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Posted at 3:30 PM ET, 06/14/2010

NSA lie detectors no sweat, video says

By Jeff Stein

The National Security Agency wants job applicants to know that its polygraph test is nothing to sweat.

The eavesdropping and code-breaking organization has produced a 10-minute video designed to soothe applicants’ anxiety over the notoriously grim experience.

The Truth About the Polygraph” (publicly available on the Defense Security Service's training Web site), opens with various applicants, or actors playing them -- it’s not clear -- describing everything bad they had heard about the test, the implication being that none of it is true.

Then a young woman who may or may not be a real polygrapher comes on the screen to say with convincing earnestness, “All the polygraph examiners really try to make a person feel more at ease….”

“What I do at the beginning is I tell them exactly what’s going to happen…” she continues, leading a relaxed-looking applicant into her office.

Says another female polygrapher, “They will know ahead of time exactly what’s going to happen. There will be no surprises.”

All of which is quite at odds with the experience many test subjects -- and polygraphers themselves -- have related over the years

Indeed, critics of polygraphs call them “junk science” that can scar rejected job applicants for years.

"If this test had any validity," a senior former FBI crime laboratory official and physiologist, Drew C. Richardson, told a Senate panel in 1997, “which it does not, both my own experience and published scientific research has proven that anyone can be taught to beat this type of polygraph exam in a few minutes.”

Even the harshest critics of polygraphs, however, agree that they work as interrogation aids. Just the appearance of the test can motivate a subject to confess.

But as a tool to screen out bad apples in a pool of applicants, they say, a polygraph is unreliable. Perversely, some relate, the more squeaky-clean the applicant, the higher likelihood of “failure.” Practiced liars, conversely, breeze through questions about past drug use or other lifestyle issues that trip up others.

George Maschke, a former U.S. military counterterrorism translator who flunked an FBI polygraph and went on to help found an organization opposed to its use in employment screening, calls the NSA video “Orwellian.”

“It’s Orwellian, because the truth is the last thing the NSA wants you to know about the polygraph,” he says.

Not to the test subjects portrayed in the NSA video, who all describe the experience as a walk in the park -- “calm, quiet, comfortable,” as one put it.

Chides another: “Don’t always listen to the stories people tell about polygraphs.”

By Jeff Stein  | June 14, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Homeland Security, Intelligence, Lawandcourts, Military  | Tags:  George Maschke  
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The polygraph is indeed merely an interogation tool -- it's intended to rattle you and encourage confessions. Its widespread use in an ostensibly "free" country says volumes about the mindset of our national security community's leadership.

Posted by: kcx7 | June 14, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Make no mistake. The "polygrapher" isn't your friend. He/She is a trained interrogator, following a script intended to build rapport and trust, with the goal of you confessing all your sins. Watch any police drama on network television and see every cop do the same.

Posted by: JoeMck | June 14, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Hard pressed for a story line I see. I had hope for this column. Oh well.

Posted by: whocares666 | June 14, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

It's just a scam. That's why polygraphs are not used in court.

Soviet spies, as was widely predicted, passed them easily.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | June 14, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Heh. I never had much problem with the poly because I never took it very seriously. It's obviously voodoo science, as many have noted.

My more conscientious friends, many of them Catholic or ex-Catholic, went through hell with it.

Posted by: TexLex | June 14, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, it's voodoo, and an excellent interrogation device. The disturbing part is that THEY believe it works. These agencies do polygraphs on each other, and they're in on the joke. And if they get a false positive, there's nothing you can do to convince them that you're telling the truth. The best thing to do is think up an innocuous lie and say you were trying to conceal the fact that you bent a rule somewhere. It's a joke. I'm always tempted to say "and that's why you guys missed 9/11", but there's no point in pissing them off unnecessarily.

Posted by: Section406 | June 14, 2010 7:48 PM | Report abuse

Polygraph tests are a mind game. They work, not because they are science, but because the person being tested thinks they work. Then they think "the testor must know I'm lying". Then they confess.
Much of it is theater for the sake of the tested. Sometimes, for example, the interrogator will turn off the machine to "discuss" an answer, which makes the subject think they can speak more freely.

The real answers usually come out after the equipment is shut off, because the subject thinks it's over.

It's not science, but it does often work.

Posted by: LampietheClown | June 15, 2010 12:09 AM | Report abuse

TexLex beat me to it, but my personal experience seconds what he wrote. I worked at NSA for 33 years before retiring, and I can assure you that the polygraph, which we had to retake every 5 years, was pure torture. Once, after the seventh "failure" in a row, my examiner blandly told me, "Don't worry, it's because you're Catholic. We can never pass them, it seems". Aparently the Catholic practice of Examination of Conscience followed by the Sacrament of Confession makes it difficult to feel clean as the driven snow, which is what you have to think of yourself to "pass" the exam.

Posted by: Mortal | June 15, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I took an NSA employment poly a few decades ago. Pure hell.

But, then again, I also got to see the shrink because I answered yes to the question about "Have you been separated from your spouse in the past year". I answered yes because I had been deployed for six months. Oh, they meant "separated" as in hate each others guts!

Yeah, I'm Catholic.

Posted by: oldiesfan1 | June 15, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Aldrich Ames passed the polygraph. After diming out about a dozen American agents to the KGB, leading to all of them getting killed.

Posted by: john_bruckner | June 15, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Six years ago, my then 21 year old daughter's poly consisted of the male contractor screaming at the top of his lungs and calling her a liar for over four hours.

During this entire time, she was strapped into the chair, had to sit perfectly still with feet flat on the floor, without one break for water or to use the bathroom, or to even shift body position.

According to her FOIA file, the poly resulted in "inconsistent physiological response" (duh) and she was denied employment, despite stellar qualifications and character references.

Immediately after this draconian interrogation, she was interviewed by one of the NSA shrinks, another notorious band of thugs, who complained in her written report that my daughter looked more mature than her age (she was wearing a nice suit) and that she seemed emotional when asked about her dad's recent death. What normal person wouldn't be emotional after a four hour interrogation?

What are they screening for, psychopaths?

The poly and psych exam come at the very end of the extensive vetting process. If you flunk, there are no appeals, no do-overs, and you're out. Got a migrain that day? Too bad. Was the poly scheduled at the end of finals week and you're exhausted? Too bad. If the machine can't "read" you for any reason, then you're not trustworthy and not clearable. NEXT!

What a stupid, stupid waste of taxpayers' money and of a young graduate's time and potential to serve her country.

My husband worked at NSA for 24 years until his death from a heart attack, brought on, in part, from the stress of the periodic re-vetting process. When he was hired, new employees were hired first and then cleared after they started working. I doubt that there were more security problems in the seventies, eighties and nineties than there are now.

The corp-d'esprit of the old days has been replaced by the incompetence of cavalier contractors who are accountable to noone, and by a prevalent atmosphere of sadism.

Posted by: bdcouture | June 15, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I forgot to add:

If an applicant flunks the NSA poly, then they can never work for any DOD contractor who needs them to have a clearance, ever. They are blacklisted for life as unclearable. They won't even get an interview. No one tells NSA applicants this, and they need to know.

Posted by: bdcouture | June 15, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

> Much of it is theater for the sake of the tested. Sometimes, for example, the interrogator will turn off the machine to "discuss" an answer, which makes the subject think they can speak more freely.

Or they'll go consult a superior. The ritual is remarkably similar to an automobile dealership, where the salesman always has to go check with his boss to see if he can give you a deal.

Posted by: TexLex | June 15, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

They had better hope the examinees haven't read the report of the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences and Education (BCSSE) and Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) "The Polygraph and Lie Detection (2003)":

CONCLUSION: Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice for DOE employee security screening between too many loyal employees falsely judged deceptive and too many major security threats left undetected. 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.

It is fairly easy to demonstrate (using Bayes Rule) that even with accuracy of 90% (a very high figure, given the subjectivity of the test), at least 1 in 10 people would have to be "Bad Guys" before you have even a 50% probability that a bad polygraph indicates a "bad guy". And yet, your article seems to indicate that personnel decisions are made "off the cuff". Fear would seem to be the logical response here.

Posted by: pt200386 | June 15, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Mine was fine, I didn't have any problems. I almost fell asleep, actually. You don't need to feel pure. You need to just talk until you feel comfortable and go with it.

Posted by: jiji1 | June 16, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

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