For the last four years, the U.S.
Department of Defense has been using
polygraph (lie detector) testing, on a large scale, to tighten up security in
its intelligence agencies. In theory, polygraph is supposed to be used to find
traitors, or applicants who are unsuitable for intelligence work. Polygraph is
still used for that. But the Pentagon has found that wider use of polygraph
testing, even having people take it on an annual basis, causes fewer secrets to
go missing. This costs money, since the Department of Defense is nearly tripling
the number of polygraph operators (by hiring private contractors) to increase
the annual number of tests to nearly 6,000.
true that some people can train themselves to beat the test, and for many applicants,
the test does not do a good job in proving they are able to keep state secrets,
the test does do one thing quite well. It turns out that people faced with
regular testing, are more careful with the way they handle classified
information. Sloppiness in this department, not the skill of enemy spies, is
the biggest source of lost secrets. The U.S. intelligence community now knows
this, from the many Russian spies who told all (often for a large fee from the
CIA or FBI) during the 1990s. It took Russia nearly a decade to get its
espionage community under control again. But for a time in the 1990s, former
Cold War communist intelligence and counter-intelligence (they catch spies) agents
were willing to tell all (or at least a lot) for a fee. While this uncovered
several Russian spies who were still operating in the West, it also revealed
how sloppy the West was in holding on to secrets. The United States was not the
worst offender in this department (several West European nations were), but the
Russians picked up a lot of American secrets by simply taking advantage of
sloppiness and dumb mistakes.
polygraph tests is not popular among Department of Defense employees. In the
past, employee unions got Congress to limit the number of polygraph tests the Pentagon
could administer each year. These limits were removed (without ever having been
reached) in 2004. Employees don't like the polygraph because of the false
positives, leading to intense investigation of suspect employees. But the other
reason, which is rarely mentioned in public, is that it forces everyone to be a
lot more contentious about security procedures, and keeping secrets secret.