The U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson has been challenged for how it administers polygraph exams on job applicants.
The agency has fielded complaints from applicants, members of Congress and the agency’s union.
Customs and Border Protection was required to give polygraphs starting six years ago to all of its applicants for front-line jobs, such as port inspectors and Border Patrol agents. Officials said the test was implemented to weed out corruption.
Ar the same time, members of Congress are pressuring the agency to hire 1,300 more Border Patrol agents. A union official said what he sees as a heavy-handed polygraph examination is hurting those recruitment efforts.
"They’re supposed to be doing the polygraph testing, doing the report and then they send it through, but that’s not what’s happening, at least not in Tucson sector," said Art Del Cueto, president of the agency's union in Tucson.
Rather than passing the results of the polygraph on, Del Cueto said one person was made responsible for administering the lie detector test and deciding if an applicant passed or failed.
"What’s been happening in Tucson Sector, is that the individual who’s been doing the polygraph test, he’s acting like the judge, the jury and the executioner," Del Cueto said.
Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who chairs the House’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, questioned an agency official in April.
"We have heard several anecdotal horror stories of decorated combat veterans who, for some reason, were unable to pass this polygraph coupled with some bizarre-sounding behavior on behalf of some of the polygraph examiners," McSally said.
An agency official said the program follows federal standards and said polygraph examiners are monitored daily and their audio recordings are checked.
Del Cueto read from one complaint, a woman who recently failed her polygraph exam and sent him an email about it.
"He told me that my readings were similar to that of a Russian spy, or someone that had been very carefully trained," Del Cueto said, reading from the complaint. "I asked him what was the cause of failure. And he stated I failed for drugs and for falsifying my application. He also told me that he knew I was lying as they already had information about me in the criminal database.
"He stated that this was known since I arrived at the office. I told him that was not accurate and he said it doesn’t matter," Del Cueto said, reading from the email.
The writer of the email also said the examiner shared past lie detector stories with her, Del Cueto said.
"He then said he knew I manipulated the machine, and there were so many ways I could have done it, like curl my toes, count backwards, etc., etc.," Del Cueto said.
A polygraph examiner in Tucson said lie detecting is a precise science.
"Polygraph isn’t as mysterious as people make it," said David Fruchtman, who runs a private business and contracts with governmental agencies.
"From time to time someone’s had the experience of somebody trying to sell them something or convince them of something, and you get the feeling in the back of your mind that that individual isn’t telling you the truth," Fruchtman said. "Frequently, what’s happening is they’re seeing autonomic nervous system changes in the individual who is potentially lying to them but it’s below their threshold of conscious perception."
In other words, the changes are detectable, but observers don’t recognize what they are seeing.
"We also have a sensor on the chair that detects any kind of movement by the person," Fruchtman said. "It’d be used to detect any kind of counter measure that an applicant may attempt during an examination."
Customs and Border Protection officials declined to be interviewed about the allegations made against its polygraph examiner in Tucson. A spokesman emailed a list of bullet points on the agency’s polygraph policies, but did not answer questions about those policies.
Del Cueto said 80 percent of those who fail polygraph exams in Tucson go to work for other law enforcement agencies that administer their own polygraph exams.