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Uncovering the Truth

Release Date
Thu, 10/08/2020

Revised Polygraph Still Spots the Best Candidates

Polygraph screening has been part of CBP’s vetting process since 2008, but in 2010, Congress passed the Anti-Border Corruption Act requiring the agency to use the polygraph to vet all law enforcement applicants. Then in 2017, President Trump issued an executive order directing CBP to hire at least 5,000 Border Patrol agents in the coming years.

Finger Plates
These polygraph finger plates record changes in
perspiration.Other sensors detect changes in heart
rate and respiration that all work together measuring
physiological reactions to questions.

Photo by Donna Burton

To meet that challenge, CBP’s Credibility Assessment Division, which oversees the polygraph program for the Office of Professional Responsibility, looked for ways to streamline the polygraph portion of the application pipeline.

The review showed that some questions posed during the polygraph examination were covered in the applicant’s background investigation, redundancies that prolonged the session. For instance, an applicant’s financial or civil records were also being verified through interviews and fact checking, said Scott Stevens, Director of the Credibility Assessment Division.

CBP then worked with the National Center for Credibility Assessment, the organization that oversees all federal polygraph programs, to come up with a test better suited to the agency’s needs.

What emerged from the project and a six-month trial that began in May 2017 was a reorganized polygraph test focused on CBP’s main interest: suitability to be a federal law enforcement officer or agent with the ability to safeguard national security.

Getting Results

The changes paid off.

Examination time dropped by an hour and the retest rate fell by nearly three percent. At the same time, 5,559 passed the polygraph test in Fiscal Year 2019, an increase of 24 percent from the previous fiscal year; 4,487 passed the polygraph test in Fiscal Year 2018, up from 2,393 in fiscal 2017, a remarkable 88 percent increase.

Best of all, the new polygraph examination maintains the integrity of CBP’s vetting, ensuring only the best candidates are still hired, according to former Division Director Alex Blais.

 “The focus is on efficiency,” Stevens added. “There was a perception that we were dropping our standards. However, that is not the case.”

In staying ahead of the expected surge in applicants, the division added testing sites and examiners. Polygraph tests are now offered in San Antonio, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia and Portland, Maine, with plans to expand to San Juan, Puerto Rico, all areas that attract many applicants. CBP maintains 25 permanent testing locations throughout the country and examiners can travel to other locations as needed. Meanwhile, more examiners have been assigned to locations in McAllen and El Paso, San Diego and Miami, Blais noted.

More examiners will clearly help but becoming one is a steep climb.

Former Polygraph Experts
Former Polygraph Examiner Robert Lowry readies his
equipment before an applicant arrives.

Photo by Donna Burton

It takes good communication skills, a bachelor’s degree, at least two years of investigative experience and – one more important thing — passing a polygraph test, to qualify for training at the National Center for Credibility Assessment campus at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. In a fast-paced, intensive curriculum squeezed into 14 weeks, the future examiners study psychology, physiology, law, ethics and how to analyze and conduct polygraph exams.

“It’s rigorous and you can’t fall behind,” recalls CBP examiner Tricia Visconti. “There are some students in almost every class who don’t make it through.”

Training includes applying physiological and psychological principles to detect deception. Graduates earn 15 credit hours toward a master’s degree and are prepared to do both criminal and pre-employment polygraph screening.

They then must complete a six-month internship at CBP performing supervised polygraph exams to become federally certified. After all that, examiners complete 80 hours of continuing education every two years to remain certified and to stay on top of their profession.

“There have been many efficiencies and improvements and it’s not just the examination,” said Blais. “We’re meeting our hiring goals for the first time in eight years.”

What to Expect

Polygraph screening comes in three phases and averages about four hours, but the actual time applicants spend attached to the device answering questions is limited to 10- to 15-minute intervals. The majority of the test is a discussion between the examiner and the applicant about each interval, Stevens said.

First, the pretest interview.  It’s an opportunity for applicants to ask questions and resolve concerns. The examiner explains the polygraph procedures, looks to dispel false information and gives a practice exam. The examiner also reviews the specific test questions the applicant will be asked during the actual test.

Robert Lowry Placing Sensors
Robert Lowry shows how sensors are attached to an
applicant, demonstrated by Assistant Special Agent
in Charge B. Harrison Wright, (seated) who’s also a
polygraph examiner.

Photo by Donna Burton

Second, the examination. Attached to the polygraph’s components, the applicant is asked the same questions multiple times to get a fair sample of data and their physiological changes are recorded.

Third, the post-test summary. Here, the preliminary results are shared with the applicant, but the final pass-or-fail decision is made by a team of senior polygraph examiners who review all polygraph exams.

“We want to put the applicant at ease, so they can be confident and able to focus on taking the test,” said Visconti. “There aren’t any surprises. The process is about working together toward an applicant’s success.”

Myths and Misconceptions

Best way to Fail: Withholding Information, Ignoring Directions

Considering the mystique surrounding what’s popularly called a lie detector, a date with the polygraph for some can be on par with seeing the dentist.

But wait. Applicants won’t find an intimidating tabletop with pens that sway back and forth along moving graph paper. At CBP, that device was phased out years ago, said Robert Lowry, a former Border Patrol agent and examiner. Heartrate, perspiration and other physiological changes now appear on a computer screen, he said.

Furthermore, polygraph rooms typically look more like anyone’s office with just a computer and monitor on a desk. The applicant’s chair with armrests is the only standout because it’s cushioned for comfort, “but any chair can be used,” Lowry said. The polygraph itself is just software in a small black box that could be easily mistaken for a modem.

Another myth is that applicants with a record are automatically rejected. Not true. Depending on the incident, an independent adjudicator from the Personnel Security Division reviews each case and considers the applicant’s entire background and circumstances. However, using marijuana, anabolic steroids or misusing prescription drugs within two years or using other illegal drugs within three years will disqualify an applicant.

The polygraph examination isn’t a test to find the perfect person, but to determine if an applicant has the integrity needed to be a federal law enforcement officer or agent, noted examiner Ned Whiting.

“We give the benefit of the doubt,” said Tricia Visconti, a CBP polygraph examiner. “We take time to work with them [applicants], while other agencies will show them the door.” The most common way applicants fail is by withholding information, not following instructions or falling victim to bad advice from others to try to beat the polygraph.”


Last Modified: Aug 03, 2023