I will never have a job with the FBI, Secret Service, or many local PDs.

Because I will never willingly submit to a lie detector test:

Congress exempted government agencies from the ban on lie detectors, and “going on the box” remains a key part of the hiring process for the FBI, Secret Service, and hundreds of other federal, state, and local agencies. At last count, 62 percent of the nation’s police departments require job applicants to take a polygraph test—up from only 19 percent in 1964. Polygraphs are also widely used to ferret out spies and to wring confessions out of military personnel suspected of criminal offenses. All told, the federal government now has at least 20 polygraph programs staffed by more than 500 examiners, and the CIA and FBI alone have tested at least 40,000 job applicants and employees over the years. “The polygraph is clearly one of our most effective investigative tools,” the Department of Defense reported to Congress last year.

By relying so heavily on such an unreliable device, however, government agencies have jeopardized the reputations and careers of honest employees and job applicants. A study in the journal Polygraph found that 1 in 4 applicants for jobs as police officers is disqualified solely on the basis of their polygraph results. Federal agencies report a similar failure rate: According to a 1997 letter submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee by Donald Kerr, then assistant director of the FBI’s Laboratory Division, 20 percent of the bureau’s job applicants were “de- termined to be withholding pertinent information” on lie detector tests and were denied federal employment. Even if the machine is wrong only 2 percent of the time, as the nation’s leading trade group of polygraph examiners claims, the government is routinely denying jobs and promotions to thousands of people who are guilty of nothing more than nervousness.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve read a news story where someone either passed or failed a lie detector test as part of some investigation that made me think “So what?” I’d be independently wealthy. Polygraph tests aren’t reliable and have never been reliable and aren’t admissible as evidence in a trial because they’re not reliable and yet law enforcement and government agencies continue to rely on them as though their results were Gospel Truth handed down from on high. Even worse than that it’s damn near impossible to appeal the results of a test if you think they’re in error and a failure will slam shut a lot of career related doors, not to mention ruin your reputation if you’re the suspect in a criminal investigation.

Another fundamental problem with lie detectors is how operators establish what a lie looks like. Subjects are peppered with a variety of “control questions” to which the examiner anticipates a dishonest answer. Those who insist, for example, that they never stole something as a child or never tried illegal drugs in their youth are assumed to be lying—and the examiner then uses those responses as a baseline for detecting deceptive answers to other questions. George Maschke, a doctoral student at UCLA who applied to be an FBI special agent in 1994, was shocked when his polygrapher accused him of “deception with regard to each and every relevant question,” including whether he’d ever sold narcotics, contacted foreign agents, or divulged classified information. He blames the test failure on his response to a control question about whether he had ever driven while under the influence of alcohol. “His assumption was that everyone who drinks will eventually drive when doubtful about their sobriety,” Maschke recalls. “But I was always very meticulous—I always waited so many hours so that I would be completely sober. So I felt quite comfortable answering that question ‘no.’” The physiological reaction associated with that answer became the baseline for a suspected lie, so all of Maschke’s subsequent truthful responses were judged deceptive.

“I figured I was in a small minority of people who fell afoul of the polygraph,” says Maschke. But the response to his book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector, and to the website he created, AntiPolygraph.org, gave him an indication of how widespread the problem is. Many job applicants use the website to share “countermeasures” to ensure positive results—some not wishing to put their fate in a polygrapher’s unpredictable hands, others perhaps simply wanting to get away with lying. Taking measured breaths, biting the tongue, and thinking anxious thoughts during the control questions are all common—and effective—tactics.

There’s something particularly ironic about a device designed to detect truth making people intentionally engage in deception to avoid being victimized by a false positive, but if you’re honest in taking the exam you risk the possibility of being misidentified as a liar. Take the control question on illegal drug use as a youth: The assumption is you’re going to lie about it, but the reality for me is that I’ve never knowingly taken an illegal drug in my life. Even if the machine were 100% accurate the test ends up being flawed by the presumption that my answer is a lie and the response recorded should be used as a baseline for determining other lies. Add in the fact that there’s been nothing establishing the efficacy of the machine itself to the mix and you have a recipe for a lot of false accusations of dishonesty.

What’s particularly annoying about this whole situation is the fact that there are plenty of hypocritical legislators out there who are all gung-ho for polygraph tests… until they’re asked to take one themselves:

In August, several members of the House and Senate intelligence committees refused to submit to polygraphs as part of an FBI investigation of who leaked classified information regarding the September 11 attacks. “I don’t know who among us would take a lie detector test,” says Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “They’re not even admissible in court.” Shelby’s reticence was an about-face from his stance two years ago, when he spearheaded the expansion of the Department of Energy’s polygraph program as the only effective way of tracking down moles.

Senator Shelby: Happy to ruin careers with polygraph tests so long as it’s not his own.

9 thoughts on “I will never have a job with the FBI, Secret Service, or many local PDs.

  1. Speaking of hypocrisy and the FBI-  some time ago, a born-again friend of mine applied to the FBI.  She had wanted to catch bad guys since she was a kid, and idolized the Bureau.  When she found Jesus, she decided it was time to join the forces of good in the secular world as well.  She went in for an interview, and all went well until she was asked “Have you ever smoked marijuana?”.  She had indeed, in her godless past; so she answered “yes”.  Alas, she was told, a positive answer to that question disqualified one for consideration.  The interviewer told her sotto voce “of course you’ve smoked marijuana; who hasn’t?  Just answer “no” anyway”.  But my godfearing and truthful friend wouldn’t lie, and so had to return home disappointed and disillusioned, and the FBI missed out on a good agent.

  2. I had a polygraph test, back in ‘75.  It was for a night job at a convenience store – I guess they were worried that I might skim the till whenever I was not actually being robbed at gunpoint.  The quack asked me lots of questions including if I had ever been arrested, had ever stolen anything, and had ever stolen from an employer.  I just answered “yes” to all of them, and got the job.

    Polygraphs are slightly more reliable than phrenology or Ouija boards.  Maybe that is what passes for ‘useful’ in Washington.

  3. I’ve taken two polygraphs as part of police officer hiring processes.  One I had to fill out lengthy questionaires for, and the exam itself was quite long.  Sitting in one position and staring at the wall for a long time (you’re not supposed to move) while answering questions proved to be surprisingly exhausting.  My vision actually started blurring at one point.  I believe I failed that one since I got bounced off the eligibility list afterwards (though the letter didn’t say why). 

    The other I took was quite a bit less nerve-wracking.  It was shorter and the interviewer was a much more affable fellow.  Knowing I failed a previous polygraph exam for no good reason, I wasn’t any less nervous walking into the place, but I was a lot less nervous walking out.

  4. Its bizarre to think that if I took a polygraph and truthfully told the examiner that I had never used drugs he would automatically assume I was lying and use that as an example of a lie in judging other questions.  Exactly how paranoid are polygraph operators?

  5. I don’t think it’s an issue of paranoia as much as statistical reality. In this day and age people who have never taken illegal drugs at least once as a teenager are probably relatively rare much like the older the person is the more likely they are to have had sex at least a few times regardless of marital status.

    The idea is that they ask a number of control questions all of which they assume the answers to will be lies to try and get around the folks who are statistical anomalies on some questions. But what if you’re one of the rare folks who can truthfully answer every one of those questions with the response assumed to be a lie?

  6. Just received a letter from FBI, was not hired due to polygraph.  My wife kept asking me to open the letter, she was so happy when the FBI decided to interview me.  I was honest with the interviewer but @ the end he told he saw a bump regarding the question of selling drugs.  I have never used illegal drugs, never sold them. 

    What I have learned is the polygraph is wrong.  I always felt the polygraph would never have a false reading on a truthful person. 

    Now I must tell my wife and grown children.

  7. Now I must tell my wife and grown children.

    I hope you can see the joke here, coz I do. LOL

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