Sunday, April 17, 2005

The washout system works

I was just listening to that precious broadcast gem, "This American Life" on NPR. I can't find a link to a transcript at the moment - it may not be up yet - but when it comes up I'll include it here. [Update: here it is.] Good grief.

The final segment, in brief: a young man tries to get into the NSA, and fails. He was a pothead and-so-on in high school, but left all that behind in college and undertook to train himself ideally for a career in intelligence, achieving a grad school spot in foreign affairs at a top university and learning Chinese, and simultaneously with grad school applied to the NSA, a grueling process that includes a polygraph test. He failed the polygraph test - miserably - because his stress reactions wouldn't stop even for the easy and obviously truthful questions. Ultimately, under the interrogator's prompting to "dig deep" for whatever the reason might be for his overreaction, he "confessed" to seeing child pornography over the internet, something like 50 images. It was an event train that he didn't see coming: he's terribly stressed because he wants the job so much, he blabs unnecessary details all over the place about his drug use and every possible indiscretion he can think of (including the fact that he's gay, which, when the interrogator looked at him in puzzlement, he said was "illegal in some states" - untrue, though certain types of sexual activity regardless of who's doing them may still be illegal on the books, and unprosecuted), the interrogator tells him he's failing and urges him to seek the buried reason for it, he says he may have inadvertantly seen an underage person in internet porn but he has no way to tell, she presses him - he either has or he hasn't, and he says all right, he has then, she presses for a number of images, he comes up with 10, she presses further with veiled threats that if he's wrong, even by only one image, he's still lying, he changes his answer to 50...

Evidently to his surprise, he was rejected, and the letter he received gave the reason as "due to [his] involvement with child pornography." He got a lawyer in case the government decided to prosecute for this felony he had admitted to but not committed, took a second polygraph exam that he passed without problems, but the government would neither reconsider his application nor "clear his name." Unbelievably, he later applied at the CIA, and was rejected because of his failed NSA bid. (The "unbelievable" part is that he applied, not that he was rejected.)

Eventually, as in "in the last minute of the segment," the reporter got around to what should have been the point: the young man was absolutely, patently not suited to intelligence work, as he'd "cracked" even when confronted with a friendly interrogator. Yet the sense of the injustice of it all prevailed all the way to the very last sentence, in which the reporter said he would not reveal the young man's new home or job at the man's request, because now he realized the value of keeping some things to himself.

The young man named his failing "immaturity." He apparently still rails at the irony that people later found to have been Soviet spies "make the cut" but that he, completely loyal, completely dedicated to grooming himself for exactly this kind of work, did not. Can he really believe that he was ever cut out for human intelligence work - indeed, any intel work? Here are some qualities that ought to disqualify an applicant: Immaturity. Confessing to crimes not committed. "Diarrhea of the mouth." Lack of judgment. Inability to visualize the end of the road before taking a a completely unreasonable fork.

Obviously the system is not perfect; our intel services have been under heavy fire for believing their own stories too much, for building up said stories on shaky evidentiary foundations, and indeed for inadvertantly harboring Soviet asps in their figurative and collective bosom. But at least this story provides some indication that the people who wash out are the people who ought to wash out.

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