There is a hotel near the Baltimore airport where National Security Agency (NSA) recruits stay. Some are linguists. Some are computer scientists. Some are security experts. Most are introverts. At night everyone uses their dinner vouchers sitting at one person tables around the perimeter of the hotel dining room. It is quiet. Everyone reads or focuses on their food. No one makes eye contact.
The shuttle leaves at 6:30 AM. If you are going to the NSA for a polygraph (a.k.a. a lie detector test) they recommend you do not have coffee because the caffeine can make you jittery. It’s 6:30 AM. I haven’t had any coffee.
When we arrive at the NSA site those of us taking the polygraph test are brought into a room for orientation. We are told what to expect during the exam. We are told to focus on the questions being asked and not to let our minds wander. Then we are told to sit in the lobby and wait for an NSA polygrapher to call our name.
It takes a long time for my name to be called. I am used to being called last since my name starts with a Z, but the names were not being called in alphabetic order. It was just taking a long time for my turn. A nearby coffee maker whispers to me. With the waiting room mostly empty I finally hear my name.
He seems young. Mid twenties maybe? I create an imaginary back story of him working as a Calvin Klein underwear model then deciding to join the NSA after 9/11. I’m sorry, what did they say about not letting our minds wander?
He takes me to the polygraph room. A small, blank, windowless room. He sits me in the chair and hooks me up to the polygraph machine. That is, he takes my hand and attaches sensors to it. Then he wraps wires around my chest leaning in so close that my face nearly touches his neck. Did I mention he is hot? Did I mention that I am single and lonely and horny at this time, or did you guess that?
Having to take a polygraph test never worried me. I’m a generally honest person. I hold no secrets that should prevent me from being an ideal candidate for the NSA. In fact, I already had Top Secret clearance from another agency. I’d been told that most people don’t pass the polygraph on the first try, but I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t.
As hot polygrapher starts asking questions I stare at the back of the door. A friend had suggested that to avoid having your mind wander you should keep repeating the answer to the previous question in your head until the next question is asked. I try that.
“Yes.” Yes, yes, yes, yes.
“No.” No, no, no, no.
Focus. Hot polygrapher. Focus. Hot polygrapher.
When he is done with the questions my hot polygrapher leaves the room to check the output from my polygraph. I relax. It is over. Right?
When my polygrapher comes back he is displeased. He says there is an unusual reading for my response to one question. He asks me the question again. I give him the same answer. I give him the same answer because it is the truth. He asks me if there isn’t anything even just a little false about my answer. He asks me for any exceptions. He says that whatever I say is fine as long as I am honest. He says the most important thing is to get my honest answer on record. That the problem would be if they later found out that I had lied. It is best to get everyone on record up front. But I was being honest. There was nothing more to say.
There is not clock that I can see in the room. I have no idea how long my polygrapher pushes me for the “real” answer to that one pesky question. Have you ever had anyone repeatedly accuse you of lying when you were telling the truth? Repeatedly implying that it would be so much easier if you just changed your answer? It’s frustrating. It’s stressful. I completely understand why people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I consider for a moment making up something but think better of it. I stick with my original, honest answer.
Then my polygrapher changes tack. He says that if my answer is the truth there must have been something else. I must have been thinking about something that caused the polygraph machine to spike. He asks if my mind wandered even a little bit. He asks if there may have been anything that I may have been thinking about during the exam that could have caused the machine to pick up on nervousness, excitement or stress. Anything at all?
Then I say it.
“I find you very attractive and was thinking about how it would be nice to have sex with you.”
I sexually harass my NSA polygrapher, and I am not done. I stare at the floor as I let loose a rambling, soft core pornographic retelling of my inner monologue since first looking up at him in waiting room. I talk about the cut of his suit. I talk about his imagined career as an underwear model. It is not a seduction. It is a confession. It is humiliating. It definitely is honest.
It is his turn to pause.
Then he says that is very flattering but that was probably not the reason for what he saw on my polygraph read out. He concludes the exam and tells me I’ll be notified of my results. He dismisses me.
I am not surprised to learn that I had not passed my polygraph test.
When I go back to the NSA for my second polygraph my polygrapher is an older man, not unattractive for his age but definitely not a distraction. I can’t know for sure if that makes a difference, but that time I pass.
RELATED POST: Why I chose not to work for the NSA
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