CIA, FBI Defend Test's Use in Probes
The CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies are using polygraph machines
more than ever to screen applicants and hunt for lawbreakers, even as scientists
have become more certain that the equipment is ineffective in accurately detecting
when people are lying.
Instead, many experts say, the real utility of the polygraph machine, or "lie
detector," is that many of the tens of thousands of people who are subjected
to it each year believe that it works -- and thus will frequently admit to things
they might not otherwise acknowledge during an interview or interrogation.
Many researchers and defense attorneys say the technology is prone to a high
number of false results that have stalled or derailed hundreds of careers and
have prevented many qualified applicants from joining the fight against terrorism.
At the FBI, for example, about 25 percent of applicants fail a polygraph exam
each year, according to the bureau's security director.
The polygraph has emerged as a pivotal tool in the CIA's aggressive effort
to identify suspected leakers after embarrassing disclosures about government
anti-terrorism tactics. The agency fired a veteran officer, Mary O. McCarthy,
on April 20, alleging that she had shared classified information and operational
details with The Washington Post and other news organizations, a charge her
CIA officials have said that McCarthy failed more than one polygraph examination
administered by the CIA, but the details surrounding those interviews remain
unclear. Dozens of senior-level CIA officials have been subjected to polygraph
tests as part of the inquiry, which is aimed at identifying employees who may
have talked to reporters about classified programs, including providing information
about the agency's network of secret prisons for terrorism suspects.
"The reason an officer at CIA was terminated was for having unauthorized
contact with the media and the improper release of classified information,"
said Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman. "Don't think in terms of a failure
of a polygraph being the reason for termination -- the polygraph is one tool
in an investigative process."
In the popular mind, fueled by Hollywood representations, polygraphs are lie-detection
machines that can peer inside people's heads to determine whether they are telling
The scientific reality is far different: The machines measure various physiological
changes, including in blood pressure and heart rate, to determine when subjects
are getting anxious, based on the idea that deception involves an element of
anxiety. But because an emotion such as anxiety can be triggered by many factors
other than lying, experts worry that the tests can overlook smooth-talking liars
while pointing a finger at innocent people who just happen to be rattled.
In settings in which large numbers of employees are screened to determine whether
they are spies, the polygraph produces results that are extremely problematic,
according to a comprehensive 2002 review by a federal panel of distinguished
scientists. The study found that if polygraphs were administered to a group
of 10,000 people that included 10 spies, nearly 1,600 innocent people would
fail the test -- and two of the spies would pass.
"Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators
from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in
employee security screening in federal agencies," the panel concluded.
Polygraph test results are also generally inadmissible in federal courts and
in most state courts because of doubts about their reliability. Statements or
admissions made by test subjects during a polygraph session, however, can often
be used by prosecutors at trial, according to legal experts.
But even critics of the polygraph concede that it can help managers learn things
about employees that would otherwise remain hidden. That aspect of polygraph
testing lies at the heart of its continuing appeal, said Alan Zelicoff, a former
scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who quit because he believed that
polygraphs are unethical.
Although polygraph tests involving national security are supposed to be about
a handful of questions involving espionage, Zelicoff said the tests take hours:
"In each and every test, what happens is after question two or three the
questioner will pause and very deliberately take a long hard look at the chart
and take a deep breath and sigh and say, 'You did really well on question one,
but on the second question, about whether you released classified information,
I am getting a strange reading. Tell you what -- I am going to turn the machine
off and I am going to ask whether there is something you want to get off your
"That is what the polygraph is about," said Zelicoff, who has testimony
from several employees who are angry about the tests. "It is about an excuse
to conduct a wide-ranging inquisition."
The subjective opinions of polygraph examiners play a huge role in whether
people are said to pass or fail, said William Iacono, a psychologist at the
University of Minnesota who has extensively studied the technique. As evidence,
Iacono said that polygraph tests rarely find problems among senior staff members
at organizations, even as 30 to 40 percent of applicants for entry-level positions
"The director of the CIA just took a test," said Iacono. "How
would you like to be the examiner who gave him a test and say he failed? What
kind of a career would you have?"
The president of the American Polygraph Association, T.V. O'Malley, said polygraph
technology is held to an unfair standard in many cases, and he compared it to
mammograms and other medical screening procedures that are imperfect but valuable
in detecting problems. He also acknowledged that some of the polygraph's value
is simply in prompting people to tell the truth.
"It's kind of like confessing . . . to a priest: You feel a little better
by getting rid of your baggage," O'Malley said. "The same thing often
happens with a polygraph examination."
Charles S. Phalen Jr., the FBI's assistant director for security, said the
polygraph is a vital component of the bureau's security program.
"This is the most effective collection tool that we have in our arsenal
of security tools to identify disqualifying behavior and disqualifying activities,"
Phalen said. "I will never sit here and say this is a perfect tool because
it's not. . . . In and of itself it won't produce the truth, but it's a way
at getting at the truth."
The ubiquity of polygraph testing in the federal government is due in large
part to spy scandals that rocked the government over the past dozen years, including
those involving Aldrich Ames at the CIA and Robert P. Hanssen at the FBI. Ames
was allowed to continue working despite questionable polygraph results, whereas
Hanssen was never given a lie-detector exam during his long FBI career.
Previous efforts to implement wide-scale testing were met with fierce opposition
not only from rank-and-file employees but also from senior government officials.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan scaled back an order requiring thousands of
government employees to submit to polygraphs after Secretary of State George
P. Shultz threatened to resign if ordered to take one.
As part of changes implemented after Hanssen's arrest in 2001, the FBI now
conducts about 8,000 polygraph tests each year, most of which involve current
employees, applicants and contractors. All applicants and new employees undergo
a polygraph at the FBI, and nearly every employee -- including the director
-- is subject to a new test every five years, officials said.
The CIA enacted broader testing policies after Ames's unmasking. At the Department
of Energy, which implemented changes as a result of the Wen Ho Lee case, about
20,000 employees are currently eligible for mandatory polygraph screening tests.
(Lee, a former nuclear weapons scientist, was held by the government for purportedly
smuggling weapon-design secrets to China; all but one charge was dropped.)
The Department of Energy is considering scaling back its program to focus on
4,500 employees with access to the most sensitive information, in large part
because of the 2002 analysis by the federal panel, according to a congressional
report released last week.
Many scientists who criticize polygraphs as a screening tool say the machines
can be effective when used as part of a "guilty-knowledge test." In
a bank robbery investigation, for example, suspects could be quizzed in multiple-choice
tests on whether they knew if the weapon used was a gun or a knife, whether
the money taken was $10, $1,000 or $10,000.
Focused questions that test whether people have memory of an event yield far
more reliable results than open-ended screening tests that rely on emotions
that can be triggered by a wide range of factors, said Iacono, who added that
the federal government has resolutely refused to use the guilty-knowledge test.
Officials have declined to describe the kind of tests McCarthy underwent at
Iacono said conventional polygraph tests have little scientific validity but
allow examiners to say, "I am getting the sense you are holding something
back; is there something you want to tell me?"
"When people hear that, they admit things it would be difficult to get
in any other way," he said. "People will confess to crimes or make
admissions about themselves or other people. They may reveal suspicions about
a co-worker or explain they did something they should not have done. The government
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.