For some cleared professionals, a job with one of the most popular three-letter agencies is like gaining entrance into the intelligence community’s own Sanctum Sanctorum. Getting inside is no easy task. These organizations are like very exclusive clubs: they know pretty exactingly the kind of person they’re looking for. They’re not shy about saying, “Nope, you’re not it.” And they may use some indecipherable tests to determine if you’re worthy.

Some of those tests may not be so indecipherable, like the polygraph. In the hiring process to the CIA, NSA, DIA, and a few others, you could very well be asked to take any one of three types of polygraph examinations: counterintelligence polygraph, lifestyle polygraph, or a full scope polygraph. No matter for which polygraph you’re preparing, know that the best approach is to do what may seem counterintuitive when addressing any not-so-proud moments in your past.

Tell the truth. That’s it. Tell the truth.


You may remember the story of Tracy Ballard’s polygraph examination—Ballard’s unimpeachable integrity that she prized, her confidence in who she is, and the outcome for both her and the Agency. The story of CIA Director John Brennan’s polygraph examination is another example of both integrity and simple candor.

When John Brennan was a younger man back in 1980, he was apparently none too happy about the direction his government was going. In an act of a personal sort of civil disobedience, John Brennan voted for the Communist Party candidate. Mostly likely, Brennan voted for Gus Hall, the four-time Communist Party candidate that J. Edgar described as “’a powerful, deceitful, dangerous foe of Americanism.’” Clearly, supporting someone like that during the Cold War would be reason enough for the CIA to shut the door in Brennan’s face—and put him on some sort of watch list.

But that’s now how it unfolded. The question came that would end Brennan’s CIA career before it even started: “Have you ever worked with or for a group that was dedicated to overthrowing the US?”

John Brennan explained to CNN’s Tal Kopan, “’I froze, because I was getting so close to coming into CIA and said, ‘OK, here’s the choice, John. You can deny that, and the machine is probably going to go, you know, wacko, or I can acknowledge it and see what happens . . . .’” So he told the truth.

As Brennan saw it, “the agency’s mission is to protect the values of the Constitution—which include free speech.” (Not exactly. According  to the CIA’s own website, the CIA’s mission is to “[p]reempt threats and further US national security objectives by collecting intelligence that matters, producing objective all-source analysis, conducting effective covert action as directed by the President, and safeguarding the secrets that help keep our Nation safe.” There’s no mention of the Constitution on the CIA “Vision, Mission, Ethos & Challenges” page. I guess the constitutional part is implied.) All he’d done was exercise his right to vote for the candidate of his choice. Freedom of speech. All that.

According to Director Brennan, “’We’ve all had indiscretions in our past’ . . . adding neither some drug experimentation nor activism was a non-starter.” Brennan added, “’[R]est assured that your rights and your expressions and your freedom of speech as Americans is something that’s not going to be disqualifying of you as you pursue a career in government.’”


I’m not completely convinced that Director Brennan’s assertion that past legal, constitutionally protected personal expressions—and perhaps even some minor, illegal indiscretions like experimenting with drugs—won’t undermine your efforts to get that CIA job. But Brennan knew why he did what he did. He knew what he truly believed. He was confident in who he was. And that was enough for him to tell the truth and let the cards fall where they may. For him, all turned out pretty well.

If your background, political positions, personal morals and ethics contradict those of the organization you’re seeking to work with, chances are you’re not going to have much fun. Likewise, if there’s some dirty little secret in your background that you think’s simply too dirty for the organization, even if you do gain entrance, you’re going to have that Sword of Damocles hanging over your head for the rest of your career, and you may always wonder when you’ll be finally found out. Indeed, the first polygraph isn’t the last polygraph you’ll take. And lying your way in isn’t a way to achieve that professional fulfilment we all seek. Even if only you know that you’re not really supposed to be there, well, that’s going to suck the fun out of knowing you made it, because you really didn’t, and you’re something of a fraud.

Here’s the point: Know who you are. Be who you are. Be honest. Do good. Succeed.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.