Special Reports

National Reconnaissance Office hasn’t told police of crime confessions

The nation’s spy satellite agency has been extracting polygraph confessions to crimes such as child molestation but local law enforcement agencies aren’t always told so that they can investigate.

For instance, a former California substitute teacher who agreed to a polygraph test so he could get a national security clearance with the National Reconnaissance Office admitted in 2010 to molesting a girl who was his student at the time. The federal contractor said that if he were asked, “ ‘Have you ever molested a nine-year-old?’ I’d have to say yes,” an internal document says.

McClatchy checked with the police department and school district in Escondido, Calif., where the man once worked and discovered that neither had been notified of the 2005 incident involving a third-grader.

In a polygraph session with the spy agency in 2010, a man who was then an Air Force lieutenant colonel confessed to downloading child pornography on his Pentagon computer and to touching a child in a sexual way, records obtained by McClatchy show.

“He worried that because of his feelings toward children, he could be accused of being like ‘Michael Jackson,’ ” a document says. “He did make it clear that viewing nude children between the ages of three and fourteen was sexually appealing to him.”

The lieutenant colonel said he’d sexually touched the child in Stafford, Va., where the county sheriff’s department has jurisdiction. The department wasn’t notified, spokesman Bill Kennedy said.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations, which could have investigated the downloading of child pornography, also wasn’t informed. “I have nothing on it,” Air Force OSI spokeswoman Linda Card said about the lieutenant colonel, who retired last August. It’s unclear whether the Justice Department was notified. When McClatchy asked about it, spokeswoman Alisa Finelli said the department was "reviewing its records."

The federal government’s failure to notify local law enforcement in these two cases comes after revelations that Penn State officials may have withheld suspicions that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was molesting children. Sandusky was convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys.

The National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees spy satellites, conducts an aggressive and controversial polygraph program aimed at screening employees and job applicants from across the country for security clearances. The agency refused to answer McClatchy’s questions about its polygraph program, saying in a statement that “The NRO polygraph program is in compliance with the law” and the confessions were “forwarded to the appropriate authorities,” but officials declined to say whom they notified.

As soon as Escondido school district officials heard from McClatchy about their former substitute’s confession, they reported it to the police. In Virginia and California, where the two cases of molestation were said to have occurred, a wide range of state and local government officials who have contact with children are required to report child abuse. The National Reconnaissance Office is in Fairfax County, Va.

“I’m not sure what this agency feels its obligations are under the law,” said Bob Leon, the Escondido school district’s deputy superintendent for human resources. “But in my opinion, it’s important in any situation where children might be in a precarious situation that the information be shared so we can follow up on it.”

The National Reconnaissance Office reported that it had 366 confessions ranging from crimes to inappropriate personal behavior in fiscal year 2011, according to statistics obtained by McClatchy.

McClatchy couldn’t determine how many of them involved serious crimes nor how often the agency had failed to report them, because the details of the polygraph program are not disclosed.

Polygraphers who worked in other government agencies said someone who confessed to a serious crime during a polygraph session generally would be arrested or investigated so that any criminal evidence could be secured. In a child pornography case, for example, investigators would want to seize computer evidence. After an admission of child abuse, police and child protective services would want to investigate as soon as possible to ensure that children weren’t in immediate danger.

The National Reconnaissance Office has an agreement with Fairfax County’s police department that allows for referrals of serious criminal confessions when it deems it’s warranted. But the police department didn’t have any information about the child abuse confessions, said Don Gotthardt, a department spokesman.

When contacted by McClatchy, the retired lieutenant colonel confirmed being polygraphed but denied confessing to such crimes.

“I need to go and talk to some other people before I can say anything else to you,” he said. “I don’t know what this is about. I don’t know what’s going on.”

He said he’d call the reporter back. His answering machine then was disconnected the next day, and he never called.

McClatchy tried repeatedly to contact the former substitute teacher and left messages on his phone and with his wife. He left a message last week on a reporter’s voice mail confirming that he was the contractor but said, “I can’t imagine how I would be implicated in a crime.” He added that he was “moving out of state and don’t know when I’ll be back.”

The substitute teacher said during the agency’s polygraph that he’d molested the girl during one of the tutoring sessions that were paid for by her Vietnamese parents. He was supposed to be teaching her English.

He admitted to “observing girls in third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades in a sexual manner” during his time as a substitute, agency documents say.

The lieutenant colonel told the agency’s polygrapher that he’d learned how to avoid detection while viewing child pornography from a computer technician who was looking into a subordinate’s reprimand for downloading porn. The officer confessed to masturbating at work after viewing the images.

The documents don’t indicate and the agency wouldn’t say whether the men received security clearances.

McClatchy isn’t revealing the two men’s names because the confessions weren’t criminally investigated and the polygraphs weren’t conducted by law enforcement officials.

In 2010, news media reported that dozens of military officials and defense contractors were found to have downloaded child pornography, but many of them weren’t investigated by the Pentagon even though it had been notified of the practice years before.

One of the employees worked at the National Reconnaissance Office. The agency had been tipped off in 2006 that the employee allegedly had been trafficking in child porn. “However, the decision was made internally to only address the issue” at the employee’s next security clearance renewal in 2008, Pentagon inspector general records show. In 2008, the employee confessed to the agency that he viewed child porn about twice a week from home. By the time federal prosecutors were informed in June 2009, the contractor had moved out of state and authorities couldn’t find records of the downloaded purchases.

When National Reconnaissance Office polygraphers asked supervisors in a meeting last summer why people weren’t being arrested on the spot after confessing to molestation, they were told that the allegations were referred to the appropriate authorities when warranted, several former polygraphers who attended the meeting said. Two of the polygraphers, Mark Phillips and Chuck Hinshaw, said several polygraphers at the agency have questioned whether it was handling confessions to crime appropriately. Both men have since left the agency and now think that they were retaliated against for objecting to the practices.

To prosecute a polygraph confession, criminal investigators often must collect more evidence or get an admission to a crime during a separate interrogation. Agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office inform people who are polygraphed voluntarily during employment screenings that any such admission might be referred to law enforcement authorities. However, polygraphers generally don’t inform them of their constitutional rights, as criminal investigators often are required to do. In the lieutenant colonel’s case, the polygrapher was supposed to inform him of his rights under military law but did not, the records show. Many courts don’t allow polygraph evidence because it isn’t scientifically reliable, and prosecutors might determine that charges can’t be filed even if there’s a confession.But several National Reconnaissance Office polygraphers who spoke to McClatchy, including Phillips and Hinshaw, questioned whether the agency was routinely withholding that it was obtaining such confessions to protect itself from outside scrutiny. A criminal prosecution would mean that the suspect’s defense attorney would have access to taped interviews and notes of the polygraph sessions, and might question the agency’s techniques at a time when some of its polygraphers already were accusing it internally of improper practices.

The Pentagon has told the National Reconnaissance Office that 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.

Yet the agency compelled a job applicant in January to confess to stealing a lipstick and smoking pot once when she was a teenager, documents show. Adding to questions about the agency’s practices, the 35-year-old woman already had gone through a polygraph in 2010 aimed at the national security issues the agency is permitted to ask about.

The National Security Agency, which along with the CIA is allowed to directly ask questions about criminal conduct in polygraph tests, is known for being aggressive about referring molestation and child pornography cases to local and state officials.

Tish Wells contributed to this article.

Related stories from McClatchy DC