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The Voodoo Box

As if on cue, the WaPo addresses the validity (or not) of the polygraph:

The CIA, the FBI and other federal agencies are using polygraph machines more than ever to screen applicants and hunt for lawbreakers, even as scientists have become more certain that the equipment is ineffective in accurately detecting when people are lying.

Instead, many experts say, the real utility of the polygraph machine, or “lie detector,” is that many of the tens of thousands of people who are subjected to it each year believe that it works — and thus will frequently admit to things they might not otherwise acknowledge during an interview or interrogation.

Well worth a full read as it is one of the more balanced stories on the subject in a long time.

I call the poly the “voodoo” box, because as the story relates: it isn’t that it necessarily works; it is that people think it works. If you have stomach cancer and know nothing of modern medicine and I palm a bloody chicken liver, rub my hands over your gut, say some “magic” words and reveal the giblet, you’d think I’d just pulled off a miracle. You might feel great for a week and then drop dead. Not my fault, you all saw me pull that cancer out of him. Must have been something else . . .

A good friend effectively wasted four years in the military because he couldn’t “pass” a poly. Nothing wrong with him, he just didn’t take to the box. A well-known and distinguished former Commander apparently passed only one out of several in a 20+ year career. Did we catch a spy in one case and miss one in another? Not likely, because a botched poly is supposed lead to a more thorough investigation, the findings of which should support or refute any discrepancies in what the voodoo box says. The high-performing and highly-regarded officer got his investigation; the apparently shady Private did not. It’s a numbers game: there are plenty of Privates to go around.

I like the fact that the government officials quoted in the story make a point of saying that the poly is one tool of many. The real problem is the over-reliance of the poly in light of the fact that thorough background investigations are rare and take a long time. The Post points out on Saturday the most recent development in this area. We move this job around the government, we outsource it, we throw money at it, and the problem continues to grow. Some suggested fixes:

Accept the fact that “good enough” is good enough. Having a clearance doesn’t mean your not a bad person, a petty thief, a malingerer, or a half-wit (examples provided upon request). It generally means you can keep your mouth shut and you’re unlikely to sell out your country. Run the credit checks, run the NCIC check, talk to the references and move on. That should take weeks, not months.

Send all the money and manpower that we’re burning keeping people out into the ranks of the Counterintelligence corps. With rare and notable exceptions, people go turncoat after they’ve been on the job for a while. The only reason why the Walkers, Conrads and Hanssens of the world lasted as long as they did was because CI is a red-headed step-discipline.

Seriously re-think the classification system. The SBU situation is a fiasco and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the business who really understands how to classify information. The utility of any given piece of information is affected by time, who gets to read it and who gets to use it. As things stand now the system hampers our ability to secure the homeland and defeat our enemies because by the time the people who can make the most out of a piece of information don’t get at it until it is too late, and even if they could make use of it, they are unlikely to receive such permission from the information owner.

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.