National security is a vital component of government services. The National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are the three big agencies responsible for monitoring and maintaining national security in the United States.

All three agencies utilize polygraph policies for pre-employment screening and random and specific employee testing. In 2013, NSA employee Edward Snowden defected from the organization, choosing to leak classified documents surrounding the NSA’s monitoring of the American people.

His whistleblowing activities rocked the national security industry. While Snowden is the most well-known example of a whistleblower defecting from the agency, there have been plenty of others, with William Binney, another NSA employee choosing to blow the whistle on unethical practices in the organization after his retirement in 2001.

Divulging national secrets and classified information is risky, and the NSA, CIA, and FBI have stringent policies against it, claiming the practice places the United States at risk of security breaches and vulnerabilities.

The three organizations implement polygraphs to prevent these occurrences. They don’t want to hire bad actors that might leak sensitive government information. The polygraph represents a tool available to limit the risk of hiring people like Snowden and Binney and monitor current employees after their hiring.


The History of Polygraph Testing in the CIA

The polygraph device was introduced into CIA (Known as the OSS or Office of Strategic Services until Truman signed the National Security Act in 1947) interrogations in the late 1940s. In 1951, the organization decided to incorporate its use into a screening of candidates and operational assets.

The CIA recruited examiners who spoke English and were well-versed in foreign languages through a program called “the Directorate of Plans (DP). The policy to employ the polygraph in this manner was successful, with one of the big moments involving its use in the Korean War in the 1950s. Examiners used the polygraph to uncover and neutralize a double agent operation.

The South Koreans were sending agents into the hostile territory of North Korea to gather intelligence for the war. When the CIA chief arrived in the capital of SK, Seoul, in 1951, he ordered the testing of returning operatives.

The results of the exams showed the Chinese government co-opted these operations, with many agents being doubled or killed. As a result of the success of the campaign, polygraph exams became a steadfast component of CIA operations in the coming years and decades.

During this period, polygraph testing primarily focused on operative and applicant testing. However, the CIA also introduced a new format, the “Specific Issue Polygraph” (SIP), when employees were accused of misconduct.

These tests incorporated questioning of the examinee’s lifestyle, including their involvement with criminal activity, drug and alcohol use, homosexuality, blackmail, and their involvement with communist groups.

The national security testing questions involved the examinee’s involvement with the unauthorized disclosure and mishandling of classified information, unauthorized contact with foreign intelligence organizations, and contacts with foreign nationals.

After establishing the parameters for standardized testing, the CIA director, Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, authorized the use of polygraph exams on an experimental and voluntary basis. The American Polygraph Association (APA) stated the CIA’s use of polygraph exams was contrary to best practices recommended by their organization, claiming it diluted the validity of the process.

As a result, CIA examiners were discouraged from attending APA workshops, sponsored seminars, or conferences or joining the APA. During the first year, the CIA introduced these SIP practices, over 100 agents lost their security clearance. As a result of its success in weeding out undesirable agents and candidates, the polygraph exam became a core part of the CIA security clearance apparatus.


Why Do the NSA, FBI, and CIA Use Lie Detector Tests?

The polygraph exam plays an extended role in national security organizations like the CIA, FBI, and NSA. One of the practices involved with polygraph use is supporting clandestine service (CS) operations. This support includes verifying the bona fide candidates of recruited agents and the accuracy of the information they provide.

The polygraph exam also acts as a tool in interrogations, aiding in the debriefing of defectors, walk-ins, and prisoners, making claims of offering valuable intelligence information. The polygraph also acts as a tool for resolving allegations against employees in internal investigations as part of periodic employee re-investigations and screening of contractors.


How Are Polygraph Exams for National Security Different from the Private Sector?

Polygraph exams in the private sector are very different from those used in public-sector organizations involved in national security. In the private sector, employers are limited in using lie detector tests due to the “Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988” (EPPA).

The EPPA has specific guidelines on how employers can utilize polygraph policies in the workplace. For instance, employers may not use lie detectors in most industries n pre-employment screening. They also can’t force an employee to take a polygraph exam. If the employer breaks the rules, they risk stiff financial penalties for their transgression.

The EPPA doesn’t apply to public sector organizations, like those involved in national security. The FBI., CIA, and NSA don’t have any limitations on using lie detector tests on employees and candidates. They’re free to use lie detectors in pre-employment screening and random and specific employee testing.


What’s the Difference Between Examiners in National Security and the Private Sector?

One of the biggest differences between polygraph exams in the private and public sectors is the examiner and how they administer the lie detector test. In private companies, the examiner may not act as an authority. They must release the examinee at any stage if they request to do so, and a failed result doesn’t impact their job status.

If an employee fails the exam, the employer may not fire them or reprimand them in any manner, or they risk breaching the EPPA. So, examiners place the employee at ease and don’t interrogate them on any questions during the test.

That’s not the case in polygraphs in organizations in the national security complex. Examiners involved in testing candidates and employees take a firmer stance against the examinee and use interrogation tactics against them to press them a lot harder during the test.

The polygraph exam in a CIA or NSA test involves two phases executed by the examiner. The first phase involves questions surrounding the candidate or employee’s SF-86 security forms and other clearance. These questions occur when the candidate or employee is unconnected from the polygraph device.

They’ll ask the examinee detailed questions regarding foreign travel and drug use, which are outlawed in private-sector exams. The second phase of the test is a lot more intensive. They hook the examinee up to the polygraph device and start a series of questions covering “lifestyle” and “national security.”

The lifestyle questions involve the examinee’s criminal history and drug use. The national security questions involve topics around involvement in terrorist activities and foreign contacts. The questions are very specific and harder than those in private sector exams.

For instance, in the private sector, the examiner might ask the examinee a question like “have you used any illegal drugs in the last three months.” However, in the national security test, the examiner extends the window much further. They might ask, “Are you withholding information concerning your involvement with illegal drugs in the last ten years?”

Examiners involved in national security polygraphs are highly-skilled interrogators undertaking advanced training in interrogation practices far beyond what private sector examiners learn in polygraph schools. CIA, NSA, and FBI polygraphers know how to make the examinee uncomfortable and press them for information if they suspect deception.


The Difference Between the Keeler Polygraph and the Modern Polygraph

During the early days of the CIA’s use of polygraph machines, the organization relied on “Keeler Polygraphs” developed by “Associated Research,” a Chicago-based firm. The most popular polygraph with the CIA was the Keeler Model #6317, used during the Korean War in the 1950s.

Model #6317 remained in service into the 1960s when CIA operatives would use it to question Cuban Nationals entering the United States. It was eventually replaced by model #6338. This Keeler polygraph became the benchmark for the CIA, along with other machines from the Stoelting company.

While these devices remained the benchmark gold standard in polygraph equipment, the 1990s saw the introduction of the modern era of software and computerized systems. The technology made its way to the polygraph industry.

Companies like Axciton Systems, Stoelting, Lafayette Instruments, and Limestone Technologies dominated the software revolution, with national security agencies switching to computerized systems in the late 1990s.

Over the last two or so decades since the invention of polygraph software and algorithms, polygraph accuracy has increased considerably. Initially, the Keeler and Stoelting models used in interrogations and screenings up to the 1990s were considered 60% to 70% accurate at detecting deception.

As a result, there were plenty of claims that these devices cost agents their jobs. They weren’t hiding anything but merely overly nervous during the exam. However, software systems improved accuracy, with the APA claiming accuracy rates of up to 87%, and some proponents of the technology, such as software developers, suggesting accuracy of up to 97%


The Introduction of The Reid Technique

While the Keeler polygraph changed CIA and national security polygraph policies, the development of questioning techniques became the defining game-changer in interrogations during the 1970s.

John E. Reid, a former police officer and psychologist invented “The Reid Technique” of questioning in the 1950s. The Reid Technique involved a 9-step process for interrogating examinees. The technique was very effective, and it wasn’t long before national security agencies, like the CIA and FBI, adopted it in their polygraph policies.

PD candidate examiners were trained in The Reid Technique at the Chicago-based “John Reid and Associates” school. This outsourcing strategy for examiner training led to off-site polygraph seminars, resulting in improved human behavioral studies and a more academic approach to using the polygraph.

Since the CIA could only send four examiners to a training session, they experienced an increasing demand for training services that the Reid school couldn’t provide. As a result, the CIA created a polygraph school to train examiners in 1984.

The program consisted of a five-week one-on-one training program. Examiners would attend this program after passing the foundational CIA polygraph course, certified by the American Polygraph Association. This nine-month APA course was intensive and well-structured.

Graduates from this program were the best-trained examiners in CIA polygraph history and were viewed as professionals solely responsible for conducting polygraph exams. Previously, field agents would conduct lie detector tests.

However, despite the advanced training, the CIA experienced a rise in complaints from candidates and agents regarding polygraph accuracy. As a result, agents developed hostility to the Polygraph Department, with agents and candidates seeing them as interrogations more than questioning sessions.

In February 1994, CIA operative, Aldrich Ames, was arrested by the CIA for selling classified information to Russian intelligence services. During his time as a double agent, Ames passed polygraphs on two separate occasions, with the exams conducted by graduates of the CIA’s polygraph school.

Post the Ames fiasco, the Polygraph Department at the CIA lost control of the school. The organization implemented additional quality control practices, and the agents responsible for conducting the test were reassigned. As a result, CIA polygraph policies were changed forever.

Despite the controversy surrounding using the Reid Technique in polygraph interrogations by national security agencies, the FBI admitted to using the technique in its questioning in 2013.


The Future of Polygraph Testing in National Security Operations

Today, the technological revolution in national security polygraph practices continues. The US Border Patrol and Customs and Immigration Department uses an AI-based polygraph system called “AVATAR.”

AVATAR assists the Border Patrol with questioning immigrants arriving in the US from high-risk countries. AVATAR supposedly has an accuracy rate of between 60% to 85%. The system can also detect the use of countermeasures during the test, such as curling the toes when answering questions.

If AVATAR flags an examinee, they’re referred to a human-based examiner for further questioning, helping to conserve US Border Patrol resources.