Last Friday morning, President Barack Obama visited Annapolis to address roughly 1,000 Naval Academy midshipmen. Then he took his seat with other VIPs and the thousands in attendance and watched as the midshipmen, decked out in their pristine dress whites, graduated and took their oaths as commissioned officers. Every year, the event is magnificent.
With a ceremony of such grandeur, it should come as no surprise that, in their previous four years, the midshipmen were held to the highest standards of performance and conduct. As students at the Academy, midshipmen are subjects in an ongoing screening process to determine their fitness to lead as officers; throughout the process, a premium is placed on integrity. We should embrace this; after all, the taxpayers who foot the bill (for the school and the ceremony) deserve a strong return on their investment.
What might surprise you is one method by which the Naval Academy screens its midshipmen — and the perverse message this method sends to our future Navy and Marine Corps officers.
The life of midshipmen can be described as a four-year tryout. The Navy has countless "teams" — cryptologists, submariners, pilots, SEALs — and every Academy student is eventually selected by one of them. Some of the more exclusive teams, available to only the best students, require a top secret security clearance (nuclear submariner is one example). This means another round of tryouts — specifically, a polygraph examination. In that exam, which is used to evaluate an applicant's suitability to handle classified information, midshipmen are asked about past misconduct. If, by answering truthfully, they reveal misconduct that occurred while enrolled at the Academy, their admission can be used against them. In some cases it amounts to a ticket home.
Here's how it happens. A senior ranked in the top 5 percent in his class, both academically and in the more important "overall order of merit," qualifies for a top-flight job. So he shows up for his final tryout. There, he's asked a broad question about past drug use. He's been drilled for four years to be honest, so he responds that while back home after his freshmen year he tried marijuana. Academy leaders would commend his honesty — and then swiftly kick him out of the Academy for violating the Navy's "zero tolerance" policy on drug use. In almost every case, he'll get charged for the schooling he never completes. And this occurs almost every year. (Case specifics can't be discussed because of Privacy Act concerns.)
Some might say, "So what?" The Navy's zero tolerance policy is made explicit to midshipmen — and indeed all sailors and Marines — from the day they enter the service. Moreover, the use of polygraph screenings and their questions about drug use are perfectly legal, despite the "Catch-22" feel to it all.
They have a point. But there are dangerous side effects to this form of screening, the first manifestations of which are fair questions midshipmen invariably ask, such as: What about the mediocre student who never qualified for the exam and is therefore never asked the question? What about the student who qualified for the exam but, for fear of the zero tolerance policy, lied during it to keep the past buried? These questions were answered Friday; neither type of student is likely to receive the exclusive job, but both walked across the stage and took their oaths.
These considerations raise a larger question of utility: After almost four years of testing and screening, just how helpful is a broad question about past drug use when that question has the unintended consequence of encouraging mediocrity — or, worse, dishonesty?
At least one high-profile visitor to the Academy might conclude that it isn't. In January, Louis Freeh, former federal judge and FBI director (and Penn State scandal investigator) addressed midshipmen as keynote speaker at the Academy's annual Leadership Conference. He spoke of his first days as FBI director, when he learned of the FBI's hiring policy for those who earlier in their lives experimented with drugs. When his deputies informed him that past drug use was an absolute bar to hiring — and that applicants are asked about such use — the newly appointed director turned the question around on them.
"I looked at them and I said, 'Well, have any of you ever smoked marijuana?'" To his stunned deputies, he pressed further: "So we assume, don't we, that many of [our applicants] have smoked a joint at one point or another. But if they disclose [their drug use] we don't hire them. ... So we have a great policy here: The first act of application to be an FBI agent, in many cases, has to be predicated by a lie.'"
"I don't think that's a good policy. So I changed the policy."