Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgement, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.
— Abraham Lincoln, “Notes on the Practice of Law”
I recently had the “good fortune” of being selected to participate in the National Security Agency’s Graduate Mathematics Program, a supposedly prestigious program to attract young mathematicians. I have, in disgust, withdrawn my application.
I am embarrassed that I waited so long to make this decision. To repent for my cowardice, I have resolved to never apply to any position in the intelligence community, and hereby encourage students and colleagues to do the same.
The mathematical community at large has grappled with its relationship with the NSA. See:
Tom Leinster’s “The AMS Must Justify Its Support of the NSA”; and
the Just Mathematics Collective’s recent “Mathematics Beyond Secrecy and Surveillance”.
However, my gripe is different. I am not anti-NSA. In fact, I felt quite patriotic about devoting time to the agency. I acknowledge the ethical concerns surrounding the NSA, but also its strategic necessity. I would have proudly worked there.
My gripe is that the NSA lies to their employees and applicants, then requires them to practice doublethink sufficiently well to ignore the lies.
During your security clearance process, should you be so “lucky” to reach this stage, you will be subjected to a polygraph exam. The so-called “examiner” will explain that they are there to “help you,” that you are both on the “same team,” and that everything will go well if you tell them what’s on your mind.
These are lies. The polygraph exam is not an exam, it is an interrogation. Not only is the examiner not on your side, they almost surely assume that you are on the other side. They will use standard interrogation techniques to trick you into confessing your wicked ways.
For example, during one of my polygraph exams, the following exchange occurred:
Interrogator: I would like to verify that you are an honest person by asking you some more questions.
Robert: Sounds good.
I: Trustworthiness is a scale from 0 to 10. Are you a 0 or a 10?
R: I suppose I’m pretty close to a 10.
I: 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’m a 10.
I: Excellent. So, during the exam, I will ask you the following: Have you ever lied to cover up a mistake?
R: Surely I have at some point.
At this moment, my interrogator slammed a notepad onto the table and held the point of his pen over it.
I: 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?
R: No, I have not.
The polygraph interrogator (Mike, or Mark, or Adam, or whatever) asked me a question to which he already knew the answer. Everyone has lied to cover up a mistake. When I answered truthfully, he responded with anger, suggesting strongly that I should answer negatively. In other words, the interrogator wanted me to lie.
Given that you are not a stupid person, you will immediately recognize this tactic. Do you respond truthfully or lie as instructed? And once you decide, how do you ignore that you are now playing a game? That the interrogator is manipulating you? How do you trust anything from their mouth, or anything that anyone tells you at any point in the security clearance process?
This is but a single moment from my polygraph experience. I sat for a total of five exams, which totals around twenty hours of interrogation. Each of my five interrogators proved that every hour, every minute, and every second is an opportunity for trickery and intimidation. You will be uncomfortable, you will be tired, and you will probably have strong emotions at some point during the process. The interrogator does not care. They know that you feel the pressure, and wouldn’t you feel better if you just told them what was on your mind?
The polygraph is a charade. It is based on pseudo-science, bluffing, and deception. It does not detect lies; it elicits confessions. It seems that the only people that would pass are those too stupid to recognize that they are being toyed with, or those skilled enough to play the game convincingly. I suspect that it keeps more smart, talented folk out than good, honest folk in.
It is unconscionable to routinely place anyone in such a catch-22. Therefore I have adopted a policy that I encourage everyone to follow, no matter your opinion on the intelligence community: Refuse polygraph interrogations.