I received a long-awaited job offer from the National Security Agency in October of 2002. The job offer was contingent upon my successful completion of NSA's "lifestyle" polygraph, but I was not worried because I had been taking and passing counterintelligence polygraphs as a member of the Navy every five years since joining.
As the first in a series of three polygraphs began, the polygrapher explained the equipment to me and assured me that it doesn't react to nervousness or to anticipation of upcoming questions. He also assured me that I could discuss anything except murder in confidence, that as Privacy Act information it was all confidential. As the first session progressed, the polygrapher said I was showing a positive reaction to the drug question (have I used or sold illegal drugs in the past 7(?) years). I successfully convinced him that I had never taken drugs and in fact have always been adamantly and actively opposed to the use of any illegal drugs. He then stated that it was possibly in response to the previous question, which asked if I had ever committed a serious crime. We went through a series of three rounds of questioning, each followed by a question/answer session. Midway through the test, and after pressing me for the serious crime I must have committed, he rolled his chair around his desk and positioned himself directly in front of me, then continued the questioning. Still thinking there must be something in my mind causing the polygraph machine to react, I kept going back in my mind and dredging up anything that I had ever done and felt guilty about, including taking a piece of candy from a store when I was six. (I later repaid the store for the candy.) At the end of the session, the polygrapher said I was still reacting to the serious crimes question, but he finally ended the session after over three hours. The last thing he said was that the results would be reviewed if I had to retest.
About two weeks later I was called and told I needed to come in for another polygraph. I reported at the scheduled time and went through the same motions as before. The polygrapher gave me the same assurances to make me comfortable enough to say anything (unless I had committed murder). We went through the same series of question and discussion sessions with the same results as before. I was showing positive response to the serious crimes question. She did show me a segment of the graph she printed out, pointing at a spike that was slightly higher then those on either side. She said that it doesn't look like much now, but if she blows it up it will look like a mountain. I realized at that moment that intimidation seemed to play an important role in the lifestyle polygraph, because her reasoning did not make sense, because if the graph is blown up, the spike in question would still be proportionate to its surrounding spikes.
After the second round of questioning, she slammed her hand down on the desk and wheeled her chair around her desk just as the first polygrapher had done, positioned herself in front of me, and continued to pressure me for more information. Just as I had done the first time, I went back and started digging up anything I could give her -- no matter how petty it was -- and still thinking something there must be causing me to spike on the serious crimes question. One of the things I told her at this point was that I often download shareware software and other programs for personal use and evaluation using a peer-to-peer network, and on a small number of occasions I had opened files and found images which were possibly child pornography. She asked what search criteria I used to gain access to the files, and being satisfied that I had not targeted these files for download, she dropped the topic and moved on. She finally ended the session much as the first polygrapher did, although on a slightly more threatening note, saying that I'll be contacted after evaluation of the results if I need to retest.
My third polygrapher took the cake as far as intimidation tactics goes. He gave me the same speech as to the validity of the polygraph machine and assuring complete confidentiality in providing information on anything but murder, adding that if I had committed murder, I could get up then and there and walk out. He then told some stories of past testees -- one had smothered his baby with a pillow, another had committed rape thirty years ago. He then told me that he doesn't do initial polygraphs, that he is only called in to conduct second and third polygraphs. He then hooked me up to the machine and began the session. Remembering the similarity between the actions of the first and second polygraphers, I watched the third one more closely. The questioning went much the same as the first two -- he said I was spiking on the serious crimes question -- and assured me that the machine will not react unless there is something there. I insisted that there was nothing in my mind that I even remotely considered a serious crime. And then, just as I had predicted, he slammed his hand down on the desk, rolled himself around his desk, positioned his chair in front of me, and began insisting that I was hiding some serious crime -- that the machine would not register if I was telling the truth. Thinking it might appease him and get him back behind his desk, I retold the story of downloading files that I subsequently discovered to contain questionable material, possibly child pornography. Only he took special interest as soon as I said the words, "child pornography." He began taking notes and probing me for more information, even asking at one point "how many times" I had done it at work instead of "if" I had ever done it at work! "How many pictures?" he asked. Probably around four. As it had been over a course of 14 years of owning a computer, I couldn't remember exactly. "So, less than ten," he said, to which I agreed, since four is less than ten. After he was finished with his questioning, he pulled a tape recorder out of his desk and explained that it's easier to put his notes on conventional audio tape, rather than have to refer to the DAT (digital audio tape), on which all polygraph interviews are taped. He ended the session with a smile and a handshake.
The next correspondence I received was a letter from the NSA Human Resources office saying that they were no longer giving consideration to my application, with no specific reasons. I responded to the address provided in the letter, asking them for the reason, and if possible to allow me to come in and discuss it with them. I then sent a second, similar e-mail to various Personnel Security and Polygraph offices at NSA, with no responses.
So I resigned myself to the fact that I would not be able to work at NSA after all and decided to continue my career in the Navy. But on 7 January 2003, I was escorted from my office without warning and relocated to a Navy Legal Hold division, and only then was I told why. I was presented a letter that was sent by the NSA Personnel Security Office to the Maryland State Police Computer Crimes Unit which stated that I had admitted to downloading child pornography on ten occasions. The letter was full of other untruths and words taken out of context, and in my opinion was a total and complete attack on my personal character. It's one thing to file such a report if the facts support it, but it's another thing entirely to completely falsify an official report and send it to the police. The Computer Crimes Unit immediately dismissed the report, but my current problems stem from the fact that the Personnel Security Office sent a copy of the report to my Navy Commander, who was forced to suspend my security clearance and pull me out of the building until the issue is resolved. I am confident that the Navy Criminal Investigative Service will also dismiss the allegations -- just as the Computer Crimes Unit did -- once my statement is given, though I have to wonder why no one has asked for it yet.
My experience and opinion regarding NSA's use of the polygraph is that the entire process is well-rehearsed and choreographed, and relies not nearly so much on the accuracy of the polygraph machine as on it's usefulness as a catalyst for intimidation. I was told numerous times that I was spiking on a specific question but was shown proof of a spike only once, and the polygrapher's explanation of that spike in my opinion was extremely questionable.
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