Customs and Border Protection is one of 17 federal agencies that use polygraphs to screen prospective employees, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Polygraph opponents say the exam is as reliable as flipping a coin to determine whether someone is lying. Examiners, in turn, say the polygraph is a tool used to extract all-important “admissions.”

Congress banned polygraphs across most of the private sector 25 years ago because of concern over the test’s reliability. Since then, the federal government, particularly in the areas of national security and law enforcement, has increasingly used the polygraph.

The National Center for Credibility Assessment, which falls under the Defense Intelligence Agency, trains about 80 to 90 polygraphers a year on average, Lt. Col. Thomas Veale, a Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman, said in an email response to questions. All but two or three are for federal agencies.

“There’s also a greater than zero percentage of people who lie and get through the test,” said Charles Honts, a Boise State University psychology professor and polygrapher.

In a 2003 study, the National Research Council found that polygraphs were better suited for single-incident criminal probes than pre-employment screenings. The reason is that investigative polygraphs are more focused than screening exams.

“The further you get away from the ‘did you do it’ question, the weaker the polygraph is going to be. It’s easier to get errors,” said Honts, who added that more research into human deception is needed.

Eric Trevino, however, is not willing to accept that Customs and Border Protection considers him dishonest. Trevino, 37, of Harlingen, Texas, is one of three applicants who told the Center for Investigative Reporting that they had wrongly failed the polygraph.

Seeking a job as a customs officer, Trevino failed the polygraph exam in June 2010 and was barred from retaking the exam for three years. He hopes to take the exam again this summer as a Border Patrol applicant, which has a higher age limit for new employees.

Born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Trevino grew up traveling into Mexico to eat and go shopping with his family. He said his dream job is to be a customs officer. He said he has an uncle who is an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection recently hired his brother.

When asked if he had ties to foreign nationals or drug traffickers and whether he ever went to terrorist training, Trevino answered no. But the examiner said he was less than truthful and had erratic breathing, a possible countermeasure to defeat the test, according to Trevino.

“It seemed more like an interrogation. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve got two speeding tickets in my life. I don’t smoke or drink,” Trevino said. “The frustration is when I know I’m not lying about it, but the machine says I am, especially terrorist training and loyalties to America. It’s like, give me a break.”

Judee Burgoon, a University of Arizona professor who researches identification technology and risk detection, said the demand to protect U.S. borders doesn’t make it easy to find and hire the right people for the job.

In a 2009 briefing about Customs and Border Protection’s polygraph program nearly two years after it began, agency officials said the polygraph registers physiological responses to questions, which the examiner interprets to infer whether someone is lying. A polygraph exam theoretically can detect when the body involuntarily reacts to stressful situations.

The technology itself can’t distinguish between a white lie or a whopper. In other words, the polygraph is just a tool to get to the interrogation, if needed. That’s where the admission comes in.

Polygraphers ask law enforcement applicants questions in two categories: suitability and national security. The suitability questions probe illegal drug use, involvement with serious crimes and falsification of a job application. National security questions seek answers related to espionage, unauthorized contact with foreigners and the mishandling of classified information.

The examiners ask broad control questions that typically elicit a response, such as whether the applicant has ever stolen anything, and more pointed “relevant” questions, such as the ones on which Trevino said his examiner focused.

The standardized tests generally have three phases. First, the examiner conducts a pretest interview in which he or she tries to build rapport with the applicant. Next is the test itself, in which the applicant’s heart rate, breathing and skin moisture levels are monitored. Finally, there is a post-test interview, if need be, when the polygrapher encourages applicants to “cleanse” themselves.

“We don’t use coercion,” Joe Gaudiano, a Customs and Border Protection official, said during the 2009 briefing. “We don’t tell them that they’re not going to get the job. We don’t make any promises that they will get the job no matter what they tell us. And we don’t threaten them with anything. It’s up to the applicant to help themselves out.”

During the actual test, each question is asked three to five times, and these questions are reviewed with the applicant before the test even begins. Examiners look for stressful responses to specific questions. They evaluate on the spot whether someone is being truthful or deceptive.

Examiners delve deeper into certain responses during the post-test, downplaying any transgressions while emphasizing the need for honesty. The overall process typically runs three or four hours, but can go longer if the applicant continues to admit things.

“Why do people confess to these things? We don’t know,” Gaudiano said. “I guess we’re nice guys or something.”

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.