Are you thinking about applying for a job with a government agency like the FBI or CIA? The United States takes state security seriously, and you’ll have to comply with a rigorous vetting process to qualify for a position with these organizations.

The sensitive nature of intelligence and information in state security means anyone working directly or indirectly with these institutions must undergo security clearance. Whether you’re applying for a position with the US Border Patrol or a private firm looking to land a contract with the Department of Defense, you will have to submit to these security clearance criteria.

Security clearance acts as a control measure, ensuring everyone dealing with these organizations is reliable and trustworthy, with no hidden agenda. This post discusses the requirement of a polygraph test for working in or with these institutions.


The Criteria for State Security Clearance

Security clearance vetting typically occurs at the request of contractors and private companies working with the military, intelligence community, or enforcement agencies. The authority obliges the potential contractor or employee to complete this clearance process.

Typically, the clearance process includes the following procedures.


Full Background Check

The first step involves a complete background check on the applicant. The authority certifies the applicant’s criminal record, police clearance certificate, financial records, and credit rating through official databases.

After completing this phase, the authority validates all personal information, including home address, age, Social Security Number, age, physical well-being, and work experience. Further investigation might be conducted to review medical records or relevant documents determining reliability and work-readiness.


Face-to-Face Interview

The authority vets the applicant with a face-to-face interview. The interview includes relevant questions regarding interests, work experience, education, training, family status, citizenship, disabilities, age, origin, organizational affiliations, place of residence, and personal values.

The interview serves as an opportunity for the applicant to engage with the authority demonstrating their attitude, character traits, social qualities, and mannerisms.


Dual-Reference Interview

The applicant provides the names and contact information of references that vouch for their work ethic and character.

The authority contacts these references, organizing two interviews to discuss the applicant and their suitability. The interviewer cross-checks the applicant’s statements with information from the reference interview.


Work Enquiries

The authority contacts the past employment references of the applicant to confirm if the information disclosed is factual and up to date.

The authority may conduct these interviews in writing, orally, over the phone, or using internet-based communication tools. All information is cross-referenced with the applicant’s interview.


Polygraph Testing

Regardless of the government or state organization, you’re applying with, you’ll need to take a polygraph lie detector test. While The Employee Polygraph Protection Act  (EPPA) prevents employers in the private sector from implementing lie detector tests in pre-employment interviews, this doesn’t apply to government organizations involved in intelligence or law enforcement.

Whether you’re applying with the CIA, FBI, Border Patrol, or the Military, you’ll need to undergo a polygraph exam to continue the qualification process with the organization. Organizations like the CIA will typically have in-house polygraph examiners available to conduct a lie detector test on the applicant.

This process involves an interview with the applicant. The polygraph process involves the applicant entering a private room with the examiner. The examiner hooks the applicant up to the lie detector machine using chest tubes to measure their respiration rate and skin response, a blood pressure monitor, and a pressure pad.

This equipment connects to a computer running lie detector software. The polygraph examiner unpacks the specifics of the exam and calms the applicant before asking them if they have any queries on the polygraph process.

During the polygraph test, the examiner asks questions relating to the applicant’s past behavior. Examples would be their use of illegal drugs, whether they have committed a crime, or if they lied on their application. The examiner repeats these questions until they have a satisfactory result.

The purpose of the lie detector test is not to catch the applicant in a lie. The examiner reads their response to the questions in the session, looking for signs of deceptive behavior. They will record the session, examining the applicant’s body language in conjunction with their responses to the questions.

A polygraph session can last up to 90-minutes, depending on the examiner and the applicant’s responses.


Personal Evaluations

After completing the process, the authority reviews all information collected during the interview. The results include documents from the references, investigation memorandum, and polygraph results.

This case file goes to the evaluation division for final checks and consideration. The authority then decides on the applicant based on the evaluation recommendations.


Factors that Disqualify Applicants from Clearance Checks

There are several reasons why state security organizations may refuse your application as a vendor or employee. Here are some of the core reasons why you may experience rejection.

  • Criminal records.
  • History of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Thefts.
  • Sexual harassment or child abuse.
  • Excessive debt and bankruptcy.
  • Tax evasion.
  • Property foreclosure.
  • Fraudulent activities and embezzlement.
  • Bankruptcy.
  • Criminal activity.
  • Volatile or aggressive behavior.
  • Mental health problems.
  • Manufacturing, selling, or using illegal drugs.
  • Unprofessional presence on social media.
  • Ongoing legal issues or cases.
  • Incomplete education or work references.
  • Discrepancies in personal records and information.
  • Failure to complete and submit release forms.
  • Failure to submit supporting documents.


Polygraph Services For State Security Clearance

Due to the expense involved in vetting new applicants, and the stakeholders involved in the process, the authority may take anywhere from six to 18 months to complete the clearance process with the applicant.

In state security employment, the authority covers the cost of the polygraph tests and other related processes involved in vetting the applicant. If the applicant fails a part of the vetting process, they may lodge an appeal for re-examination.

For instance, the polygraph exam is a chilling process for many people. They may feel nervous during the test, causing them to create physiological responses the examiner may view as deception when it’s merely nerves.

If there’s doubt about the validity of the test results, the examiner will create a report and submit it to the authority for review. The examiner presents their opinion on the outcome of the lie detector test and if they think the applicant was displaying deceptive behavior or if they were simply nervous.

However, it’s important to note that the polygraph exam is not the crux of the interview process. While it weighs heavily on the applicant’s approval, it is not the end-all of the process.

There are two types of polygraph tests used for new candidates applying for positions in state security positions.


Counterintelligence and Lifestyle Polygraph

This polygraph exam covers questions relating to terrorist activities, sabotage, and espionage. The test aims to uncover contact with spies, foreign nationals, or compromise of classified data.

The lifestyle polygraph deals with personal questions answered during the interview and their SF-86. Such activities include drug use, illegal activity, and falsification of security clearance forms.


Full-Scope Polygraph

This lie detector test combines the lifestyle and CI polygraph. It’s assumed that a polygraph is an intimidation tool designed to get applicants to admit to things they don’t include on their SF-86 application. This exam covers the full range of questions in the CI and lifestyle exam and other questions designed to test the candidate’s ethics and honesty.


Case Study – CIA Director John Brennan

During the Congressional Black Caucus in 2016, CIA Director John Brennan fielded a question regarding if a history of political activism would prevent candidates from pursuing a career in government.

Brennan responded to the question by recounting his personal security clearance polygraph exam, conducted in 1980. Brennan underwent a polygraph exam as part of the application process for admittance to the CIA. During the exam, he fielded a standard counterintelligence polygraph question,

“Have you ever worked with or for a group dedicated to overthrowing the US?”

Brennan recalled he previously voted for a candidate of the Communist Party. He informed the examiner he was neither Democrat nor Republican but voted for the Communist Party candidate in protest.

He also informed the examiner he was not a member of the communist party. The examiner continued the interview, and Brennan fully expected his answer to disqualify his application. Considering his interview took place during the height of the Cold War, he was surprised to learn that he passed the polygraph exam and received the job.

This case study shows that it is not the past history of the candidate that is under question during the polygraph exam. The primary goal of the lie detector test is to uncover deceptive behavior.


How to Handle a Polygraph Interview for State Security Clearance

If you’re going for your pre-employment polygraph with a government institution, you can use the following strategies to ensure you get the best outcome from the process.


Keep Your Regular Routine

Stay in your normal routine. It’s common for applicants to consider cutting their morning cup of coffee out of fear that caffeine will make them nervous during the exam. However, if your normal behavior involves a cup of coffee in the morning, leaving it out on the day of your polygraph test may end up derailing your plans.

Your nervous system will not appreciate you leaving out your daily dose of caffeine, throwing off your normal response to pressure stimuli. The same applies to prescription medication. However, if you’re feeling ill or discover you’re pregnant, notify the authority and reschedule your exam in the interim.


Don’t Volunteer Unnecessary Information.

Don’t submit additional information during the lie detector test. The polygraph exam is not an employment interview. You don’t have to impress the examiner with your savvy, on-the-fly response if you don’t have an answer to the question.

If you receive questions that weren’t on your SF-86 or it’s fine to plead ignorance. Sometimes, “I don’t know” is the best answer. Stick with answering factually, and don’t speculate.


Avoid Overthinking

In most cases, the polygraph exam consists of yes or no questions. If you overthink answers, it will disrupt the test results. Physiological receptors don’t vet a ‘maybe’ response. If you think that behavior is wrong, it may interfere with the physiological response, even if you’ve never done the stated behavior.

If this situation applies to you, sharing it with the polygraph examiner is fine. However, don’t admit to anything that’s not true when attempting to think around an issue or question. Keep it short and sweet, and don’t overthink the results.


Don’t Try to Beat the Polygraph

The polygraph examiner will inquire if you have prepared for the exam, ask friends about what to expect or look up how to beat a polygraph exam online. So, it’s better not to ask people about their polygraph experience in an attempt to ‘beat’ the test.

The polygraph equipment is incredibly sensitive to your physiological responses. The equipment and algorithm will pick up strategies like controlled breathing, clenching your sphincter, or placing a thumb tack in the front of your shoe.

It’s alright to read up about the polygraph test on the organization’s official website, but don’t go searching forums and message boards to locate strategies to beat the test. It will only end up backfiring on you.


The Goal of Polygraph Testing for State Security Clearance

The goal of a polygraph test for state security clearance is to confirm if the applicant is acting truthfully. The polygraph is a measure of honesty in the candidate. While it’s not the final crux of the interview process, it does weigh a lot on the success of your application.

The polygraph assists the authority with uncovering discrepancies or lies in the candidate’s application on the SF-86 form. If they lied about their credentials or past experiences, the lie detector test would likely pick it up.

The polygraph assists the employer with determining if the candidate is honest and ethical and a person of integrity. By investigating the candidate’s financial and criminal records, the authority can decide if the candidate is susceptible to bribes, extortion, or blackmail.

Polygraph exams are vital to vetting the candidate, but they’re nothing to fear. You can expect a clean result if you have nothing to hide.

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