Some federal clearances for Sensitive Compartment Information (SCI) and other Special Access Programs (SAP) require a polygraph screening examination in addition to a Single Scope Background Investigation. Generally polygraph exams are not used when only a collateral security clearance is needed. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which conducts 90% of all federal background investigations, does not conduct polygraph exams. Polygraph screening exams are conducted by Intelligence Community agencies that adjudicate SCI and/or SAP eligibility.

Reasons for A polygraph

There are some federal law enforcement jobs that require a polygraph exam for determining employment suitability regardless of the security clearance involved. Within the Department of Defense (DoD) there are also limited situations where an issue-oriented exam can be used to clear up serious credible derogatory information that can not be resolved by normal investigative methods. This includes exculpatory exams when requested by the Subject of an investigation and the exam is considered essential to a just and equitable resolution of the matter under investigation.

2 Types of Polygraph Exams and What They Cover

Most screening exams are conducted in the Washington, D.C. area, but they can also be conducted in other locations. For security clearance and employment screening there are two types of exams—Counterintelligence (CI) and Lifestyle.  A Full Scope exam includes both CI and Lifestyle questions. The DoD CI exam questions cover:

  • Espionage
  • Sabotage
  • Terrorist Activities
  • Deliberate damage of U.S. Government Information Systems
  • Intentional compromise of U.S. Government Classified Information
  • Secret contact with a foreign national or representative

The DoD Lifestyle exam questions cover:

Exemptions and Guidelines for Taking the Polygraph

Policies regarding medical fitness for an exam vary from agency to agency, but generally people who are sick (e.g. sinus infection, common cold, etc.) and pregnant women are not tested, because they may not be able to comfortably take the test. Most prescribed medication, including blood pressure medication, will not preclude testing. Thomas P. Mauriello, US DoD Chief, Polygraph, recommends that you:

  • Don’t ask anyone who has taken a polygraph what theirs was like.
  • Don’t spend time soul searching your life thinking of things that may be asked during the test.
  • Don’t be influenced by any anti-polygraph websites.
  • Don’t anticipate what questions will be asked.
  • Don’t be late for your scheduled interview time.
  • Don’t believe anyone who tells you that sexual related behavior is a standard polygraph question.
  • Get a good night sleep the night before your test.
  • Maintain your normal routine prior to test (i.e. drink coffee, eat breakfast, etc.).
  • Take your prescribed medications as directed by your physician.
  • Discuss any concerns or ask any questions of your polygraph examiner at anytime during the process.
  • Complete your security forms (SF86) as thoroughly as possible.

Most screening exams take two to four hours and audio and video recordings are made. The exams consist of three phases:

Pre-Test phase

The examiner introduces himself/herself and insures that you consent to the test by having you sign a consent form. You are informed of your right against self-incrimination and your right to obtain and consult with an attorney. The nature and characteristics of the instrument and examination are explained to you. The instrument measures your physical responses to questions using:

  • Two pneumograph tubes that are place around your chest and stomach to measure respiration.
  • Small cuffs that are attached to your fingertips to measure electro-dermal activity.
  • A blood pressure cuff to measure blood flow and heart rate.
  • A sensor pad on chair seat to detect movement.

All questions are reviewed before the test begins, and you are given an opportunity to discuss any concerns and ask questions about the process. You can only answer “yes” or “no” to the questions. Normal nervousness will not affect the exam results. Examiners expect people to be nervous. They adjust the instrument to your body, and then look for changes. The test is voluntary, and you can terminate it at any time.

In-Test phase

You are asked relevant and non-relevant questions while hooked up to the monitoring equipment, and the examiner analyzes the chart. This phase takes about five to six minutes and is repeated three to six times.

Post-Test phase

If the test is inconclusive or if deception is indicated, you may be questioned about your responses. Problem questions can be rephrased before the In-Test phase is repeated.

The examiner reaches a preliminary decision regarding the results of the test before you leave, but can’t disclose it to you, because the chart must be reviewed for quality control purposes and validated by another examiner. In most cases if you don’t successfully complete an exam, you will be asked to return for another test.

Regardless of the challenges to the accuracy of polygraph examinations, its usefulness in the security vetting process is undeniable. Section IV of the 1997 Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy indicated that the utility of the polygraph is the ability it gives to the polygrapher to obtain voluntary admissions of previously undisclosed misconduct from applicants. Once an admission of disqualifying conduct is made, the actual polygraph test results are unnecessary. The report went on to say that “The polygraph examination is [often] conducted before the background investigation, saving additional resources should the applicant be rejected as a result of polygraph admissions. According to a May 1993 NSA [National Security Agency] letter to the White House, ‘over 95% of the information the NSA develops on individuals who do not meet federal security clearance guidelines is derived via [voluntary admissions from] the polygraph process.’”

Proponents of polygraph examinations for security screening advance three arguments in its favor:

  1. It is a source of adjudicatively significant information that often cannot be obtained through other investigative methods.
  2. It is a deterrent: Undesirable candidates will not apply for employment, fearing disqualification, and employees will avoid misconduct, fearing detection.
  3. It is a cost-effective tool for gathering information and deterring espionage.


All Original Content Copyright © 2011 Last Post Publishing. All rights reserved.

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William H. Henderson is a former Army Counterintelligence Agent and a retired federal clearance investigator. In 2007 he began helping clearance applicants from the pre-application stage through representation at hearings and appeals. Since 2012, he’s been the Principal Consultant at the Federal Clearance Assistance Service (FEDCAS). His first two books on security clearances have been used at five universities and colleges. He recently published the 2nd Edition of Issue Mitigation Handbook. He’s contributed scores of articles to, and he’s been retained as an expert witness in several state and federal lawsuits.