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Federal agency derelict in not reporting serious crime

Post by Brian O'Neill on July 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm with 13 Comments »
July 15, 2012 1:27 pm

I hate polygraph exams.

Polygraph examination/ AP Photo

First, there’s the strap the examiner puts around your chest to measure any change in respiration rate. Probes wrap around the ends of your fingers and constantly monitor your pulse. Next is the blood pressure cuff that re-inflates every few seconds, squeezing the heck out of your biceps while it steals the secrets from your telltale heart.

Lastly, there are the questions. I have found, over the years and after a total of seven polygraph exams, that there are no answers that come without either guilt, humiliation or panic. No matter how many times I have taken (and passed) a polygraph, it does not get easier.

Also, and more to the point, before each polygraph the examiner always states a version of the following: “If you divulge a crime during this exam your answer will be reported to the appropriate law enforcement agency for possible prosecution.”

Silly me, I always took this warning seriously. However, it appears that polygraph examiners at the National Reconnaissance Office (a federal intelligence agency) were sometimes bluffing on this point. A recent McClatchy story, reprinted in the Trib (6/12), reported on several disclosures of felony crimes during this agency’s pre-employment polygraph exams.

If NRO polygraph examiners warned these prospective employees that a criminal confession during the exam would be reported to the appropriate law enforcement agency, then the examiners’ failure is a scandalous miscarriage of justice. The report states that child molestation and possession of child pornography were the focus of two polygraph admissions, yet these admissions were never reported to the respective police agency.

If, on the other hand, this warning were not given to the prospective employees (and wouldn’t you want to know the consequences of your answers if you were in the hot seat?), then that would suggest a blatant disregard for professional ethics. Either way, the NRO has some explaining to do.

The report states that employees who conducted the exams were not law enforcement officials. However, most private polygraph examiners are either current or retired law enforcement officers working as consultants. Either way, these are highly trained  professionals who should know more than enough about the law to recognize a felony crime when they hear the gritty details.

The NRO’s explanation for failing to report at least two sex crimes – the examiners do not advise prospective employees of their constitutional rights prior to the test – falls short. Since when is everybody a “Law and Order” trained prosecutor? For the record, watching an episode of “CSI” does not give the viewer the training necessary to find and use evidence for an arrest. Call 911 and let the cops know.

The lessons learned in the wreckage of the Penn State child molestation scandal are only just drying on the paper, but everyone (especially the NRO) needs to pay close attention. The public has certainly learned the lesson that well-paid, educated and otherwise respectable leaders, i.e. the brain trust at Penn State, are capable of the most atrocious mistakes.

Allowing a serious crime to go unreported is nothing short of criminal. The federal officials and polygraph examiners at the National Reconnaissance Office, who swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, should know this. Shame on them.

We deserve to know the moral character of individuals in which we place our nation’s security, whether it be a local police officer or a federal intelligence official. Everyone who submits to a pre-employment polygraph exam does so willingly. For all its unpleasantness, the polygraph is still a great tool for finding and exposing individuals who are unsuited for these positions.

But when an exam reveals a serious crime, the police shouldn’t have to read about it in the paper.

Leave a comment Comments → 13
  1. And the average Joe out there hears of how many crimes and just
    Scruggs them off? While we maybe are just having fun, it’s as best obstruction of justice.

  2. Chippert says:

    So what happens when a crime is reported (by an average citizen) that is not a violent crime happening right then and there? In my experience it is shrugged off, never followed up. In my lifetime I have reported two felonies in progress, neither of which were violent or major. The first was a case of embezzlement from a non-profit organization (I figure less than $10,000 was stolen). The second was that of extortion. Neither was pursued and after the initial report taken with a “thank you”, I heard nothing at all, even though I called several times to inquire.

    I am not saying that the alleged crimes (and unless they are proven in a court of law, they are alleged) should not have been reported by the NRO – they should have. And I am not saying that they would have simply been ignored. But from my experience, unless I know of a violent crime happening, I will simply not waste my time.

  3. Brian O'Neill says:


    Your complaint is a very common one, unfortunately. Some police agencies place a low priority on feedback for witnesses or victims, and the usual excuse is that there are simply too many cases to keep everyone concerned up to speed. That’s true up to a point. Police departments work for the public and I believe cop shops would find real benefit from finding a way to keep interested parties informed. Having said that, embezzlement and extortion (which you mention reporting) are very muddy crimes, inasmuch as these both have possible civil implications. Tough and often lengthy investigations.

    The unreported incidents I was referring to in the column were actual confessions to sex crimes. That’s what we call, in police work or anywhere else, a “no brainer.”

  4. Chippert says:

    But by the very nature of these “confessions”, via lie detector, they were not admissible in court. And there is no law in place (that I am aware of) that requires an operator of a lie detector to report these crimes, as there is for teachers, physicians and care-givers.

    Again, yes I agree that these alleged crimes should have been reported.

  5. Brian O'Neill says:

    Good follow-up questions. Lie detector data is not admissible, but testimony (which was heard by the examiner) is in fact admissible. That confession alone would not normally be enough for an arrest without a full investigation, which, of course, was not possible because the examiner failed to notify the police. Had the examiner been a mandatory reporter he would have been in serious trouble.

    Regardless, a failure to report a sexual assault against a child could lead to more victimization, and that is all I need we need to know. NRO was grossly negligent.

  6. Why didn’t you discuss the other (bigger) part of the story, dealing with the NRO’s polygraph methodology, and how the NRO itself was not following the rules in it’s own tests?

  7. Brian O'Neill says:

    Not sure to what you are referring.

  8. Pericles says:

    He is refering to the fact that NRO had to violate the legal boundaries of the standardized polygraph test they were administering in order to obtain the crimnal confessions they obtained. Violating the civil rights of DoD employees, learning of a harmed child, then doing nothing: Quite a combination.

    the whole story is here

  9. Brian O'Neill says:

    Interesting. My experience has been that personal questions (i.e. “Have you cheated on your wife?; “Do you have a drinking problem?”, etc.) were all fair game. I submitted to these and other intrusive questions because the high level of responsibility in my job (and the ones within NRO) SHOULD require a high baseline of integrity.

    Without specific info, the only problem I see is the NRO’s failure to step in and put a stop to a potential pedophile.

  10. The level of integrity needs to be raised across the spectrum
    of society, not isolated to small groups. That point keeps
    getting missed and missed. When we construct schools that
    reward the student for taking a tough stand in the face of
    other students and staff we will perhaps have a Congress who
    can take a tough stand 20 years from now.

  11. Chippert says:

    Upon further reflection on this issue (and it is a very good one to raise), I don’t know how the examiner could legally pass on the information to law enforcement. The Fifth Amendment specifically protects us from self-incrimination, but does not apply to civil use. That is why you can be refused employment based on the results of a polygraph, or your refusal to submit to one. If, however, in the process of that polygraph, you “confess” to a crime, no matter how egregious that crime may be, I would think that the examiner would be prohibited by the Fifth Amendment from passing it on. I could see the whole case being thrown out. This puts the examiner in much the same boat as a priest who hears a confession where the confessor admits to a serious crime, but cannot for religious reasons expose the person to law enforcement. In this case, the polygraph examiner cannot for constitutional reasons, not religious, but the binding is the same.

  12. Gary Ridgway passed a polygraph, yet didn’t actually confess to killing dozens of women until confronted with the DNA evidence linking him to the crimes twenty years later. Embezzlers can be teetotalers and faithful husbands. Asking personal questions is pointless to determine “integrity” – a totally subjective concept.

  13. Brian O'Neill says:

    Gary Ridgway, a sociopath, does not feel the guilt the rest of carry as a burden of wrongdoing. Since the polygraph measures the body’s reaction (respiration, sweating, heart rate) to deception, he falls outside the bell curve for polygraph effectiveness. Personal questions can paint a picture for polygraphers and background investigators, thus ruling out some folks with obvious issues. The polygraph is not fool proof, but it is a good tool in my opinion.

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