The August air was sweltering, and the necktie wasn’t making anything easier. I parked my car in front of an ominous building that might as well have been a fortress—it was surrounded by a tall concrete fence crowned with barbed wire, and the single point of entry was staffed with several armed guards. My chest was tight, so I focused on my breathing in hopes that I could try to calm down a little bit—I needed to be calm that day.
I approached the booth and greeted one of the guards through the thick bulletproof glass. After I passed along my driver’s license and cell phone, he let me know I would get them back on my way out and buzzed me in. I quickly placed the remaining contents of my pockets and my wingtips in a basin as two guards kept their watchful eyes on me. I sent my belongings along a conveyor belt while I hesitantly walked through the lone metal detector.
The fierce rattle of an alarm went off. My belt—in my haste, I forgot to take it off. I started sweating even more as one of the guards motioned for me to remove it and try again. I eyed the handgun suspended heavily at his side, and, without breathing, I made my second attempt. Sweet silence greeted me after I stepped through, but the victory didn’t last long as I tried to quickly dress myself again in front of the guards.
One guard escorted me into the building. He brought me to a stale waiting room, and I made my way to an uncomfortable leather chair as went back outside. Without my phone to distract me, I took note of my surroundings to try and ease my nerves: a security camera lingered in a corner, a mural of the American flag covered the wall in front of me, and portraits of director Christopher Wray and president Donald Trump hung on my left. But nothing worked. I was freaking out.
I had spent over a year working toward becoming an intelligence analyst for the Federal Bureau of Investigations. I met the initial criteria, undertook rigorous logic tests, compiled a mock intelligence report and flew out to Arizona for an interview—and I passed all of them. Even after receiving my conditional job offer, no part of the process felt truly real until I was inside the towering building, dreading the final step of the process: the polygraph.
Every step in the process had statistics tied to it, and I had defeated a lot of tough odds to get there. However, the FBI polygraph exam, which is designed to measure autonomic processes in the body that trigger when someone is being untruthful, has the lowest passing rate of any governmental agency that uses them. I was dreading those odds, but I had also found documentation that indicated how unreliable polygraph tests could be. All of this exacerbated a major fear that I was concerned about since I first applied for the position at the FBI—I was afraid of a false positive on the polygraph, which is, unfortunately, not uncommon.
The process for applying to work at the FBI is full of strict rules, but there is some wiggle room. Failing a logic test or the mock report usually means that an applicant has to wait a year before trying again, but if an applicant fails the polygraph, then that’s the end of the line—the applicant can never work for or apply to work for the FBI again. On top of that, failing a polygraph limits the possibility of getting hired at another similar organization, like the Central Intelligence Agency.
My mind was awash with all of these worries when a man came into the waiting room. He was the agent who was going to be administering the test, and his kind, fatherly demeanor helped to put me at ease a little bit. We made small talk as he led me to a small testing room that housed a chair that resembled a torture device. He went overall of the specifics, like how the chair worked—there would be sensors under my feet and in my seat to see if I fidgeted, a strap around my chest to monitor my breathing, sensors around my fingertips to measure my perspiration and a cuff around my arm to document my blood pressure—and how all of the questions would either be answered by me with a yes or no. As a result of my anxiety about that day, I did a lot of research beforehand, so I knew most of what he went over.
He talked about how he was going to ask me a series of relevant questions to determine if I was lying about anything during my process, but I also knew that he was also going to ask irrelevant questions that we both knew the answers to in order to establish a baseline control group for the more pertinent questions. What I didn’t know was that he would go over all of the questions with me beforehand, and, after we finished the last of the intake information, I felt like I knew exactly what to expect—but I was so very wrong.
I was nervous about every question, even the irrelevant ones. I second guessed every answer I gave—he could have asked me to confirm my birthday and I would have had to hesitate. I forgot how to breathe and speak at the same time, and at the end of every round of questions, he loosened the blood pressure cuff and an otherworldly sense of relief came over me until it was time to start back up.
When I thought it was over, the agent would start the process all over again, and the warmth that he greeted me with had faded away. His agitation was almost tangible, especially as we went through the third or fourth round of the same questions. He got up and slammed his hands on the table and ferociously accused me of lying. While I stammered and tried to find any word that wasn’t the yes or no that I’d been required to give over the last 45 minutes, he continued on—he insisted that I was lying about two aspects of my life that I had no concerns over.
While I’m not perfect and had a history of doing things that I wasn’t proud of, I was an open book with the FBI during the entire process. I disclosed every dirty little secret that I could possibly think of, laid my life bare and put my private life on display for strangers in hopes of being hired as an intelligence analyst. The agent pressed about what I would be lying about or why I would want to conceal it, and I literally no idea what I could have been.
We wrapped up with some paperwork before he let me know that I likely didn’t pass. He mentioned that he had to send the results to someone at the FBI main office and that they would make a final determination. He suggested that I might be eligible to re-take the polygraph if this other person felt the results warranted it, but, in the agent’s eyes, it was conclusive.
He led me back into the musty waiting room, and I dragged myself out into the summer heat. I picked up my driver’s license and phone from the security booth and started my drive home, defeated about the possibility for working for the FBI, but hopeful that I would never have to take another polygraph exam again.