Feds expand polygraph screening, often seeking intimate facts

Dec 8, 2012

She was one of the brightest students at a leading university when the Central Intelligence Agency offered her a job as a counter-terrorism analyst. But first, the 19-year-old was warned, she had to undergo a polygraph test to determine whether she could be trusted.

Instead of scrutinizing her ability to guard government secrets, polygraphers asked about her reported rape and miscarriage, the woman recalled. Over at least eight hours in three separate sessions, polygraphers repeatedy demanded to know her innermost thoughts, even after she started sobbing in shame.

“At one point, one of the polygraphers said to me, `Turn on the light inside so I can see,’“ said the woman, who asked that her name be withheld. “I was amazed at how creepy and invasive the whole process was.”

Last year, more than 73,000 Americans across the country submitted to polygraph tests to get or keep jobs with the federal government, although such screening is mostly banned in the private sector and widely denounced by scientists. Many of the screenings probably aren’t as harsh as the CIA applicant described, but polygraphers at a growing number of U.S. agencies are asking employees and applicants questions about their personal lives and private thoughts in the name of protecting the country from spies, terrorists or corrupt law enforcement officers.

The federal government describes polygraph testing as an imperfect but effective way of preventing its secrets from being leaked at a time when almost 5 million people have been approved to access classified information. Many people who undergo polygraph tests describe them as one of the most emotional, terrifying and shameful experiences in their lives. Polygraphers routinely coax people into revealing secrets or experiences they haven’t told their friends, relatives or therapists. The polygraphers record the sessions and keep details of the results, sharing them across the government when someone applies to different agencies.

Scientists, however, don’t know whether polygraph machines can tell whether someone is lying or even withholding information. Some independent studies have concluded that polygraph testing is no more accurate than a coin toss.

Despite such doubts about the tests, Congress and the courts no longer aggressively scrutinize the usually secretive federal polygraph programs. People who undergo the tests often can’t get access to information about their interrogations, and most are barred from filing complaints in federal court.

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