DEA investigated for hiring agents who failed lie detector tests, report says

DEA agents wearing vests and DEA patches.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Florida on June 13, 2016.
(Joe Burbank / Associated Press)
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The Drug Enforcement Administration has allowed dozens of job applicants to become special agents and perform other work despite failing a lie detector test during the hiring process, according to a new federal watchdog report, which describes the agency’s polygraph unit as facing pressure to pass “legacy” candidates related to senior officials.

Details of the report, issued Wednesday by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, were independently verified by The Times based on court documents obtained from a whistleblower case filed by a former member of the DEA polygraph unit.

Beyond special treatment to friends and family members of DEA officials, the whistleblower has said agency bosses ignored admissions of criminal behavior that should have been reported for further investigation, including a case in which a job applicant “admitted to pedophiliac tendencies” during a polygraph exam.


The whistleblower asked not to be identified because of pending litigation and referred questions to their lawyer. They said they alerted supervisors in 2018 after an applicant discussed “pedophilic impulses towards his own daughter and other children.” But they were told that “there was nothing that could be done,” and that they “would be liable” for making an anonymous complaint to local law enforcement or social services.

The candidate was not hired, and the matter was eventually reported to the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates misconduct by employees, documents say.

A DEA spokesperson said the agency “continues to implement best practices in hiring to ensure that all DEA employees uphold the values of our organization, exemplify integrity, and — above all — protect the safety and health of all Americans.”

“Over the past two years, DEA has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to ensuring that all DEA employees are held to the highest standards,” the spokesperson said. “DEA has undergone complete leadership change in the highest positions, updated our hiring policies, and heightened our disciplinary standards.”

Polygraph exams are typically not admissible in court proceedings, but they are a standard hiring practice among federal law enforcement agencies and for national security clearances. The tests rely on background information provided by the applicant and interrogation by the examiner, who monitors the subject’s physiological responses and behavior.

In another case described in the Office of the Inspector General report, a DEA job applicant undergoing a lie detector test in December 2017 “admitted to engaging in inappropriate behavior while a juvenile with a younger juvenile.” The examiner stopped the test, the report said, and yet “the DEA’s hiring panel was told, incorrectly, that the applicant passed the polygraph examination.” That person, according to the report, joined the DEA in 2019 and is currently employed as a special agent.

In a letter sent to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram on Tuesday, the Office of the Inspector General said it had “identified numerous concerns,” including the use of loopholes to avoid complying with a policy enacted in 2019 that specifically bars the agency from hiring applicants who fail a polygraph or show signs of “countermeasures” to cheat the test.


The Office of the Inspector General said it identified 77 people, nearly all prospective special agents, who were hired after the 2019 reform despite producing questionable polygraph results. To make the hires, the report said, the DEA argued that the applications were “associated with an older job announcement predating the policy change.” Those applicants were required only to “complete” — not necessarily pass — the test, the agency said.

An additional 43 people were hired despite showing red flags, the report said, because the DEA said their exams were conducted before the new rules taking effect.

A written DEA response included in the federal watchdog report said the agency no longer hires applicants for certain positions if they have not “fully completed” a polygraph or received an unfavorable result. The 77 people who were already hired “had no disqualifying admissions” during their polygraph exams, the agency said.

Uttam Dhillon, the former DEA acting administrator who ordered the 2019 polygraph reform, told The Times he was “disappointed” to learn of the Office of the Inspector General’s findings.

“One of my highest priorities was to increase the number of DEA special agents in order to combat the drug overdose crisis — while at the same time ensuring that these new agents were of the highest quality, character, and integrity,” Dhillon said. “I am disappointed that the high standards I set have not been adhered to over the past two years.”

The polygraph report is the latest allegation of questionable conduct by DEA leadership in recent months, with Milgram previously facing Office of the Inspector General scrutiny for awarding no-bid contracts to hire her past associates, and revelations of agent misconduct.


The Office of the Inspector General also noted that the DEA allowed local and state law enforcement agents to join federal task force units despite failing the polygraph examination. The DEA said that it identified nine task force officers (TFOs) who produced an “unsuccessful result” on their polygraph since hiring standards changed in 2021 and that “steps are now in progress to return those TFOs to their parent agencies.”

The whistleblower complaint says members of the DEA’s polygraph unit undergo 14 weeks of training “thought to be the most difficult and challenging school a federal agent can attend.”

The polygraph training includes “methods of deception” and ways examiners can monitor for signs that someone is slowing their breathing or using other “countermeasures” to subvert the test. Both the whistleblower complaint and the federal watchdog report describe examiners feeling pressure to pass people suspected of cheating.

The report said DEA officials were informed in February 2023 about “instances where employees perceived or experienced pressure related to polygraph examinations of legacy candidates,” or job applicants with relatives in the DEA. Later that month, the report said, agency officials issued a notice reminding employees “to adhere to its guidelines to prevent nepotism or the appearance of nepotism in the DEA’s hiring process.”

The whistleblower described multiple instances in which they encountered pressure to pass legacy applicants, including the son of a DEA supervisor, the son of a retired DEA agent from the New York Field Division, and a case in which an inspector at DEA headquarters made “continual calls to Human Resources demanding that his son be re-tested.”

Kevin Byrnes, an attorney who represents the whistleblower, said the pressure to pass unsuitable candidates with DEA connections was troubling.


“When there’s pressure from supervisors on behalf of applicants, it threatens the foundation of the entire agency,” Byrnes said. “It goes to the core of how the agency selects agents and processes them. It’s critical to gathering information for their suitability for law enforcement positions.

“If that can be influenced or manipulated,” he said, “you can get people into the agency that lack the integrity and skills necessary to enforce the nation’s laws, and that can cascade later on.”

Byrnes said that his client was among those who reported concerns to the Office of the Inspector General, and that some of those who were unable to pass the polygraph were later accused of misconduct.

“Many agents who employed countermeasures or failed became issues later on,” Byrnes said. “They’re the people who could tell a lie.”