WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials are scrambling to look into allegations of abusive polygraph techniques by a spy agency but so far they aren’t heeding calls for a more in-depth investigation.
Pentagon officials met Thursday with the National Reconnaissance Office after a McClatchy investigation found that the spy agency was pressuring its polygraphers to obtain intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees, possibly in violation of the law and Pentagon regulations.
McClatchy found that the National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with bonuses.
The agency, which oversees the nation’s spy satellites, collects the information for employee security clearances, but it isn’t supposed to be pursuing the more personal information, instead asking directly only about spying, terrorism and the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
Even though it’s aggressively collecting the private disclosures, when people confess to serious crimes such as child molestation they aren’t always arrested or prosecuted, McClatchy’s investigation revealed.
The articles prompted one prominent congressman to call this week for an investigation of the agency’s polygraph program. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he thought that the Pentagon’s inspector general should look at whether the National Reconnaissance Office was in compliance with Defense Department polygraph rules. The Pentagon oversees the agency’s polygraph program even though the agency is a unique mix of CIA and Air Force employees.
“The polygraphers should have clear rules and regulations about the topics they can and should cover in their work,” Grassley said.
He added that he wanted the inspector general to review how the agency handled confessions to crimes and “make sure those rules are adequate and clearly communicated to employees.”
The criticism of the agency’s program came as the federal government’s use of polygraph for national security clearances has skyrocketed despite concerns that the technique isn’t scientifically reliable.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, appears to be taking a much less aggressive approach to the revelations about spy agency’s polygraphing than critics think it should.
The Pentagon’s inspector general is looking into whether a former National Reconnaissance Office polygrapher who spoke to McClatchy was retaliated against for complaining about the agency’s practices. However, internal emails show that high-level Pentagon officials have been hesitant to order a broader investigation into the agency’s program, although they were eager to appear as if they were on top of the matter after the articles appeared.
McClatchy obtained the emails from the website AntiPolygraph.org, a nonprofit group that opposes the use of polygraph by government agencies. The website received the emails anonymously.
In the emails, the Pentagon officials agreed to meet with the National Reconnaissance Office about its polygraph program but they characterized the visit as an “assessment as to the need for any other recommended action.”
“The visit would not be an inspection, but a discussion about the articles,” Toby Sullivan, the Defense Department’s director of counterintelligence, wrote the day after McClatchy’s articles appeared. “We will have done appropriate due diligence.” The officials then would decide whether more action was needed, he said.
Shortly after this story posted online, a spokesman emailed a response, after initially declining to comment.
"Suggestions that we aren't taking this matter seriously are simply wrong," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.
Another Pentagon official, Michael Porco, had theorized in a memo that the allegations in the articles resulted from “confusion” by McClatchy and its sources over less dramatic problems within the National Reconnaissance Office’s polygraph program that the Pentagon already had detected.
The agency’s program was audited last November and “the only discrepancy noted was the improper use of comparison questions,” Porco wrote. That meant the agency was asking questions about personal information to test how someone responded before the official test began. The danger with such a practice is that someone might offer up intimate personal information that the agency has no legal authority to ask about.
Porco said the agency agreed to stop asking those questions late last year.
“It is quite probable that these unauthorized questions, already discovered by this internal review, were partially responsible for allegations noted in these articles,” wrote another Defense Department official, Frank Maietta.
Pentagon officials refused to comment further on their reaction to the articles, but McClatchy reviewed hundreds of documents – including internal policy documents, memos and agency emails – and interviewed dozens of polygraphers and national security experts before concluding in its investigation that the National Reconnaissance Office was pushing ethical and possibly legal limits by:
– Establishing a system that tracks the number of personal confessions obtained, which then are used in polygraphers’ annual performance reviews.
– Summoning employees and job applicants for multiple polygraph tests to ask about a wide array of personal behavior.
– Altering results of the tests in what some polygraphers say is an effort to justify more probing of employees’ and applicants’ private lives.
The disclosures by employees and applicants include a wide range of behavior and private thoughts such as drug use, child abuse, suicide attempts, depression and sexual deviancy.
The National Reconnaissance Office has refused to answer McClatchy’s questions, saying in a statement that its polygraph program “is in compliance with the law.” The agency points to a review the Defense Department ordered that found its program in compliance with Pentagon regulations.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said that if the allegations were true the National Reconnaissance Office had made an “unwarranted invasion into its employees’ privacy rights.”
“Polygraphs are an important tool when used in accordance with the law,” she said. “But when these tools are abused, they are both ineffective and undermine the civil liberties of our national security personnel.”
Mark Zaid, a lawyer who represents one of the polygraphers who raised questions about the practices in McClatchy’s articles, said the Pentagon should be ordering a “fully independent and honest investigation” into the agency’s polygraph program.
"The email traffic conveys the distinct impression that senior officials within the polygraph community do not understand the nature of the specific allegations against NRO’s practices,” he said. “To some extent that is not surprising, given no one with oversight authority in the intelligence community has yet to speak with my client.”
If the National Reconnaissance Office or the Pentagon were to investigate, the agencies could review individual polygraph sessions because they’re all recorded and stored in a vast database. However, any investigation could call into question the more than 8,000 polygraph tests a year the agency runs at a time when the Obama administration has decided to expand the use of polygraph to root out leakers to the news media.
The number of people who held U.S. security clearances for access to classified information was 4.8 million as of last October, according to a government estimate obtained this week by the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan research center that tracks intelligence policies. The government hasn’t reported how many of those people are required to be polygraphed. In the Pentagon alone, almost 46,000 national security polygraphs are ordered each year, a fivefold increase in the last decade.
Matthew Schofield contributed to this article.