WASHINGTON -- One of the nations most secretive intelligence agencies is pressuring its polygraphers to obtain intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees, pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of a program thats designed instead to catch spies and terrorists.
The National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with cash bonuses, a McClatchy investigation found.
The disclosures include a wide range of behavior and private thoughts such as drug use, child abuse, suicide attempts, depression and sexual deviancy. The agency, which oversees the nations spy satellites, records the sessions that were required for security clearances and stores them in a database.
Even though its aggressively collecting the private disclosures, when people confess to serious crimes such as child molestation theyre not always arrested or prosecuted.
Youve got to wonder what the point of all of this is if were not even going after child molesters, said Mark Phillips, a veteran polygrapher who resigned from the agency in late May after, he says, he was retaliated against for resisting abusive techniques. This is bureaucracy run amok. These practices violate the rights of Americans, and its not even for a good reason.
The agency refused to answer McClatchys questions about its practices. However, its acknowledged in internal documents that its not supposed to directly ask more personal questions but says it legally collects the information when people spontaneously confess, often at the beginning of the polygraph test.
After a legal review of Phillips assertions, the agencys assistant general counsel Mark Land concluded in April that it did nothing wrong. My opinion, based on all of the facts, is that managements action is legally supportable and corrective action is not required, he wrote.
But McClatchys review of hundreds of documents including internal policy documents, memos and agency emails indicates that the National Reconnaissance Office is pushing ethical and possibly legal limits by:
Establishing a system that tracks the number of personal confessions, which then are used in polygraphers annual performance reviews.
Summoning employees and job applicants for multiple polygraph tests to ask about a wide array of personal behavior.
Altering results of the tests in what some polygraphers say is an effort to justify more probing of employees and applicants private lives.
Various national security experts, including those who support the use of polygraph in general for security screening, said they were disturbed by what McClatchy found, especially considering that the number of polygraph screenings has spiked in the last decade.
Theres a narrow jurisdiction for a polygraph program, which is to promote security, said Steven Aftergood, a senior analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan research center that tracks intelligence policies. When agencies exceed their authority, they not only violate the privacy of employees, they corrupt the entire process.