What federal applicants should know about polygraph tests

Tuesday - 12/11/2012, 3:31pm EST

Bill Bransford, partner, Shaw Bransford and Roth

Download mp3

By Katie Howard
Federal News Radio

More and more federal employees reported last year having to submit to a polygraph examination in the quest of a coveted security clearance for federal employment or to keep a federal job. But unless you are like George Washington and you "cannot tell a lie," this controversial method could leave you rattled and unaware that you might have incriminated yourself during the process.

Attorney Bill Bransford, a partner at the law firm Shaw, Bransford and Roth, told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Tuesday what rights, if any, an applicant has if asked by an agency to take a polygraph examination.

Polygraph results are kept private "except if you confessed to a crime," said Bransford. Polygraph results in the federal employment process are "not something that is supposed to be used against you" and a handful of agencies really rely on them. But if you do admit to a criminal matter, the polygraph examiner "can report the fact that you said this to law enforcement and if they can find other evidence that you did this activity, you could be prosecuted."

When are polygraphs used by agencies?

Polygraph examinations are used by agencies such as the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency where they are "commonplace" in the applicant-screening process. Applicants might expect them even before they start working at the agency. It's also a tactic of getting employees into the habit of expecting follow-up polygraph tests from time to time, according to Bransford.

At the CIA, for example, "When you do your five-year update, you'll have a follow-up polygraph test," he said.

But the first polygraph occurs at the screening. "That's the one they take you through and everything is great, and they want to offer you a job and the only thing left is the polygraph," he added. "You have to pass that, so that can be a very nervous event for somebody — especially somebody who hasn't had a polygraph before, and of course, they can go a variety of ways."

Polygraph examiners administer the tests in different ways, Bransford said, but it's accepted within the industry that the biggest benefit of a polygraph exam is reading the bodily reactions. An examiner could say to the applicant, "'Oh you showed a reaction here,'" he explained. "'You must have some discomfort with this or you must be holding back something.' And it's incredible the things that people will then say and admit to. And once they have admitted to things that are problematic, then the agency will use the person's own words to screen them away from having a job."

Bransford said he thinks the CIA, NSA and FBI use polygraphs in this way more than other agencies.

Are there any off-limit questions?

"Most polygraphs at least ask about foreign contacts, any affinity you might have toward a foreign government, a connection you might have with a foreign country like relatives in a country or other contacts ... and most ask at least those questions," Bransford said. "Some go above and beyond that" and ask lifestyle questions: What did you do in your youth? Have you taken illegal drugs? Did you commit any crimes?

Polygraph examiners can delve into "a lot of serious things that are pretty personal and might be viewed by another agency as maybe across the line," Bransford said. "We're seeing it more and more, particularly in the screening, when people then confess to some serious crimes that's used against them — they're trying to be honest on the polygraph and it's used against them to find them unsuitable" for employment.

Why should applicants subject themselves to a polygraph?

Employment at the agencies that utilize polygraph results the most are viewed as a "prestigious places to work," Bransford said. "There are opportunities, particularly at the CIA, for not only important work but reasonably well-paid work when you go overseas."

All in all, most people seem to do pretty well with the polygraph used in the employment screening process. However, whoever the polygraph examiner is also might make a difference to a federal applicant, according to Bransford.

"That little blip on the screen, the polygraph examiner may feel, 'I really want to probe this because I think there is something there,'" Bransford said. "But the person being polygraphed never sees that blip and they never get to later. They never get the charts. They are never able to have somebody else to look at the reasonableness of that conclusion." he said.