Pentagon Use of Polygraph Tests Rises Sharply

08.02.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The number of polygraph examinations performed by the Department of Defense more than doubled over the past decade to over 43,000 tests in a one-year period, according to a study performed last year for the Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence).

The large majority of the tests were for pre-employment or periodic reinvestigation employee screening purposes.  The remainder were conducted in the course of criminal or other investigations.

Most employee screening polygraph exams are uneventful, yielding “no significant response” to predetermined questions.  But a fraction of them produce a “significant response” which prompts the examiner to ask the subject for an explanation.  Placed in such a circumstance, many people will volunteer derogatory information about themselves.

In 2010-11, the DoD tests resulted in “3,903 admissions of misconduct, ranging from security violations and failure to disclose foreign contacts to counterintelligence and criminal violations,” the DoD study said.

“Most often the derogatory information, ranging from relatively minor security infractions to serious felony offenses, would not have been known were it not for the employment of the polygraph,” the study said.

In a small subset of cases, the polygraph test generates a “signficant response” but the subject is unable or unwilling to provide a satisfactory explanation.  In such cases, the individual may be tested repeatedly until the issue is resolved or, if already holding a clearance, may be placed in a conditional access status.

The DoD polygraph report provides hard-to-find numerical data about DoD polygraph testing practices, including the number of tests performed by DoD intelligence agencies, which has risen sharply from past levels.

Ten years ago, DoD reported to Congress that it had performed 11,566 polygraph examinations.  See the FY2002 report on the DoD polygraph program here.

That 2002 figure did not include exams conducted for the NSA or the NRO, so it cannot be directly compared to the latest of 43,434 polygraph exams in 2011, which did include numbers for both NSA (10,824) and NRO (8,404).  But subtracting those figures — which yields 24,206 tests — reveals that polygraph testing at DoD more than doubled over the past decade.

The DoD report on polygraph testing, which is marked For Official Use Only, was not authorized for public release.  A copy was obtained by Marisa Taylor of McClatchy News, who reported on it in her recent series on polygraph testing at the National Reconnaissance Office.

In its pending legislation (section 504), the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the Director of National Intelligence to consider expanded use of polygraph testing, and to report on “the practical feasibility of extending the use of the polygraph to additional Executive branch personnel.”

Among scientists, the polygraph is generally viewed with skepticism bordering on disdain.  Polygraph testing is “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results,” according to a 2002 report from the National Academy of Sciences.