One Man's CIA Polygraph Experience
Towards the end of college I made the mistake of trying to get a job with the CIA. I don't mean a James Bond thing, but just a programming job. The CIA like every other organization has an analog to an IT department. My degree was in computer science, I needed a job, and why shouldn't I want to work for the government?
The process started with a nominal application followed by some phone calls and eventually a meeting with a recruiter in a hotel room in Rochester, NY. I took the Professional Applicant Test Battery at college during the GREs and GMATs. I don't know if it is specific to the CIA, but ostensibly I scored well enough to be asked to an interview, in-person, in Virginia.
Leaving out the rest of the process, I mean to focus just on the polygraph session. The session was in August of 1992. I entered with a jovial attitude. In my naiveté I thought one should project a positive image at these things. So, when the guy got to saying that I could plead the 5th amendment, I laughed. He immediately said "You're laughing, why?" to which I responded "The 5th amendment is for criminals." I thought it was funny. He reassured me that my amusement would not last long.
Naïve or not, I could tell I had better be a little more stoic. But, what can go wrong? He will ask me some questions, I will tell the truth, and that will be the end of it. Maybe I won't get awards for personality, but I had nothing to worry about.
The first thing he wanted to know, besides the formalities and prologue, was what did I know about polygraphs? I recounted what I had learned from the book Mole Hunt. He explained that "books were just books" ostensibly meaning that what I read was crap. He assured me that he knew what he was doing, that he really knew 'the human'. He took particular pains to emphasize that he knew it when people were trying to condition against the test. I thought that was curious and I wondered if he said that to everyone.
I was run through 3 sets of questions and eventually a fourth set developed in response to the first three. Each time he would review the questions with me before hooking me up. The hookups were an arm cuff, a finger thing, and two rubber tubes around my chest. I was told not to move during the recordings.
While going over the questions he was annoyed by any kind of clarifications. For instance, they used the phrase "drugs or alcohol" to which I objected because alcohol is a drug and my mind knows it and my body might react to it. Eventually he turned that question into just "drugs" to which I gave him a lot of 'yes' answers because I drank occasionally -- not pathologically -- but yes I used a drug: alcohol. I think he thought I was being a smart-ass, but as a scientist, I was following his specs: he said you will react if you know you are lying, so I was being careful to point out semantic problems in his diction that amounted to a lie although in the vernacular I "don't do drugs". But, hell, I didn't know if my polygraph would reflect the vernacular or the literal interpretation. Questions were too vague and I was being instructed that some unconscious reaction on my part would reveal deception. But every attempt to remove vagueness was seen as being uncooperative. Maybe in his world you could be sloppy, but in computer science, any vagueness of requirements can be disastrous to the end product. I had been specifically trained to destroy vagueness with precision.
On each set he said there were problems with two questions and he wouldn't tell me which ones until the last set. He said "Your body wrote this. You have to pull yourself through this". In between each set of questions he would go to 'the lab' which I imagine was anything but a lab. Upon return he would say "Anything new? Come up with anything?" That is, have I figured out what is going wrong on these questions? What details had I left out? I would give him a brain dump of anything even marginally on topic that I thought could be related, but nothing satisfied him.
The session ended with him telling me that I had gotten through most of it, but not all of it and that he would recommend that I be re-tested. I asked for truth serum so we could just get it over with. He said they don't do that to applicants. I answered that I don't know what is wrong with the readings, but this is important to me, so if there is a way to get better readings, lets do it. This was sort of pleading and is the only time I remember him having a smile on his face.
After returning to my hotel I received a call indicating that after my morning appointments I would be repolygraphed so we would have to change my original flight back.
The next day (they had me at the Tyson's Corner Days Inn that night) I caught the shuttle bus to some building (not the headquarters) not too far away. I waited many hours before seeing a psychiatrist who asked me very little. A few brief questions with no follow-up. The only one I remember is 'do you get depressed'. I confessed to normal ups and downs but nothing clinical. It was over in literally three minutes.
I was directed to go back to the hotel and wait for a call. A woman named Charlotte called sometime after noon to tell me I was done. Go home. No retest would occur. No new flight arrangements were needed, etc. For those of you who haven't interviewed with the CIA. There is one fundamental rule at the end of the process: no reason will be given for not hiring an applicant. In fact, I think I signed a paper saying that I understood this and would abide by it. So, I am left with this annoyance of not knowing. Can I ever get a job that requires a security clearance? Is there a little stamp on my 'record' somewhere in the vast nexus of US Government computers?
After reading more about polygraphy, I am somewhat mollified to the extent that I understand its flaws. There is nothing wrong with me. What I experienced was more like a psychological rape: a person with the power to destroy my chances for a job goes trundling through my brain looking for dirt, all the while lying to me and abusing my open, forthright attitude towards the whole thing.
Setting aside the abuse for a moment, there was a more subtle effect too, it actually soured me on government service for quite a while and reinforced a lot of negative stereotypes. Ten years later I am only now beginning to think again about a career in service to the federal government.
In the intervening years I have had an unquestionably strong corporate career, attained a master's degree, and proven (via Mensa) that I am at least in the top 2% of aptitude of all English speaking persons. At the same time I have not produced a criminal record. I have not supported the enemies of the United States. I am not saying that the CIA is bad because they didn't hire me, but I am saying they are bad if their decision was based on the polygraph interview. If so, they lost a potentially brilliant employee and I lost the opportunity to explore what might have been a much more rewarding career serving my country, all because of their reliance on clearly faulty polygraph technology.
Aldrich Ames got in, but I didn't.