NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Extensive Use Of Polygraphs In Government

April 5, 1999

Although the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld a military ban on using polygraph exams -- lie-detector tests -- in criminal trials, many federal agencies rely heavily on them to make critical personnel decisions, from hiring to firing.

  • In addition, the percentage of police departments using the technique to screen new employees has increased dramatically, from 16 percent in 1962 to 62 percent today, according to a Michigan State University study.
  • More than three-fourths of police believe the tests are 86 percent to 100 percent accurate.
  • Senior Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have requested permission to administer up to 225 polygraph tests every year in investigations of suspected employee misconduct -- in addition to the 3,000 tests given each year to new agents, witnesses and informants in major criminal investigations.
  • The Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, Defense Department, Treasury Department and some of the largest police agencies in the nation also depend heavily on the technology.

The FBI Agents' Association has opposed any effort to screen existing agents -- except in extraordinary cases. But a former FBI polygraph examiner calls the technique "the most effective tool in the bag."

Experts say that failure to pass a polygraph test does not automatically disqualify an applicant from a job, since other factors are also considered. But if two applicants, both having similar qualifications, take the test and one flunks it, the job will most likely go to the one who passed.

Source: Kevin Johnson, "Government Agencies See Truth in Polygraphs," USA Today, April 5, 1999.


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