The polygraph remains a controversial aspect of the security clearance and suitability process for government positions. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the subject of an Inspector General report alleging that the agency has inconsistently applied polygraph policies, including allowing agents who have failed the polygraph to remain in service and hiring agents who haven’t successfully completed a polygraph.

The IG report, dated August 22, quotes a memo from Acting DEA Administrator Dhillon from March 2019 which states “the DEA will not hire Special Agent or Intelligence Research Specialist applicants who receive a countermeasures or significant response result on their DEA-administered polygraph examination.”

The IG began an audit in August of 2022 to look into the agency’s use of polygraph examinations for pre-employment screening. The report found that despite the 2019 memo, the agency continued to hire agents based on inconclusive and incomplete examinations, or without examinations at all. The report stated, “Thus far in our audit, we
have identified 77 applicants (66 Special Agents and 11 Intelligence Research Specialists) who received a result of “significant response” on a pre-employment polygraph examination after the March 2019 policy change but were later hired because the candidate’s application was associated with an older job announcement predating the policy change.”

The report alleges that the agency is using outdated or old hiring announcements to hire under current positions in order to circumvent its own polygraph policies.

DEA argues they have been working in compliance with the policy and dispute the IG’s findings. Michael Ciminelli, DEA acting chief compliance officer said the DEA has never had a policy where the polygraph was a sole factor in rejecting an employee, and emphasizing that the policy was never meant to be applied retroactively.

Security Clearance Polygraphs

The dual issue of polygraphs as a suitability and security clearance tool is underscored in the DEA’s current issues.  Polygraphs have long been a controversial aspect of the national security hiring process. Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 4 specifies that a security clearance can’t be denied based solely on the basis of a failed polygraph. But polygraphs remain a critical element of the national security hiring process, particularly in the IC. The reality is a polygraph is not as much a truth detector as a lie identifier, with many applicants disclosing information that wasn’t previously indicated in the course of a polygraph. The question always becomes whether or not the information disclosed is truly accurate or stress induced, which is one factor in the SEAD 4 policy that a polygraph not be determinative, but just another investigative tool.

The DEA example notes the complication of polygraph procedures for suitability and security clearance determinations, which are two different elements of the federal government hiring process. Agencies may make suitability determinations based on their own guidance, and outside of security clearance policy.

The IG report is less a criticism of security clearance procedures than a call out for the agency’s alleged failure to consistently implement its own policy and guidance. It cites examples across both applicants and current employees where polygraphs were an issue, including current DEA agents who had polygraphs indicating deception but who remained on the job.

The IG urged the DEA to comply with the policy, and provide a response withing 60 days.

Related News

Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email Interested in writing for Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer