Polygraph Test Results Vary Among Agencies

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The National Security Agency denied a top-secret clearance to David Vermette this year after two polygraph tests. But the computer programmer still has access to sensitive, classified information -- from the CIA, which independently cleared him after administering its own "lie detector" test.

The FBI recently ran a background check on Wayne Johnson, which led to a five-year extension of his top-secret White House clearance. But when Johnson applied for a job at the FBI itself, the agency made him an offer -- then rescinded it after a polygraph exam.

The Defense Department has long issued Tara Wilk a top-secret clearance. But when Wilk tried to get similar clearance from the NSA, she failed three tests -- leaving her so frustrated she sought help from a hypnotist and a therapist.

In a region where a security clearance is a necessary ticket to countless jobs with the federal government and its thousands of contractors, it is not hard to find people caught in turf wars over clearance. Polygraph tests are often at the root of the problem.

"The CIA doesn't respect the NSA's polygraph and the NSA doesn't respect the CIA's polygraph," said Wilk, a computer engineer from Arnold, Md. "Nobody knows who the boss is, and they all think they are the most important."

The government recognizes the problem and plans to harmonize the process across the intelligence community, but Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte cannot say when that will happen, said spokesman John Callahan. "The goal is to streamline and fix things and make things better," he said.

"The legislation which founded the DNI actually requires the DNI have as one of its goals to unify this process," he said.

Even those who believe in the value of polygraphs acknowledge that they are far from objective. Using a polygraph device, which measures changes in heart rate and breathing as well as other cues to detect anxiety, is like searching in a dark room for an object whose shape is unknown. It is the examiner's job not only to figure out if someone is a spy but also to search for character flaws or past actions -- drug use, for instance -- that might make a person unfit to handle sensitive information.

Since polygraph examiners typically do not know what to look for in a candidate, they tend to home in on anything that hints at reticence or nervousness, said John Sullivan, who spent three decades at the CIA administering the tests and still supports them. During his career, he said, he used the tests to unmask seven double agents and spotted numerous criminal and character problems.

But Sullivan said that after the agency's polygraphers failed for years to detect the duplicity of Aldrich H. Ames, who compromised dozens of CIA operations by passing information to the Soviet Union before being sent to prison in 1994, agency examiners ratcheted up the level of intimidation during tests.

Sullivan believes polygraphers can elicit useful information without resorting to threats and harassment. But after Ames's case, he said, CIA examiners were told that if their subjects did not complain about rough handling, the examiners probably were not doing their job correctly: "People in many cases are too aggressive . . . we were so afraid of getting beat."

Asked why examiners disagree with one another, Sullivan said that interpreting polygraphs is more "art than science" and that examiners at different agencies range from "Rembrandts" to "finger-painters."

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