Letter regarding McClatchy series on polygraphs

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 13, 2012 

Editor McClatchy Newspapers, Inc.

The McClatchy’s Newspapers, December 2012, series of articles on the federal government’s polygraph screening programs presented a misleading depiction of how the federal government uses polygraph for personnel security. The thesis of the series is that the government is expanding its use of polygraph in a rapid uncontrolled manner, the tests are abusive, and the results are often inaccurate. The unstated, but clear, premise is that government officials responsible for the top secret security clearance process, as well as the congressional oversight committees are determined to employ a personnel screening method that is not only ineffective but traumatizes a large segment of the personnel in the Intelligence Community and some law enforcement agencies. The successful performance of our nation’s intelligence and security services requires a workforce of superior education, motivation, and integrity. The suggestion that government officials would deliberately conduct business in a manner that would hinder the development and preservation of such a workforce is absurd.

To support the claim that “many” are traumatized by the polygraph exams the articles cite a handful of individuals who claim to have been questioned in an inappropriate manner. Minimal evidence is provided to support those claims of abuse. In fact, Mark Zaid, an attorney representing a complainant acknowledges that he found no abuse when he was able to review an audio recording of his client’s exam. The fact is that for many years a number of federal agencies have surveyed the attitudes of the individuals they test. Those surveys consistently demonstrate that the vast majority of those who had been tested believe the exams to be fair, professionally administered, and support the use of polygraph testing for security screening.

The McClatchy articles also claim that polygraph examiners torment the examinees by delving in personal issues that are irrelevant to the security clearance process. It is suggested that polygraph examiners have great leeway in selecting topics for the exam. In fact, the issues addressed in federal screening exams are carefully selected by high level officials who manage the government’s security programs, not by the polygraph examiners. Political and/or religious affiliations or beliefs are completely outside the bounds of examinations. Sexual activity is never addressed unless it is criminal in nature. Applicants and employees who submit to a federal screening should expect the exam to address at least some of the following issues; espionage, sabotage, hidden associations with governments and citizens of foreign countries, compromise of classified information, terrorist activity, major criminal activity, recent illegal drug use, and falsification of application materials. Thoughtful individuals would agree that exploring such issues with those seeking or holding sensitive intelligence and law-enforcement positions is not only reasonable, but that it would be negligent not to address those issues.

The articles allege that a very significant and poorly managed expansion of federal polygraph testing occurred in the decade since the September 11th terrorists’ attacks. Yet no data is offered to support that premise. McClatchy even acknowledges that many federal agencies, including two of the largest (CIA and FBI), decline to provide any information regarding how many exams they administer. The American Polygraph Association (APA) informed McClatchy that it had not experienced a significant increase in membership by federal examiners since 2001. How McClatchy concluded that such a dramatic expansion occurred is never explained.

Finally, the articles suggest that the federal polygraph testing is devoid of accuracy. It intimates that each year thousands of truthful individuals are labeled as deceptive by their polygraph test. This claim is made despite the fact McClatchy has no idea whether or not a thousand be individuals are even are deemed deceptive each year or how many of those judged deceptive acknowledge their deceptive statements when informed of the test results. The APA provided McClatchy one of several methods federal officials might use to accommodate for errors in the polygraph results without harming the career prospects of those examinees. But those methods were not mentioned in the articles.

The APA is disappointed and disturbed that a national news organization published such an incomplete, poorly researched series of article on an issue that directly impacts the security of the United States.

Robert Peters Vice President Government American Polygraph Association www.polygraph.org

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