Special Reports

Federal polygraph programs are secret even to researchers

When Army engineer David Tenenbaum lost his security clearance after a polygraph, he accused the Defense Department polygrapher, along with others, of targeting him because he's an Orthodox Jew.
When Army engineer David Tenenbaum lost his security clearance after a polygraph, he accused the Defense Department polygrapher, along with others, of targeting him because he's an Orthodox Jew. MCT

It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the federal government.

Information about polygraph screening is so guarded by the agencies that use it that job applicants who are tested are urged not to tell anyone. The news media are denied basic information, such as how many government employees are screened, because it’s “sensitive” and could jeopardize national security.

Researchers are told they can’t get studies about how it works. Even the National Academies, the organization set up to advise the federal government on scientific matters, faced stiff resistance when it reviewed polygraph testing. As a result, the academies compared the polygraph profession to the “priesthood keeping its secrets in order to keep its power.”

“It’s a siege mentality,” acknowledged Gordon Barland, a retired federal polygraph researcher who supports polygraph screening but also pushed for greater transparency on some of the data.

Many of the 15 agencies that rely on polygraph testing for job applicants and employees say they’re protecting screening methods from spies or terrorists who might figure out how to infiltrate the government. An unknown number of government polygraph studies remain classified because of this fear. But critics and even some supporters say the federal government should be more open about its programs given the growing use of polygraph screening and the continued scientific controversy over it.

Barland, one of the most prolific government polygraph researchers, asked government officials to publish several classified studies on polygraph screening that he participated in. They declined.

Other government researchers who’ve pushed for publishing such studies also have been turned down, Barland said. Some have left the government in frustration. Researchers and academics generally think it’s essential for studies to be published and peer reviewed. Barland said the government would have benefited from publicizing several of the studies because they demonstrated that polygraph screening worked, but he blames labor unions and civil libertarians for making polygraphers gun-shy.

“They don’t want to give critics any more ammunition,” he said.

Job applicants and employees also are denied the recordings of their polygraph screenings and the charts that polygraphers relied on to determine whether they’re lying. If they want any other records about sessions, they have to file open records requests. Nonetheless, documents often are withheld or redacted for national security reasons. The information is so guarded that people who are polygraphed are urged to “maintain confidentiality” and not to tell co-workers, relatives or friends, documents obtained by McClatchy show.

Polygraphers say they need to keep their methods secret because of attempts to beat the tests. Known as countermeasures, the methods are said to have been used by the deceased scientist who later was identified as the 2001 anthrax killer and by CIA officer and Soviet spy Aldrich Ames. But others, including independent researchers and security experts, think the secrecy is designed to give the technique more psychological power than it deserves. Many of the details – such as how many people are screened or what questions are asked – aren’t classified, yet aren’t divulged. As a result of the secrecy, people feel compelled to tell the truth even though scientists widely criticize polygraph screening as unreliable, critics said. McClatchy recently obtained copies of unpublished government assessments of polygraph screening that questioned the effectiveness of some methods. One study, researched by Barland, concluded that the results were “disturbing” because polygraphers identified people during mock tests as lying when they were not. Another said, “It may be premature to estimate the accuracy of counterintelligence screening examinations based on the evidence presently available.”

Katelyn Sack, a University of Virginia researcher who’s studying whether factors including polygraphers’ personal biases influence testing, provided the copies to McClatchy. Sack had to hire a lawyer and file open-records lawsuits to get data about U.S. polygraph programs even though the federal government has claimed to be supportive of such research.

She said she thought she’d encountered suspicion from polygraphers because she was an independent researcher not tied to the industry. So far, her research isn’t showing racial bias in polygraph testing outside the federal government. Sack would like to assess whether the same is true of federal programs, but she’s still fighting for more data.

“The polygraph profession is actually its own worst enemy,” she said.

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