Lie Detector Roulette

By Koerner, Brendan I. | Mother Jones, November/December 2002 | Go to article overview

Lie Detector Roulette

Koerner, Brendan I., Mother Jones

Everyone admits that polygraphs are unreliable. So why are government employees subjected to tests that can ruin their careers?

BILL ROCHE WAS SO CLOSE to his dream job. An overachieving police officer in a Bay Area suburb, Roche had made detective while still in his 20s. Confident that his law-enforcement resume was sufficiently impressive after seven years on the force, he applied to become a U.S. Secret Service agent in 1997. Throughout the yearlong selection process. his interviewers lauded him as an excellent candidate. But before he could earn his earpiece and Ray-Bans, there was one last detail to take care of Roche had to submit to a lie detector test.

No problem, he shrugged. After all, Roche had already passed three polygraphs over his police career. But not long after he arrived at the Secret Service's field office in San Francisco, things started to go awry. Roche was hooked up to a computer set to monitor his breathing and perspiration, and says he answered each question as truthfully as possible. But as the seven-- hour session wore on, the polygrapher grew increasingly angry with Roche's responses, insisting that his physiological reactions "were not in the acceptable range." He accused the veteran cop of withholding information about his drug use, his criminal history, and his honesty on the job. The more strenuously Roche protested his innocence, the more confrontational the examiner became. "At one point, he's sticking his finger right in my face," recalls Roche, "and he's yelling stuff like `Have you ever stolen a car? You better not have!'"

His pulse racing and his sweat glands in overdrive due to the bullying, Roche didn't have a prayer. His polygraph results were labeled "deceptive," he says, and he was abruptly bounced from the applicant pool. If he ever wants to apply for another government job, he'll have to admit to failing the Secret Service's polygraph-a black mark that will likely disqualify him from federal employment for life. "I was washed up at that point," he says, fighting back tears. "To lose your career over a polygraph-my God, it's devastating."

Puzzled as to why he failed, Roche began to investigate the history and validity of lie detector technology. He soon discovered an enormous community of people like himself who blame flawed polygraph results for derailing their careers-as well as a host of reputable scientists, like John Fuerdy of the University of Toronto, who dismiss lie detectors as no more valuable than "the reading of entrails" by ancient Roman priests. Studies have long shown that polygraphs are remarkably unreliable, particularly for screening job applicants. As early as 1965, a congressional committee concluded that there was no evidence to support the polygraph's validity; a 1997 survey in the Journal of Applied Psychology put the test's accuracy rate at only 61 percent. Polygraph evidence is generally inadmissible in court because, as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas noted in his majority opinion in the 1998 case U.S. v. Scheffer, "there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable." Indeed, the lie detector is so untrustworthy that Congress passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act in 1988, making it illegal for private-sector employers to compel workers to take polygraph exams. Prior to the law's passage, according to Senate testimony, an estimated 400,000 workers suffered adverse consequences each year after they were wrongly flunked on polygraphs.

But Congress exempted government agencies from the ban on lie detectors, and "going on the box" remains a key part of the hiring process for the FBI, Secret Service, and hundreds of other federal, state, and local agencies. At last count, 62 percent of the nation's police departments require job applicants to take a polygraph test-up from only 19 percent in 1964. Polygraphs are also widely used to ferret out spies and to wring confessions out of military personnel suspected of criminal offenses. …

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