October 17, 2002
Spies, lies and polygraphs
Recently, the National Academy of Sciences issued a landmark report regarding the use of polygraphy by various federal agencies. Although many issues were explored and several conclusions were drawn, none was more important than the finding that polygraph screening is completely invalid as a diagnostic instrument for determining truth regarding counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, past activities of job applicants and other important issues currently so assessed by our various federal, state and local governments.
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During an Associated Press briefing, it was stated by various panel members very clearly and emphatically that no spy had ever been caught as a result of polygraphy, none would ever be expected to be so revealed, and that although a precise figure cannot be assigned to the number of false-positive results, large numbers of the tens of thousands of people subjected yearly to this sort of "testing" are likely being falsely accused about their backgrounds and activities.
The jury is in and the evidence is clear and compelling. The American people should insist and our executive and legislative branches of government should ensure that the technological and sociological embarrassment we have come to know as polygraph screening should be immediately stopped. Not one more innocent applicant or employee should be falsely accused and not one more spy should be given cover through having passed a polygraph exam. The notion (as will be suggested by some in government agencies using polygraph screening) that this is just one tool among many being used to address problems is wrong and dangerous mumbo-jumbo. The results of polygraph screening examinations are either believed or they are not. If they are believed, they are acted upon and, furthermore, these actions, if based upon erroneous polygraph results, will continue to lead to the sorts of grave injury to country and citizens as previously noted.
There exist few, if any, better examples than polygraph screening to disprove the notion and oft-said maxim about "anything being better than nothing" as a solution for a problem. Although the difficulties of protecting the national security and of hiring trustworthy and competent employees do represent real challenges and do present real problems, polygraph screening is not, and never was, a meaningful solution to these problems. Many innocent and honest applicants have been and are wrongly being denied federal, state, and local government employment solely based on polygraph results. These individuals do not have an inalienable right to government employment, but they do have a right as U.S. citizens to fair and just treatment by their respective governments.
Spies such as Aldrich Ames and Ana Montes have been allowed to continue spying, at least in part due to the confidence placed in polygraph exams having been passed by these individuals while they were committing their acts of espionage. As has been demonstrated in spades over the years, not only is polygraph screening not a solution for the problems encountered by those entrusted with protecting the national security, but it is, in fact, a real threat itself to the national security and the reputations of our citizens.
Although the report correctly assesses there are many things that need to be changed and that there is much to be done over time to shore up the national security, there is only one compelling short-term action that screams for completion - end polygraph screening now. It presumably was not easy for this panel to tell their sponsors that procedures they are currently using are invalid as truth identifiers and lie detectors. Our governments should be no less courageous in following the panel conclusions with the timely decisions and policy actions so badly needed and so clearly required by this report.
Drew Richardson is a former supervisory special agent of the FBI as well as a research physiologist and former examiner in the FBI laboratory.