Center for Strategic Communication

National Reconnaissance Office patch commemorating a satellite launch. Photo: mr. smashy/Flickr

The National Reconnaissance Office — the secretive Pentagon agency in charge of spy satellites — is supposed to safeguarding Americans and American interests from foreign threats. But the agency has done an incomplete job, at best, at protecting American children from its own employees and job applicants.

According to documents obtained by the McClatchy news service, a former California substitute teacher who sought a security clearance from the National Reconnaissance Office confessed during a lie detector exam to molesting an elementary school student. The agency never informed police nor the school district where the incident allegedly occurred. An Air Force lieutenant who confessed to assaulting a child in Virginia was never reported to either the Air Force or police.

Like many of America’s national security services, the Pentagon’s spy satellite agency screens employees and applicants with polygraph machines. The so-called “lie detector” tests are supposed to stop spies, and polygraphers’ questions are officially limited to national security questions in order to protect employee privacy. But whistleblowers now say the polygraph program is “squeezing every personal secret out of people without regard for the consequence.” Which wouldn’t be so bad — if the NRO actually reported to the police confessions to serious crimes like child molestation extracted during polygraph sessions. But McClatchy could not confirm that this took place. The agency responded that criminal confessions were “forwarded to appropriate authorities,” but didn’t provide more information to the news service.

Now, it’s possible the polygraph records would never have made it to court — many courts refuse to accept results from polygraph tests as evidence, due to skepticism the tests reflect more pseudoscience than science, and don’t detect lies as much as emotional responses. Charges might not be filed “even if there’s a confession,” the report notes.

Whistleblowers, though, say the agency may be trying to shield its practices from the public eye. Dissent within the agency over the scale of the program could threaten to leak out, sources told McClatchy, if interviews and test notes were handed over to the courts.

Instead, internal critics say, polygraphers were told to ask questions that were humiliating, abusive and extraneous to the subject of national security.  “I was coached to go after this stuff,” a polygrapher told McClatchy. “It blew my mind. They were asking me to elicit information that I’m not permitted to ask about, and I told them I wasn’t going to do it.” The polygrapher added that while the agency has official policies to only ask specific, relevant questions and leave out the personal lives of interviewees, bosses were “in fact behind closed doors … pushing (polygraphers) to actively pursue it.”

Polygraphers’ work performance was measured according to “the number of personal confessions” the employee was able to extract. A former agency polygrapher, Chuck Hinshaw, who has since gone public, said he received “thousands of dollars in bonuses” for his good record of extracting confessions. Another whistleblower, Mark Phillips, had a poorer record, as he was uncomfortable pursuing personal details. The agency has since labeled him as a troublemaker.

A contract employee, who revealed she smoked marijuana as a youth, was called back in for a four-hour session and grilled by Hinshaw. Hinshaw says his superiors ordered him to continue interrogating the woman on her drug use. The woman then revealed she had been molested as a youth. Hinshaw wanted to end it there, but his superiors “demanded that Hinshaw continue the questioning.”

“You don’t understand,” Hinshaw told them. “This woman needs help.”

Hinshaw says he stepped aside. But the agency sent another polygrapher in to press the employee.

There could be another reason for the thoroughness of the tests: “By collecting confessions to repulsive or criminal behavior, officials can justify using polygraph screenings to their bosses, Congress and a skeptical public despite questions about the test’s reliability,” according to agency polygraphers cited by McClatchy.

This is while Pentagon polygraph programs have continued to expand. Despite a poor record, scant support from the scientific community, and skepticism from the National Academy of Sciences that the tests are flimsy, the tests have “increased fivefold, to almost 46,000 annually” at the Pentagon, the report notes.

It’s also become a tool to help the Obama administration stop suspected leakers. The administration is already prosecuting more officials for leaking secrets than any other administration. The White House also wants to be more proactive.

But it’s another question as to whether it’s effective, or whether agencies are trying too hard, while paradoxically not doing enough.