Buzz on lie detectors is all a lie, NSA video says

Jeff Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; B03

Buzz on lie detectors is a lie, NSA video says

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 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.

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.

Says another: "Don't always listen to the stories people tell about polygraphs."

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