Title:                      Gatekeeper

Author:                  John Sullivan

Sullivan, John F. (2007). Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner and Of Spies. Washington, DC: Potomac Books

LCCN:    2006018101

JK468.I6 S85 2007


  • The art of the polygraph — The path less traveled — In the beginning — The Crawford era — First impressions — A new day — Hard (but exciting) times — Respite — The new breed — The era of good feeling — Coming of age — Bad apples — Hits, misses, and distractions — Aldrich Ames — Twilight — Out to pasture — Intelligence community and 9/11 — Interrogation and torture.


Date Posted:      May 9, 2017

Overview from[1]

John F. Sullivan was a polygraph examiner with the CIA for thirty-one years, during which time he conducted more tests than anyone in the history of the CIA’s program. The lie detectors act as the Agency’s gatekeepers, preventing foreign agents, unsuitable applicants, and employees guilty of misconduct from penetrating or harming the Agency. Here Sullivan describes his methods, emphasizing the importance of psychology and the examiners’ skills in a successful polygraph program. Sullivan acknowledges that using the polygraph effectively is an art as much as a science, yet he convincingly argues that it remains a highly reliable screening device, more successful and less costly than the other primary method, background investigation. In the thousands of tests that Sullivan conducted, he discovered double agents, applicants with criminal backgrounds, and employee misconduct, including compromising affairs and the mishandling of classified information. But Gatekeeper is more than Sullivan’s memoirs. It is also a window to the often acrimonious and sometimes alarming internal politics of the CIA: the turf wars over resources, personnel, and mandate; the slow implementation of quality control; the aversion to risk-taking; and the overzealous pursuit of disqualifying information. In an age when the intelligence community’s conduct is rightly being questioned, Sullivan contributes a fascinating personal account of one of the Agency’s many important tasks.

Article posted at the FAS website[2]

A former senior polygrapher for the Central Intelligence Agency filed a lawsuit today [April 5, 2007] in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asserting that the Agency intentionally retaliated against him by abusing the security clearance process. The premise for the retaliation was the exercising of his First Amendment rights by publishing a critical book on the Agency’s polygraph program. John Sullivan, who during a 31 year career (1968-1999) administered more polygraphs than anyone in the history of the Agency, spent nearly three years battling with the CIA’s Publication Review Board to finally clear as unclassified his . . . book Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner.

While he was awaiting the completion of the lengthy review process, Sullivan experienced retaliation by the CIA when it inappropriately and intentionally revoked his security clearance based on exaggerated, distorted and clearly false allegations. During a 2004 security examination Sullivan was undertaking for employment with a defense contractor, he was directly questioned by the CIA polygrapher about the contents of his book. At one interview session a CIA security officer stated “There is something about your book that you’re not telling us, and until you do I can’t help you.” The CIA official then smirked and accused Sullivan of lying.

Sullivan spent months trying to persuade the CIA that their decision to deny him a security clearance was baseless. As a result of the CIA’s actions he lost out on several employment opportunities. Then suddenly, without warning or even having a hearing, the decision was reversed. Given the allegations and the experiences of experts in dealing with the CIA’s security clearance process, this was virtually an unprecedented development. The reversal of an unfavorable CIA security clearance decision is extremely rare (likely less than 10%) and most cases take 2-3 years until resolution.

“The CIA’s treatment of John Sullivan, a former employee who dared speak out, is indicative of a pattern and practice by the CIA of unlawful and disgraceful retaliation through the abuse of the security clearance process,” said Mark S. Zaid, Esq., a Washington, D.C. attorney handling the case and who frequently represents former/current U.S. Intelligence Officers. Zaid added that the timing of the CIA’s security actions against Sullivan, especially in light of the questioning he received concerning his book, is very suspicious.

Sullivan’s book Gatekeeper, as described by the publisher, offers “a window to the often acrimonious and sometimes alarming internal politics of the CIA: the turf wars over resources, personnel, and mandate; the slow implementation of quality control; the aversion to risk-taking; and the overzealous pursuit of disqualifying information.” This was not the first time the CIA’s Polygraph Division was upset with Sullivan. He is also the author of Of Spies and Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam.[3]

The CIA also recently demonstrated the disingenuous of its classification process when it refused to review a voluntary submission of Sullivan’s lawsuit for classified information because his counsel had not executed a non-disclosure/secrecy agreement that would have mandated prior review. Instead, the Agency decided to risk exposure of classified information, although none is in the Complaint, and threaten to discipline Sullivan for violating his secrecy obligation. In a letter sent to the CIA’s Office of General Counsel on April 4, 2007, Mr. Zaid criticized the Agency by noting that this “conduct discredits any professionalism or credibility the Agency otherwise desires to display, whether publicly or privately.”


[2]Former CIA Polygrapher Who Wrote Critical Book Files Lawsuit Against Agency for Retaliation, CIA used security clearance process in order to stifle First Amendment rights” FAS (April 5, 2007)

[3] Sullivan, John F. (2002). Of Spies And Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas

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