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 But when Johnson applied for a job at the FBI itself, the agency made him an offer -- then rescinded it after a polygraph exam.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."
"I myself and most of my colleagues caught people who passed other people's polygraph examinations," said Sullivan, who is retired. "I don't want to disparage anyone else's program, but I really feel up until Ames, [the CIA] had the best polygraph program in the government."
Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, declined to discuss individual cases. But he said that "large numbers of highly qualified officers" have been cleared and hired after the agency's polygraph tests.
Don Weber, an NSA spokesman, also would not discuss individual cases but said the agency issues clearances based on approvals by other agencies. Slightly more than one in five contractor clearances last year were issued this way, he said. A number of factors influence why the NSA thinks more security procedures are needed for some people, he said.
Vermette, the computer programmer, said the six exams he has taken for three agencies have left him scared, angry and dubious.
Besides being asked whether he had ever revealed classified information, Vermette was quizzed about whether he had paid for sex or had gotten a woman drunk to seduce her. Examiners asked about his computer use, his contacts with foreign students and his volunteer work with junior high students at church -- down to a high-five he had given one teenager.
Vermette describes himself as naturally nervous and said he grew more flustered with each exam. After the second CIA polygraph test, he was called in to see a higher official, who said he wanted to talk "man to man."
After telling Vermette that "there's no way you are not lying to me," the examiner pressed him on whether he was sexually involved with the teenager at church. The examiner then asked Vermette about her bra size. When Vermette said he did not know, the examiner asked him to guess -- after explaining bra sizes.
"He gave me a list of numbers to choose from, and I gave up and guessed one. Then he went on to ask about hair color, eye color, height and weight, all of which I am sure are absolutely vital to national security," Vermette wrote in an account of the episode. "I felt bad afterwards that I answered any of these questions but was under extreme psychological pressure and humiliation."
After the interview, Vermette filed a complaint. An investigation ensued, and the CIA apologized in writing, acknowledged that the questions were inappropriate and gave him his security clearances.
But it was not over. Late last year, Vermette's employer decided he ought to get clearances from the NSA as well. Although Vermette had been given top-secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information clearances by the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates U.S. reconnaissance satellites, the NSA gave him new polygraph tests.
Vermette said the last straw was being asked by NSA examiners to talk about the incident with the CIA. When he refused and explained that the CIA had apologized for the episode, the NSA denied his clearance -- citing his "failure to cooperate with security processing."
Whereas Vermette found himself caught between agencies, Wayne Johnson said he was snared by seemingly conflicting decisions at the same agency. Johnson was stunned to discover there was a problem with his FBI polygraph test, given that the agency had done a recent background investigation that led to a renewal of his top-secret credentials at the White House.
Like Vermette, Johnson said the polygraph made him nervous, even though he had nothing to hide. When asked about drug use, Johnson, who is black, found himself worrying about stereotypes that link blacks to drug use. Johnson said he had never touched an illegal narcotic but believed his examiner, who is white, did not believe him.
The race question was always at the back of Johnson's mind, he said, and his fears may have shown up on the polygraph -- and perhaps were misinterpreted as a sign of deception.
Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, said that he could not discuss any individual case but that in general the White House makes its decisions on clearances after the agency forwards the results of its investigations. When someone seeks employment at the FBI, the agency uses investigative results to draw its own conclusions, he said.
Wilk, who flunked three tests at the NSA despite her security clearance from the Pentagon, said examiners do not seem to realize that innocent people can be nervous.
"People say if you don't have anything to hide you should not be worried, but I have nothing to hide and I am worried," she said. "A citizen's entire means of making a living boils down to answering one stupid question on a polygraph."
When examiners kept telling her she was hiding something, the thought that eventually went through her mind was: "Should I just make something up?"