WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is drawing up a new national polygraph policy in the wake of allegations that federal agencies are pushing legal and ethical limits during screenings of job applicants and employees.
The decision by National Intelligence Director James Clapper to draft a new policy comes after his office conducted a review of federal polygraph programs and after McClatchy detailed allegations of polygraph abuses. Clapper’s review found “inconsistencies” across the government that led him to order a new policy, but it also found that “all programs were operating appropriately,” Clapper’s public affairs office said in a statement to McClatchy.
But a congressman who’d asked Clapper to look into alleged polygraph abuses said the director was being “dismissive” of a more serious problem with the way the federal government conducts its screenings. In its statement, Clapper’s public affairs office said the inconsistencies “related to administrative practices, rather than the substance of the polygraphs.” The review was completed between July and August.
“This is a non-response,” said Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat. “I’m really concerned that throughout the intelligence community there has been an unwillingness to ask critical questions about polygraph.”
Independent national-security experts agreed that Clapper appeared to be downplaying legitimate concerns about the federal government’s use of polygraph. Several of them who read a draft of the policy obtained by McClatchy said it would do little to crack down on overly aggressive polygraph interrogations. In fact, it appears to allow agencies to continue current practices with few new requirements and may even grant agencies more latitude in some instances.
“It does not address polygraph abuses at all,” said Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Given that polygraph testing is not going away, a new policy should grapple directly with the problems it poses.”
In a series of articles on polygraph screening published last year, McClatchy found that 15 federal agencies polygraph more than 70,000 job applicants and employees across the country each year to determine whether they’re trustworthy enough to get security clearances or jobs.
Private thoughts and secret behaviors are written down, tape-recorded, permanently filed in vast databases and shared across multiple agencies. Depending on the agency, polygraphers could ask about a wide range of information, including relationships with foreigners, sexual conduct and whether someone has leaked government information to the news media.
McClatchy also reported how some polygraphers felt they were being pressured to push ethical and legal boundaries by collecting information not directly related to national security during screenings. The National Reconnaissance Office – the nation’s spy satellite agency – isn’t supposed to be directly eliciting such information, but some polygraphers contended that those who did were rewarded with bonuses and those who didn’t were punished. Polygraphers and job applicants at various federal agencies also described how routine screenings sometimes turn into harsh interrogations. One National Reconnaissance Office polygrapher said he felt pressured to interrogate an employee about her sexual abuse as a child during a screening. Separately, a CIA job applicant said polygraphers had asked her about her reported rape and miscarriage.