4 October 2018
I first took a polygraph when I applied to the CIA and went through the applicant screening process.
To prepare for the test, I read A Tremor in the Blood by David T. Lykken. The book described the use of control versus relevant questions as well as countermeasures such as butt-clenching. I had no desire to use countermeasures. I wasn't out to "beat" the test: I wanted to understand how it worked. A future colleague at the Agency advised me, "Spill your guts." I thought it was good advice, and I planned to follow it.
I knew I was taking a risk in applying to the Agency. I worked as a defense contractor on a project for the CIA, so I already held CIA TS/SCI clearances. If I failed the polygraph, I could lose my clearances, and I might lose my job as well.
I flew to Northern Virginia for two days of pre-employment screening. A bus took us from the hotel to a nondescript building in Vienna. The examiner was a young woman. She asked me to sign a consent form and told me not to talk about the polygraph with anyone else.
In the pretest interview, the examiner asked, "Did you make any false statements on your application?" I said, "Yes. Under height and weight, I put 130 lb. I actually weigh 134 lbs." She laughed. Then she asked if I'd read about polygraphs. I said I'd just finished A Tremor in the Blood. She claimed she'd never heard of it. I was surprised. It's an important book about her field, I would have thought all polygraphers knew of it.
She wired me up, and the polygraph began. My hand turned purple, which hurt terribly. My body twitched from the exaggerated stillness the test required. Halfway through, the examiner left the room, saying she had to show the charts to her supervisor. I came to think of this as the What will it take to get you to buy the car? part of the test. I waited twenty minutes or so, resisting the urge to press my nose against the one-way mirror and peer into it through cupped hands.
The examiner came back. "You're having a problem with one of the questions. Do you know which one?" I had no idea. I'd answered all of them truthfully. She said, "How about, 'Have you ever lied to your boss?'" I said I hadn't. She pressed me until I came up with an occasion when I'd passed my boss in the hall. She said, "How are you?" and I said, "Fine." But I wasn't fine, I was in the middle of a cancer scare.
I failed the poly and was told to come back the next day. I couldn't understand why I hadn't passed. I'd spilled my guts, and I hadn't used countermeasures.
On the bus back to the hotel, a woman was sobbing, "Do they count something less than $50 as theft?" I felt bad for her because she was crying, but I wondered why a petty thief thought she could get into the Agency.
That evening, the other applicants went to the nearby Tysons Corner mall to go shopping. I didn't feel festive enough to join them so I withdrew to my room. I ordered from room service but couldn't eat my dinner. I sat by the window for hours, looking into the darkness. She'd seen something inside me I hadn't known about. I'd always thought I was a good person. Now I wasn't sure.
The next morning, I rode back to the same crumbling building where I'd been polygraphed the day before. The examiner said, "Now that you've had a chance to think about it, is there anything you'd like to say?" He didn't need to ask me twice. "You bet there is. I did my part, now I expect you to do yours." It wasn't until late that afternoon, when I was waiting for my plane at Dulles, that I realized, "Is there anything you'd like to say?" does not mean, "Please tell us all our faults."
The examiner wired me up. He began with what he called a calibration test. He took a piece of paper and wrote the numbers one through five in a vertical column. He asked me to pick a number. I picked three. He drew a square around the number three, then taped the paper to the back of a chair where I could see it. I was supposed to lie about having selected the number three.
The test began. He asked, "Is the number one? Is the number two? Is the number three?" I said "No," and butt-clenched. "Nice strong response!" he said.
I wasn't hiding anything, so I had no reason to use countermeasures. On the other hand, the analytical part of me enjoyed poking at the test to figure out how it worked. And I was still mad about having failed the previous day, so I was messing with him. Curiosity satisfied, I didn't try the butt-clench again, not on that day or ever.
During the real test, the examiner said, "Your breathing is unnatural." He described a kid in little league who kept swinging the bat wrong, and then suddenly got it. If I just kept trying, I could get it too. It took almost four hours, but by the end of the session, he told me I'd passed. I'd just cleared the last hurdle to joining the CIA.
I entered on duty and began a week of orientation. On the first morning, we introduced ourselves and said a few words about what we'd be doing at the Agency. Four guys sitting together at a table up front identified themselves as polygraphers. Everyone else in the room hissed. It wasn't friendly teasing, either. At lunch, no one would sit with them.
A few years into my Agency career, I took a battery of vocational and aptitude tests including the MMPI, a personality inventory. The MMPI results came back, and they said I fell on the extreme end of the honesty spectrum, or in the words of the Agency psychiatrist, "You're honest to the point of being naïve." I was kind of offended. Naïve? Who are you calling naïve? On the other hand, it was nice to have that in my official file.
CIA employees were required to take a polygraph every five years. We all did it, but there was a lot of complaining.
I never heard that anyone worried about losing their job to the poly. It was said that new applicants failed in large numbers, but once you were in, you were in. The re-poly could be unpleasant, though. If you failed, you had to keep taking it. It was said that there was an upper manager who just couldn't pass, no matter how many times he tried. After something like seven attempts, Polygraph gave up and stopped calling him back. The manager remained in his job.
We weren't supposed to discuss the polygraph among ourselves, but of course we did. When people came back from a poly, they talked about how it had gone. A woman who'd never seen an illegal drug in her life was accused of being a major drug user. Someone who hated computers so much that she had the secretary print out her emails so she could read them was interrogated for hours about hacking into Agency networks.
A pattern emerged. In a normal polygraph, there was often a gross mismatch between a person and the accusations made against them. I don't think the officials at Polygraph had any idea how unintentionally humorous this was. Not to the person it happened to, of course, but the rest of us found it hysterically funny.
Once, the examiner got in my face and shouted, "Admit it, you're deeply in debt. Creditors are pounding on your door!" I said. "You've just revealed to me that you haven't bothered to pull my credit report. Are you lazy, or are you cheap?" I offered to pay the $15 fee myself, but he didn't take me up on it.
Another time, the examiner accused me of working for a foreign intelligence service and traveling overseas to meet my handler. I rolled my eyes. "Do you want to see my passport? It's been expired for nine years." No, he didn't want to see my passport.
I told my office mates I'd figured out why the accusations were so consistently off-the-wall. Polygraph must have a question of the day. Everyone who went in on Monday would be accused of dealing drugs. Tuesday was espionage day, Wednesday was marital infidelity day, and so on.
Then Aldrich Ames was arrested, and polygraphs became more brutal. People who'd never had trouble passing were being called back two and three times. Thank you, Mr. Ames.
I overheard a fragment of conversation at CIA Headquarters, "I thought I was a good person, but after that last poly, I'm not so sure." It was hard on people.
Because of Ames, the Agency introduced a policy of random polygraphs. I knew someone who completed a five year poly. A few months later, he was called back for a random one.
I'd been at the Agency for ten years when I went through the reinvestigation poly again.
The test was administered by an inexperienced young woman. In the pretest interview, she asked me a question. I answered truthfully. She asked again as if she was looking for a better answer. Call me a liar. It made me furious.
Well into the session, she said I was failing. I was so frustrated, I started to cry. I knew I could pass it if I just had enough time, but she had to run an errand. She failed me and ended the session early.
I wrote a letter of complaint to the Chief of Polygraph saying I didn't like the way I'd been treated. He sent me a letter of apology. He said he'd reviewed the tapes and that he was sorry about the abuse. He said the polygrapher had been reprimanded.
I was surprised to get a response of any kind, but a letter of apology was astonishing. Although the cynical part of me might call it a "please don't sue me" letter.
But I was also puzzled. The apology was for the wrong thing. The Director seemed to think I'd gone through a particularly abusive polygraph. I hadn't. It was a perfectly ordinary polygraph, no different from any other. I just wrote to say that I didn't like polygraphs.
I had to take the test again because I'd failed the first one. The second examiner was experienced and had a mild disposition. I passed without difficulty.
Over the course of many years at CIA, I formed an impression that a typical polygraph involves an inexperienced examiner who grills you harshly and then fails you, followed by a re-poly with a more experienced examiner who guides you through it with no fuss. I've had two polygraphs in which I passed on the first try. On both occasions, an experienced examiner conducted the test.
I worked at CIA for eleven years. It was a terrific experience, and I count those years as among the happiest in my life. I left only because I got married and had a baby. CIA is many things, but family friendly is not one of them.
I joined a small defense contractor known for its work-life balance. The company supported most of the three-letter agencies, and I settled into doing the same sort of work I'd done before.
My first assignment was on a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) project. The NRO clearances required a poly, which I agreed to. The test was administered by a woman with many years' experience. She told me I'd passed. It's possible to have a polygraph that isn't confrontational and doesn't leave you feeling violated. It's rare, though.
I'd been supporting an FBI project for several years when the phone rang in the kitchen. Someone from the FBI asked me to come in for a routine polygraph, a requirement to keep my clearances up to date.
To prepare, I read the 2002 National Academy of Sciences report. It was an eye-opener, even though it confirmed what I'd already begun to suspect, that the polygraph didn't work.
I arrived for my polygraph appointment, which would be administered in a building across the street from my children's orthodontist.
I stood in the marble lobby, waiting for the examiner to come and collect me. The 2002 NAS report made me cynical. In the interview room, I thought, "Don't look at the man behind the curtain."
The examiner asked if I'd ever visited the anti-polygraph sites online. I said yes, that's where I found the 2002 NAS report. He said he'd never heard of it. He also said there was no such a thing as a control question. I hate being lied to; it makes me angry.
In the pretest interview, he asked how many polygraphs I'd had before this one. I wasn't sure, but I thought it was probably six or seven. He asked what medications I took. I listed everything, including a cortisone cream for a patch of eczema on my hand. He went on and on about my skin condition. What does this have to do with national security, and why is it any of your business? Maybe violating people's boundaries is a way to establish dominance.
The examiner wired me up, and we did the card trick. He drew a vertical column of numbers, told me to pick one, drew a box around it, and pinned it up where I could see it.
It occurred to me that we were playing a guessing game in which the examiner knew the answer before the game began. I'd have been more impressed if he'd had to discover my number using only the polygraph equipment and/or his ability to read people. I was tempted to suggest it, but I didn't think the idea would be well received.
The test proceeded normally. The examiner left the room. When he came back, he didn't meet my eyes, and the muscles of his face were tight. "The test shows deception." He was right. I had been deceptive, but only about one thing. I hadn't told him I knew the polygraph didn't work.
The examiner hammered on me to come clean. I kept repeating, "No, I can't think of anything else." I was tempted to make something up, just to make it stop, but I'm not comfortable lying.
At the end of the interview, the examiner looked at me, gloating. "You claim you've taken seven polygraphs before today, but later, you said it was only six." That's all you've got on me? I'm underwhelmed.
Being able to recognize interrogation techniques didn't make me immune to them. Exhausted, I hung my head, feeling like he'd broken me under interrogation. I've always found the shame of being broken was the worst thing about being polygraphed.
A few days later, I was still seriously rattled. I didn't realize how badly the polygraph had affected me until I plowed through a red light and almost hit another car. I'd never run a red light before. I couldn't think what had gotten into me.
I told a relative I'd had a really hard time with the polygraph. There was an embarrassed silence, followed by a rapid change of subject. What did you do wrong, and why don't you own up to it? This from someone who's known me from birth and has always taken my side. It shows how strongly people in our culture believe in the polygraph.
I wrote to my congressman and asked him to support legislation banning the polygraph. I said it was a civil rights issue to subject an entire workforce to a brutal police-style interrogation in the absence of probable cause, especially if they might be harmed by it.
Although I failed the FBI polygraph, I remained on the project.
Much to my surprise, I was granted additional clearances and assigned to more highly classified work than I'd been doing before the polygraph.
The work dried up, and I moved on to something else. Seven months after the failed FBI poly, I was summoned to FBI Headquarters "to talk about your polygraph."
It took several hours to drive downtown and find a place to park. I found FBI headquarters. Two burly agents met me at the door. I wondered if they had the power to arrest me. My hands shook. It was like a scene from a movie where government officials are trying to be intimidating. It worked. As we walked across the lobby, I thought I was going to faint.
They escorted me upstairs. Neither of them spoke. They took me to a small room. A folder lay open on a desk. Papers spilled from it.
I said, "Does it matter that I was laid off the project four months ago?"
It was like watching method actors break character. "We're sorry, we didn't mean to bring you all the way down here for nothing. Maybe you could visit the spy museum? It's right across the street."
Years later, I joined a DIA project which required a CI (counterintelligence) polygraph. I liked the work and the people doing it, so I agreed.
I started in the summer. In late September, Polygraph asked me to come in. I was no longer afraid of them. I didn't doubt the apparatus took accurate measurements of heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and perspiration, but I'd stopped believing the examiner could infer a person's emotions or thoughts from the data in the tracings.
To prepare for the test, I read the DoD Polygraph Institute Interview and Interrogation handbook (PDF), which describes techniques like "offer hope, take it away." That book is evil. I made copies and gave them to my writer friends.
I now knew the examiners worked from a script like the one in the handbook. On page 24, the script calls for empathetic listening to put the subject at ease. On page 53, it says to change gears and confront the subject with evidence of a crime. I thought that since I was familiar with the script, the polygrapher would lose his power over me.
I arrived for the appointment. The examiner asked if I was nervous, and I said no (true). In the pretest interview, he asked if I'd visited the anti-polygraph websites to learn how to beat the test. I said I did read the sites, but I was looking for articles on psychological damage from interrogation and how to recover from it. Beating the polygraph was of no interest to me (true).
The real test began. In my mind, I turned the pages of the script. The examiner excused himself and stepped outside. He returned, and whatever warmth there'd been in his manner had vanished. Oh c**p, we're on page 53. He accused me of deception. I hunkered down until it was over. I reminded myself, Whatever you do, don't make admissions. I didn't have anything to confess, but if the pressure were bad enough, I might be tempted to make things up.
At the end of the test, the examiner told me I'd failed. But, and this is huge, for the first time I didn't leave the poly broken and weeping. I was annoyed, but I hadn't been harmed.
Two weeks later, they asked me to come in for a retest. The examiner was different, but the test was the same. Everything went smoothly, and I assumed I'd passed. The examiner said he needed to run the chart by his supervisor, and I'd hear back later.
Weeks went by, and then months. The computer account I would get as soon as I passed the poly was still in limbo, which was not a good sign.
During the quiet time over the Christmas break, I came to believe I'd lost the ability to pass a polygraph. By this time, I'd failed three in a row, two for DIA and the one for FBI.
I wondered if it was because I'd grown cynical. I now thought of the polygraph apparatus as a colander attached to a Xerox machine. Even so, I'd tried to cooperate. I'd answered their questions truthfully, and I hadn't used countermeasures. But I no longer feared the examiners, and I no longer broke under interrogation. According to the handbook, breaking the subject is an important part of the process.
On the first day back from Christmas break, my department head stopped by to give me my annual salary review. It was my highest raise in five years. She said the people on my project liked my work, and they liked me.
Later the same day, I got a call from Polygraph asking me to come in the next morning to answer the polygraph questions under oath rather than wired up.
I had no problem with that. As a mentor at the Agency said about testifying before Congress, "Under oath or not under oath. Either way you're telling the truth, so what's the difference?"
The two polys I'd already taken for DIA had been CI (counterintelligence). But halfway through, the examiner asked, "How often do you look at pornography?" I blinked with surprise. "Excuse me?" That question didn't belong on a CI poly, that was a Lifestyle question.
When the interview ended, the examiner said, "I believe you" in a voice that lacked conviction. Then he added, "I'm going to try to get you another polygraph."
"I don't want another." I meant it.
Over the next few days, I jumped whenever the phone rang. Weeks went by before I began to relax. And then my long-delayed computer account was approved. As I understood how the system worked, the polygraph had just been adjudicated in my favor.
A few days later, I was sitting at my desk eating lunch when a scheduling clerk from Polygraph called. "You missed your appointment this morning," he said. Next time, you might consider telling me about it ahead of time. He said, "Don't even worry about it. Everyone makes mistakes." My jaw dropped. He just called me a liar.
The clerk wanted me to come in the next day. I was seriously rattled. I'd already decided I was not going to take another polygraph, ever. I stalled. And then I remembered my newly granted computer accesses. I was already cleared. Probably the paperwork hadn't caught up yet. I said I needed a few days to figure out if the poly was still necessary, and I would get back to him.
I checked with Security. They said, "No, you haven't been adjudicated yet."
I couldn't get out of it, but I could put it off until it was OBE (overtaken by events). In a few months, the project would move to a new location beyond my commuting range. I planned to stay until right before the move and then find something else. I didn't have to refuse the poly, I just had to conduct a delaying action.
But Polygraph was insistent, and I wasn't sure I could hold them off much longer. I asked about withdrawing my application for DIA clearances, but was advised to watch and wait.
Or, I could leave the project now and find other work. My TS/SCI from CIA was still active, but I knew that eventually CIA would want me to take a polygraph. I also held a Top Secret clearance from the Air Force. The Air Force TS, a "vanilla TS" (not SCI) was based on an SF-86 background investigation. It did not require a polygraph. And at the very worst, I could do unclassified work. My company had a large number of unclassified projects, and many had work for analysts.
A few days after I'd told the clerk I'd get back to him, I gave a presentation about the work I'd been doing on my task. It was well received, and I stepped down from the podium covered in glory. As I left the meeting, the program manager pulled me aside and said my task had lost its funding. It was an occupational hazard of defense contracting, and not anything sinister.
I wasn't happy about being cut from the project, but it did solve my polygraph dilemma. If I wasn't on the project anymore, I didn't need to apply for DI clearances, and I didn't need to take the polygraph.
Around noon, the clerk from Polygraph called again. I told him I didn't have to take the poly anymore because I'd been laid off the project. In mid-afternoon, he called back. He said he'd made a few phone calls and learned that I hadn't been laid off from my company, after all. Wonderful, call me a liar.
He pressed me to schedule another poly. I said no. His voice turned whiny. "You have to do it!" I dug in my heels. "I've already told you no." He slammed down the phone.
I'd just refused a polygraph. I felt like Neville Longbottom when he drew the sword of Gryffindor and advanced on Lord Voldemort. I was filled with righteous indignation, and it gave me courage.
For the rest of the day, I was peppered with emails and phone calls summoning me to the offices of upper managers. Some of them were so far up the chain, I'd never heard their names before. They were uniformly kind to me. I hadn't known it, but I wasn't the first person in our division to refuse the polygraph. Polygraph conscientious objectors—who knew that there was such a thing?
Polygraph told my management I'd lied about being laid off. It caused a major flap. My project badges were taken from me, even the unclassified ones, and I was debriefed from all my DIA clearances.
To their credit, DIA didn't tell any other agencies they'd taken my badge and debriefed me. Weeks later, my CIA clearances were still active.
Six weeks went by. I put in for a few days of leave to take the kids to an alumni event at my university. I worked half a day and then went home to pack.
Sometime after 4:00 pm, when I was loading the last suitcase into the car, the department secretary called to say I was late for a 4:00 meeting with my department head. This was the first I'd heard of it. The meeting had been put on the calendar after I'd left for the day. I said I was sorry I couldn't be there, but I'd be back in the office first thing on Monday.
Just before close of business Monday, I was summoned to another meeting with the department head. When I arrived, my boss was sitting in her office with a woman from Human Resources. As a general rule, if you're boss wants to see you and HR has been asked to sit in, you know it's going to end badly.
My department head put a piece of paper in front of me. It said I'd agreed to take a polygraph as a condition of working on the DIA project, but when they tried to schedule it, I canceled the appointment. As a result, I was cut from the project.
"No, I took two polygraphs. I turned down the third because I wasn't on the project anymore." Although I now thought of myself a polygraph conscientious objector, and I would have refused whether or not I was still on the project.
The rest of the letter said the company would begin termination proceedings against me. I was eight years from retirement. I wasn't counting the days until retirement. I liked going to work. Even when I was between assignments and not getting paid, I still came into the office and put in a full day.
I spoke to a lawyer. She said I lived in an "at will" state, which means employees can be dismissed for any (legal) reason, or for no reason at all. I was being terminated for refusing the polygraph, and it was legal.
I decided to resign rather than fight.
My mother loved being a doctor, but she discouraged us from applying to medical school. She said the cost of malpractice insurance had ruined the profession.
Similarly, I urge my children to steer clear of any job that requires a polygraph. That rules out entire professions: National Security, Intelligence, Law Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Pharmacy. It's a shame. My career as an intelligence analyst was exciting, deeply rewarding, and just plain fun. I contributed to the safety of my country, which is a constant source of pride. But I no longer recommend my profession to others. The polygraph has become a deal breaker.
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