I was subjected to the polygraph earlier this year (2002) as part of a pre-employment screening for a summer program for college students at the National Security Agency (NSA). I was highly naive and unaware of the polygraph's pitfalls. At the time, I figured I had nothing to fear from the polygraph since I hadn't done anything besides the most minor of offenses, and I was more than willing to admit to them. I was sure I hadn't done anything serious enough to disqualify me from employment with the NSA.
The polygrapher first gave me his usual explanation of how the polygraph works, explained that he was my "friend," here not to accuse me but to be my ally in "proving" my innocence to the NSA. He asked me if I was nervous, and of course I said yes. He then tried to reassure me that nervousness wouldn't cause me to fail the polygraph. The only thing that could cause me to fail, he said, was either intentional dishonesty or self-doubt. Self-doubt, he explained, was caused by a person not being clear on what the question was asking, or thinking about something in your past that you're not sure would or would not qualify under the question being asked. I knew I wouldn't have a problem with the first one, and as for the second one, I would simply make sure I knew exactly what the question was and was not asking. He then proceeded to read through each question with me, asking me the answer to it (without having the polygraph hooked up). At the end, he asked me, "Are you absolutely certain of your answer to every one of those questions?" I replied "yes."
Next he actually hooked me up to the machine and asked me the same questions, with long pauses in between, presumably to get a good measure on my responses. I answered truthfully to all the questions. I did not feel any response to any of them. I was totally convinced I had passed.
Imagine my surprise when the polygrapher said, "There's a question that seems to bothering you, Nate. According to the test, you show a response every time I ask you the question about illegal drug use. Tell me what's on your mind. What's bothering you about that question?" What could I say? I had nothing to tell. I told him, "There must be some mistake. I have not used illegal drugs. There's no doubt in my mind about that." He then proceeded to give me a "pep talk" about how lots of people had used drugs once or twice before, and it was no big deal. He explained that he needed to make sure whether I was involved in "normal experimentation" or was a drug addict -- he had no way of knowing which from the polygraph. If I told him what I had done, I would pass the test and he would know for sure. He then told me that just having done drugs before did not necessarily disqualify me from employment. He said he had polygraphed someone who had admitted to doing heroin the night before his polygraph, and a few weeks later he saw him at work. He then told me that I had a choice: I could either "be a man" and fess up to what I had done, or not admit to it, and go home knowing in my conscience that I could have told him the truth, but didn't.
I tried very hard to come up with a response that was both truthful and could explain why I had failed the question. I came up with all of the usual petty things, such as having alcohol before I was 21 (alcohol is technically a drug), borrowing prescription strength pain reliever from a friend for a headache, etc. He insisted that was not what the question was about. He wanted to know if I'd ever purposely misused a drug intending to get high. Once I was satisfied that was what he wanted, we went through a second round of the same questions, him inserting "besides what we talked about" before the question to supposedly help me be more certain of my answer. I knew this time I had passed.
Nope. I hadn't, according to the examiner. He concluded by saying "If you're not going to be honest with me there's nothing I can do for you." As he walked away, I was certain that, in his mind, I would be going home with a "troubled conscience", knowing that I could have told the truth but did not. How can you prove the truth to such a person? No one knows a person's mind but that person himself, no matter what a machine says.
I wanted the NSA job so badly that, when asked if I would be willing to submit to a retest, I agreed to. I still believed that there was a good reason for why I had failed the first test, and that if I could figure it out, I would be able pass the second one. The second test went similarly, with the other examiner using the exact same illustrations as the first one. (That man who did heroin must have been examined by every single polygrapher on staff. Amazing!) The examiner then asked me something unexpected (with the machine turned off). He said, "OK, so maybe you haven't done drugs. But obviously something is bothering you about this question. What's the worst thing you've ever done?" I could think of plenty of things I had done which, though I was sure they were the sort of things the agency didn't care about, I did not want to tell anyone. But I was still determined to get the job. So after taking a break to think about it, and after being reassured by the Privacy Act that this information could not be disclosed unless it was criminal in nature, I regurgitated my entire mind to him. Everything I ever considered worth hiding from anyone. There is now one other man on this planet who knows all my worst secrets. I can take at least some comfort in knowing that he probably doesn't care, it's probably all stuff he's heard before, and by now he no doubt has forgotten about me altogether, lost in the mass of people he's polygraphed. It took a considerable time for me to finally decide to make the confession, and as a result we didn't have time to run another test. I like to think I would have passed, but then again I was certain I had passed the first time, too.
All of the questions I answered from the first polygraph test I answered truthfully, and all of the embarrassing things I admitted to on the second test were also true. I take some comfort in knowing that even under pressure, I did not make any stories up. I refused to tell anything but the truth. Some weeks later I received my rejection letter from the NSA. I used to wonder why I failed that first polygraph, but now I no longer care. I only hope that in telling my story I can warn people of what can happen in the polygraph room, and comfort those who also know what it's like to be "acceptable collateral damage."
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