What Public-Sector Institutions Use Polygraph Tests & Why?


Are you considering a career in the public sector? Working for a government institution is a popular career choice for many Americans. Currently, the Federal government has over 18 million employees working in different branches.

The NSA has roughly 32,000 employees, the FBI employs 35,000 people, the CIA has over 21,500 people on its books, around 18,000 officers are working for the state, Federal, and local law enforcement agencies, and the IRS has more than 78,500 workers.

If you want to work in these organizations, you’ll have to take a polygraph exam as part of your pre-employment screening process. You also might face a lie detector test several times during your career, depending on the nature of your work.


Is It Legal for Public-Sector Institutions to Implement a Polygraph Policy?

In 1988, then-president, Ronal Reagan, signed “The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988” (EPPA) into power. This legislation aimed to prevent employers from unjustly implementing polygraph policies in the workplace as part of the pre-employment screening process and for random and specific testing of employees.

At the time, there was much controversy surrounding the use of polygraphs. Proponents of the Act stated polygraphs weren’t as accurate as claimed, showing false positives 30% to 40% of the time. Many employers used polygraph policies in the workplace to dismiss candidates and employees who didn’t want to work in their company.

However, this EPPA did not apply to government and Federal employees working in the public sector. Employers, such as the CIA, FBI, and NSA, are exempt from the law, allowing them to use polygraphs for pre-employment and employee screening and testing.

So, why were these institutions exempt from the law? Shouldn’t it apply to all industries? Is this legislation another example of the government abusing its power? Or does it have just cause?


The Reason Why Government and Federal Agencies are Exempt from the EPPA

It should seem like common sense why government and Federal organizations are exempt from the EPPA. However, we understand if you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around it. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander, correct?

Let’s say you’re applying for a job with the CIA. You have a clean record, and criminal history, studied hard at university, and believe you’re an upstanding citizen with high moral standards. Why would the CIA management feel the need to polygraph you?

The CIA and the Department of Defense (DOD) are government organizations working with state secrets. It’s possible you could spend years on the job with these institutions and learn many things about how they work and what they do.

This information is sensitive, and foreign governments are willing to bribe Federal and government organizations to gain access to what they know about these institutions. Foreign governments also bribe officials and Federal employees to infiltrate certain departments dealing with classified information or state secrets.

If this information gets into the hands of the wrong people, it could jeopardize national security and the safety of all Americans. So, to ensure their workforce is above-board, agencies like the FBI, CIA, and DOD regularly screen new hires and employees with polygraph exams.


Is a Polygraph from the CIA or FBI the same as an Employee Lie Detector Test?

A polygraph exam conducted in the private sector is very different from one in the public sector. In the private sector, polygraph examiners are bound by the legislation in the EPPA discussing what they can and can’t do in terms of exam duration and the questions asked during the procedure.

For instance, most private sector polygraph examiners can’t force the employee to take the exam. If the employee refuses the request, the employer cannot take action against them to fire or discipline them. These rights are non-negotiable, and the employer faces a violation, enforced by the US Labor Department if they do so.

An employer violation of the EPPA can result in legal liability, opening the company to huge fines that may jeopardize its economic future, causing the organization to close its doors due to the financial penalty.

However, the limitations don’t exist in the public sector. Examiners can extend the interview period for as long as necessary and ask any questions they see fit to the employee or candidate. They can force employees and candidates to take the exam under the threat of non-employment of candidates and termination of employee contracts.


The Difference in Polygraph Questioning Procedures in the Public and Private Sectors

There’s also a huge difference in the questioning procedures used in public sector polygraph exams, especially regarding the intensity and probing of questions and answers. For instance, John E. Reid pioneered polygraph questioning in law enforcement.

Reid developed a questioning format known as “The Reid Technique” in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, the Reid Technique was considered the benchmark standard for polygraph testing in law enforcement practices.

Reid stated the technique was so effective it resulted in a 90% conviction rate. However, it was a controversial process. Darryl Parker was the first evidence of the flaws involved with The Reid Technique. He folded under questioning, admitting to the murder of his wife.

However, Parker recanted his statement the following day, saying he made it under duress during the exam. Several other controversial statements follow in coming decades, drawing attention to the efficacy of The Reid Technique.


Understanding The Reid Technique

The Reid Technique involved a nine-step process where Reid or the examiner conducting the polygraph exam would run through the following.


Step #1 – Positive confrontation.

The first step in the process involves advising the suspect under questioning that the evidence in their case led law enforcement to suspect them for the crime. The examiner offers the suspect an opportunity to explain the events of the offense.

Step #2 – Theme development.

The examiner attempts to shift the blame from the suspect to another party or set of circumstances. This move psychologically justifies or excuses the crime. The examiner may develop themes to make the suspect more responsive to questioning.

Step #3 – Handling denials.

The examiner attempts to minimize the suspect’s frequency of denial of the charges.

Step #4 – Overcoming objections.

The examiner tries to move the suspect from denying the charges against them into accepting and admitting their involvement in the crime.

Step #5 – Procurement of the suspect’s attention.

The examiner reinforces their sincerity to make the suspect receptive to questioning.

Step #6 – Handling the suspect’s passive mood.

The suspect becomes more attentive to the situation, listening to what the examiner says. Should the suspect start crying, the examiner should press them to admit to the crime, inferring guilt.

Step #7 – Present an alternative question.

The examiner poses alternative questioning. The suspect chooses the easier option and admits their guilt.

Step #8 – Developing details of admission.

The examiner leads the suspect to repeat their guilty admission before a witness. This step validates the admission of guilt from the suspect.


Step #9 – Convert the oral confession to a written or recorded document.

The examiner documents the suspect’s admission of guilt with a recorded, written, or video statement.


The Reid Technique was viewed by those opposing it as manipulating the suspect’s mindset, forcing them to confess to a crime. To look at this another way, we can examine the efficacy of legal torture methods, such as “waterboarding,” used to interrogate suspects held in the infamous detention center, “Guantanamo Bay.”

Waterboarding is an immensely mentally and physically fatiguing interrogation method. If a suspect is waterboarded, they’ll reach a point where they think they’ll die. When facing the prospect of death, they’re likely to admit to anything, even crimes they didn’t commit, in order to preserve their life.

While The Reid Technique is far from a torture method, its psychological effect on the suspect is similar. The subject becomes worn out psychologically and emotionally, resulting in them admitting to crimes they didn’t commit just to end the process.


Do Public Sector Institutions Use the Reid Technique?

Despite the controversy surrounding The Reid Technique, many governments around the globe decided to implement it in law enforcement interrogation techniques from the 1960s into the 2000s. However, in 2010, many governments decided to end its use due to its negative aspects.

So, does that means the Reid Technique is no longer in use or outlawed? It seems that’s not the case. A leaked document from December 2013 shows that the FBI still uses The Reid Technique in its polygraph processes.

If a Federal institution like the FBI still uses the Reid Technique in its polygraph procedures, we have to assume it’s being used by others. In other words, while no evidence of this claim exists, we must consider its use in polygraph exams in the CIA, DOD, IRS, NSA, and other Federal law enforcement operations. However, as mentioned, this is merely an assumption, and no evidence to ground these claims exists.


What Public-Sector Institutions Use Polygraph Exams?

So, what public sector organizations can implement polygraph policies? All of them are exempt from the EPPA, and they have the right to use lie detector tests in the organization’s pre-employment and employment HR practices.

Here’s a list of public sector institutions allowed to use polygraph policies.


Law Enforcement Agencies

The EPPA doesn’t apply to law enforcement agencies. That includes state, Federal, and local law enforcement, such as the police, state police, and local sheriff’s departments. Polygraphs are allowed to interview suspects, and there is no oversight on the questioning techniques used in their practices.


The Legal Community

The legal community in the public sector is subject to polygraph policies in many institutions. Some offices implementing polygraph policies include District Attorney Offices, US Attorney Offices, Public Defender Offices, Parole & Probation Departments, and defense attorneys.

The court systems will also use polygraph exams to monitor convicted sex offenders in collaboration with parole officers, probation departments, and therapists. The EPPA also exempts attorneys involved in civil litigations from taking lie detector tests.


Government Agencies

Government agencies are also exempt from the EPPA. They can implement polygraph practices in their operations. These institutions include the Department of Justice, the US Labor Department, and others.


Department of Defense Agencies

The EPPA does not apply to agencies involved in the intelligence community. The FBI, CIA, NSA, DOD, and others may use polygraph policies without scrutiny.


The Impact of Polygraph Testing on Employment in the Public Sector

The implementation of polygraph policies in the public sector is effective in stamping our candidates and employees considered corrupt or at high risk to national security. For instance, the CIA may use the polygraph for interviewing candidates in the pre-employment screening process.

These powers give the CIA the ability to avoid hiring individuals that might present a threat to divulging state secrets to hostile governments. Essentially, polygraphs make government departments more secure, stamping out the possibility of corruption.


Future Trends in the Use of Polygraph Tests in the Public Sector

The polygraph is an indispensable technology that has been highly valued by public sector agencies for decades. As the industry advances, government agencies roll out innovations in polygraphy, providing testing grounds for advancements in the industry.

For instance, the US Border Patrol recently rolled out the “AVATAR” lie detection system in screening immigrants arriving in the US. AVATAR is an AI-based polygraph system with a supposed efficacy of between 60% to 85% in detecting deception.

All immigrants go through the AVATAR process, which can supposedly detect countermeasures like curling toes when answering questions. If the system detects deception, it notifies the agency, sending the immigrant to human-led interrogation.

The beginning of 2023 saw huge advancements in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Systems like ChatGPT gained notoriety for amazing features, promising to change the search industry as we know it.

However, it was noted that ChatGPT has a specific political bias programmed into it by its development teams. Therefore, we need to consider how these biases could affect the rollout of AI-based polygraph systems.

For instance, the programmers responsible for producing AVATAR or another AI-related tech could program bias into the system to look deeper into examining some ethnicities over others when entering the country.

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