Response to Letter Regarding McClatchy Series on Polygraphs

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2012 

Dear Editor,

I'm a co-founder of, a non-profit, public interest website that seeks the abolishment of polygraphy from the workplace. I submit the following letter for possible publication. I'm an American working abroad in the city of The Hague, Netherlands.


George Maschke

American Polygraph Association vice-president for government affairs Robert Peters argues that McClatchy Newspapers’ recent reporting on federal polygraph screening “presented a misleading depiction of how the federal government uses polygraph for personnel security.” (“Letter regarding McClatchy series on polygraphs,” Dec. 13, 2012.) But Peters fails to make a convincing case for that viewpoint. Indeed, he fails to document any factual inaccuracy and resorts instead to straw man argumentation and nitpicking.

For example, Peters avers that the “unstated, but clear, premise” of McClatchy’s reporting is that government officials in charge of granting security clearances and congressional oversight committees “are determined to employ a personnel screening method that it not only ineffective but traumatizes a large segment” of intelligence and law enforcement personnel. He states that for America’s intelligence and security services to be successful, they need a superior workforce, and that it is absurd to suggest that officials “would deliberately conduct business in a manner that would hinder the development and preservation of such a workforce.”

However, investigative reporter Marisa Taylor did not impute such bad motives to those officials. On the contrary, she writes (“Feds expand polygraph screening, often seeking intimate facts” Dec. 6) “The federal government describes polygraph testing as an imperfect but effective way of preventing its secrets from being leaked…”

Peters complains that the articles cite just “a handful of individuals who claim to have been questioned in an inappropriate manner” and that “minimal evidence is provided to support those claims of abuse.” Yet part of the reason that evidence of abuse is hard to come by is that the federal agencies that conduct polygraph screening intentionally make it hard. As Taylor notes, “with few exceptions, employees and applicants aren’t permitted copies of taped interrogations or allowed to see the polygraph charts.…” In fact, the FBI has a policy of not recording polygraph interrogations, precisely to prevent the creation of an objective record of what transpires in the polygraph suite.

Peters cites attitude surveys conducted by federal agencies of those they subject to polygraph screening, and avers that the “vast majority” believe the process to be fair (and actually support the practice of polygraph screening). But what else would one expect them to say? These are usually exit surveys conducted promptly after the polygraph session, and those with complaints might find it imprudent to voice them. In any event, such surveys are the kind of information that federal polygraph programs keep secret from researchers, making it impossible to independently assess the merits of Peters’ claim.

Peters claims that “sexual activity is never addressed unless it is criminal in nature,” and yet the young woman polygraphed by the CIA in 2005 was asked if she was a homosexual and was interrogated about her experience as a rape victim. (Not stated in Peters’ commentary is that he is a retired senior CIA polygraph operator and had the final say on scoring Agency polygraph examinations during this time frame.)

It’s worth noting that in earlier reporting (“National Reconnaissance Office accused of illegally collecting personal data,” Jul. 10, 2012) McClatchy documented how polygraphers at the NRO are actually incentivized to collect personal information beyond the authorized scope of questioning.

While Peters complains that McClatchy provides no data to support the premise that federal polygraph screening has significantly expanded since September 11, 2001, such expansion is a matter of record. Three agencies in particular that have stepped up polygraph screening since 9/11 are the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Customs and Border Protection.

And although Peters is unhappy that McClatchy’s reporting suggests that “federal polygraph testing is devoid of accuracy,” that point of view is well-supported. Indeed, it is the scientific consensus. As Taylor noted, no less an authority than Professor Stephen Fienberg, the chair of the National Academies’ polygraph panel, told her: “What we showed, without equivocation, is that the polygraph machine is too blunt an instrument to be relied on for screening.”

Speaking on behalf of the American Polygraph Association, Peters disparages McClatchy’s reporting as “incomplete” and “poorly researched.” I disagree. As a long-time polygraph critic who has closely followed journalistic coverage of polygraph matters, I can say without hesitation that McClatchy’s investigative reporting on federal polygraph screening is the most thorough and well-researched that I have yet seen.

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