surprised when he told me that I was a top candidate for the position, and that [they] were worried about the FBI or another agency "snapping [me] up" before they could hire me. From what I have read on various polygraph sites, it seems that the USSS has told almost all applicants who later were disqualified by the polygraph that they were among the most qualified applicants. On the other hand, it's quite possible that they say this to everyone who walks through the door. After he was finished stroking my ego, the agent continued to tell me that as soon as headquarters processed my documents I would be contacted again so that a polygraph test could be scheduled. A few days later, yet another Special Agent called to schedule my polygraph exam for the following week.
Although the drive to the field office normally took about 90 minutes, I allowed myself double that time for the trip. Due to the severe traffic that morning, I arrived at the location with only twenty minutes to spare. Still, it was for situations like this that I allotted the extra time. At last, I saw the parking lot. To my dismay, the entrance to the lot was blocked. The parking lot was filled with vendors selling Christmas trees and pine wreaths. Frantically, I navigated the mass of one-way streets in an attempt to find parking. The first three garages I found were full. Finally, I found a garage that had parking. The only problem was that I was now one minute late, and the office was like 7 blocks away. Dress shoes and all, I took off at a sprinter's pace. Covered in sweat, I ran into the office and informed the receptionist of my presence. A person sitting on a couch in the reception area overheard, and said that someone had already come out and called my name. Anxiously, I took a seat and tried my best to calm down. I took deep breaths as the sweat began to cool.
Ten minutes later, the door opened. A man with dark eyes and a darker suit emerged and called my name. I rose to offer my sincere apologies and my hand. He made a slight acknowledgement and ushered me inside. For the purposes of this narrative, we will refer to him as "Special Agent G." At the end of the long corridor was a small room that resembled an interrogation room on the television show NYPD Blue--right down to the one-way mirror on the wall. About the only difference was that this room was cleaner and more modern. There was one large chair next to the polygraph equipment, and two smaller office chairs. On the table was an early model Compaq laptop computer that was connected to the polygraph apparatus and a printer. Special Agent G motioned me toward one of the two smaller chairs, and proceeded to seat himself in the other. He then presented me with a clipboard that held several pieces of paper. He explained as I read.
The first sheet was a "permission slip" of sorts. It basically said that I was choosing to take the polygraph voluntarily. I signed. I turned the page to find a list of my Miranda rights. "This is a list of your rights... Initial after each one," lectured Special Agent G. For a second, I was stunned... After all, I was a job applicant--not a criminal suspect. Nonetheless, I began to scratch my initials down next to "You have a right to remain silent..., " and so on. The next page dealt with giving the Secret Service permission to record the interview. There were check boxes for audio and video recording options. Audio was circled... I initialed once more. "There will be no one watching from behind the mirror today," he informed. The final sheet was another permission slip. This one authorized the Secret Service to prosecute me criminally for any admissions that I made before, during, or after the polygraph. Agent G explained that this was rarely done, but the agency did occasionally arrest job applicants for admissions they made during the polygraph when there were extreme circumstances involved. In particular, he told of one applicant that was arrested for multiple rapes at the conclusion of his polygraph exam. Once again, I signed. With the paperwork complete, Agent G snapped a tape into the tape recorder and turned it on.
Special Agent G began our conversation by asking a number of standard job interview questions. He asked what things were most important to me in life. He also asked quite a few questions about my upbringing (only child, raised by a single working mom). Finally, he began to go over all the questions that would be asked later when the polygraph was hooked up. The questions covered topics such as foreign contacts, criminal acts, drug use and falsifications on the written application. The only question came as a real surprise was when he asked if I had ever had sexual intercourse with a farm animal. Lastly, Agent G took out a piece of computer paper. On the paper, he wrote the numbers 1, 2 and 3 in a vertical line. He left a large space, and then wrote the number 5. He then handed me his pen, and instructed me to write the number "4" in the blank space. I did as I was told. "I'm going to use this to calibrate the machine," he told me. When I ask you if you wrote the number 4, I want you to say "no." "O.K.," I replied.
Agent G then invited me to have a seat in the large chair next to the table with the apparatus on it. He taped the piece of paper with the numbers on it on the wall in front of me. He started the machine and began. "Did you write the number one?," he queried. "No," I replied. "Did you write the number two?" "No." He continued with the other numbers. I replied with a "no" to each. After the number 5, he stopped the machine and took a moment to score the tests. After he was done reading, he spoke. "You are what we call an anticipatory liar," he said. He then proceeded to explain how the stress building up before my lying was an obvious giveaway. He said that I showed reactions not during the lie, but before it. I nodded my head in purported agreement.
For the next two hours, Agent G ran through two series of questions while I was hooked up to the polygraph. The first series of questions related to personal integrity issues. The topics in question included commission of crimes, cheating in school, and sexual misconduct. After a short break, during which he followed me upstairs to the water fountain, we sat down again. The second series of questions centered on illegal drug usage and other issues. Several times during both series, the agent became irate with how I was breathing, or told me to stop "spacing out." After what felt like an eternity, Agent G finally told me that the test was over. While the results were printing, he came around the table and removed the sensors. I took the opportunity to stretch out and shake the blood back into my right arm. Agent G then disappeared into the door leading into the room behind the mirror.
Some 15 minutes later, Agent G returned from the back room with a stern look on his face. He told me, "Some issues have come up, and we have to talk... why don't you have a seat?" I did as I was told, sitting once again in the small office chair that I occupied during the pre-test interview. He sat in the other chair, and rolled it toward me. "The floors in here are real slippery... Why don't you push the chair over into the corner so you don't keep sliding around." I though for a second... I sat in that same chair during the pre-test interview... I had no problem with it slipping around then... Furthermore, he was sitting in the identical chair. What was going to keep his seat in place? Maybe all agents received some special training in chair balancing at FLETC? Doubtful. As I rolled the back of my chair into the corner, I realized instantly what his plan was. He wanted to get in my face... up close and personal. With every inch I rolled backwards, he came forward. When my chair came to rest up against the wall, he leaned forward and began to speak. "The other examiner and I have both blindly scored the charts. Both of us agree that you are being deceptive regarding the area of illegal drug use..." For a second, I was shocked. I had been completely honest with him during all phases of the interview. Then, I calmed down. I figured that it must be difficult for them to believe that someone from my generation never even tried smoking pot. Or, maybe this is some kind of test to see how applicants handle stress. I did remember some questions during the panel interview regarding if I had ever struck anyone in anger, or at what point (if at all) a violent response was warranted after hearing numerous times about a friend or co-worker telling lies about you behind your back. I calmly looked him right in the eyes and listened to what he had to say.
While I continued to fathom where he was coming from, Agent G began to take an offensive posture. "For all I know, the reason you were late is because you were downstairs in the car, sniffing lines of coke to get up the composure to come up here," he proclaimed. "WHAT? If that's what you believe, why don't you give me a drug test? "I countered. "BECAUSE..." he shot back. "That's not the way we do things around here. The Secret Service believes in the polygraph... and I believe in the polygraph... You're being DECEPTIVE..." I was awestruck. Before I could begin to refute his allegations some more, Agent G spoke once again.
"I know how it was.... You... A bunch of your friends... Riding around in a car... You've had a few beers and inhibitions are low.... Next thing you know, somebody pulls out a joint... You say 'What the fuck...' And give it a try.... That's how it was, am I right?" I was shocked. Not only was his tone of voice raised, but also now he was using profanity. "Whatever... I said..." "As matter of fact," I continued... Something like that did happen to me once..." "But... I didn't take the joint... I rolled down the window and stuck my head outside of the car..." Afterwards, the person with the joint and I had serious words."
"You ever been out drinking... And find out the next day stuff you did later... Like throwing up all over a bar... Did anyone ever tell you the next day that you smoked pot with them?" "As matter of fact..." I told him. I had people pull that with me all the time... "Hey... you smoked some weed with us last night... Why don't you do it with us again..." "Nice try...," I always replied. This was a favorite tactic of some clowns I knew in high school that could never understand my lack of curiosity about drugs.
After he realized that he wasn't getting anywhere with his attacks, he made an about face. "I came on this job during the 1970s..." He began. I had my lapse at one time... Everyone does... Just put it on the table so I can help you out... We're not looking for any choir boys here." What I really wanted to say at this point was "well, guess you're just a weaker person that I am... if you want to deny me because I never used illegal drugs then do it." "Come on... you grew up all alone... The only child of a single working mother... That house was empty a lot... I'm sure headquarters would understand... What was it? Cocaine? One time?" I'm sure your mother would understand. At this point, I was irate. He was now bringing my family into things, and implying that drug use was to be expected of those who grew up without a father. I gritted my teeth and tried to stay calm. "No matter what agency you apply to, you will never find one with an atmosphere like were share here..." The level of teamwork... The camaraderie... Not in the bureau... Not anywhere.
"All the time, a guy walks in here... The second I meet him, I can tell... The guy's a scumbag... There's no way I'm going to let him get on to my job..." "You on, on the other hand, are the kind of guy I'd like to see get this job. Degree from a top school... Computer experience... You're the kind of guy I want to see on this job. You just have to tell me what it was so I can help you." "At no time have I used illegal drugs how many more times do you want to hear the answer to the same question?" I responded. He finally relented and ceased the accusatory tone. As I was getting up to leave, he asked if I had any problem with him as my polygrapher, or if I thought he was biased against me, etc. For some reason that I can still not figure out, I told him no. I guess I just wanted to get out of there.
I walked out of the room and bolted straight for the door. On my way down the hall, I noticed my keys were not in my pocket. I turned to head back toward the interview room to retrieve them. I saw Agent G standing there in the hallway. I'm sure that he thought I had changed my mind and was returning to confess. Suddenly, I realized that I had left my keys with the parking attendant. I turned back around and headed out of the building, filled with the worst anger I have ever experienced.
At this point, I was still trying to figure out what could have happened. I spoke with a friend's father, who was a retired detective. When I told him the story, he told me not to worry about it, that it just seemed like the agent was "shaking [my] tree," to be sure that I wasn't "holding out." I hoped he was right. Approximately three weeks after the experience, still no rejection letter had appeared in my mailbox. I decided to call one of the recruiters to inquire about my status. "I saw an email about you a couple of days ago. It said that you are disqualified, and that you will be receiving a rejection letter," he informed. "Is there any appeal process?" I inquired. "Can I request a re-test?" "Yes," he replied... "Send a letter to the SAC of our office." A week or so later, I sent a letter to the SAC certified mail, contesting the polygraph results and communicating my wishes for a re-test. Although I know the letter was received (I got the return receipt card back), I received no contact from the SAC or anyone from the Secret Service for over one year. A little more than a year later, I received a copy of that letter many of you have seen. Basically, it states that they found more qualified candidates than me, and that I should have felt honored that I was even considered for the position.
By far, the worst part of all of this is that I put my backup plan (applying to graduate schools for the following year) too far to the back burner. I chose to spend my time the previous summer studying for the TEA exam instead of the LSAT. Once I failed the polygraph, I had only a few days before the late deadline to register and study for the exam. Although I was always a good standardized test taker, I performed far below my abilities on the LSAT due to lack of preparation. The poor LSAT really limited my options the following year. Despite not being accepted by any of the schools I really wished to attend, I settled on a lesser school and enrolled.
During my first year of graduate school, I applied for an internship with the FBI. I was selected for the position, and given a conditional offer of employment. Soon after the acceptance letter arrived, I returned home to find a message from a polygrapher on my machine. I viewed his call with ambivalence. My previous polygraph exam had been the worst experience of my life to date. Yet, I felt that a second polygraph would give me a chance to clear my name. The next day, I returned the polygrapher's call. We chatted for a while. He asked if I had taken a polygraph exam before. I replied that I had, and informed him briefly of my previous experience. "Well, I hope we wont repeat that bad experience..." Unlike the Secret Service polygrapher, his FBI counterpart actually seemed like a human being. We scheduled the exam for later in the week.
This time, I showed up at the exam site over an hour early. An FBI employee went over my application to be sure everything was correct. She then requested the names and numbers of all credit cards in my possession. Lastly, she presented me with a specimen cup for a drug test, and led me toward the bathroom. I returned with the cup, having done as I was told. I was then shown to a couch, because the polygrapher was running late. After an hour or so, I was shown into the polygraph room. Upon entering the room, the first fixture I noticed was that there was an extra chair wedged in the corner at a 45-degree angle. I made a mental note that I would walk out immediately if ever requested to sit in that chair. The polygrapher greeted me and we sat down. First, we had a lengthy discussion about the horrible experience I had with Secret Service. He then went over the list of questions, which was very similar to the ones used by the Secret Service. He did not, however, ask if I had ever had sex with any farm animals.
The actual test phase went on much the same was the one with the Secret Service, minus the water break. At the conclusion of the exam, I was once again told that I was deceptive for illegal drug use, and for sale of illegal drugs. The results, however, were within "a pen's width" of being termed "inconclusive." Once again, I was accused of a crime I did not commit. The only difference this time is that this time I was "deceptive" regarding the question on selling drugs as well as the question on using them.
We then had a discussion about the validity of the polygraph. I told him about the websites regarding polygraph abuse in law enforcement employment processes. Surprisingly, he did not take the arrogant "the polygraph is infallible" attitude that many polygraphers do. All he said was that "In criminal cases, where we are trying to find out if someone was involved in a crime or not, the polygraph is highly accurate." Shockingly, I got the feeling that he making a tacit implication that he knew that the polygraph was inaccurate in pre-employment situations. He then went on to inform me that the FBI ran into tremendous problems when polygraphing candidates for employment in low-level clerical positions at the new fingerprint data facility in West Virginia. He explained that nearly half of the persons polygraphed were found to be deceptive with questions pertaining to "unauthorized foreign contacts." Supposedly, this was due to the low level of sophistication in the area. He said that many of the persons polygraphed were unsure of the definition of "foreign," which is what led to a large number of false positives. He then went on to say that the Bureau's position is that no person has a right to FBI employment, and that he did not feel that the legal arguments against pre-employment polygraph testing were valid. I countered by saying that although people may not have a right to government employment; they do have a right to be treated with due process in any federal government employment process. I then told him that I hoped that the court system would one day get to determine whose argument is more persuasive.
He then told me that I could appeal the results, and that retests were sometimes given. "I doubt I'll even request one," I replied. "First one said I was a drug user. Second one made me out as a user and dealer. The way my luck has been going, the third one is going to say that I am the chief of the Medellin drug cartel. I think I'll quit while I'm ahead." I thanked him for at least treating me with professionalism and respect and walked out the door.
I returned home from Christmas break to find an envelope from the FBI in my mailbox. I opened it to find a letter not on official letterhead, but on a photocopy of it. It would seem that the FBI feels that those who fail polygraphs are of so little worth that not even a piece of letter stock should be wasted in corresponding with them. I was shocked to find that the letter read that I was disqualified for "withholding information about my drug usage [until the post-test interview]." Only as an aside was it mentioned that "[my] test results were not within acceptable parameters." The letter was written up as if a confession had taken place. I wrote a letter denying the confession, but never mailed it. A number of people had told me to get a lawyer before sending anything now that there was a false confession in my record.
To this date, I have yet to take any action regarding this letter. Due to the tremendous workload my first year of graduate school, I never got around to getting the letter dealt with properly. By the time I had gotten the time to deal with it, I eventually blocked this whole ordeal far in the back of my mind, because thinking about it makes me so totally irate.
For those of you who still wish to pursue careers in law enforcement after hearing stories like the ones on this web page and others, at least take this advice.
Here are several of the deductions that I made from my polygraph experience.
Best of luck...
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