WASHINGTON — One of the nation’s most secretive intelligence agencies is pressuring its polygraphers to obtain intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees, pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of a program that’s designed instead to catch spies and terrorists.
The National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with cash bonuses, a McClatchy Newspapers investigation found.
The disclosures include a wide range of behavior and private thoughts such as drug use, child abuse, suicide attempts, depression and sexual deviancy. The agency, which oversees the nation’s spy satellites, records the sessions that were required for security clearances and stores them in a database.
Even though it’s aggressively collecting the private disclosures, when people confess to serious crimes such as child molestation they’re not always arrested or prosecuted.
“You’ve got to wonder what the point of all of this is if we’re not even going after child molesters,” said Mark Phillips, a veteran polygrapher who resigned from the agency in late May after, he says, he was retaliated against for resisting abusive techniques. “This is bureaucracy run amok. These practices violate the rights of Americans, and it’s not even for a good reason.”
The agency refused to answer McClatchy’s questions about its practices. However, it’s acknowledged in internal documents that it’s not supposed to directly ask more personal questions but says it legally collects the information when people spontaneously confess, often at the beginning of the polygraph test.
After a legal review of Phillips’ assertions, the agency’s assistant general counsel, Mark Land, concluded in April that it did nothing wrong. “My opinion, based on all of the facts, is that management’s action is legally supportable and corrective action is not required,” he wrote.
But McClatchy’s review of hundreds of documents — including internal policy documents, memos and agency emails — indicates that the National Reconnaissance Office is pushing ethical and possibly legal limits by:
• Establishing a system that tracks the number of personal confessions, which then are used in polygraphers’ annual performance reviews.
• Summoning employees and job applicants for multiple polygraph tests to ask about a wide array of personal behavior.
• Altering results of the tests in what some polygraphers say is an effort to justify more probing of employees’ and applicants’ private lives.
Various national security experts, including those who support the use of polygraph in general for security screening, said they were disturbed by what McClatchy found, especially considering that the number of polygraph screenings has spiked in the last decade.
“There’s a narrow jurisdiction for a polygraph program, which is to promote security,” said Steven Aftergood, a senior analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan research center that tracks intelligence policies. “When agencies exceed their authority, they not only violate the privacy of employees, they corrupt the entire process.”
The dispute is part of a long-running debate over the proper use of polygraph by the federal government in screening employees, when it’s not known whether the machine can detect the difference between a lie and the truth or simply registers an emotional response.
In 2002, the National Academies, the nonprofit institute that includes the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the federal government shouldn’t use polygraph screening because it was too unreliable.
Yet since then, in the Defense Department alone, the number of national-security polygraph tests has increased fivefold, to almost 46,000 annually. Many of those who are required to undergo the tests aren’t just bureaucrats in Washington but also private contractors across the country.
Federal agencies say the information gathered during polygraph screenings helps them root out undesirable and even dangerous employees who otherwise wouldn’t be detected during routine background investigations, which often are described as expensive and time-consuming.
But some national security experts question whether U.S. agencies are striking the appropriate balance between protecting Americans’ privacy rights and the nation’s security interests as agencies are being permitted to ask what could be seen as more intrusive questions.
Last month, the Obama administration announced that federal agencies, including the National Reconnaissance Office, now may ask employees and applicants during polygraph screenings whether they’ve leaked classified information to the news media.
“If a whole program is susceptible to manipulation, then relying on it further is all the more disturbing,” Aftergood said.
The National Reconnaissance Office orders the second highest number of screening polygraphs in the Pentagon, conducting about 8,000 a year at its headquarters in Chantilly, Va., and at locations in Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley area.
National security issues
The agency’s is among eight Pentagon polygraph programs that under Defense Department policy can directly ask only about national security issues in what’s known as the counterintelligence scope polygraph. The test was designed to catch spies and terrorists who are trying to infiltrate the government without encroaching unnecessarily on the private lives of government employees and military personnel. Polygraphers are allowed to ask about espionage, terrorism, sabotage and the unauthorized sharing of classified information.
But about five years ago, the National Reconnaissance Office began pressuring polygraphers to pursue information outside those limits in what amounted to an unwritten policy, said a group of polygraphers who agreed to describe the practices to McClatchy. The polygraphers include Phillips, a former Marine who worked for a number of intelligence agencies over two decades, and a former National Reconnaissance Office colleague, Chuck Hinshaw.
Both agreed to be named because they think the agency’s practices violate Defense Department policies and should be stopped.
Other polygraphers backed their accounts, but they asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation. “I was coached to go after this stuff,” one of the polygraphers said. “It blew my mind. They were asking me to elicit information that I’m not permitted to ask about, and I told them I wasn’t going to do it.”
Another longtime polygrapher said the National Reconnaissance Office had established an off-the-books policy that encouraged going after prohibited information.
Hinshaw, who said he’d witnessed the improper practices as a former acting supervisor, accused the agency of becoming so cavalier about following the rules that the polygraph branch chief, Michael McMahon, pressured him to change the results of the agency director’s polygraph if he failed the test. In the end, director Bruce Carlson passed, but Hinshaw said the incident demonstrated how the agency’s use of polygraph was arbitrary and wasn’t about protecting the country.
McMahon didn’t respond to emails and phone messages from McClatchy inquiring about the incident.