The late William Safire, conservative columnist and veteran of the Nixon White House, called the lie detector test a “form of torture” that “breeds the opposite of security.” Writing in The New York Times a decade ago, he said “the hit-and-miss machine” had been thoroughly “discredited.”
But this week, the nation’s top intelligence official announced that the government is expanding its use of the polygraph to expose federal employees who leak classified information to the media.
The testing could put intelligence workers at risk of being falsely stigmatized, jeopardizing their careers and their ability to contribute to the national security. It also could have a chilling effect on employees considering blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing, whistleblower advocates said.
“It is clearly at odds with everything we learned in our report,” said Stephen E. Fienberg, a professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University who led a 2003 National Research Council study of the use of polygraphs in security screenings.
Briefing a Senate committee on the study in 2003, Fienberg put it this way: “Unfortunately tests that are sensitive enough to spot most violators will also mistakenly mark large numbers of innocent test takers as guilty.”
In an interview with the Project On Government Oversight this week, Fienberg said the study’s findings still apply.
But that’s not to say the tests are useless.
Despite its ineffectiveness at detecting deception, the lie detector can serve as an interrogation tool, he said. If people believe it works, he said, it can intimidate them into admitting misconduct.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper broadened the government’s embrace of the device this week after news reports described clandestine operations, including infiltration of the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and alleged cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. Members of Congress expressed outrage over the leaks, arguing that they compromise national security and damage U.S. diplomatic relations. The Justice Department has since opened probes.
In a news release, Clapper’s office said it is trying to “better protect sensitive information, and help detect and deter potential leakers within the Intelligence Community.”
Specifically, federal intelligence agencies will expand counter-intelligence polygraphs they already perform by adding a question about “unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” the announcement said.
The question will be asked when employees with security clearances undergo routine polygraphs every seven years, according to news reports. In addition, Clapper spokesman Shawn Turner said that, under the new rules, if an inspector general’s investigation gives reason to believe that a particular individual or group of individuals may have released classified information, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) can direct those individuals to submit to a polygraph that includes questions about unauthorized disclosures to members of the media.
Turner declined to respond to arguments that the test is inaccurate. However, he said the new measures do not prevent whistleblowers from calling attention to waste, fraud, abuse, or other mismanagement.
The agencies involved include the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, Department of Energy, National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The new steps will send “a strong message that intelligence personnel always have, and always will, hold ourselves to the highest standard of professionalism,” Clapper said in a news release.
The Obama Administration's latest step is part of a broader effort to plug leaks that has included more criminal prosecutions for national security leaks than pursued by any prior administration. Republicans, meanwhile, have accused the Administration of leaking about its own national security triumphs, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden. The president has denied that his White House "would purposely release classified national security information."
The American Polygraph Association, which represents people who administer the tests, says they have “great probative value.” But the association’s Web site notes limitations.
According to the group, research shows that tests focused on single issues or events “produced an aggregated decision accuracy of 89%,” while testing that probed multiple issues “produced an aggregated decision accuracy of 85% (confidence interval 77% - 93%) with an inconclusive rate of 13%.”
Such averages don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
“You can have a test that averages 90 percent accuracy if it catches 100 percent of the liars, and mislabels 20 percent of the truth tellers,” said Barry Cushman, the association’s president-elect. “Still, there isn’t anything better for catching deception and it’s better than chance.”
George Maschke, the cofounder of AntiPolygraph.org, a nonprofit that seeks to ban polygraph testing from the American workplace, said “being fearful for your own job security can lead an honest person to fail.” Safire’s column is one of many articles cited on the group’s Web site.
Maschke has stated that he became interested in polygraphs after he applied to become a special agent with the FBI. He said he flunked a polygraph even though he answered truthfully and was essentially blackballed with no appeal.
The National Research Council, a private nonprofit institution that provides scientific advice to the government and other organizations, in 2003 reported that the testing “can lead to unnecessary loss of competent or highly skilled individuals in security organizations because of suspicions cast on them by false positive polygraph exams or because of their fear of such prospects.”
“And it can lead to credible claims that agencies that use polygraphs are infringing civil liberties for insufficient benefits to the national security,” the report said.
The bottom line: “Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.”
The National Research Council said that, despite the limitations, the use of polygraphs can deter people from breaching security, and the tests can prompt people to confess wrongdoing.
A federal judge in New York has publicly criticized a federal lie detector test as apparently leading to a false confession by Abdullah Higazy, who was caught up in an investigation related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and was accused of lying to the FBI.
If he had not been cleared through a nearly miraculous turn of events, U.S. District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff said in a 2008 speech, “Mr. Higazy would now likely be rotting in prison or facing execution.”
Jesselyn Radack, the Government Accountability Project's national security and human rights director, said the intelligence community is taking a backwards approach.
"I think it’s for public perception—to act as if they’re being aggressive on leaking,” she said.
“In the past, we’ve seen whistleblowers subject to mental evaluations, security clearance investigations, and I think this could easily become another tool of retaliation, rather than a tool to find out the truth,” she said.