With Security Clearance Changes, Agencies to Re-Examine Polygraphs

With the announcement of expected changes to the security clearance process used to vet federal employees, federal agencies are also expected to take a second-look at the polygraph exams that often represent a vital component of the process, according to coverage from Federal News Radio’s Amelia Brust.

 

At least two agencies are reportedly re-examining the polygraph process, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has struggled to filter the number of employees it feels it needs through the current vetting process in a timely manner, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which has announced the forthcoming launch of a competition designed to establish new standards around candidates’ credibility during security screenings.

“We need these protocols to evaluate how good these technologies are,” according to Alexis Jeannotte, program manager for IARPA’s Credibility Assessment Standardized Evaluation (CASE) Challenge.

For some federal positions, polygraph exams represent a must-pass threshold for candidates. However, as IARPA has pointed out in announcing the CASE challenge, the polygraph process “has not undergone significant changes in nearly 50 years.”

Perhaps most importantly, the need to thoroughly examine the exams is a fairly pressing one, according to many critics, with polygraph exams having fallen out of favor as a law enforcement mechanism since they initially burst onto the federal scene. Polygraph results are inadmissible as evidence in court in at least four states (New York, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania) and the District of Columbia. And in Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Delaware, and Iowa, it is illegal for employers to mandate a polygraph as a stipulation of employment.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the test used by a given agency varies widely, with Federal News Radio highlighting at least three different types of polygraph tests used by the Intelligence Community, alone. And if a federal employee passes one agency’s polygraph test, they are not necessarily exempted from another round of testing, should they change jobs.

According to Derrick Dortch, director of Career Services at the Institute of World Politics, “Everybody has been moving toward it in last 20 years,” Dortch said. “It’s not a fail-safe tool.”

Some moves have already been taken to minimize the decisive impact polygraph results can have on an applicant’s success. According to Brust, “Until June 2017, nothing prohibited agencies from taking action against examinees solely for failing a polygraph. But now, examiners must gather further evidence to justify denying a security clearance or for taking other action, according to ODNI’s updated Security Executive Agent Directive 4.”

As it stands, “if a current federal employee fails the test…they will likely be placed on administrative leave until a determination can be made.”

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