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Security Clearances and Polygraph Examinations: FAQs

Many security clearance applicants contact the National Security Law Firm seeking information about the polygraph examination. Polygraph exams (or “lie detector tests”) raise a great deal of concern to applicants. Thus, applicants are highly encouraged to consider speaking with an experienced attorney prior to taking a polygraph examination. Below, however, are answers to some of the more frequently asked questions our law firm receives regarding these exams.

How Do Polygraph Exams Work?

It is important to understand that polygraph exams rely on physiologic changes in your body as an indicator of your truthfulness.  Physiologic changes can take many forms such as changes in your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and skin moisture (or, sweating).

A polygraph exam tests your baseline vital signs followed by a series of “control” questions that will have a few relevant questions intermixed.  The polygrapher will score the test by comparing your physiological responses against the control questions intended to cause you to lie. Basically, an examinee’s lie only counts if the physiological response registers as higher than your control lie.

Which Agencies Use Polygraph Exams?

Many government agencies conduct counterintelligence polygraphs. These agencies include but are not limited to: (1) the Department of Defense; (2) The Department of Homeland Security; (3) the Department of Energy; (4) the Department of Justice; (5) the Central Intelligence Agency; (6) the Federal Bureau of Investigations; (7) the National Security Agency; (8) the Defense Intelligence Agency; and (9) the Drug Enforcement Agency.

What Is the Purpose of the Polygraph Exam?

Agencies that use polygraph exams view them as significant tools because of their ability to generate admissions of wrongdoing. They also serve as a deterrent by eliminating some potential applicants from seeking the highly sensitive positions that require polygraphs in the first place.

Polygraph tests are part of the investigation process.  The polygraph operator will make a full report regarding your polygraph examination and will also provide an assessment with respect to your cooperation. Any information that is obtained during the examination can be used against security clearance applicants at a later time, such as during a formal hearing, at which time the government counsel can refer to your polygraph answers.

Are There Different Types of Polygraphs?

Currently, the intelligence community utilizes two types of polygraphs: (1) a counterintelligence polygraph; and (2) a lifestyle polygraph.  The counterintelligence polygraph focuses on whether you pose a threat to turning into an agent of a foreign power, whereas, a lifestyle polygraph focuses more on your decision making process and whether any of your decisions could subject you to blackmail in the future.

The lifestyle polygraph will ask questions that focus on your decision making process in order for the agency to determine if you can be trusted to make sound decisions in the future. These questions can include questions regarding past criminal activity, to include drug use, your propensity to lie and forge documents, infidelity, family relationships, and your mental health.

Can You Refuse to Take a Polygraph?

Refusal to cooperate with an investigator and/or a request for a polygraph could suspend the entire security clearance application process.  Very often, individuals who have refused to take a polygraph, for whatever their reason, are denied a security clearance.

What Can I Do to Prepare for a Polygraph Exam?

In addition to speaking with an experienced security clearance lawyer regarding the polygraph exam, applicants should also consider speaking with an experienced polygraph operator in order to learn about taking these exams.

In addition, you might also want to submit to taking a private polygraph exam in order to become comfortable with the process. This can be a significant help, especially considering the fact that applicant’s responses can be considered evasive or unresponsive when in actuality applicants are just nervous and/or unfamiliar with the process.

Finally, we recommend that prior to taking the polygraph examination that you maintain your daily schedule, receive plenty of sleep, and arrive to the test site early to avoid any anxiety associated with being late.  Let us help you!

How Should I Answer the Various Questions?

Above all, you should remain honest and truthful.  In addition, you should try to keep your answers short and concise – answer the question being asked and only the question being asked. Providing long, narrative answers can result in trouble.

What if the Operator Asks Me About Prior Drug or Alcohol Use?

One of the areas that raises most concern to applicants are requests by the polygraph operator to disclose prior drug or alcohol abuse. Being truthful is always the best policy in this regard. Often, however, the operator will then ask applicants to how many times they engaged in the subject behavior. You should always avoid being forced to provide a specific number, unless you have a very clear memory of exactly how many times you engaged in the activity.

Making guesses in the context can be very harmful, and often times can come back to haunt applicants who are later (sometimes much further down the road) asked to provide similar information.  Thus, applicants who are unsure of how many times they engaged in these activities should resist the operator’s pressure to indicate a specific number in these circumstances. A response indicating, “I don’t know,” may be the best response in this context.

What is the Operator Asks Me a Question I do not Know the Answer to?

Similarly, operators often pressure applicants to provide answers to questions that the applicant is unsure of.  Perhaps feeling pressured to provide an answer in these situations, some applicants guess or make up answers to their questions.  It is important, however, not to do this. Instead, simple indicate, “I don’t know,” and stand firm on your answer. Always remember not to guess.

Request a Private Consultation with The National Security Law Firm

The National Security Law Firm is available to assist applicants with the investigative process.  We highly recommend consulting with an experienced security clearance lawyer prior to taking a polygraph examination.

Allow us to answer your questions and help alleviate your fears.  A small investment of your time and money could result in a lifetime increase in your earning potential by talking about your concerns prior to your polygraph examination.  We make no guarantees that talking to us will result in you passing your polygraph examination, but we can guarantee a confidential conversation where you can ask us anything that you have on your mind.

About the Author

Brett O'Brien, Esq.
Brett O'Brien, Esq.
author

Brett O’Brien specializes in security clearance appeals. He has dedicated his career to learning the entire security clearance process from start to finish. He started his journey by working for the federal government before entering private practice. Learn more about Brett here.