A new polygraph policy is currently being drafted by the Obama administration after polygraph abuses were found during screenings of job applicants and employees.

A series of articles published last year by McClatchy newspapers found that 15 federal agencies use polygraphs on more than 70,000 job applicants and employees each year to determine issuance of security clearances or eligibility for jobs. Yet many of these polygraph screenings included highly personal questions that applicants thought were intrusive to their privacy, McClatchy reported.

Depending on the agency, polygraph screeners ask a wide range of information that can include relationships with foreigners, sexual conduct and whether someone has leaked government information to the news media. Private thoughts and behaviors are recorded and filed in databases and shared across multiple agencies.

Some people that issued polygraph tests felt they were pressured to bypass ethical and legal boundaries by collecting information not directly related to national security during screenings, McClatchy reported. Polygraphers for the National Reconnaissance Office said they were rewarded with bonuses if they collected questionable information while those that refused were punished.

Six federal agencies, including the National Reconnaissance Office, focus on national security questions, such as whether someone has leaked classified information or has had inappropriate relationships with foreigners. These agencies are told to avoid asking personal questions such as sexual conduct and psychological issues.

However, nine other agencies ask polygraph screening questions related to prior drug use, undisclosed crimes and lying on their security-clearance application form. They see these questions as essential to discovering applicants or employees who are hiding crimes or unstable behavior that might affect job performance.

The series of McClatchy articles prompted an investigation by the National Intelligence agency, which found “inconsistencies” in polygraph use across the government, but that “all programs were operating appropriately,” said National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s office in a statement to McClatchy newspapers.

Yet a congressman said Clapper was “dismissive” of issues regarding how the federal government agencies conduct employment screenings. “This is a non-response,” said Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat. “I’m really concerned that throughout the intelligence community there has been an unwillingness to ask critical questions about polygraph.”

Some of the proposed changes in a draft of the new polygraph policies include:

  • Requiring a federal agency to accept other agency’s polygraph results, rather than rescreen at different agencies.
  • Federal agencies should only report “relevant” law-enforcement or national security information that’s discovered during polygraph screening.
  • Each agency would be required to have permission to ask about leaking classified information to the media.

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Chandler Harris is a freelance business and technology writer located in Silicon Valley. He has written for numerous publications including Entrepreneur, InformationWeek, San Jose Magazine, Government Technology, Public CIO, AllBusiness.com, U.S. Banker, Digital Communities Magazine, Converge Magazine, Surfer's Journal, Adventure Sports Magazine, ClearanceJobs.com, and the San Jose Business Journal. Chandler is also engaged in helping companies further their content marketing needs through content strategy, optimization and creation, as well as blogging and social media platforms. When he's not writing, Chandler enjoys his beach haunt of Santa Cruz where he rides roller coasters with his son, surfs and bikes across mountain ranges.

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