The following is an account of my application to the Central Intelligence Agency and subsequent polygraph interrogation.
The Central Intelligence Agency polygraph interrogation is administered as part of a three-day preliminary selection process at various sites in the Washington D.C. area subsequent to a personal interview and written test. The polygraph is only one element in the selection process, but is probably considered the most pivotal. Interrogators from the Office of Security administer the polygraph. Polygraph interrogation takes place in a textbook undecorated sound-proofed room furnished with a table and two chairs, the ubiquitus two-way mirror and of course, the polygraph apparatus. To the extent I have read about the polygraph I think of the "test" as a thirty-minute affair. I never consider it an obstacle and readily participate in the process. I have nothing to hide.
There is nothing unusual about the polygraph hook-up. Finger clamp on the index finger, two plastic tubes loosely connected around the torso: one around the chest, one around the lower abdomen. A blood-pressure arm-cuff is secured too tight for comfort. Once the various devices are connected they remain in place for the duration of the interrogation. The arm cuff is only inflated when the apparatus is on. The interrogation is conducted over two days by two different interrogators. Each interrogation lasts between three-four hours. I'm not told about the second interrogation. The impression the first interrogator gives me is "this is it."
One of the most striking things about the interrogation is my interrogator. He seems two years younger than I, and I am quite young. This would have not been such a big issue were it not that, perhaps to compensate for his youth, my interrogator tries to boost his own accomplishments by making an outrageous claim.
Before administering the polygraph, the interrogator covers the workings of the mechanism in some detail and then goes over the various areas in the personal questionnaire. The interrogator makes great pains to emphasize that the box is infallible and will readily detect deception. He urges over and over not to lie. Then he makes an astounding boast. Wrapping up his spiel he adds a little something about his own acumen: "I have conducted literally thousands of polygraph examinations..." he drones. And on and on. I tune him out. "Literally thousands." It's a boast of such phenomenal magnitude and seems so out of place in the setting of the small interrogation room I'm dumbfounded. I calculate how long it would take to conduct "thousands" of polygraph interrogations. The sum I reach has only one answer: his childish boasting is eroding his credibility.
His overboard presentation is disingenuous and reeks of cheap showmanship. The young interrogator suddenly seems foolish. Bragging about his accomplishments. Urging me, almost threatening me to come clean with him. I dub him Poly Babe. I am becoming increasingly reluctant to trust him as the ordeal drags on.
The interrogation covers areas from the lengthy application materials. The questions break down into roughly three areas: professional background, personal background and criminal background. The professional issues cover matters of loyalty to the United States and previous employment. The personal background questions have a component of questions called lifestyle questions, a euphemism for sexual history.
After the lengthy spiel selling the capabilities of the box, the interrogator calibrates the box. He instructs me how to sit. Not to move. Face straight ahead. Not to turn my head. Not to cough. To take relaxed, measured breaths. But sitting so still without moving at all becomes irritating. And after being instructed not to cough or sneeze, suddenly coughing and sneezing are the only things on my mind. I'm struck by an incongruity. The interrogator boasts about the box's infallibility, yet instructs me to sit rigidly still. Movement affects the results? It makes no sense.
We cover the questions. Have you ever lied to an employer? Have you ever stolen from an employer? Have you been contacted by a foreign intelligence service? Are you currently a member of or associated with a foreign intelligence service? To every yes response, we go into the particulars to eliminate the incident in question. I explain away incongruities in my character and conduct. The interrogator pretends his focus is on getting a good read; that "passing the test" is the focus of the inquisition. Of course, getting the applicant to volunteer wrongdoing is the focus of the interrogation.
After covering the questions, never more than twenty, the interrogator turns the machine on and goes through the questions in random order. The pace is unhurried. Several questions are covered repeatedly. At the end of the read, he removes paper from the box and leaves the room to interpret the results. Before leaving he admonishes me to come clean, not to lie, the same mantra, over and over.
I sit in the room for about twenty minutes. He returns. Looks grave. "You're showing signs of deception in response to some of the questions." He runs through his whole spiel about being honest for what must be the tenth time. But oddly, instead of going back over the questions again we proceed with the next batch of questions: the lifestyle questions.
During this series of questions I really lose it. The interrogation focuses on deviant sexual behavior. I'm unsure what he's fishing for and ask him to clarify. He explains deviant sexual behavior as any sex acts other than what is known as the missionary position. That strikes me as ridiculous and I ask him if he's kidding. Of course, he's not. The interrogator wants to know how many sex partners I have had; how many of them are married; if I have ever contracted sexually transmitted diseases, if so, how often, where, when. Have I ever paid for sex, when, where. Have I ever participated in sm., bondage, bestiality. What sort of positions. You name it, he wants to know.
I get really worked up over this. I'm put on the spot to divulge the most intimate secrets of my own sex life, for the sake of clearing the test. I'm reluctant to discuss anything at all about my sex life and decide it's none of their business. Job or no job. I know many people will disagree with me and decide to submit [to] anything in the name of getting the dream career. It's your choice. If you wish the CIA to have detailed records of every sex act you've ever performed, and the manner in which you performed it, be my guest. Bill Clinton, as the most senior officer in the federal bureaucracy seems to think such standards don't apply to him either. But hey, you go for it.
Another matter arises that should be remembered: for the past hour-and-half in the interrogation room I am badgered with threats of the box's infallibility and sensitivity. Yet, after the very contentious exchange I have with the interrogator, I am so riled up, the subsequent reading must be useless. Nevertheless, the examiner goes through the same routine at the end of the questions, removes the paper, leaves the room for twenty minutes, returns and announces we are having serious problems. The CIA's interpretation of outrage over their none-too-delicate attempt to dig into your sexual history is interpreted entirely as deception. I suppose the box doesn't register rage.
The interrogator tries to work through the questions again. I explain I am uncomfortable discussing details of my personal sex life with a total stranger with the implication the information will be recorded and a matter of record. He assures me everything said in the polygraph interrogation remains within the polygraph room (lie). I attempt to inquire whether the test is valid, since I have become noticeably aggravated. He reassures me it's a normal response and irrelevant to the detection of deception. This is another patent lie. He conveys it so poorly I think I catch him lying. We should both be rigged up to the machine.
After an attempt to secure more information on my sexual history we run through the questions again and do another polygraph read. At the end of the session he removes the paper and leaves the room for the third time. Twenty minutes pass. He returns and says that although we're still having problems we are going to proceed to the final segment of questions: the criminal background questions. I calm down considerably. This is another area that is irrelevant to me. We run through the questions. My answers are all straight no's. It goes quick. We do a read. Same questions, random order. He removes the paper, leaves again. This time the wait seems longer. After about thirty minutes he returns. He's sullen. "We're having a very serious problem." Now what I wonder? "It's obvious you're withholding information on your past history with use of illegal narcotics."
I am utterly stupefied. The entire polygraph experience has turned from surreal to farce to nightmare within an hour. I have lived overseas for over a decade. I have hundreds of foreign relatives and acquaintances. Some of them have lived in communist countries. One person is a registered card-carrying member of the communist party in his country. I had expected the most serious scrutiny would be directed to this area of my life. Instead, that area is covered in fewer than a handful of questions and never revisited. Instead I become embroiled in a very contentious exchange over my sexual past. And I have to admit, I'm utterly unprepared for the entire sexual inquisition and very reluctant to give them one iota. I have no criminal history and nothing to do with drugs. Yet, by the final segment of questions, the entire polygraph interrogation is a hoax. The most complicated area of my life is glanced over, I'm badgered to volunteer intimate details of my sex life, and as if things couldn't get any worse, finally, accused of concealing information on narcotics use.
I'm struck by an acute realization there is no way to dissuade him from his beliefs. A mere two hours ago I almost swaggered into the polygraph interrogation room. Two hours later I'm fatigued, humiliated, outraged, frustrated and now, dumbstruck. And then the badgering over drugs commences. My mind detaches itself. The entire issue is irrelevant to me. I'm attempting to rationalize how the entire process could have gone so wrong.
We do another run with his box, and again he returns alleging I am showing deception. At this point the polygraph is nothing but a bad joke. I look at him as if he's an idiot. My best friends would laugh at the thought of me "lighting a joint", let alone the insinuation I am doing hard drugs. Poly Babe takes it a step further. Wants to know if I'm trafficking. The farce becomes a parody.
It goes nowhere. Now Poly Babe reminds me without a good polygraph there is no employment offer. What can I tell him? At one point I consider manufacturing a story about some pot smoking, then laugh it off as preposterous. Poly Babe leaves.
I'm devastated. My dreams are in shatters. I run through the entire session in my mind, unable to understand how the interrogator could have screwed up so badly.
He returns. Here it comes I think. To my surprise he announces he has spoken to a supervisor about my case. I am being allowed a chance to retest. I'm ecstatic. "Because we want you to pass your polygraph, we are going to go ahead and schedule another polygraph exam tomorrow to see if we can't help you clear the test. You have to understand, this is a rare second chance. We don't do this often. We're doing this because we want to try to work with you. I want you to think very carefully about what has happened here today and reconsider some of the answers you have given."
I return to the waiting area. Other applicants are there, waiting. I'm surprised to hear from their conversations that nearly all of them have been offered "rare" second chances to retake the polygraph the next day. I don't sleep at all that night. By the next morning, I'm exhausted, doubtful and unsure how the entire thing is going to turn out. I tell myself the interrogator screwed up because he was young. Inexperienced. I was upset. The reading was off. Surely today they'll get a good read. They'll figure this out.
The second polygraph interrogation is a farce from the start. The interrogator is quiet and serious. Says little. Explains nothing. He fits the attachments and launches into calibrating with little preparation. The tone of the entire affair is different from the previous day. His attitude seems to be, "You're withholding information. I'm going to get it out of you."
After calibrating the machine something odd happens. He removes the arm cuff, leaves the room and returns with a gigantic rubber ring he fits around my thigh. I've never seen anything like it before. He runs the apparatus again. With the leg cuff inflated my leg goes numb. It gets weirder. He removes the leg cuff, leaves the room and comes back with a tiny little rubber that resembles a donut. He fits the donut onto my thumb and repeats the calibrating routine. I realize he's having a problem getting a good blood pressure read. I ask him about it. He ignores me.
He announces we're ready and launches straight into the narcotics issue. This isn't retaking the test at all: the entire interrogation focuses entirely on the narcotics issue. As far as I'm concerned, the "test" is over before it has even started. But I stick to it for at least two more hours, attempting to get through it and somehow salvage my candidacy.
It's hopeless. The interrogator talks to me as if I'm a drug kingpin awaiting trial. Any attempt I make to direct the interrogation back to the language that was used the previous day about clearing the polygraph is gone. Apparently, the second polygraph isn't about clearing the polygraph at all. The interrogator wants a confession. Over the course of two hours he becomes even more sullen. I become outraged. Struggle not to hurl obscenities at him.
At one point I ask him his name, attempting to ratchet down the hostility. Attempting to salvage my application. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name." His response almost sends me lunging for his throat: "My name is irrelevant. What's relevant is that you start cooperating and telling us about your drug use." I persist. "Look, what do I call you?" It gets more outrageous: "This is irrelevant to answering my questions about your drug use." Nothing. I'm livid. I mean white hot. I've never been treated like this before in my life. A day ago I had considered myself an applicant to a prestigious executive entry-level federal job and now I'm being treated as a drug suspect in an ongoing DEA investigation.
I terminate the "interview." Interrogator Ass does the same song and dance about my application status. My hopes of still securing a job had died two hours ago. But within those two hours, a new sentiment is forged. Where yesterday I was devastated at seeing my dreams in tatters before my eyes, the second interrogation is so patently abusive I start to wonder if I even want to be a part of an organization that treats people with such callous contempt.
It takes some doing for me to actually say it, but once I make up my mind, I go for it. Call off the interrogation. Rip the gadgets off. Screw you. Screw your incompetent little secret society and FUCK your polygraph.
That sums up my polygraph experience. I fretted a good deal about how the polygraph results could have been so completely wrong. Before going into the polygraph I was what you might call a believer. I must have been an ideal candidate for the polygraph since I bought into the institutional myths about its abilities. And yet, the entire polygraph experience was a catastrophe. Quite aside from the assumption of the interrogators I was being deceptive simply because I got worked up over intrusive questions that were far beyond the realm of decency, I am curious how the entire drug issue is brought up. Of all the accusations they could have come up with, they chose the one that was so far off to be almost comical. And I was also curious why the session on the second day had no pretense of being a polygraph session at all. The interrogator demonstrated to me with the rubber cuff routine he was experiencing difficulties getting a proper reading, and assumed such a hostile attitude from the start the entire second day's polygraph was invalid. I was seriously pissed off, especially when it became clear he had no intention of leaving the narcotics issue. His attitude was confess or fail. No amount of arguing with him was going to change it. Yet he persisted with the polygraph farce, in spite of my open hostility.
Months later I learned about Voice Stress Analysis. That inquiry lit a bulb in my memory, and almost a year after my polygraph, I was able to figure out what had happened.
Approximately a month before my three-day trip I got a phone call. It was so brief it was hardly worth remembering. But the call had been noteworthy for one reason. The caller said he was with the Office of Security. He wanted to go over the answers on my questionnaire to make sure there were no mistakes. I said fine. He said he would read the questions to me and asked me to answer with a simple yes or no. We ran through the questions. He thanked me for my cooperation and that was that. The whole call lasted no more than seven minutes. Why was it relevant almost a year later? It suddenly struck me that that one call had gone rather smoothly except for one question. And only one question. The caller had garbled it. Instead of responding immediately, I hesitated and asked him to repeat the question. He did so. I replied no and thought no more of it.
Until I came across information on Voice Stress Analysis. According to the literature, VSA can be administered by telephone. I got to thinking. If I were asked over the phone, "Have you ever tried or used illegal narcotics at any time?" and my response appeared hesitant, would that be enough to focus on that singular issue while administering a polygraph in which the interrogator is having an extremely difficult time interpreting his results?
I have no conclusive answer. Nothing in literature I have read indicates the CIA administers a surreptitious VSA as part of its screening process. But based on my personal experiences I am virtually certain a surreptitious VSA was administered, I must emphasize, without my knowledge, and that assumptions were made based on the VSA during subsequent polygraph testing.
VSA as a tool for truth telling is even more disreputable than the polygraph. Even the American Polygraph Association distances itself from VSA.
This is but one of many problems with the CIA polygraph process. The most troubling aspect of the polygraph interrogation is the sexual inquisition. And while applicants must fill out ponderous and lengthy questionnaires going into painstaking detail on their lives and backgrounds, the sexual inquisition is merely alluded to in one sentence. It's almost glanced over. Added as some sort of afterthought. Until they get you in that room. It is the one area where the applicant is ambushed and then required to make the fullest disclosures of the most intimate nature. Allegedly for the sake of national security.
After observing the antics of the Clinton White House for eight years, I am convinced the CIA polygraph is without any validity. Mere GS-7 applicants must explain away the most intimate details of their sex lives while the commander in chief plays goose the cigar with young female assistants in the Oval Office. It's a double standard that is utterly unpalatable to me. I will never subject myself to another polygraph again. And consider anyone who does a fool and a boob. The humiliation you will experience comes at your own expense.
The Office of Security uses the polygraph to catch criminals. Not weed out unfit applicants. When a certain percentage of applicants are rejected for being unable to pass their polygraphs, the Office of Security is unable to point to any successes. It can merely claim to have protected the organization from foreign agent penetration. But with the emphasis on catching criminals, they can uphold a record. "See? This box works. We get drug confessions. Rape confessions. Theft confessions." The cases they pass along to the FBI at least create a paper trail that substantiates the "validity" of their methodology and bolsters institutional faith in the box. It's all a scam.
I don't see the box disappearing anytime soon. As a scientific tool, it is without any validity. But as an interrogation tool that forces coerced statements from fearful subjects, it works wonders. Maybe they can't rig electrodes to your testicles, but they sure as hell can rig you up with other gadgets that operate on other human fears. Small wonder then that the agency's inept security apparatus swears by it. Instilling fear by suggestion is after all their specialty.
It is a tragic irony that it is considered detrimental to the security of the United States if even one mole can penetrate an intelligence organization, while it is considered part of doing business when hundreds of highly motivated and skilled applicants are summarily written off as unfortunate losses simply because of the ineptitude of interrogators. And all the while Aldrich Ames sits in his cell laughing.
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