Service members and other job applicants have reported bizarre treatment at the hands of federal polygraph examiners.

Fernando Vergara / The Associated Press 2007

When you hear Luis Granado’s story of bizarre treatment by federal polygraph examiners, you can’t help but feel something is wrong.

Granado, 31, is an Air Force veteran from Tucson and a University of Arizona graduate who applied to be a Border Patrol agent in 2014. He has the kind of background the agency needs. That year, he went to Customs and Border Protection’s northwest-side office to take a polygraph.

“I was following his directions perfectly,” Granado told me Friday. “He couldn’t get the baseline reading. He was getting pretty upset. He said I was clenching my teeth, moving or counting numbers in my head.”

“He’s getting super-mad. He was totally aggressive.”

When the examiner asked him about drug trafficking, terrorist connections or other crimes in his background, Granado answered truthfully, he said: There was nothing. The examiner told him he had failed.

“They make you feel like crap. You kind of feel like a criminal. It’s a horrible experience.”

Granado, who works full time for the Air Force Reserve now, is just the sort of person who would benefit from a proposal by Arizona’s U.S. senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain. It would waive polygraph exam requirements for some members of the military and current law enforcement officers applying for Border Patrol work.

If this passes, people like Granado wouldn’t need a polygraph at all. That would make it easier for the agency to meet its goal of adding 5,000 agents in five years.

Sounds sensible — until you recall history. Surges of Border Patrol hiring in the mid-1990s and mid-2000s produced the same result: Surges in misconduct by new agents who either conspired with criminals or mistreated border crossers.

I first became aware of the pattern in 1998, when I was covering the killing of Border Patrol Agent Alexander Kirpnick by drug smugglers west of Nogales. Fellow agent Hector Soto attended the memorial service for Kirpnick in Tucson, and on his return to the Nogales station that day was arrested for murder.

Soto, it turns out, had been a cocaine dealer in New York City and in 1994 killed one of his suppliers. Two and a half years later he showed up in a green uniform in Nogales, ready to patrol.

Until that day in 1998, Soto had a clean record, and he had made it through a hiring process that checked his background but didn’t require polygraph exams. These exams aren’t totally reliable, but they are meant to force people like Soto to either admit prior acts or show evasiveness.

A second surge of hiring took place about 10 years ago with more elaborate background checks that still didn’t require polygraphs. It ended up with another wave of misconduct — 144 arrests for corrupt activities between 2005 and 2012.

Yamilkar Fierros joined the force as part of that wave in 2009. Just seven months after landing at the Sonoita station, he was arrested, accused of helping traffickers move drug loads and giving them maps with sensitive law-enforcement information.

Finally, in 2010, Congress passed a law requiring the Border Patrol to conduct polygraph exams on all hires by 2013. That may have helped weed out some bad actors, but it has gummed up the works so much that Southern Arizona’s largest law enforcement agency is losing agents faster than it can hire them.

The polygraph has weeded out around 65 percent of applicants that get to that late stage in the process, the Associated Press reported — much higher than the 30 percent or so who typically fail exams for police hiring. Rep. Martha McSally has pushed to streamline the process, especially for veterans, as head of the House’s Homeland Security subcommittee on border and maritime security.

“We are losing far too many good applicants who just throw up their hands and move on because they have given up on the process,” she said at a hearing last April.

Maybe the agency can speed up the process, but lowering hiring standards is exactly how police scandals start, experts told me.

“Any time you lower the standard for screening police, you put the public at risk,” said Kevin Gilmartin, a Tucsonan who runs an international business as a law enforcement behavioral health consultant. “Veterans make the best employees, but they should not be given a lower standard.”

He and I first talked in 1998 after Soto’s arrest, and even then, 12 years before it was mandated by Congress, he was recommending that the Border Patrol use polygraphs and psychological screenings for all hires.

The man who was in charge of internal security and internal affairs for Customs and Border Protection up until 2014 told me there was nothing wrong with its polygraph exams. James Tomsheck said that was proven when CBP got help from other agencies in carrying out the polygraph exams, and the outside examiners failed applicants at the same high rates as the internal examiners.

“The results were always exactly the same,” he told me Friday. “There was no difference if it was a CBP polygraph examiner or one detailed from U.S. Secret Service, DEA or ATF.”

And yet — the stories are unsettling. Granado’s strange experience with a hostile examiner was just one of many that McSally, CBP officials and union officials have reported. And Granado’s was repeated — the agency called him back for a second exam that took another six-plus hours and ended with the same result.

The upshot seems to be that there is a problem with the speed of the hiring process and the performance of some examiners. The hours-long exams that Granado took seemed beyond the pale to Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier when I described them to him.

“I’ve never been aware of a polygraph that lasted hours,” he told me.

All Arizona law enforcement officers must go through a polygraph as part of their hiring, but it typically only takes an hour or so, he said.

But there’s no reason to assume members of the military moving into the Border Patrol or other law-enforcement officials will do better on the exam than others, Gilmartin and Tomsheck said.

“Just because you hold a security clearance doesn’t mean at all you have been subjected to the scrutiny you should,” Tomsheck said.

The pressures of working in remote areas, sometimes distant from supervisors, and being subject to the temptation of bribes are different from the challenges most members of the military have faced, Gilmartin said.

And yet, for honorably discharged veterans like Granado, the polygraph was a demeaning experience that turned them off from service on the border. When I asked if he’d reapply if given a polygraph waiver, he said no.

“I’d get paid more than I do now, but, man, it really put a bad taste in my mouth the way they handled veterans,” Granado said.

That — the experience of individual veterans going through polygraphs — seems like a problem they should be able to fix. But they should do it without waiving the polygraph altogether and risking another wave of corruption.

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