The federal government is reviewing its use of so-called lie detector tests in security screenings as a new report called out the controversial practice.
The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA), the watchdog body overseeing Canada’s intelligence agencies, tabled a report on Friday which questioned the merits of polygraph tests.
The test tracks physiological factors like blood pressure and changes in pulse rate and supposedly can tell whether a person is lying. It’s required for every government employee needing an enhanced top secret clearance, which applies to jobs that involve security and intelligence functions or access to intelligence sources and methodologies.
It’s also used by the nation’s two intelligence agencies — the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the domestic spy agency, and the Communications Security Establishment, the foreign signals intelligence agency — on their employees, despite previous reports challenging the test’s reliability.
The watchdog report concentrated on the use of polygraph tests by CSIS’s internal security branch, the unit that runs personnel security screening and investigations of CSIS employees and security incidents.
It flagged a number of governance issues within the branch, including a lack of clear boundaries between polygraph and medical analyses and limited oversight of the polygraph program.
“CSIS could not justify the merits of examiners — who are not medical practitioners — to ask medical-related questions of the people they examine,” says the NSIRA report.
“The review identified that polygraph examinations can have profound negative impacts on an employee’s mental health if not used appropriately. Employees who spoke to NSIRA on condition of anonymity described the negative impact that their unfavourable polygraph results had on their lives.”
Security standard under review
NSIRA — the result of several intelligence-related watchdogs being merged into one body through the Liberal government’s national security overhaul last year — said it brought its concerns to the attention of the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), the government department that oversees federal standards for security screenings.
“These issues raised in the CSIS context are related to a much broader consideration — namely, the extent to which the government’s overarching policy document, the standard on security screening, provides adequate guidance for departments and agencies when they implement this safeguarding measure,” reads the report.
“Although the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) Standard on Security Screening, created in 2014, cites the use of the polygraph as an appropriate tool for assessing candidates seeking an enhanced top secret clearance, TBS was unable to provide any policy rationale for the use of this tool.”
This isn’t the first instance of a Canadian intelligence oversight agency questioning the use of polygraph tests. In seven consecutive annual reports, published between 1985 to 1992, the Security Intelligence Review Committee — NSIRA’s predecessor — called on CSIS to stop using the tests.
SIRC warned of “grave doubts” about the test’s accuracy, pointing out that its results can be wrong 10 per cent of the time or more. Canadian courts have refused to admit the results of polygraph tests as evidence in criminal trials. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that they are unreliable and risky and would not assist the court in determining a person’s guilt or innocence.
A spokesperson for the Treasury Board Secretariat said the security standard, which is meant to ensure consistent and fair screening practices across government institutions, is under the microscope.
“The 2014 Standard is currently being reviewed to ensure continued relevance of all of the security screening practices set out therein, including the use of polygraphs, commensurate with the evolving risk and operating environment,” said Alain Belle-Isle, spokesperson for TBS.
It’s not clear when that review will be complete.
A spokesperson for CSIS said internal processes to mitigate insider threats are continuously assessed and updated.
“The ‘insider threat’ can be one of the most damaging threats to Canada’s national security. CSIS is confident in its robust internal security measures to protect information that is highly sought and strategically invaluable in the hands of Canada’s adversaries. The polygraph is one element of those measures,” said John Townsend.
The security screening review comes as the government continues to face questions about the case of Cameron Ortis, the RCMP intelligence official accused of sharing confidential information and preparing to leak more.
“Several security breaches in recent years illustrate that the Canadian national security system has not been immune from the risks associated with ‘insider threats,'” says the NSIRA report.
“There are real consequences when safeguarding measures fail … There is also reputational risk to the Canadian security and intelligence community if allies perceive that the sensitive information they share with Canada, in trust, is not being adequately protected. It is therefore incumbent on the government to ensure that such information is secured from exploitation, compromise or other unauthorized disclosure.”
In the immediate aftermath of his arrest in the fall of 2019, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said Ortis had a valid top secret clearance — which must be renewed every five years — but had not undergone a polygraph exam.