Current and prospective federal employees are sometimes required to undergo a polygraph exam as part of their security clearance applications or renewals. Mostly, the “lie detector test” is required for people seeking a high security clearance within the intelligence community or the Defense Department.
The problem with polygraphs is that the technology has not been updated in almost 50 years. Moreover, there is significant debate about whether the device is even accurate. For example, polygraph results are generally not admissible in court because technical evidence of this sort must be generally accepted as reliable within the applicable field of scientific study — and polygraphs do not meet that standard.
Another problem is that polygraph examiners are not trained in a standardized way across federal agencies, even though a 2015 Intelligence Community Policy Guidance document says that all examiners should be certified by the National Center for Credibility Assessment. However, examiner training can also be obtained at the U.S. Military Police School/Army Polygraph School, the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute, and the Psychophysiological Detection of Deception, although these do not provide the required certification.
Why does that matter? Both academic and industry experts admit that polygraph examiners can affect the test results. The way they phrase the questions, their interpretation of the answers and their reading of the machine can all impact how the subject responds.
You may ask why federal agencies continue to use the polygraph if the scientific evidence for it is so limited. One theory is that it gives the appearance that agencies are doing something about perceived internal security threats. Another is that the polygraph is an effective scare tactic that convinces people to reveal details they might otherwise keep secret.
What happens if you reveal criminal behavior or fail a polygraph test?
When you apply for a security clearance, you submit form SF-86. That form reassures you that you may not be prosecuted for admitting illegal drug use on the form. Furthermore, the admissions you make on the form cannot be used as evidence in subsequent criminal proceedings. However, if there is supporting evidence of a crime you admit, the examiner may have cause to report it.
If an applicant fails the test, you may not be able to continue with the application process. However, you do have the right to appeal. A Freedom of Information Act request will probably be needed in order to see your results.
If you are a current federal employee and fail the test, you will probably be placed on administrative leave. If that happens, you should contact a federal employment law attorney as soon as possible to begin preparing a defense.