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The Lasso of Truth: The American National Security Workforce and the Polygraph

A substantially edited portion of this work was published previously in The Crime Report

Almost everyone is familiar with the famous Lasso of Truth, Wonder Woman’s weapon used against supervillains and criminals. The lasso wraps around the person and forces them to reveal the truth, whatever that may be. One could almost equate this to our modern-day forms of a polygraph, the devices which, in theory, determine one’s truthfulness. Ironically, the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, created an early form of the polygraph in the 1920s and tried presenting himself as the sole inventor of the device.

Polygraphs (also known as lie detector tests) are an incredibly popular tool. They are used in criminal and civil cases, by the prosecution and defense alike, to determine the credibility of sources, defendants, and suspects. They are used by various federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to determine the truthfulness of new recruits and in granting top-secret security clearances. The public perception is usually that, if a person under suspicion of a crime fails a polygraph, then that specific person is guilty of that specific crime. They further are used by parole officers to determine if a parolee is adhering to the conditions of parole or probation.

However, this is far from the truth of the matter.

Polygraphs are in fact a discredited form of detecting lies or in verifying one’s truthfulness. They have zero scientific basis, are far too open to individual bias and partial interpretation, and overall incredibly unreliable. Yet they are in use by nearly every federal law enforcement agency for employment and investigative purposes and are utilized by the courts in certain circumstances.

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The History of the Polygraph 

Methods to detect lying have been around since ancient times in Russia, Japan, and China, yet the polygraph we know of today had its history in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Between 1885 and 1948, five different forms of polygraphs were developed according to the National Institute for Truth Verification. All of these forms of lie-detecting were based upon either blood pressure, breathing, or perspiration, which are still used in modern-day polygraphing.

Joseph Stromberg, at the time a writer for Vox, documented the history of the polygraph concisely, writing;

“…through the 1950s and ’60s, investigators developed the testing procedure that’s still most widely used today, called the Control Question Technique. Essentially, the questioner will mix control questions (vaguely threatening ones that don’t pertain to the case at hand, like “Have you ever stolen from a friend?”) with specific questions relevant to the case (like “Did you commit the robbery on June 17?”). The subject will also repeatedly be reminded that the machine can accurately distinguish truth from lies, and that it’s essential for them to answer truthfully. The idea is that the control questions will arouse some baseline anxiety in response to being interrogated, because the questions are vague and hard to answer entirely truthfully. If they didn’t commit the crime in question, the thinking goes, their anxiety would actually be lower for the relevant questions (because they’d know they weren’t lying). But if they did commit the crime, these questions would trigger even greater levels of anxiety. All this would be reflected in their physiological responses. So to figure out if someone is lying, you simply compare their physiological responses to the control questions with responses to the relevant ones. If the former are higher, they’re innocent. If the latter are, they’re guilty”

In effect, the polygraph measures one’s anxiety level and determines this based upon physiological responses to questions. In the mind of a polygraphist, or at least to federal agencies and certain authorities, if one exhibits a high anxiety level, then more often than not they are lying. That is the scientific theory behind this entire device.

The Credibility of Polygraphs

The scientific legitimacy of polygraphs has been questioned by the scientific community since at least the 1970s. According to Philip M. Boffey in a 1982 article for the New York Times, “only in the last 10 or 12 years has there been much effort to test its validity. The results have been highly varied; some researchers conclude that the tests are highly reliable, while others find evidence that the most morally scrupulous people are among the most likely to be falsely identified as liars…Professional polygraph examiners often contend they can identify liars and truthtellers at accuracy rates well above 95 percent in real-life interrogations, but most serious scientists who have studied the use of lie detectors consider such claims inflated”. At this time, in the 1980s, very little research was being done upon the accuracy of polygraphs or the correlation of lying with stress and physiological responses.

Of the field studies conducted, however, Boffey notes, “The latest field study…was based on 100 actual cases in the files of a leading polygraph company. The charts from these cases, in which truth and falsehood had already been verified by confessions, were submitted to six polygraphists for judgment. Their average accuracy rate was only 70 percent, and they misclassified 37 percent of the innocent subjects as guilty. In two other field studies, polygraphists wrongly classified even higher percentages, roughly half or more, of the innocent subjects as deceptive. On the other hand, several field tests showed accuracy rates ranging from 75 to 92 percent”. At this point, the actual scientific evidence was mixed.

The U.S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) released a technical memorandum in late 1983 titled Scientific Validity of Polygraph Testing: A Research Review and Evaluation which found;

“…that no overall measure or single statistic of polygraph validity can be established based on available scientific evidence…OTA concluded that there is at present only limited scientific evidence for establishing the validity of scientific testing. Even where the evidence seems to indicate that polygraph testing detects deceptive subjects better than chance (when using the control question technique in specific-incident criminal investigations), significant error rates are possible, and examiner and examinee differences and the use of countermeasures may further affect validity”

This report, referencing Specific-Incident Criminal Investigations, stated “The preponderance of research evidence does indicate that, when the control question technique is used in specific-incident criminal investigations, the polygraph detects deception at a rate better than chance, but with error rates that could be considered significant”. In terms of employment purposes, the report agreed with the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), “that the polygraph is a useful screening tool [yet] the available research evidence does not establish the scientific validity of the polygraph for this purpose”. Interestingly, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agreed with the OTA on the most part, yet said they had “classified research to support their use of polygraph tests”; the OTA was not able to access this information.

For the most part, scientific evidence and research conducted in the 1980s seems to indicate that polygraphs are not scientifically valid. In December of 1988, Congress passed the Employment Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) which “prohibited the use of all relevant mechanical or electrical devices, including polygraph, deceptograph, voice stress analyzer, or psychological stress evaluator…The law prohibits the use of the polygraph results as the sole basis of an adverse employment decision and restrains the employer from disclosing the information obtained in most cases”.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. which ruled “that expert witnesses must provide scientifically valid reasoning that applies to the facts of the case for their testimony to be admissible in court…The ruling established the Daubert standard for admissible scientific evidence…[which] governs how judges evaluate scientific testimony given by expert witnesses and requires scientifically valid reasoning that applies to the facts of the case at hand”. Effectively, this ruling allows judges to determine the usage of polygraphs in their courtrooms; for example, in the State of Texas, polygraphs are inadmissible while, in Georgia, Nevada, and Florida, polygraphs may be used only with the consent of all parties.

Prior to this 1993 ruling, the Supreme Court had ruled in the 1932 case Frye v. United States “that the [polygraph] could only be used if one day it gained wide approval from the scientific community—which never really happened”.

In 1997, the bipartisan, statutory Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, also known as the Moynihan Commission, wrote in their final report on polygraphs, stating, “Although the polygraph is useful in eliciting admissions, the potential also exists for excessive reliance on the examination itself. A related concern is that too much trust is placed in polygraph examiners’ skills, creating a false sense of security within agencies that rely on the polygraph. The few Government-sponsored scientific research reports on polygraph validity (as opposed to its utility), especially those focusing on the screening of applicants for employment, indicate that the polygraph is neither scientifically valid nor especially effective beyond its ability to generate admissions (some of which may not even be relevant based on current adjudicative criteria)”. They recommended that an official Department of Defense (DoD) committee be formed to further research the polygraph and that additional “independent, objective, and peer-reviewed scientific research” was desperately needed.

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court again ruled on polygraphs, stating “that state and federal governments may ban the use of polygraph evidence in court” with three justices (Justice Scalia, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Thomas) desiring “to discourage states from ever allowing their use in court”; Justice Thomas further opined “There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable”. For the most part, however, this ruling did completely remove the use of polygraphs in military courts.

The Court’s reasoning (the device possibly swaying the jury’s determination of credibility) was similarly echoed by a local magistrate in 1922. For the most part, currently, polygraphs are inadmissible as evidence in a court of law.

Not only has the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on this issue, but other foreign courts have as well; the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Israel have all ruled polygraphs are inadmissible as evidence in their courts of law.

In the twenty-first century, the academic research and study of polygraphs became more widespread. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS, a non-governmental and non-profit organization) released a 416-page report titled The Polygraph and Lie Detection which concluded saying;

“Overall, the evidence [for scientific evidence on the polygraph with the goal of assessing its validity for security purposes] is scanty and scientifically weak…Almost a century of research in scientific psychology and physiology provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy. The physiological responses measured by the polygraph are not uniquely related to deception…The theoretical rationale for the polygraph is quite weak, especially in terms of differential fear, arousal, or other emotional states that are triggered in response to relevant or comparison questions…The research on polygraph accuracy fails in important ways to reflect critical aspects of field polygraph testing, even for specific-incident investigation. In the laboratory studies focused on specific incidents using mock crimes, the consequences associated with lying or being judged deceptive almost never mirror the seriousness of those in real-world settings in which the polygraph is used. Polygraph practitioners claim that such studies underestimate the accuracy of the polygraph for motivated examinees, but we have found neither a compelling theoretical rationale nor a clear base of empirical evidence to support this claim; in our judgment, these studies overestimate accuracy…Although the criterion of truthfulness is easy to establish in laboratory simulations, we have seen no indication of a clear and stable agreement on what criteria are used in practice for assessing the accuracy of security screening polygraph tests in any federal agency that uses the tests. In particular, there is inconsistency about whether the polygraph test is being judged on its ability to detect major security violations or on its ability to elicit admissions of security violations of any magnitude”

This report was truly the first truly scientific examination of polygraphs and uses some strong language against polygraphs, especially their usage by federal agencies. The report called for a far stronger emphasis on scientific research into polygraphs and a better data storing system by the federal government for examination into accuracy and reliability. It also pointed to other potentially better forms of testing; for example, having a similar interrogation setting but with an inert, polygraph-looking device would probably work just as suitably in this assessment.

Using a background investigation as well would undoubtedly prove beneficial and help in determining the validity of an applicant’s statements. In some respects, having a strong background investigation could possibly totally eliminate the need for a polygraph as these often provide far better information on applicants, their personal lives, and potentially disqualifying events.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest professional and scientific psychological body in the United States, released a short resource on their official website, providing the organization’s scientific view on the polygraph;

“The accuracy (i.e., validity) of polygraph testing has long been controversial…There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious…Most psychologists and other scientists agree that there is little basis for the validity of polygraph tests…although the idea of a lie detector may be comforting, the most practical advice is to remain skeptical about any conclusion wrung from a polygraph”

In short, we have licensed psychologists, academic researchers on deceptiveness, lying, and physiology, and the whole of the U.S. legal system consistently reaffirming that polygraphs, in determining one’s credibility or truthfulness or in determining one’s criminal acts, are unreliable and scientifically inaccurate.

Despite this, little about the polygraph has remained changed since these reports. The polygraph remains much the same as it was originally devised at the beginning of the 20th century and still remains in use by the whole U.S. Intelligence Community and various members of the local, state, and federal law enforcement communities. Part of this is due to the long-standing perceived counterintelligence benefits.

Polygraphs in Counterintelligence

From a counterintelligence standpoint, polygraphs are heavily used and are widely relied upon to determine a potential candidate’s security suitability for the role or clearance. In addition to this, they are heavily used to root out potential security risks, saboteurs, double agents, moles, or federal employees who provide classified information to unauthorized parties.

However, the polygraph’s track record in singlehandedly rooting out spies or security risks within the Intelligence Community is very, very poor.

One of the most notable and dangerous double agents (a spy pretending to serve one government while actually serving another) in U.S. intelligence history is CIA officer Aldrich Ames. Ames worked as a CIA counterintelligence officer from 1962 to 1994, working in various foreign locations focusing on Soviet counterintelligence operations, cultivating assets, and was assigned to one of the most sensitive areas of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and to the Counterintelligence Center Analysis Group. From 1985 to 1994, he passed classified and sensitive information to the Soviet Union and later Russia. During his spying career for the Russians, he was twice tested on a polygraph and passed both times.

Ana Montes was a remarkable woman in the U.S. Intelligence Community. Initially working in the U.S. Department of Justice, Montes moved to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 1985 and become an intelligence analyst focusing on Cuba within the agency, becoming one of the most well-known Cuba analysts in the IC. However, shortly before the beginning of her DIA career until her 2001 arrest, she was working for Cuban intelligence. In 1985 and 1994, she passed two polygraph exams.

Leandro Aragoncillo was a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines, an enlisted member of the U.S. Marine Corps from 1982 to 2004, and an intelligence analyst with the FBI from 2004 to 2005. Upon joining the FBI, he was given a polygraph and passed the exam. During his time in the Marines, Aragoncillo “admitted to taking files while working under Cheney… as an administrative chief in the security detail from July 1999 to February 2002” and further stole “more than 100 documents, including several dozen marked top secret”. Of those files taken from 1999 to 2002, “up to 800 classified documents had been compromised by Aragoncillo, as well as the name of a U.S. government source”.

These three examples, from massive signatory agencies within the IC, indicate a real problem with polygraph examinations in a counterintelligence sense. While some double agents and security risks (like John Anthony Walker Jr. and Daniel King) have been apprehended due to their responses on polygraphs, multiple other damaging double agents, moles, and risks (like Larry Wu-Tai Chin and Karl Koecher) have taken polygraphs while spying for a foreign intelligence service and passed, in some cases due to polygraphist error.

For the most part, very few double agents have been caught or apprehended due to their polygraph responses. Not only that, but there have been times when polygraphs and polygraphists have wrongly identified double agents as well.

One very notable example is that of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist with the Department of Energy and naturalized Taiwanese-American citizen. He was accused of working for the Chinese government, passing nuclear secrets and was given a polygraph. The results of the exam indicated deceptiveness though “there was never any proof that he passed nuclear secrets to the Chinese”.

As well, consider the case of Brian Kelley, a U.S. Air Force veteran and CIA counterintelligence officer who spearheaded the investigation into State Department official Felix Bloch. During the investigation, the Russians were tipped off to the investigation, which ruined the FBI’s case; they reasoned that Kelley was the leak and subjected him to a polygraph. Though he passed, the polygraphists biases led them to believe he was a “perfect spy” and continued their investigation to the point of raiding Kelley’s home, placing him under 24/7 surveillance, and setting up false sting operations all based upon the interpreted results of a polygraph exam.

From a counterintelligence standpoint, there are some, minimal benefits to the polygraph in terms of national security matters, however, they can also be used to a disastrous effect, destroying the lives of hard-working and dedicated public servants in addition to not catching those who legitimately engage in espionage. However, John Baesler, a professor of history at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and author of a book on the polygraphs in the Cold War, even boldly stated “Ultimately, there is the question of whether the polygraph ever caught Soviet spies. Certainly no major communist spy was ever caught by the machine”.

In other, more employment-based cases, it can end one’s prospective career at an agency or keep them from fulfilling their ultimate personal goals of employment in the federal government. As it did me.

 A Personal Account

In early 2020, I applied for a position as a Border Patrol Agent with the United States Border Patrol (USBP). I was encouraged to do so largely by my significant other’s family, comprised of veteran USBP and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. My own family also has significant law enforcement experience, at the local level, however. Practically all of my volunteer experience has been with law enforcement agencies or public welfare.

Desiring a career in law enforcement and wanting to work in the intelligence field, I figured a position with Border Patrol would be a stepping stone onto a fantastic career of public service. However, even at the beginning of my process, I was wary of the polygraph.

Upon heading to my “boards” (being interviewed by three Border Patrol agents for suitability) in Laredo, Texas, I was informed by agents there to explicitly not head to Del Rio, Texas when it came time for the polygraph assessment. According to those agents in charge of hiring new recruits, the polygraph examiner at Del Rio had a 100% fail rate.

Another potential recruit at boards (who had previously been through the process seven times, yet had failed the polygraph each time) also detailed to me how he was told by one examiner (a former Texas DPS Trooper) that the “President of the United States” would be hearing about how the prospective recruit had failed and was a foreign agent.

Already, I was incredibly nervous about how I may fare. However, I was still very much of the belief that these devices were of use in the large scheme of things and that it wouldn’t be a problem as I would simply tell the truth.

After being rescheduled three separate times for an exam, I took my exam in early March of 2021. After an initial discussion about the components of the polygraph machine (which the polygraphist instead preferred to call instruments), we went over the questions that would be asked. These were not questions like what some may recognize from television or film, where questions about specific criminal violations are asked (e.g., “Have you ever committed a misdemeanor?” “Have you ever committed the crime of assault?”), but rather these were broad questions asked about person and property crime. As well, I was instructed not to answer “yes” or “no” verbally, but rather to shake my head in the affirmative or negative (however, I was not to shake my head with too much force as that would disrupt the test, as the polygraphist warned me).

Throughout this process, I am sure he could see I was very nervous, myself at one point becoming flustered and stuttering incessantly. I was nervous not because I had done anything wrong (my record is spotless, having never even been stopped for a traffic ticket), but rather because I am naturally a nervous person and this was my first time ever taking such an exam.

After my first exam, I was informed by my examiner that my scores were “all over the place”. We discussed the questions and he again accused me of cheating on the exam, saying my behavior reflected someone trying to cheat the instruments. Strongly denying this, he tested me once more. At one point, I apparently moved which infuriated the examiner and resulted in my having to start the exam again. As before, my results were similar to the first assessment.

At this point, the examiner called the exam and let me know I had failed this portion, stating that I had shown “extreme levels” of anxiety on questions involving drug abuse and person/property crime (two of the three questions he asked during the assessment).

The next roughly two hours were spent with the examiner trying to get me to bring up whatever it was that I had neglected to bring up in the hours before that prevented me from failing on the exam so he could then file a report which would allow me to retest at a later date. This back and forth apparently is very common in polygraph assessments.

I brought up how I had sent letters asking for challenge coins to various domestic and foreign military and intelligence entities. I brought up how I had felt guilt at a college friend being assaulted and not being there to protect them. I brought up how I had stolen a hat from an airport when I was still in a stroller and how I had taken a fake grape from a Michaels as a slightly older child (both times in which my parents had chastised me for stealing). I brought up how I had once hit my dog too roughly many years prior and felt immense guilt over it at the time.

At this point, it seemed like every time I opened my mouth, the examiner grew angrier and more frustrated. He repeatedly asked for more, telling me that those admissions were not enough and could not have caused the reactions he had seen “on the machine”. He listed down every agency I had sent coins to (except for the more numerous domestic ones, stating “I don’t care about those”) and continually pressed me for information and strongly encouraged and pressed that I admit something, anything, of a more serious, felonious nature.

He at one point insinuated that because I had sent so many letters and found the addresses of various foreign military bases and government buildings, I must have looked up some information to beat the polygraph (a comparison which I even at the time thought didn’t made sense; Wikipedia simply had a lot of the necessary information I needed). At another point, the examiner mentioned how anything I would say wouldn’t be shocking. The examiner detailed to me how a previous applicant had admitted during the examination to having sex with his girlfriend while she was asleep and how, because he admitted to this, was advanced on and became an Agent.

Eventually, continuing to be adamant that I had been truthful and had no more information to provide (especially none of a drug or property/person crime), the examiner practically gave up and proceeded to read off all of the items I had admitted to before escorting me from the office.

After over six hours of examination, I left the office in failure and was later informed I could not apply for a position with CBP for the next two years. Having spent a year working on this application, I was crushed. I felt I had let both my own family and my significant other’s family down. I was further concerned as to how this exam would be seen by other agencies or by the public as a whole if they would find me to be a liar or a fraud. Even today, when I tell people that I did not pass the polygraph, I find them looking at me differently.

Having acted morally upright my entire life and held myself to a high ethical standard in everything I have done, to have my truthfulness doubted, is a breaking thing.

The Pre-Employment Screening for Customs and Border Protection

After this ordeal, being shocked that I had failed the exam, I began researching the polygraph exam. I had not done this before my polygraph so that I wouldn’t come across potentially disqualifying information. However, in this, I found some very concerning results of the polygraph in regards to CBP and the Border Patrol.

The usage of polygraphs by the U.S. Border Patrol and CBP is quite new (in terms of the Border Patrol, which was originally created in 1913, but only came under CBP in 2003). According to the official CBP website, “Polygraph screening has been part of CBP’s vetting process since 2008, but in 2010, Congress passed the Anti-Border Corruption Act requiring the agency to use the polygraph to vet all law enforcement applicants”. It was also at this time that a significant push was being made by CBP and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS, the federal department that oversees CBP) to hire more agents given the desire for more manpower in a post-9/11 world. This, in turn, resulted in a “pressure to meet hiring goals” which in turn “allowed less qualified applicants onto the force”.

When President Trump announced he wanted to hire “5,000 new Border Patrol agents” (something he was never able to do), this resulted again in a surge of hiring to the CBP and Border Patrol. While the results have been similar, there has been one stark difference, mainly in the area of polygraphs.

In 2017, Elliott Spagat of the Associated Press reported that “Two out of three applicants to the CBP fail its polygraph, according to the agency”. That’s roughly 67% of all applicants failing at the polygraph stage. It is important to note too that these are persons who previously had passed a Single-Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), a very strenuous investigation by background investigators (often former law enforcement) which involves contacting persons listed in an applicant’s application packet in addition to contacting various others.

Comparatively, the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had polygraph failure rates around 35 to 40% respectively. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had polygraph failure rates around 36% as well. Furthermore, “the AP asked law enforcement agencies across the country for two years of lie-detector data for job applicants, including police departments in the nation’s 10 largest cities and in major towns along the Mexican border. The eight that supplied numbers showed an average failure rate of 28%”.

Some, however, such as former CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, have argued that these failure rates are actually indicative of CBP doing very well in vetting their applicants. In an interview with the Commissioner, Spagat found that Kerlikowske “didn’t see the number as a negative [to him] it meant the agency was applying tough standards to find its officers”.

The amount of time CBP spends on their polygraph exams too is concerning. I myself spent somewhere in the realm of six hours being polygraphed. At my boards panel and during the scheduling process, I was informed to expect anywhere from two to eight hours. Others have spent two days going through the polygraph process. For his article, Spagat interviewed Captain Alan Hamilton of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) recruitment and employment division said of these enlongated exams, “If there’s an exam that lasts four to eight hours, your polygrapher is either incompetent or a fool or both” while stating his own department’s exams last around 90 minutes. The editor-in-chief of the American Polygraph Association, Mark Handler, also acknowledged that the longer polygraph assessments occur, the more susceptible they are to getting inaccurate readings.

While I have much respect for Kerlikowske for applying high standards and wanting to find the best officers for the job, I am highly sceptical of the 67% figure. If the average for various other state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies in the United States is somewhere around the 30-40% range (which is a figure given by Handler), then I would expect CBP to also be in that range. If CBP is truly attracting applicants who are less desirable than other agencies, then there would naturally be a higher rate of failure. However, it is hard to imagine that rate of failure is 27% (or more) over the national average.

The truth of the matter with CBP and Border Patrol is that the vast majority of persons who apply (and fail the polygraph) are rather upstanding citizens. They are police officers from large and small agencies throughout Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California and elsewhere in the United States. They are formerly active duty veterans who have been honorably discharged; they are the sons and daughters of Border Patrol Agents and other law enforcement

One of the persons interviewed by Spagat for the AP exclusive was David Kirk, an honorably discharged Major of the United States Marine Corps who had flown in the Presidential Helicopter Squadron. During his eight-hour long polygraph with CBP, Kirk was denied clearance and “was accused of cheating on his wife and mishandling classified information and was told he acted like a drug trafficker trying to infiltrate the agency”. Having been through the same process and also highly valuing my integrity and honesty, I share much of Kirk’s sentiments about this process.

Notwithstanding the scientific inaccuracies of polygraphs, notwithstanding the inabilities of the polygraph from a counterintelligence or employment standpoint, there appears to be a pretty serious problem with CBP and the way they utilize this device. Furthermore, it seems that CBP does not necessarily desire to change this system; while the agency has explored refining the test in April of 2018, in July of 2018, CBP’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) “determined that 96 percent of the complaints we reviewed were unfounded or ambiguous”.

What is interesting about this percentage of complaints, however, is that CBP admitted they lacked the capabilities necessary to adequately review these complaints. They write, “CBP did not have a formal complaint review process, which led to inconsistent and subjective reviews. This approach risks not finding or properly addressing issues contained in the complaints…The extent of CBP’s review depended largely on factors such as whether the allegation would affect the outcome of the exam, if the applicant admitted to wrongdoing, or the applicant failed the exam”. It seems rather odd that CBP would so definitively say that such a high percentage of these complaints were unfounded or ambiguous while also admitting their process for tracking these complaints and reviewing them is apparently so poor.

It seems quite apparent that CBP needs to drastically rework how they conduct polygraphs and how they review, store, and assess complaints or accusations of impropriety. With the potential for a new CBP Commissioner who is something of a progressive reformer, it is possible that changes in how CBP conducts the polygraph could occur.

On a larger scale, within the whole federal law enforcement and intelligence community, the credibility and scientific veracity of polygraphs must be assessed and determined if these devices truly assist in making a stronger national security workforce.

Conclusion

Polygraphs are incredibly problematic. As has been shown by various scientific reports and assessments, this device is not based in much scientifically valid reasoning or theory. As shown by historical cases of double agents, they frequently finger the wrong person or are not as useful in stopping double agents from committing harmful espionage.

My own reaction and view on polygraphs is rather negative, having personally researched the issue and been the subject of such an exam for employment purposes. Prior to this exam, I believed that the polygraph was an effective form of gatekeeping for federal service; I believed that the assessment made by the polygraph was true and just and necessary to keeping the U.S. government safe from persons who wished to enter for nefarious purposes. Yet, after having gone into a polygraph exam and told the truth, having wanted to enter the national security workforce for the reasons of defending my country and making a difference, yet still be called a liar and relentlessly pressed to provide information on non-existent criminal actions, my opinion has drastically changed.

To be turned down for a position one knows they would have excelled at and acted with the highest moral standard is always hard. However, to be turned down on the basis of a reading from a machine that has incredibly little scientific evidence or through the interpretation of a polygraphist that holds their machine on a religious or mythical level is very difficult to swallow.

In terms of making a strong national security workforce, naturally having a stringent vetting process is a must. However, is having what is effectively a pseudoscience machine the best possible way for determining one’s status as a Special Agent in the FBI or as an Intelligence Analyst in the CIA? The polygraph is not admissible evidence in many criminal courts, multiple scientific authorities over the course of forty years have found little scientific evidence backing up the theoretical framework of the device or the validity of the device, and, historically, it has made only marginal steps in stopping espionage without prior warnings by others or other pieces of evidence pointing to a person being a security risk.

In the final episode of the groundbreaking television series Battlestar Galactica, Commander Bill Adama, the highly ethical, stalwart naval officer brilliantly portrayed by Edward James Olmos, is considering retirement from the military and is taking a polygraph test for a job in the civilian government. At one point, he is asked if he is a Cylon (the race of robotic beings, the series’ antagonists); Adama glares at the polygraphist before answering no. When the next question is asked, Adama declares “Enough of this crap…No job is worth this, no matter how fat the paycheck is. I’d rather spend the rest of my career, or what’s left of it, on a broken down, old ship than have someone sit here and question my word”.

While a fictional character, Adama gets at much of the anger and frustrations that many feel at polygraphs. The vast majority of applicants apply because they want to serve the public and be of service to their nation. Having this type of bogus science in a hiring process when it is known to cause serious problems and not be of use is poor on the part of the U.S. federal government. There are better forms of vetting and determining one’s suitability for employment in the national security sector and the polygraph is not one of those forms.

Sources

American Psychological Association (2004): The Truth About Lie Detectors (aka Polygraph Tests), https://www.apa.org/research/action/polygraph

Baesler, J. (2019): Why Lie Detector Tests Can’t Be Trusted, Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-lie-detector-tests-cant-be-trusted-180972724/

Ballotpedia: Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., https://ballotpedia.org/Daubert_v._Merrell_Dow_Pharmaceuticals,_Inc

BBC (2017): Five surprising secrets behind the creation of Wonder Woman, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/37B343RtftBPmPxN7NqVMYp/five-surprising-secrets-behind-the-creation-of-wonder-woman

BBC (2019): How widely are lie detectors used in the UK?, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48775614

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An Analysis of the Final 2020 US-Presidential Debate

On Thursday, 22nd October 2020, the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden took place in Nashville. Kristen Welker of NBC News moderated the discussion. The debate covered six topics, amongst others, the COVID-19 pandemic, national security, the economy, and race in America. The debate was more orderly than the first presidential debate.

The Politics of Confusion – The Third Fragment: Creating a Spectacle

The world of politics is a difficult environment to understand. It is the responsibility of politicians is to handle this compound world in the most honest and constructive way to ensure the well-being of the state. In Poland, however, this obligation is far from being met. What ensues is an extensive amount of useless, chaotic information, which makes the world of politics seem more complex and the average citizens feel even more overwhelmed who thus become passive and submissive, with great consequences for the future of the Polish democracy.

The challenges of Development-Induced Displacement in Poland

The previous year 2020 was a year of stagnation for many industries worldwide, including the construction industry and thus, Poland was no exception. As the New Year is starting and medical developments are aiding the society in battling the coronavirus, the Polish construction sector seeks to recover through new investments, aided by the EU 2021-2017 Budget. While the establishment of new projects brings many new themes and hopes, it also reawakens old issues and concerns, one of them being the displacement of people.

Annual Letter 2020 – We say thank you!

2020 has for sure had its ups and downs - but there is always a silver lining, even in the most challenging moments. For us at Quo Vademus, being able to go live with our website has been this silver lining. This got us one-step closer to making our dream come true of founding our own think tank and creating a platform for the youth to give them back their voice.

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