A polygraph is an essential tool all agencies involved in national security rely on. The polygraph plays a significant role in how these organizations approach internal employee hiring and maintenance and field operations.

The polygraph has been in operation in national intelligence since the 1940s. It cemented itself as a viable technology during the 1950s, when the intelligence community used it in the Korean War, and then in the 1960s during hostile relations between the US and Cuba, such as the “Cuban missile Crisis.”

However, conflicting reports surround the efficacy and utility of polygraph technology in these organizations. Some say it’s a valuable device and process, while others say it’s highly inaccurate. Let’s look at how the intelligence and national security communities implement polygraph policies in their organizations and their efficacy in keeping America safe.


Which Government Agencies Involved in National Security Use Lie Detectors?

All agencies involved in national security operations utilize polygraph exams. They use these exams to question candidates looking to join the agency. They’ll also use them in specific and random interrogations of employees accused of actions that might compromise national security.

There are two independent agencies.

  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Nine agencies are covered by the Department of Defense and intelligence elements involved in DoD services.

  1. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
  2. National Security Agency (NSA).
  3. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
  4. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
  5. Army.
  6. Navy.
  7. Marine Corps.
  8. Air Force.
  9. Space Force.

There are seven other agencies and departments.

  1. Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence.
  2. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
  3. US Coast Guard Intelligence.
  4. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
  5. Drug Enforcement Agency’s Office of National Security Intelligence.
  6. Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
  7. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.


Examples of How Polygraph Exams Can Improve National Security

Polygraph exams benefit the national security community in several ways, keeping the country safe. There are plenty of applications for lie detector tests in the industry. Here are a few examples of its use within the agencies and in questioning civilians.

  • Border control, immigration, and customs.
  • Espionage, terrorism, and sabotage.
  • Selling of classified data to hostile countries.


Why Do National Security Agencies Use Polygraphs?

National security agencies like the NSA, CIA, and FBI implement polygraph policies in pre-employment screening, random and specific employee testing, and operative screening. They’ll also use lie detector tests in immigrant screening and during terrorist interrogations.

The Department of Defense (DOD) started using polygraphs in the early 1950s, as did the CIA. The success of polygraph testing in the field and in employee and candidate screening led to the formation of the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute DoDPI after President Reagan passed the National Security Directive in 1985.

The DoDPI and the Department of Energy implemented a new polygraph questioning and testing methodology in 1995 and 1999 with the “Test for Espionage and Sabotage” (TES). In other circles, the TES also goes by the moniker of the “directed-lie control test” (DLCT). It proved effective, becoming the new standard for polygraph questioning.


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

Private-sector polygraph exams are very different from those used in national security processes. In the private sector, employers are bound by the terms of “The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988” (EPPA). The EPPA governs how employers implement polygraph policies in the workplace.

Unless companies are involved in high-risk industries, the EPPA doesn’t allow employers to use pre-employment polygraphs. However, there is no restriction on agencies involved with national security preventing them from using them to screen candidates.

Employers must have a valid reason to polygraph their employees, or they’re violating the EPPA. That’s not the case with the CIA, FBI, DOD, NSA, and other government agencies involved in national security. These organizations have free will in how they choose to use polygraphs.

The examiner training and behavior in private-sector and government-based polygraph testing plays very different role in both situations. In private-sector companies, the examiner can’t pressure the examinee, and they must not act as an authority. So, if the examinee wants to leave the exam room, they can’t stop them.

If employees fail a polygraph exam, their employer can’t fire or reprimand them. However, employees in national security operations can lose their job if they fail a polygraph. Examiners involved with national security operations have extensive training beyond those in the private sector.

They attend specialized training programs to teach them how to interrogate examinees and apply pressure during exams. The primary goal of the examiner in a national security-based polygraph is to get a damaging confession from the examinee.

Candidates and employees in national security agencies are not allowed to have legal representation present during the polygraph exams. Many examiners use the polygraph as an interrogation tool, and they know how to pressure examinees into admitting undesirable past behaviors.

In private sector polygraph tests, examinees can admit to unfavorable past behavior. By being truthful, they show the employer they are not acting deceptively or hiding anything. However, if the examinee recognizes past digressions in national security polygraphs, their employer may hold it against them.

A 1983 report by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment showed that the NSA and the CIA use polygraphs not to determine truthfulness or deception. Instead, they use the lie detector test as an interrogation tool to encourage examiner admissions.

The NSA stated that the agency doesn’t adhere to the “truth vs. deceptive” concept in polygraph exams commonly used in law enforcement criminal cases or private sector polygraph exams. Instead, the exam results most important to NSA examiners are data provided by the examinee during the pretest or post-test phases of polygraph exams.


Polygraph Examiners and National Security Practices

Polygraph examiners operating in national security follow up the lie detector test with post-test interrogations. They supposedly do this to confirm strong responses of deception on the lie detector machine. This post-exam interrogation allows the examinee to explain why the polygraph device might be flagging their responses as deceptive.

The interrogation aims to draw a possible damaging admission from the examinee. In some instances, the examiner may even bluff the examinee, stating they showed possible deception when they didn’t, in the hope of extracting an admission.

The counterintelligence-scope polygraph exam serves to deter unauthorized disclosure of classified information. It provides early detection of a possible threat of disclosures of examinees to hostile groups, enabling agencies to mitigate the potential for harming national security.

However, the practice of “Early detection of disclosures” cannot come from the polygraph device; it’s only valid under admission by an employee or candidate. National security organizations take the unauthorized disclosure of classified information seriously, viewing it as a security violation.

If employees or operatives engage in admissions to friends or their spouses involving national security, the agencies classify this transgression as “pillow talk.” This practice is highly illegal. If the examinee admits to pillow talk during the lie detector test, it becomes a part of the examinee’s permanent record on their security file.


How the National Security Polygraph Exam Works

The polygraph examiner starts the lie detector test by giving the examinee a short explanation of how the polygraph device and instrumentation work. After hooking up the examinee to the machine, the examiner working for national security agencies starts the test.

The examiner then starts the test using the “acquaintance” test (ACQT) format, outlined by the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute (DoDPI). In other industries, examiners call the ACQT format a “Stim” or “stimulation” test.

The acquaintance test (ACQT) involves a standard solution number test. The examiner notifies the examinee that the purpose of the ACQT has four functions.

  1. To demonstrate the lie detector process to the examinee.
  2. To allow the examinee to relax and accustom themselves to the procedures and components of the lie detector test.
  3. To allow the examiner the opportunity to adjust their instruments.
  4. To allow the examiner to ensure the examinee is physiologically competent and capable of responding if they decide to lie.

When the examiner finishes the ACQT, they move on to the “Test for Espionage and Sabotage” (TES). The questions asked by the examiner during the TES polygraph relate to sabotage and espionage. However, the examiner will also ask another set of questions unrelated to the TES for “control” purposes to establish the examinee’s baseline physiological response to a stimulus.

The polygraph examiner compares the examinee’s physiological responses when answering relevant questions to those created by the “control” questions. If the examinee’s physiological responses are stronger when answering the relevant questions, the examiner deems the answers as deceptive.

If the examinee’s physiological responses to the control and relevant questions are equivalent, the examiner deems the test results “inconclusive.”


The Controversy in Polygraphy in National Security

The US Supreme Court ruled more than two decades ago that polygraph results don’t conclusively count as evidence of proof of guilt or innocence. In the case of United States vs. Sheffer, the court Justices concluded there was no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable in determining an examinee’s guilt.

The Justices declared that the use of polygraphs must be voluntary by the examinee, and the results are inconclusive. However, many national security agencies, including the FBI, don’t follow these findings when executing their polygraph exams and examining results.

In 1997, Supervisory Special Agent Drew C. Richardson from the FBI advised a Senate Judiciary Committee that there was no probability of catching a spy with polygraph screening. He mentioned that the diagnostic value offered by polygraph testing is not accurate and subjective to the examiner’s interpretation of the results.

In 2006, information released by the FBI showed that around 25% of examinees failed their polygraphs. A 2013 study by “The Crime Report” shows that as many as 40% of examinees involved in FBI polygraph exams for Special Agent status fail the test and don’t become Special Agents.

According to the report, this figure is consistent across all federal agencies involved in national security. The Secret Service has a failure rate of 35%, and the DEA has a 36% failure rate. The US Customs and Border Protection has the highest failure rate, with a 65% failure rate.

Some commentators argue that the high failure rates stop talented agents from earning the opportunity to progress through their organization, limiting the talent pool available to national security agencies. Others argue that the polygraph is effective at keeping these agents from earning positions of power which they may abuse.


In Closing – Are Lie Detectors Important for National Security?

The validity of polygraph results in national security lie detector tests will never reach a consensus. Proponents of the technology say it plays a vital role in protecting the nation from internal and external security threats. Detractors state that the polygraph is an ineffective technology and has no use in investigations surrounding national security.

However, many of the detractors use outdated statistics and statements from the “Keeler” polygraph system era. Keeler polygraphs were electro-mechanical devices; you’ve probably seen them used in movies and other entertainment productions. These devices have a track record of 60% to 70% accuracy.

However, introducing software solutions and computerized systems to the industry markedly changed the accuracy of polygraph results. The modern polygraph is capable of far more than the older systems. Examiners can tell the difference between an examinee that’s being deceptive or merely nervous during the test.

Modern devices can also detect when examinees use “countermeasures” in an attempt to fool the polygraph device and the examiner. The primary argument for the efficacy of polygraph results comes from the examiner training involved in the national security sphere.

Polygraph examiners involved in national security lie detector tests have advanced training. They may interrogate the examinee to the point where they make admissions that they would not otherwise submit under less stressful exam conditions, such as those used in the private sector.

However, it’s necessary to push examinees in these situations to find the truth.