from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2012, Issue No. 79
August 2, 2012

Secrecy News Blog:


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, 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.


In a floor statement yesterday, Sen. John McCain reiterated his criticism of the Obama White House for allegedly leaking classified information that endangered national security, and he repeated his call for appointment of a special counsel to independently investigate the claims.

Sen. McCain cited a particular incident in 2009 described by David Sanger of the New York Times in which a senior National Security Council official arranged a special briefing for Sanger in the Presidential suite at a Pittsburgh hotel about a secret nuclear site in Iran.

"I wonder how many people have the key to the Presidential suite in that Pittsburgh, PA hotel? We might want to start there" in the search for the leakers, Sen. McCain said.

But it turns out that the resulting news story that appeared in the Times did not include classified information, and the discovery of the Iranian nuclear site was the subject of a public briefing the very next day. See "John McCain swings at White House over 2009 Iran leak to David Sanger," by Josh Gerstein, Politico, August 1:

An ongoing FBI investigation into leaks of classified information is "casting a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues as agencies decline routine interview requests and refuse to provide background briefings," writes Scott Shane in the New York Times.

The congressional response to leaks of classified information is disingenuous or hypocritical, wrote Walter Pincus in "Lawmakers, media are duplicitous on leaks," Washington Post, August 1.

"While the Pentagon insists it's not doing anything that should alarm reporters, it has yet to offer a direct response as to exactly what it means when it says it's going to monitor news reports for unauthorized disclosures." See "Defense vague on plan to plug press leaks" by Austin Wright and Leigh Munsil, Politico, August 1.

A correction: Secrecy News stated yesterday that "the Senate Intelligence Committee bill would not apply to White House officials." That's not quite right. While most of the proposed anti-leak measures apply only to "elements of the intelligence community," a few provisions such as Section 501 (requiring notification of authorized release of classified information) would apply to the entire executive branch, including the White House.


The Congressional Research Service has not been authorized to publicly release the following new and updated reports.

China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities -- Background and Issues for Congress, July 31, 2012:

Organization of American States: Background and Issues for Congress, July 31, 2012:

Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress, August 1, 2012:

Mountaintop Mining: Background on Current Controversies, August 1, 2012:

Budgetary Treatment of Federal Credit (Direct Loans and Loan Guarantees): Concepts, History, and Issues for the 112th Congress, July 27, 2012:

When Congressional Legislation Interferes with Existing Contracts: Legal Issues, May 31, 2012 (published July 31):

Comparing Compensation for Federal and Private-Sector Workers: An Overview, July 30, 2012:

Medicaid Financing and Expenditures, July 30, 2012:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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