A reader writes:
Regarding "Now there are Nine," on Arabic Speakers in the FBI: I was recently cut from the FBI Special Agent hiring process at basically the last stage: the polygraph.
I been selected based on my resume, and had passed batteries of written exams, personal interviews, and the physical fitness test (this was a killer). I am not quite an Arabic speaker, but I was studying the language diligently using Rosetta Stone during the application process, and I would have been pretty solid by the time I got to Quantico (I am a former corporate lawyer -- I figured that my financial-legal experience was my "in"). Reliance on the polygraph is one reason the FBI and other agencies cut good people. No less than the National Academy of Sciences produced a massive report on the polygraph, and concluded that it is unreliable and shouldn't be used for employment screening.
Here is the reason I'm sure I "failed" the polygraph: from 2005-2008, as an attorney, I represented, on a pro bono basis, detainees held at Guantanamo Bay by the United States.
It goes without saying that everything I and my team did in this representation was 100% on the up-and-up, and largely a matter of public record (we wrote many editorial pieces and lobbied Congress on GTMO issues). Nonetheless, this experience made me anxious on certain national security questions on the polygraph exam.
More importantly, my appeal of my polygraph results was rejected by the FBI, even though I had been completely up-front about my GTMO experience, and wrote a letter explaining in detail how this affected my test results. In fact, I had bragged about this legal experience in earlier stages of the selection process, figuring that it had relevance to the FBI's counter-terrorism mission. In the words of the National Academy of Sciences:
A belief that polygraph testing is highly accurate probably enhances its utility for such objectives as deterrence. However, overconfidence in the polygrapha belief in its accuracy that goes beyond what is justified by the evidencealso presents a danger to national security objectives. Overconfidence in polygraph screening can create a false sense of security among policy makers, employees in sensitive positions, and the general public that may in turn lead to inappropriate relaxation of other methods of ensuring security, such as periodic security re-investigation and vigilance about potential security violations in facilities that use the polygraph for employee security screening. It can waste public resources by devoting to the polygraph funds and energy that would be better spent on alternative procedures. It can lead to unnecessary loss of competent or highly skilled individuals in security organizations because of suspicions cast on them by false positive polygraph exams or because of their fear of such prospects. And it can lead to credible claims that agencies that use polygraphs are infringing civil liberties for insufficient benefits to the national security.
I sometimes wonder whether the "security theater" that characterizes airport screening and the entire Transportation Security Administration is also found in other areas of national security.