December 6, 2012

Truth, lies and polygraphs

About 70,000 people get a federal polygraph each year, but legal challenges are extremely difficult.

By Marisa Taylor, McClatchy Newspapers

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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason Arnold, 407th Expeditionary Communications Squadron, acts as an examinee for an Office of Special Investigations polygraph examiner.

Staff Sgt. Valerie Smith/U.S. Air Force/MCT

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Michael Pillsbury, seen in his Georgetown home in Washington, D.C., is a China expert who has advised three Republican administrations and held numerous security clearances. But he’s had to battle claims by polygraphers that he made admissions of leaking sensitive information.


The CIA, however, refused to give Pillsbury's lawyers tape recordings of his alleged admissions during six polygraph tests over his career. CIA security officials also declined to appear before the judges to detail the allegations that he'd leaked sensitive information. His lawyers called 14 witnesses to rebut the alleged admissions, including three senior CIA officials.

John Sullivan, a retired longtime CIA polygrapher who testified on Pillsbury's behalf, said he'd often discovered that people had exaggerated or lied about mistreatment when he reviewed tapes of their sessions. But in the 1980s, the agency discovered that seven polygraphers had rigged the tests so that applicants and employees would pass, and it fired them. Another polygrapher falsely claimed that two people had failed. While she also was fired, she did not lose her security clearance.

Sullivan said the problem was that the polygraph division was left to police itself.

"That is similar to asking the fox to guard the chicken coop," he said, adding that one top agency official told polygraphers, "If you aren't getting complaints, you are not doing your job."

All polygraphers are trained at the same federal academy and are warned against engaging in unethical and discriminatory behavior. The academy also routinely inspects polygraph programs to ensure they are in line with federal standards.

But critics say the inspections are cursory and often miss major problems. The academy inspected the National Reconnaissance Office, yet it didn't appear to pick up on a major internal controversy. McClatchy earlier this year detailed allegations by current and former polygraphers that they were pushed to collect intensely personal information in violation of Pentagon rules and were rewarded with bonuses for doing so. In a recent letter to Clapper, Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, urged the director to "move us beyond the use of such an unreliable instrument as the polygraph," citing the alleged abuses at the National Reconnaissance Office as reason for alarm.

"Such voyeuristic interrogation" brings to mind "tactics employed by our former Soviet enemies," the retired Princeton University physicist wrote.


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