Commentary: Fed polygraphs seems more like Big Brother than about national security

The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-EnquirerDecember 10, 2012 

The ethics of the matter, and the seemingly gratuitous intrusiveness of some interrogations, are just part of the problem with polygraph screenings of federal employees and applicants.

There's also the far more fundamental question of whether the process even works. Do these tests truly make us safer? Or are they an abuse of power by federal agencies that, by their very nature, are exempt from public accountability?

At issue is a process so notoriously undependable that polygraph results are still not admissible in court decades after the technology was developed; and even the professionals who administer it are loath to vouch for its reliability.

A June report by McClatchy Newspapers and a follow-up published just this past week offer unsettling and even appalling details of polygraph testing. The National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence organization many Americans probably didn't even know existed, has been leaning on federal agencies to probe the most intimate and personal areas of people's lives. Details of the interrogation of a young woman offered a CIA job -- she was subjected to hours of harsh, even abusive questioning about her rape and subsequent miscarriage -- are enough to sicken even the most security conscious among us.

McClatchy reports that more than 73,000 Americans were subjected to polygraphs last year as a condition of getting or keeping a federal government job. Americans are not naïve about the realities of national security; we understand that somebody who applies for a job involving access to sensitive information should expect a high degree of close, even personal scrutiny.

But everything is a matter of degree, and Americans understand that, too. Not only are there legitimate doubts about which personal secrets are relevant to which government jobs; there's also the fact that those secrets can be shared with other agencies. They aren't, however, shared with the people subjected to the interrogations, who for the most part have no access or legal recourse.

The National Academies, with which the government consults on scientific issues, urged a halt to polygraph screening nine years ago. "What we showed, without equivocation," said the Academies' Stephen Fienberg, "is that the polygraph machine is too blunt an instrument to be relied on for screening."

The bottom line: An unreliable screening method, ethical or otherwise, doesn't just keep good people out; it also lets bad ones slip through, as has been all too well documented.

Maybe the most disturbing assessment came from retired CIA polygrapher John Sullivan: "Where is the line? … It can be a slippery slope. At a certain point, the government can justify almost anything." That's way too close to novelist Joseph Heller's ominous all-purpose loophole for official abuse: "Catch-22 says we can do anything you can't stop us from doing."

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