Does the CIA stereotype Jews as security risks?

An agency lawyer denied clearance to work at the White House sues -- and charges that the CIA is purging Jews.

Published June 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

A lawyer for the Central Intelligence Agency, suspended from duty under suspicion of unauthorized contact with Israel, is preparing an unprecedented suit challenging the validity of the spy agency's "lie detector" test, which he claims stereotypes Jews as security risks.

Adam Ciralsky, a 26-year-old lawyer in the CIA's Office of General Counsel, was placed on paid leave last October after the agency's polygraphers refused to clear him for an assignment at the White House, where he was recruited to work for Richard Clark, the administration's new "terrorism czar" at the National Security Council.

Only months before, Ciralsky, who is Jewish, had passed two previous polygraph tests, including a CIA entrance exam, that questioned him about his contacts with Israelis. A 1993 test administered while he worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency specifically found no grounds for suspicion concerning his tourist trips to Israel, his attendance at Israeli embassy cultural events in Washington, his wealthy parents' donations to Jewish groups and his close relations with his Hebrew teacher.

An employee of the CIA since late 1996, Ciralsky also suggests he has been victimized by a government wide "witch hunt" for Israeli spies, launched last March after U.S. intelligence intercepted an Israeli diplomatic cable that mentioned a secret agent in Washington code-named "Mega."

"They shook the tree," he told one associate. "The question is, why was I on a branch?"

More than 10 Jewish federal foreign policy and defense specialists were suspended from their jobs in the wake of the "Mega" cable, Ciralsky alleges in a 120-page affidavit prepared in anticipation of a suit against the top officials of both the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who jointly run the CIA's counterintelligence center as a result of a security shake-up following the Aldrich Ames fiasco.

Ames, a Soviet Russian mole for nine years, passed several CIA polygraph examinations before he was uncovered in 1995 and convicted of espionage.

Ciralsky's charge of a purge could not be independently verified. Abraham Foxman, head of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League, told Salon he knew of "no pattern" of discrimination currently, but that the Pentagon had sent out a security memo in 1995 warning defense contractors that their Jewish employees might be susceptible to recruitment by Israeli intelligence. The memo was repudiated by the Pentagon as "particularly repugnant" and the work of a "rogue" employee, but Foxman said he was "not satisfied" that the matter had been adequately handled.

According to a 1992 report in the Wall Street Journal, the FBI at one time kept lists of Jewish employees with security clearances under a project code-named "Scope." The FBI said then it had abandoned the program. A 1994 book, "The Secret War Against the Jews," by John Loftus and Mark Aarons, reported that the National Security Agency, which intercepts and decodes foreign government communications, banned Jewish-American employees from a unit known as "the Jew room," which monitors coded Israeli communications.

Ciralsky charges that the CIA uses an "extraordinarily anti-Semitic" security profile, or a list of criteria, such as whether an employee speaks Hebrew, gives money to Zionist organizations, attends an Orthodox synagogue or has visited Israel, to measure whether a Jewish employee is a security risk.

"That's why we're going to court," he told an associate. He is demanding that the CIA renounce the profile publicly and discard it, release him for his White House assignment and undertake a "thorough" reevaluation of its polygraph program, which began in 1952. Ciralsky, a graduate of George Washington University and the University of Illinois Law School, has not been officially accused of anything, nor has he been exonerated, sources said. For eight months he's been in an employment limbo, collecting his CIA check at his home in Bethesda, Md.

"They never said it had anything to do with the polygraph," he told an associate. "In fact, they deny it. It's a new story every time you talk to them."

The CIA, which as a matter of policy refuses to comment on personnel matters, refused to discuss the case of Ciralsky, who has retained Washington lawyer Neal Sher, a former head of the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, to represent him.

Ciralsky has also enlisted the help of David Lykken, a leading polygraph critic, University of Minnesota psychology professor and author of "Tremors in the Blood: Uses and Abuses of the Lie Detector" (Plenum Press). Last month Lykken wrote to CIA Director George Tenet on Ciralsky's behalf, pointing out the contradictory results to the same questions.

"You should be aware that the polygraph cannot detect lying," Lykken wrote. "With respect to Mr. Ciralsky's situation, it is patent that, if one believed that polygraph testing produces valid results, it would be impossible to make sense of his having passed two prior tests and then failing a third test referring to the same prior events."

No government employee or applicant has ever challenged in court the unfavorable results of a polygraph test, tens of thousands of which are administered annually by the FBI, CIA, Defense Department and other government agencies, although complaints of abuses have been mounting in recent years.

In Detroit, however, David Tenenbaum, an engineer for the Department of the Army, has notified the government that he intends to sue over a polygraph test that led to his highly publicized arrest by FBI agents last year on suspicion of giving classified documents to Israel. He was exonerated and has returned to his job in Army armor design.

In a brief telephone interview, Tenenbaum said it was impossible for him to determine whether he had been singled out, or if he fit a polygrapher's "anti-Semitic" security profile, because he is Jewish. "How would I know?"

Also last year, an Alabama man who held the government's highest security clearances for years was stymied for a CIA job by an agency polygrapher. David Keen, 42, who worked on supersecret "Stealth" engineering projects for the Pentagon for 18 years before accepting a CIA invitation to apply for a job, complained to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, about the methods of CIA polygraphers, who reduced him to tears with "browbeating" questions about his daughter and failed marriage.

Keen, who is not Jewish, flunked the "loyalty questions" on the test twice, then read a book called "How to Sting the Polygraph," by former Oklahoma policeman Doug Williams. On the third try, he passed easily.

When his CIA interrogator wondered aloud how he'd done it, Keen told him about the book -- which sent the CIA polygrapher "into a rage," Keen said. He was rejected for employment.

Friends have told Keen he was "stupid" to tell the CIA he studied how to beat the "lie detector," but he replies: "I told the truth, didn't I?"

"Some of the most bizarre and unprofessional events I have ever seen," he said of his experience to Shelby.

Keen told Salon that another applicant who failed the CIA test had passed a polygraph exam at the National Security Agency, which handles the government's most secret codes, and had gone to work there.

The government is actually of two minds about "lie detectors." While the CIA was counting on the polygraph to determine the veracity of Adam Ciralsky, the Justice Department was at the Supreme Court insisting that a defendant shouldn't be able to use the results of a test as evidence of his innocence. The polygraph, argued the solicitor general, was "unreliable." The justices agreed.

Sher refused to discuss the particulars of Ciralsky's case but called polygraph tests "a goddamn farce ... When a defendant wants to use it, they say it's not worth the paper it's written on. But when they want to use it to justify discipline, or blocking someone from a job or promotion, they use it. They want to have it both ways."

The White House is trying discreetly to untangle the Ciralsky problem, sources said, so it can avoid the spectacle of having the Justice Department defend the CIA's use of a test that it has just told the Supreme Court was unreliable.

Richard Clark refused to return several calls asking for comment on the Ciralsky case.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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