Congratulations! You are being interrogated


Towards the end of 2020, I was selected for the National Security Agency’s 2021 Graduate Mathematics Program, a Summer program meant to attract young mathematicians to the NSA. After five months of security processing and around twenty hours of polygraph exams, I withdrew my application in disgust.

All NSA employees must hold “Top Secret” security clearances. This involves a background investigation of everywhere you have lived and worked for the past ten years—including interviews of neighbors, coworkers, friends, and partners—followed by in-person security processing at the NSA. This screening is comprised of two parts: A psychological evaluation and a polygraph.

The psychological evaluation is uncomfortable, but bearable. You are led into a large, white office with computers hidden by privacy shields. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you were taking an all-digital SAT. You rank a few hundred statements about yourself from “Not true at all” to “Very true.” The statements start benign—”I am easily irritated”—but become more unusual—”I frequently hear voices in my head.” You then answer some fill-in-the-blank questions, such as: “If only my father would ____,” “If only I could forget the time that I ____.” This is followed up by a detailed interview with a psychologist:

  • “How much porn do you watch? What kind?”

  • “Have you ever sent naked photos of yourself to anyone?”

  • “Tell me about your mother.”

Uncomfortable, but bearable. The unbearable part is the polygraph.

A polygraph is a machine which measures various physiological properties of your body. Breathing, heart rate, sweat glands, body movement, and so on. It consists of two tubes wrapped around your torso, a cuff around your arm, and small metal connectors on your fingertips. The machine is run by an “examiner” who asks questions and evaluates the polygraph’s data. In theory, if you are lying, then your physiological measurements will be abnormal, and the examiner can detect this.

In an NSA polygraph you are alone with your examiner in a small, windowless office in a nondescript building. The examiner begins by explaining that they are there to help you. You are both on the same team. Everything will go well if you relax and answer every question truthfully.

These are lies. The polygraph exam is not an exam, or a test, or an interview. It is an interrogation. A cleverly disguised interrogation, but an interrogation nonetheless.

Your examiner asks you about forbidden things—secret foreign contacts, illegal drugs, serious crimes—and slowly focuses in on questions where you seem uncomfortable. Did your breath quicken when asked about classified documents? Heart rate tick up when questioned on falsifying security paperwork? Maybe you twitched your leg at an unfortunate time. Congratulations! You are about to be interrogated by the NSA.

Each exam is about four hours long. The testing is done in bursts of five-to-ten minutes. Once a few tests are done, your examiner steps out to “examine your charts.” You don’t know how long he’s gone—there are no clocks. You do know that you are still being watched, and that the polygraph machine you are strapped to is still recording.

The interrogation begins when your examiner returns to “discuss his findings.” He will use standard techniques. He will lie (“I’m here to help you”), downplay the seriousness of possible offenses (“Everyone has smoked a little weed”), and apply psychological pressure (“If you don’t tell me the truth, I don’t know how long the position will remain open”). If you do not admit something damning, then he will suggest things that you might have done. (“Maybe you showed a copy of an upcoming exam to a student of yours once?”)

The polygraph is similar to any police interrogation you might have seen, only more insidious for a simple reason: It requires you to lie.

Let me give an example. During one of my exams, the following exchange occurred:

Examiner: Over the past few hours we’ve been together, you’ve seemed like a fairly honest person. I want to verify that by asking you some more questions.

Robert: Sounds good.

E: At the agency, we think of trustworthiness as a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being the least trustworthy and 10 being the most trustworthy. Would you say you’re a 0 or a 10?

R: I suppose I’m pretty close to a 10.

E: [Pauses] You’re pretty close to a 10? What does that mean? Are you a 9? So one out of ten times we tell you a secret, you’ll sell it to the Russians?

R: OK, when you put it that way, I suppose I’m a 10.

E: Excellent. So, during the exam, I will ask you the following: Have you ever lied to cover up a mistake?

R: Surely I ha-

At this point, my interrogator slammed a notepad onto the table and held the point of his pen over it.

E: Someone who lied to cover up a mistake? That kind of person wouldn’t work here. I’ll ask you again, and if I have to write anything down on this paper, we’re going to have problems. Have you ever lied to cover up a mistake?

My examiner (Mike, or Mark, or Adam, or whatever) didn’t want the truth—everyone has lied to cover up a mistake—he wanted me to lie.

Why? Because deceit is necessary for the polygraph.

Given a reading from his machine, how does the examiner know if it indicates lying? Your blood pressure might be higher, your sweat glands might have activated, but how do you know that indicates lying?

One way to be sure is to have an example of a “control” lie. If the examiner could know for sure that you lied when answering one question, then he would have a “clean” example to compare with other questions. Thus, the examiner needs you to lie at some point. This leads to absurd exchanges like my example.

This is a stupid idea. I immediately recognized what the examiner was trying to do, which gave me a choice: Respond truthfully or lie as instructed. Once I decided, how should I ignore that we are now playing a game? That the examiner is manipulating me? How do I trust anything from their mouth? How do I trust anything that anyone at the NSA tells me?

It was at this moment the bottom fell out for me. This man is an idiot. I’m being watched on camera by other idiots. After my exam, all the idiots will get together and have one, big idiot meeting about how stupid they think I am. We are all lying to each other. I can’t trust anyone in this building, and they don’t trust me.

I was tired, frustrated, and anxious. Neither I nor the examiners were being truthful; I started to say what I thought they wanted to hear. Anything to make it stop.

When the exam finally did stop, I was dumped into a lobby with around eighty other applicants. No one talked about their exams, no one shared any looks, and especially no one stood up and said, “Hey, was that fucking bullshit or what?” We sat there in a maddening silence, together but isolated.

To be fair to the polygraphy fans out there, I should say that I’m not an expert. (The agency is clear that researching polygraphs makes you look very suspicious.) But, since leaving the NSA applicant pool I have read up on polygraphs, and the actual experts seem unimpressed.

Dr. Drew Richardson, an FBI Laboratory Scientist who specialized in polygraphy, summarized the field in his 1997 testimony to congress:

  1. [Polygraphy] is completely without any theoretical foundation and has absolutely no validity.
  2. [Anyone] can be taught to beat this type of polygraph exam in a few minutes.

The government itself admits that polygraphs are not good enough to deny security clearances. Security Executive Agent Directive-4, the standing policy on security clearances, states that you cannot be denied a clearance just for failing a polygraph. You have to confess something disqualifying. Hence the examiner.

The examiner is not there to run a machine; he is there to produce a confession. According to a report on government secrecy, “over 95% of the information the NSA develops on individuals who do not meet federal security guidelines is derived via [voluntary admissions from] the polygraph process.” The polygraph is essentially the NSA’s only way to reject applicants.

The examiner certainly isn’t there to catch spies. Aldrich Ames, the most famous convicted spy in American history, passed two polygraph exams while spying for the Soviet Union. In a letter to the Federation of American Scientists, Ames wrote:

[The polygraph’s] most obvious use is as a coercive aid to interrogators, lying somewhere on the scale between the rubber truncheon and the diploma on the wall behind the interrogator’s desk. [It] has done little more than create confusion, ambiguity and mistakes.

In total, I was polygraphed five times. That equals about twenty hours of exams spread over three months. Add travel and waiting and it was much more time. If I had any courage at all I would have quit after the first session. Who are they to ask what kind of porn I watch? To suggest that I lie and cheat and steal at my workplace?

I could never sleep in the hotel the night before. My work suffered from the time spent and the stress incurred. During every exam, I considered ripping off the damn tubes and wires attached to me and storming out.

Yet I returned. Not one, not twice, but four times! Why?

I returned because the NSA has an alluring mystique. For all the heated discourse over the Snowden revelations, most people can still only guess what the NSA actually does. Every page of The Puzzle Palace feels like a real-life spy story, because it is. You can’t drive by the agency’s vast compounds without wondering: What do they do in there?

The NSA offered an opportunity to do big things with mathematics, much more important that whatever I would do on the outside. Are they morally dubious things? Certainly. But I love my country enough to do morally dubious things for it. Or at least, I thought I did.

I knew that the NSA inflicted a kind of Orwellian nightmare on the rest of the world—we all know that thanks to Snowden—but I assumed that I would be shielded from it. Even as an applicant, I felt that I was only ticking formalities. I was in the club! I should have been above the fray and beyond the reach of bureaucratic paranoia.

How could I forget what Orwell himself taught us? In 1984, Syme is the member of The Party tasked with turning the common language (“Oldspeak”) into a new, simplified language with fewer, less-expressive words (“Newspeak”). Syme is the ultimate insider. He understands the game and he believes in his work in the full, cynical sense. Orwell summarizes his fate as such:

One of these days, thought Winston with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear. It is written in his face.

Insiders, outsiders, they are all the same. No one is free from The Party. I was a fool to think otherwise.