I was formerly employed with a government defense contractor in California. Due to the nature of the work, one of my supervisors initiated a security clearance application on my behalf in mid-1999 with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The clearance process began by my completing a lengthy security form. One of the questions on this form is past illegal drug history. I answered truthfully by indicating a one-time experience smoking marijuana after my father died of cancer, a few months before completing the form. I explained on the form that I had thought, albeit foolishly, that the marijuana might help with the extreme grief I was feeling. Admittedly, marijuana is hardly a cure for grief, but as far as drugs go, I knew it was nowhere as serious as cocaine and the like. I didn't think it was a big deal, and had no problem admitting to it, particularly since one individual at work had confided to me he smoked marijuana regularly in high school and indicated so on his security form.
Some months after submitting the form, I was told that the CIA wanted me to submit to a polygraph to verify the veracity of my stated drug history. As I was truthful on the form, I voluntarily consented to the polygraph. I reasoned that since I was hiding nothing, the polygraph should be uneventful and pass without incident. The day the polygraph was administered, one of the most traumatic days of my life, I discovered very painfully how erroneous my reasoning was.
My visit to the polygraph office began with the examiner explaining security clearances and the background investigation process, while establishing a tone of dominance in the conversation. Gradually, he steered the topic towards illicit drug use and asked that I recount the events leading to my use of marijuana following my father's death.
I told the examiner everything about my father's predicament, including the suddenness of his cancer, his rapid physical deterioration, his helplessness, his physical pain, and ultimately his death not even four months after being diagnosed. I told the examiner that the night he died was particularly difficult and I thought the marijuana might assuage the emotion. I admitted to him that the logic behind this reasoning was certainly flawed, but was clear in saying that I was never a habitual user, and that this was my one and only experience with illegal drugs. He paused for a moment. Then in a mindless, arrogant tone, the examiner rehashed to me at length all of my father's ailments which I had just enumerated. The examiner awoke a sadness in me I had not felt since the night my father died. It was as if he had just passed away all over again. The emotion was too much for me to bear, and I broke down and cried like a child in front of him. I asked for a glass of water, which he grudgingly got for me. He quickly returned the subject to discussing my marijuana use that night as well as establishing a set of polygraph questions.
He said that in addition to the drug issue, he would be asking me other unrelated questions to see what kind of person I am. Such other questions included whether I had ever betrayed a friend and whether I had ever cheated on tests in school. As far as outright betraying a friend, nothing came to mind so I told him I hadn't. Of course, there have been times when friends have been disappointed and angry with me; however, "betrayal" is a very strong word and I couldn't think of a corresponding situation in my life. As for cheating on tests, the only time I had done so was in the fourth grade, which I mentioned.
I wondered to myself though, what bearing these matters should have on this polygraph test? What if I had cheated and betrayed my way through elementary, middle, and high school, and then during my college and graduate school years? That wouldn't have any bearing on whether I had smoked marijuana once or not, which is what I was taking the polygraph for in the first place. I found all this confusing, but assumed the examiner knew what he was doing and hoped this was all part of a well thought, scientific method that was just beyond me. After first discussing these peripheral questions, we came to the drug question. This most salient question was whether I had used marijuana more than five times, the truthful answer being negative since I had only used marijuana once.
Once all the questions were outlined, he asked if I needed to go to the restroom, which I did; apparently, this could affect readings. Upon returning, he fastened the various polygraph appendages to my body. All of these were benign with the notable exception of the blood pressure cuff strapped around my arm with excessive tightness. I felt extreme discomfort immediately as the artery feeding blood to my arm was being choked. No medical practitioner has ever fastened a blood pressure cuff on my arm so tightly. I informed the examiner that the strap was much too tight and requested that it be loosened. He sternly replied that a very accurate measurement of blood pressure was necessary. Therefore, loosening the cuff was unacceptable. I retorted with my mounting feeling of pain, to which he most assertively repeated his earlier denial. Feeling intimidated, I became quiet. As the pain in my arm grew even worse, I noticed that the color of my hand was becoming indistinguishable from the purple stone on my college ring. I brought up the issue once more, and the examiner, apparently annoyed, moved the strap from my arm to my calf. Though it was a great relief physically, I was becoming more unsettled by his demeanor.
At this point, the examination had not yet even begun and there were already elements that hinted of a sham. If blood pressure is such a critical measurement of this test, wouldn't an examiner know how to appropriately affix a cuff without causing pain? If the cuff had to be on my arm for reasons of accuracy, why did he then move it to my calf? Would this affect the test? Should I have just let him keep in on my arm and dealt with the pain? Would the pain affect the test? Would this pain's effect be comparable to that of needing to go to the bathroom? And why was the examiner being so bullheaded in general? He had even succeeded in bringing me to tears. All these elements engendered a feeling of anxiety in me, as though I were walking into a trap. Even at the time, I was aware that the polygraph gauged physiological signals, and that anxiety would likely "not look good." So I tried to just forget about it all and go with the flow. Again, I thought that he must know what he's doing, and that this was all part of established, valid scientific practice. After all, this was occurring within the highest levels of the US Government.
Just before beginning the testing procedure, he instructed me not to take any deep breaths. I immediately had difficulty complying since I was already tense from the previous exchange about the blood pressure cuff, and actually needed to take deep breaths. I dared not tell him this for fear of angering him even further. Therefore, I forced myself not to breathe-in deeply. He posed a few preliminary questions including where I lived and the day of the week it was. Soon after the beginning of questioning, he criticized the shallowness of my breathing with an air of being fed up with me. In an annoyed tone, he then told me to breathe normally, which confused me given his initial breathing instructions. This episode, combined with the earlier one about the cuff, left me so nervous that I even incorrectly stated the day of the week it was during questioning. He was upset by this mistake. Even though I apologized profusely to assuage the tension, I felt no better or calmer.
I was becoming increasingly concerned about the integrity of the whole polygraph process. Apparently, I could not take any deep breaths; otherwise, something bad would happen. Then there was the blood pressure cuff issue, which I was trying to forget about. It seemed as though I could not follow any of his instructions to his satisfaction. All my earnest attempts were met with failure and intimidation. I had told the examiner the complete truth about my drug use, but yet I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. Why did he make me feel this way? Again, I knew being nervous was not in my best interest. I feared that I would "look like I'm lying." Why was getting through this polygraph proving so difficult, especially if I went in telling the truth? When the preliminaries were completed, he cycled through the actual test questions several times. The key question was whether I had used marijuana more than five times.
After the test ended, the examiner rose from his chair and angrily shouted that the test results could not have looked any worse than they were. I was indescribably shocked and disappointed upon hearing this. As I was sitting in the polygraph chair in utter disbelief, the examiner continued with a loud, endless tirade about how I have been lying and that I should confess to other times I had used drugs. I answered that there were no such other times, and if there were, I would have told him about it in the first place. He then said something to the effect of "No, I know you wouldn't tell me." My jaw dropped in indignation as he made me feel like a criminal in a police investigation. The examiner's manner of speaking to me smacked of a police drama-show on TV. Our exchanges could have well been used in a scene for NYPD Blue.
The examiner, sitting in his office chair, wheeling right and left, raising his arms in the air, then leaning his forearms on his knees and crossing his fingers, gazing at me gravely, would say that I had lied so blatantly that when they go out and interview my friends and ask about drugs, my friends would "give [me] up." I responded quickly by inviting him to interview everyone he wanted to talk to and that they would tell him I don't use drugs. I was actually hoping, naively so, that they would go out and interview my close friends, as I desperately wanted to prove my innocence and integrity. He appeared unsatisfied by my answer. He continued by conjecturing that since I had no family at all in California, I was feeling devastatingly lonely and used drugs to mollify my solitude. That was as accurate as guessing the shape of the Earth to be flat. He made several more shot-in-the-dark type attempts at trying to get me to say I used drugs. I denied all his allegations swiftly and passionately. I wanted to dispel his conviction that I had used drugs other times, since getting my clearance depended on it, and keeping my job depended on getting the clearance. Yet, I knew there was no way of physically proving I had used drugs only once. All I had was a "deceptive polygraph result" and an irate examiner shouting in my face. It was an excruciating situation for me.
By this point, without my realizing it at the time, it was already a lost cause. I now know I was in the "post-test interrogation" phase where the examiner built a crescendo of hostility to browbeat me into submission. In fact, this is the most critical moment as an examiner is often rated according to the number of exacted confessions. A deceptive polygraph chart followed by no damaging admission on the part of the subject is counted as a failure for the examiner. Therefore, the examiner is strongly motivated to pound unmercifully until something incriminating is finally uttered, whether the admission be factual or not. Had I known this then, I would have never tried for so long to disabuse the examiner of his delusions. My attempts were completely pointless. He continued to insist that if I only confessed to other drug use, this would all be over. Sitting in that chair enduring his abuse, I actually wished I had done more drugs just so I could give him what he wanted and end the madness. It was very tempting to concoct some fictitious drug use, but I did not succumb.
He began to realize that his attempts at exacting a confession out of me were fruitless. For his last-ditch effort, he shook his head and made comments suggesting that my "story" about using marijuana after my father dying was ridiculous. I was extraordinarily upset hearing such characterizations. The circumstances arising from my father's death were being mocked and I was being accused wrongly of dishonesty. I felt insulted beyond words. The examiner was adamant in his fallacious convictions and I was physically drained from spending several hours there already. I wondered to myself what could I have possibly done to deserve this? I had told the examiner everything. If they wanted to chastise me for using marijuana once, then so be it. But how could I wind up in so much trouble for being brutally honest? (I have realized since, it was nothing more than idiotic honesty on my part.) Finally, I became exasperated and asked to leave, as the situation was hopelessly deadlocked. However, the examiner continued to argue ominously with me for a good while longer, and then just left the room. I was hoping to be released, but dared not leave the room until being told I could, as I was petrified by this stage.
After ten or fifteen minutes elapsing (with the polygraph sensors still attached), a different man walked into the room, introduced himself as the head polygraph examiner, and removed the sensors. I hoped he would just tell me I could leave. Instead, he firmly asserted "You're being deceptive and untruthful," which I answered was not the case, which in turn fueled the same back and forth arguing as with the first examiner. It became apparent that the first examiner's lead was being followed, only with a different face. He indicated that the polygraph waveforms looked as though I "shot-up last night" with some drug, adding that my wearing a long sleeve shirt made him suspicious. I reacted by starting to unbutton my sleeves to show him the puncture-free skin on my arms, but he told me stop before I could pull-up my sleeves. Why did he ask me to stop? Wouldn't my showing him the unblemished skin of my arms at least partially demonstrate that I was not lying? Neither examiner seemed interested in any possibility that I wasn't deceptive. I was calling all their bluffs, much to their displeasure.
He then conceded that since I completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees successfully at high-caliber universities, and that since I was doing well professionally, then I was probably not an inveterate drug user. Indeed, that much is true. He continued by stating that the US Government is not concerned about small amounts of drug use, so I should admit to whatever other drug use I did, so that they could know they could trust me. This is how they choose to establish my trustworthiness? I replied that if there were any other drug use, I would have already told them, as I would have no reason to withhold it. I indicated that I understood the stated US Government position on drugs, but the fact was that I had told them everything.
He and I were hitting the same brick wall as with the first examiner. He was making no mention of my being able to leave, and though I was never physically held down, I was becoming genuinely frightened of my ultimate fate in this place. I repeated yet again my desire to leave. He then threatened that all of my security clearance processing would be terminated if I left. By that point, obtaining the security clearance was the least of my worries, and as such, I asked to leave once more. He exited the room, and shortly thereafter, yet another man walked in.
This final man introduced himself as the general manager of the office, and basically reiterated what the previous man said about my clearance processing being terminated if I left. He then gave me a form to sign, which I did. I do not recall the specific content of this form, but do remember that its wording was very confusing and its meaning ambiguous. I was never given a copy of it. However, by then, I would have been willing to sign a form indicating I was President Kennedy's assassin, if it meant I would be let out of there. Finally, after enduring five hours of hell and signing the form, this last man showed me the door.
Without question, this was the most demeaning and insulting experience of my life. My integrity had never been so baselessly attacked and defiled. I felt bullied, mugged, and violated. I was so upset and traumatized after the five-hour ordeal that I almost got myself killed driving away from the polygraph office from not being able to concentrate on the road. Moreover, I could not sleep at all that night, despite my laying in bed over ten hours.
About two months following my polygraph, I called the agency security officer in Washington, D.C. in charge of my investigation. I wanted to express my vehement disapproval of the examiners' conclusions, and of the abuse I suffered. I informed her it was indeed the most demeaning experience of my life. She replied that a lot of people feel that way about their polygraph examinations. Was that supposed to make me feel better? Does that justify the abuse? When I told her that I never lied to the examiner, she asked me repeatedly if there was "something bothering [me]", because I showed "a reaction on the drug question." I replied that I was bothered by nothing other than the way I was treated. I stated over and over that I had not been deceptive, that they could administer any battery of drug tests they wished, that they could search my house, my car, and my workplace for drugs. I was rebuffed with a statement to the effect "the polygraph is the only solution for you people."
She went on to ask about anything "important" I had not told them. She got more specific and asked me about the quality of my relationship with my father. What does that have to do with lying about drugs? She went on to ask me about my father's caretaker. (I had mentioned on the security form that my father had a female caretaker who was of immeasurable help as my father was not self-sufficient during his illness.) I replied that I was immensely appreciative of his caretaker. The conversation then hit a genuine high-note (and an end) when she asked me if I was sleeping with my father's caretaker. At that very instant, the lunacy and preposterousness of the polygraph process crystallized for me. Much like the examiners, she had absolutely no basis or concept of what she was doing. She was taking random shots in the dark in the hope of unearthing anything inflammatory and using this against me to justify my "deceptive results." If the polygraph method really worked, what bearing should these extraneous matters have on whether I had used marijuana once? Near the end, she said she was "only trying to help [me]." The simple fact remains however, that I spoke the truth to the examiner, that the polygraph failed me miserably, and that it cost me my employment.
I was astounded that the Agency concluded that I was an untrustworthy person and a drug user based upon this so-called examination. How could it be that I went through all this agony because I admitted to using marijuana once? I could not understand why they would trust this machine over a thorough investigation of my past and of my friends. These investigations are actually typical of applicants to national security positions. It would have been the next step in my application had I "passed" the polygraph. If the agency was concerned with my integrity, they had over 26 years of my life to look into and make judgments upon. As for drug use, they could draw upon their investigation of my life to see if any of my friends or others who even only know of me had any reason to believe I use drugs. Further, they could have administered any drug test of their choosing. Such a probe into my life would have certainly forced something to the surface if I were a drug user and a scoundrel. The agency did none of these things. Instead, they spent five hours, at taxpayer expense, measuring my vital signs and inferred I was a habitual drug user. Their reasoning was completely foreign to me.
After my ordeal under the polygraph, I've come to realize that the polygraph profession is a sinister subterranean pocket of America, particularly within the US Government. Somehow, the polygraph has managed to infest many levels of the US Government in spite of no proof whatsoever existing from the scientific community that it can sort truth from deception. Justifications of the sort "it's been used a lot, so we'll keep using it" or the stratospheric accuracy rates claimed by the self-interested polygraph community do not constitute proof or reason. Our legislative bodies cannot afford to continue to blindly accept the word of the polygraph community when writing polygraph law. It is my sincere hope that lawmakers will heed the conclusions of the currently ongoing National Academy of Sciences (NAS) polygraph study, and act swiftly once results are announced.
The US Government has provided a safe haven for examiners to act out their sick dominance fetishes upon people. In most professions involving an individual making a decision significantly impacting another person (e.g. judge, police officer, medical doctor), there is usually an appeals route available if the person believes that an error has been committed. The person would have access to all written materials relating to the given issue. In the case of a federal polygraph and the examiner, the appeals route is littered with roadblocks and delays, if not completely closed off.
A subject failing a polygraph with an agency can request a retest. However, the examiner conducting the retest knows full well that the subject was previously failed by an examiner-colleague at the agency. Passing the subject the second time would convey a tacit "You screwed up" insult to the first examiner and consequently cast doubt upon the first examiner, if not the entire polygraph process. The second polygrapher has a strong incentive to confirm the first examiner's opinion. If the unsuccessful applicant tries with a different federal agency whose positions also require a polygraph, the second agency may be able to obtain the first agency's polygraph report. Again, once knowledge of the previous failure is obtained, yet another "deceptive" outcome is exceedingly likely. The polygraph community has actually admitted that examiners can shape the outcome of a test without another examiner being able to tell later on. Such a glaring danger makes the polygraph arbitrary and biased. That is the reason the polygraph community has gone to great lengths to prevent the occurrence of any inconsistencies; otherwise, it would be easier to demonstrate the polygraph is a fraud. Typically, failing a polygraph ensures an end to the sought employment as the appeals infrastructure is inherently designed to dissolve any challenge to a "deceptive" polygraph result.
Further, obtaining documents relating to one's polygraph can be a monumentally difficult if not impossible task. In my case with the CIA, I am actually barred by law from obtaining these documents, even though they relate only to me and contain no classified information. This makes challenging any conclusions much more difficult. I do not have access to the examiner's written report, or to the polygraph charts, or to any audio/video taken of my examination.
The polygraph community recently pressured the governor of California into vetoing a bill passed by the state assembly and senate that would have required all polygraph examinations to be videotaped. How many professions exist with such power to affect one's life where the way the job is conducted is free from external scrutiny? Is there a reason that examiners so adamantly prevent their behavior from being independently monitored? There is an excellent reason.
If I had access to a video recording of my polygraph examination, I could simply sit back, hit the Play button, and let the wheels of justice turn. As I do not have such access, I have to invest the time and effort outside of my busy work schedule to compose this testimonial, manage to get it in front of the right pairs of eyes, and convince the gray matter behind those eyes of the malfeasance I am reporting. Indeed, it's a significantly harder feat. The polygraph community is fully aware that the more it is cloaked from the public, the more easily it can continue to operate unfettered. After all, they know their profession is being attacked, and there is no better way to thwart an offensive than to withhold the necessary weapons.
After this experience, I am completely dumbfounded by my government's exclusive reliance on polygraph junk science. It is simply grossly ineffectual at ferreting-out deceptive individuals. Its use is pervasive and yet it has never been shown by the scientific community to work better than a coin flip. Tragically, its most spectacular achievement has been to brand many honest people as liars, in many cases, destroying the careers of those who would have well served the interests of national security. Why do we not hold the polygraph industry to the same standards required of the FDA, such as when conducting unbiased research in approving new medications? Isn't national security just as important? Ironically, truly malicious individuals who understand the fallacy of the polygraph can manipulate an examination, producing "very truthful" responses and fooling those who rely on polygraphy into thinking they are loyal to US interests. Aldrich Ames could speak volumes on this subject, were he not serving a life sentence in federal prison for espionage, after passing two CIA polygraphs while spying. When Wen Ho Lee was suspected of compromising nuclear warhead secrets, he was subjected to a polygraph. DOE polygraphers agreed that he passed it with "a highly truthful chart." This result was inconsistent with the government's suspicion that Lee was a spy. Soon thereafter, a "quality control review" somehow concluded that Lee's chart was in fact "inconclusive, if not deceptive." So which was it? Why was the initial conclusion reversed? What was the point of administering the polygraph if the outcome was essentially discarded? How reliable can the polygraph be if a score on one extreme of the scale can be mysteriously morphed into another score reflecting the opposite meaning? The polygraph is a gaping hole in our national security, not a guardian of it.
Proponents (mostly polygraphers) are quick to state that it saves tax dollars from being squandered on lengthy security investigations of those who would be shown by the polygraph to be "deceptive" in the first place. What are we saving if we prevent many qualified, talented, and loyal individuals from contributing to national security? Is it genuinely more economical to use a screening filter that can be systematically bypassed by those who know it to be a sham? It is the polygraph-related activities themselves (for example, paying examiners, examiner training, polygraph equipment, Department of Defense Polygraph Institute funding) that are one of the most outstanding examples of tax dollar waste in US government history.
The government must understand there is no substitute for an intelligently conducted, thorough background investigation. The self-serving rhetoric of polygraphers can no longer be taken on faith. The damage already done has been grave, and the number of victims unacceptable, the biggest being the security of the United States itself. The polygraph is a gargantuan abomination peddled by predators who cowardly conspire to cloak their craft. Its use is nothing less than a national shame and scandal. The polygraph must be abolished.
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