Intelligence: Polygraphs And Little Lies


August 25,2008:  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.

While it's 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.

More 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.


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