WASHINGTON — The nation’s spy satellite agency has announced it overhauled its lie detector program after its inspector general found “significant shortcomings” that could put national security at risk.
The National Reconnaissance Office’s inspector general found the problems were so widespread that one senior official described the agency’s polygraph program as “terribly broken.”
“This official added that the current status of the NRO polygraph program is ‘bleak,’” the inspector general report said.
The review by the inspector general was triggered by McClatchy’s reporting almost two years ago.
McClatchy reported that National Reconnaissance Office polygraphers had accused their agency of pressuring them to collect information during the lie detector tests that was against Pentagon policy. The Pentagon permits agencies to ask direct questions during security clearance investigations only about intelligence matters.
In a statement earlier this week, the reconnaissance agency said it made changes as a result of the inspector general report including improving training of its polygraphers and assessments of their performances.
“The NRO appreciates the reviews and recommendations made by the NRO (inspector general),” the agency said in a statement. “We are taking the right actions in response to their recommendations to ensure we retain the trust and confidence _ internal and external to the NRO _ necessary to accomplish our mission.”
But the agency took issue with McClatchy’s reporting, saying it contained “inaccuracies.”
Polygraphers told McClatchy they were being pressured to go after prohibited personal matters during security clearance polygraphs, including, in one case, interrogating a longtime contractor about her molestation as a child.
The Pentagon had told the National Reconnaissance Office it doesn’t have the authority to ask directly about crimes during its polygraph screenings. It’s supposed to directly ask only about national security issues such as spying and terrorism, the Pentagon has said.
Polygraphers said they were being rewarded with bonuses or penalized based on the number of admissions they obtained. McClatchy reviewed orders given to polygraphers that confirmed they were told in some cases to collect the more personal information. The polygraphers said it was not a written policy but an off-the-books requirement.
The National Reconnaissance Office’s inspector general found delays in polygraph testing and inconsistent practices by polygraphers.
“We found significant shortcomings in the administration and execution of the NRO Polygraph Program that may result in potential negative national security implications originating at the NRO,” the report said. “. . . We found numerous personnel with access to NRO classified information have not undergone polygraph testing as part of their initial security process.”
The inspector general also discovered instances in which polygraphers went beyond those limits, but it blamed “inefficient testing practices.”
“While these instances may lead to perceptions that the NRO is exceeding its authority in asking questions beyond the scope . . . we found no evidence of programmatic directives or policies expressly instructing examiners to do so,” the inspector general’s office concluded.
The inspector general also blamed confusion among polygraphers because of the differences in their backgrounds. Both CIA and Air Force employees work for the National Reconnaissance Office.
However, Dennis Billings, an NRO contractor, told McClatchy Thursday that he believed the inspector general missed systemic violations of Pentagon policies.
Billings said he was grilled repeatedly about his personal life during his lie detector test even after being told that he was not suspected of any wrongdoing and had “passed” all questions regarding security matters.
“If it is not a systemic problem, why has the NRO been unable to fix it for years?” he asked.
Billings’ clearances were revoked last summer after 24 years as a CIA employee and NRO contractor. He has filed a lawsuit with the federal claims court.
His lawsuit, he said, “alleges the same lack of training” and “ignorance of current law” as the inspector general report reveals.
The NRO has not yet acted on his claim or request for appeal.
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who demanded the inquiry after reading McClatchy’s stories, said he was glad the inspector general’s report was made public, but he asked for more information. The Defense Department previously found the agency had violated polygraph policies in specific cases.
“Unfortunately, the report fails to address some of the serious questions and concerns that have come up as these unacceptable practices have been uncovered,” Grassley said. “For example, there is no indication of who authorized the problem cases and who should be held accountable.”
Grassley said the NRO inspector general did not look at the “most troubling examples” in McClatchy’s stories.
“I’ve asked the NRO inspector general to address my questions, and it has agreed to do so. I look forward to hearing how the agency addresses the problems,” Grassley added.
Last month in a separate inquiry, the inspector general for the intelligence community found the National Reconnaissance Office also failed to notify authorities when some employees and contractors confessed during lie detector tests to crimes such as child molestation.
In other cases, the NRO delayed reporting criminal admissions obtained during security clearance polygraphs, possibly jeopardizing evidence in investigations or even the safety of children, according to the inspector general report. McClatchy’s reporting raised similar concerns.
In one instance, one of the agency’s top lawyers told colleagues not to bother reporting confessions by a government contractor of child molestation, viewing child pornography and sexting with a minor.
Although the two inspectors general reports confirmed some of the allegations raised by former NRO polygrapher Mark Phillips, he was denied whistle-blower status. Phillips resigned after objecting to the agency’s practices.
“The NRO inspector general report reveals the pervasive failure of the intelligence community to properly deal with whistle-blowers,” said Phillips’ lawyer, Mark Zaid. “In this instance, the majority of his complaints were shown to have validity and prompted change. Yet he was retaliated against because of the culture and had to leave his job.”