The military, CIA, FBI and other US Government organisations hold many secrets and are the foundation of thousands of conspiracy theories. From highly classified documents to secretive interrogations and missions, they must have some way to decipher who’s trustworthy and who’s not. So it comes as no surprise then that they rely heavily on the use of lie detectors.

Military applications

For the everyday person applying to become a US soldier, there’s no routine polygraph test to be taken. When it comes to special programs however, the US military does employ the use polygraphs to interview applicants. Special access programs or jobs that require you to handle classified documentation are where you’re most likely to be asked to take a polygraph test.

There are usually 2 types of polygraph tests: lifestyle and counterintelligence. For lifestyle, they don’t mean what type furniture you buy or if you have your toast buttered on both sides. They’ll be asking questions about any background you have in crime, drug usage and any other subversive activity. Counterintelligence questions are more likely to be focused around terrorist activity, involvement with foreign nationals or intelligence, and of course, any intent to compromise classified info.

Federal job positions often require a polygraph test regardless of clearance levels. This is to vet out potentially dangerous individuals having access to the nation’s security. They also look to keep out people that are affiliated with paramilitary groups and other domestic radical organisations. Most military polygraph tests will ask questions limited to counterintelligence and terrorism without going into anything personal.

Catching spies

Lie detectors have been used to weed out spies within the CIA and other top secret US agencies for decades. Even some of the best soviet spies with the highest levels of training have been caught out by the simple polygraph test.

Harold James Nicholson is one of those spies caught out by lie detectors. There was constant fear and suspicion that the USSR/Russian federation was planting spies in the military and other US government authorities during the 1990s.
Nicholson was authorized to have meetings at the Russian embassy while he was working for the CIA in Malaysia, but after the last of these meetings the CIA discovered that an untraceable $12,000 was wired into his account. As suspicions rose the CIA had him take 3 polygraph tests. He failed all of them. The CIA took this as a heads up that they should be careful around Nicholson. Within moments he went from a trusted ally to an enemy agent. The CIA then kept a close eye on him before arresting him as he was about to board a plane carrying classified CIA computer files. He is said to be the highest ranking CIA official ever convicted of spying for a foreign power. And his capture would not have been possible without the valuable tool of the lie detector test.

Lie detectors to interrogate people

Like in US court, military lie detectors are not admissible as evidence in a military court. Most of this comes down to a mistrust of efficacy rather than basis in real science.

Essentially, more primitive versions of the modern lie detector test failed to stand up to scrutiny and land mark rulings were made decades ago. The modern polygraph test goes much further than simply measuring heart rates and is widely considered an invaluable tool in eliminating suspects from an investigation.

Commonly the test is used when interrogating suspects. Whether it’s suspected terrorism, espionage or other lesser crimes, the polygraph test has proved a brilliant and effective tool in deciding whether a suspect needs closer scrutiny.
Many criminals have actually confessed merely upon the threat of being subjected to a lie detector test. Such confessions are corroborated with disclosure of information that only the perpetrator would know such as the location of a body or how the crime was committed.

The hand-held polygraph machine

Not surprisingly the US military trusts the technology with American lives. Since 2008 it has come to light that mini polygraph machines known as PCASS (Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System) have been in use by the US military in Afghanistan.

They’re fairly simple devices and don’t go into as much detail as a full polygraph test. They just flash red when the subject deviates from topics they believe are the truth. It’s used as a practical test to evaluate how deceptive people are being during interrogations and as a screening before they’re allowed access to military bases.

Using 2 electrodes this small device is attached to the hand to measure stress when answering a series of set questions. It’s hoped that this device will aid US forces in narrowing down lists of suspects and determining trustworthiness of local police officials. With many attacks from insurgents on military bases at a local level these devices could really save lives.

Around the world, countries are using lie detectors to aid their military and government work, from the US to Singapore, from Australia to the UK. In some way or another, many governments see polygraph tests as a useful tool for the military.