Polygraph abuse at CIA, NSA

One man's story shows the terror some employees face from multiple testing by intelligence agencies.
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor

Polygraph testing in Washington is out of control, with agencies not only using the machines for decisions that can break or end employees' careers but also refusing to honor other agencies' testing. Agency-spatting over who has the best polygraphs has forced some employees seeking clearances to be tested over and over again, the Washington Post reports.

The story of one man's abusive treatment at the hands of the CIA speaks volumes.

The National Security Agency denied a top-secret clearance to David Vermette this year after two polygraph tests. But the computer programmer still has access to sensitive, classified information -- from the CIA, which independently cleared him after administering its own "lie detector" test.

...Vermette said the six exams he has taken for three agencies have left him scared, angry and dubious. Besides being asked whether he had ever revealed classified information, Vermette was quizzed about whether he had paid for sex or had gotten a woman drunk to seduce her. Examiners asked about his computer use, his contacts with foreign students and his volunteer work with junior high students at church -- down to a high-five he had given one teenager.

Vermette describes himself as naturally nervous and said he grew more flustered with each exam. After the second CIA polygraph test, he was called in to see a higher official, who said he wanted to talk "man to man."

After telling Vermette that "there's no way you are not lying to me," the examiner pressed him on whether he was sexually involved with the teenager at church. The examiner then asked Vermette about her bra size. When Vermette said he did not know, the examiner asked him to guess -- after explaining bra sizes.

"He gave me a list of numbers to choose from, and I gave up and guessed one. Then he went on to ask about hair color, eye color, height and weight, all of which I am sure are absolutely vital to national security," Vermette wrote in an account of the episode. "I felt bad afterwards that I answered any of these questions but was under extreme psychological pressure and humiliation."

After the interview, Vermette filed a complaint. An investigation ensued, and the CIA apologized in writing, acknowledged that the questions were inappropriate and gave him his security clearances.

But it was not over. Late last year, Vermette's employer decided he ought to get clearances from the NSA as well. Although Vermette had been given top-secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information clearances by the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates U.S. reconnaissance satellites, the NSA gave him new polygraph tests.

Vermette said the last straw was being asked by NSA examiners to talk about the incident with the CIA. When he refused and explained that the CIA had apologized for the episode, the NSA denied his clearance -- citing his "failure to cooperate with security processing."

Editorial standards