Customs and Border Protection has an employment crisis. After a massive growth in ranks through the 2000s, the agency has been steadily losing Border Patrol staff since 2011, even as President Trump demands more. The problems are manifold, including low pay for jobs in remote areas. To widen the applicant pool, some lawmakers are now trying to do away with a prominent hurdle: polygraph exams. But documents show the polygraph interview has been catching an array of disturbing crimes at Customs, including corruption, murder, and child pornography.
All applicants for Customs law enforcement jobs, including with Border Patrol, are currently required to take a polygraph, as part of a broader investigation into their backgrounds. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that the failure rate for polygraph interviews at Customs is around 65 percent, a far higher percentage than other agencies. To increase the percentage of candidates who end up with a job, the Senate introduced the Boots on the Border Act earlier this year. The legislation would waive polygraph for some applicants — or in the words of one of its sponsors, Sen. Jeff Flake, end "bureaucratic hiring obstacles" that are making the border less secure.
Polygraph results are of questionable scientific value, but the interviews have an unexpected benefit apart from their dubious powers of detection: under pressure from interviewers, applicants frequently admit to wrongdoing. The Verge obtained a document under the Freedom of Information Act that lists cases where CBP polygraph interviews were "referred" for further investigation. When a polygraph interviewer determines an applicant has done something potentially disqualifying, the information is referred to an "adjudicator." The adjudicator is vested with the power to stop the applicant from being offered a job. The list of referrals for further investigation, produced by CBP's Credibility Assessment Division, includes 205 cases over the course of last year, and highlight stunning admissions of crimes flagged by the division.
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"I think one of the most bizarre aspects is if you have something like this in your past you are less likely to apply for a job with a polygraph test," says John Hudack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, "but that there are so many people who are still willing to apply, knowing these things will come up, is a bit staggering."
According to the document, 26 referrals were made related to child pornography, and another 16 for sex with minors. Another six referrals were made for domestic violence, and another nine for felony theft, with incidents including $40,000 in embezzlement and $4,000 in hush money for a theft.
Some candidates were flagged for public corruption. Several cases were referred for investigations related to illegal drug use, many while employees at the Department of Homeland Security. One person was referred for "conspiracy to commit murder while employed by DHS."
Another was referred for an investigation related to distributing illegal drugs to employees at a Defense Department child care facility. Several more were referred for "family ties" to drug trafficking organizations. One referral suggested a subject was romantically involved with a "high ranking" member of one of the organizations. Two cases were simply labeled as attempts to "infiltrate" Customs and Border Protection. "All of the admissions reflected in this document were concealed from CBP prior to the polygraph test," a CBP spokesperson told The Verge.
It's not clear how many of the referred cases were pursued for criminal charges, although such charges have been brought in the past. (The CBP spokesperson said none were hired.) In 2013, several cases of troubling polygraph admissions were revealed, and in at least some of those instances, charges were brought.
The polygraph program is facing renewed scrutiny as the new bill is considered. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general found in a report released in August that millions of dollars were wasted by CBP polygraphing applicants who admitted to disqualifying crimes before even reaching the polygraph interview stage. In total, over four fiscal years, 2,300 applicants were given polygraphs after making such statements, in a time period where the agency conducted more than 32,800 exams.
The Boots on the Border Act, its sponsors say, would make "common sense" changes to the process. Under the legislation, applicants who already worked in law enforcement for three years prior to applying for Customs, and who were previously given a polygraph exam or had a background investigation, would be given a waiver. (They would still face non-polygraph scrutiny, as they do now.) Members of the Armed Forces and veterans with security clearances would similarly be eligible for waivers.
But it's not clear that limiting waivers to those categories would keep all wrongdoers out. The list obtained by The Verge did not include histories of the applicants, but the polygraph referrals note that many alleged crimes were committed by police officers and federal government employees.