The Polygraph

For almost forty years, the U.S. government required me to take a polygraph—the technical name for the lie detector—test to maintain my security clearances and my employment doing classified work. The tests, every five years, were among the most unpleasant experiences I and other employees had to endure.

During the test, wires were attached to various places on my body to measure my emotional reaction to questions. The purpose was to uncover actual treason against the U.S. or practices or actions that might make a person susceptible to blackmail and, thereby, to revealing classified information to enemies of the U.S. But the polygraph only measured physical reaction, not the reason for it, and many of us found the questions shocking enough to bring on an emotional response. We would be asked, for example, if we were hiding criminal acts or illicit sex. We were asked about having engaged in specifically named and described homosexual practices. I reacted emotionally to such questions and was therefore initially suspected of being guilty of having committed them.

That meant that the test was prolonged as the polygraph technician went back over those questions to see if I would still react. Since I knew that I was being tested in precisely that way, I was even more alarmed.

Sooner or later, the test would end, and the technician always concluded that I was innocent but shocked. Over the years, I grew more relaxed, and the tests went faster. By the end of my career, the polygraph was nothing more than a minor nuisance to be endured.

And yet I wonder how many employees lost their jobs because of the polygraph even though they were innocent of the practices being questioned. And I wonder if the polygraph, an unreliable apparatus at best, is still in use.

4 thoughts on “The Polygraph”

  1. An invidious device in the wrong hands. As some of ours weren’t so good. Others were real pros. Luck of the draw. Felt sorry for the young ladies that EOD’d with me.

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  2. I believe that literal minded people had the most problems with this. In your past life, you probably shared classified info with foreign nationals as part of your job. And so when asked the question about giving classified info to foreign nationals, you (And I certainly did) show a degree of response.

    OTOH, some people (e.g. Ames) could easily pass the polygraph even though they were doing the wrong things.

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