More than two decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that polygraph evidence cannot be used as conclusive proof of guilt or innocence. In United States v Sheffer, the Justices concluded that “there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable.” They declared that if the test is used, it must be voluntary, and its results cannot be presented as conclusive.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), apparently, hasn’t got the message.
Concerns about how our police and security agencies use polygraphs have received a disconcerting boost with the recent publication of a book by former FBI Special Agent Mike German.
In the book, entitled “Disrupt Discredit And Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy, German claims that polygraphs have been used by the Bureau to “weed out” personnel who do not adhere to the “good ol’ boy” culture. It’s one of a number of criticisms German levels against his former employer, ranging from the use of un-scientific “radicalization” theories to the systematic discrimination against minority ethnic and religious communities in pursuit of national security.
But his critique of polygraphs resonates with the growing body of scientific research that casts doubt on the use of lie detectors, and should concern all of us.
German illustrates this argument with an example of an FBI employee named “Logan” (a pseudonym) who lost his job after failing multiple polygraph examinations. After listening to accusations that he spied for a foreign government during a polygraph interview, Logan tried to remain calm.
But his efforts to remain calm were interpreted as counter-measures consistent with deception. Despite there being no evidence of Logan’s alleged impropriety, aside from the failed polygraph results, he was terminated in 2015.
What is perhaps most worrying about the Logan case is how serious the Bureau (and other members of the Intelligence Community for that matter) weigh the importance of polygraph testing.
German’s discussion highlights the need for renewed public discussion about this practice.
Strong claims about the accuracy of polygraphs come almost exclusively from practitioners—not academia. Research suggests that the capability of the polygraph to obtain new information is more related to its intimidating effect than to its accuracy, according to a 2015 study.
For instance, Thomas Mauriello, a former senior polygraph examiner who worked at the Defense Department for 30 years (and is currently a professor at the University of Maryland), states that polygraph tests merely measure a physiological reaction (e.g., perspiration or an increased heart rate); but they do not determine whether a person is lying or deceitful.
The difference between an innocent’s fear of false detection and a guilty person’s fear of detection cannot be identified by a polygraph, according to the 2015 study cited above.
The 1998 Supreme Court ruling has since received further scientific backing.
A 19-month long study conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine similarly concluded in 2002 that the accuracy of the polygraph “is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.”
But arguably, the FBI was already aware of the unreliability of such evidence.
The bureau’s own expert, Supervisory Special Agent Drew C. Richardson, advised the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1997 that “there is virtually no probability of catching a spy with the use of polygraph screening techniques,” and that “the diagnostic value of this type of testing is no more than that of astrology or tea-leaf reading.”
Convicted spies Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames illustrate the validity of Richardson’s claims: they both passed repeated lie detector tests during their careers as double agents.
Here’s one area of polygraph testing which few people are aware of, but should be alarming to the rest of us: The practice severely hinders the FBI from hiring new recruits.
In 2006, the FBI revealed that about 25 percent of applicants fail a polygraph every year. More recently, The Crime Report reported in 2013 that as many as 40 percent of special agent applicants fail the polygraph and never become special agents. It is important to note that FBI polygraph failure rates are remarkably consistent with other federal agencies.
For instance, the Secret Service reportedly has a polygraph failure rate of 35 percent, while the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has a 36 percent failure rate. Even more alarming is the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which has a 65 percent failure rate.
I hope that you find these statistics as disturbing as I do.
As a former Air Force Intelligence Analyst (2006-2013) who maintained a Top-Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance, I was fortunate enough to have never been subjected to a polygraph. I can’t help but wonder how different my interest in national security and my career trajectory would have been had I failed a polygraph test.
As an instructor with classrooms full of students majoring in Criminal Justice and National Security, student comments made clear to me that landing a job at the FBI is the quintessential dream job. Unfortunately, despite whatever talents and aptitude a student possesses, approximately one in three who meet the selection criteria for the Bureau will ultimately never be hired.
And for those aspiring to work for other federal agencies, their odds of passing the polygraph are similar or worse.
For this unfortunate group, all of their time, hard work, and tuition expense will simply not be enough for them to overcome the institutionalized, pseudo-scientific hiring practices that currently permeate the national security community.
To be clear, I am not advocating that federal national security institutions relax their hiring practices just for the sake of hiring more applicants.
Rather, the hiring process should be fair and not contingent upon how anxious or intimidated a person is in response to the pressure of an invasive interview. Given the unreliability of polygraph testing, a passed test may also afford someone who is an actual security threat an extra layer of protection (e.g. Ames or Hanssen).
Of course, most people who fail will not get an opportunity to prove their ability or commitment to protect the United States. Aside from destroying the career aspirations of these people, the dependence on polygraph testing also leads to a much smaller talent pool to recruit from. Based on past annual screening failure rates (e.g., between 25 percent and 65 percent), it is highly likely that some of the best and brightest candidates are excluded from competing for these jobs.
This may be a worthwhile cost to accept if polygraphs served their intended purpose of screening out potential security risks. But, given the dearth of empirical support surrounding the efficacy of polygraphing, that’s highly doubtful.
It’s time for the FBI and other security agencies to revisit the utility of this anachronistic counter-intelligence practice. Continuing business as usual will only further undermine our nation’s security, and punish those who want to help protect the country most.
Joseph Dule is a Research & Teaching Fellow at the University of New Haven, where he is completing his doctoral dissertation in Criminal Justice. Previously, he worked as an All-Source Intelligence Analyst in the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on Counter-Terrorism issues while assigned to the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, located in Okinawa, Japan. He welcomes comments from readers.