The Boston Globe Magazine examines widespread criticism over government use of polygraphs, “a machine that runs almost entirely on faith.” The pirncipes of polygraph use have been unchanged for a century, the Globe says. During that period, proponents “have believed in it with a faith that is almost evangelical, and for nearly as long, its detractors have derided it as the worst kind of junk science and have seen that faith as having been the problem all along.”
Says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. “It does measure physiological changes like respiration and heartbeat and perspiration, but there’s no guaranteed nexus between those physiological changes and truth-telling. In short, what the polygraph measures is not truth and deception but perspiration and respiration.”
Congress in 1988 outlawed its use in private industry, but government use has exploded. The polygraph is used to screen applicants for 62 percent of the nation’s police departments, compared with 19 percent 40 years ago. The federal government runs 20 polygraph programs and employs more than 500 examiners. And the use of the polygraph is still growing. FBI Director Robert Mueller has $7 million more for the bureau’s polygraph programs, partly to cover hiring 17 more employees.
Between November 1997 and April 2002, the FBI conducted 13,166 pre-employment polygraph screenings. Of those, roughly 3,000 applicants failed. Applicants for agent positions must be polygraphed at the CIA, the National Security Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Secret Service.
Last year, after the furor around Wen Ho Lee, Congress mandated that the Department of Energy polygraph 20,000 employees at the Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear laboratories. The proposal sparked a near mutiny among scientists working with some of the country’s most delicate secrets, and it prompted the Department of Energy to commission an $860,000 study by the National Academy of Sciences of the effectiveness of the polygraph. The report was the most thorough debunking of the polygraph in a long history of them. In May, the Department of Energy acknowledged the report, thanked the academy, and continued to polygraph an average of four lab workers each day.