No-polygraph hiring requires risk management approach

As someone whose blood pressure rises when the physician’s assistant approaches with the sphygmomanometer cuff, I probably couldn’t pass a lie detector test. The idea of it would likely set off a response sending the machine’s needles into wild gyrations.

Thousands of potential new Customs and Border Patrol agents won’t have to submit to a polygraph test if a bill approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee. S 595 would give the commissioner the discretion to waive lie detector tests for certain applicants already in law enforcement or with military service backgrounds. Not all of them, but enough types that the bill’s sponsors — Sens.Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — believe the bill would help CBP speed up the ingestion of new agents.

Flake said of the 70,000 people who apply each year, only 600 make it. Many fail the lie detector test question about whether they’ve used illegal drugs. Does it matter if a law enforcement officer smokes an occasional joint while off duty? I guess not. But what about occasional use of more potent substances?

The bill cleared committee the same day a U.S. District Court judge sentenced former Navy Read Adm. Robert Gilbeau to 18 months in prison. He’d lied to federal investigators about taking bribes in the spreading stain of the Fat Leonard case of corruption in the Seventh Fleet. Alas, even high ranking military officers, if only a very few of them, lie in connection to their duties.

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CBP has had its own problems with corrupt officers. Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last year gave CBP’s internal affairs people the authority to conduct criminal investigations. Then-Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske commented to the New York Times that polygraphs helped CBP avoid hiring bad apples, but didn’t help with people already on board.

So clearly there is risk in eliminating the polygraph for a new hire. A risk management approach asks, is it a risk worth taking? The way this bill is worded, probably yes. It doesn’t eliminate the polygraph hiring test, but rather gives the commissioner the right to waive it for covered applicants. Among the potentially exempt: people who are already in federal law enforcement. The bill would also cover those who have already had recent background checks at the so-called Tier 4 (high risk public trust position but not national security sensitive) or Tier 5 (national security level assessment using the lengthy SF-86 form). Also military service members mustering out but who have at least four years of service and has held secret or top secret clearance.

While no polygraph or SF-86 investigation can stop a determined rat, risk management says people otherwise trusted by widely-used means are more than likely going to be fine. If this bill really would speed up hiring, it sounds like a decent bet.