The Washington Times

Agency uses polygraph despite shortcomings

Published April 15, 2003

     The Energy Department decided yesterday to continue using polygraph tests to protect the nation's nuclear-arms stockpile, despite a scientific study that found severe shortcomings in the tests' accuracy.
     Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the department must use the best tools available to protect sensitive information about the stockpile. Critics said the department is making a mistake by ignoring recommendations of the study of polygraph effectiveness conducted six months ago at the urging of Congress.
     "Basically they've ignored the evidence," said Stephen Fienberg of Carnegie Mellon University, who was chairman of the National Academy of Sciences study.
     A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, said the Energy Department's response to the National Academy of Sciences is a "surprising and disappointing result" that is hard to understand.
     The Energy Department imposed polygraph requirements on employees several years ago in the aftermath of the Wen Ho Lee spy situation at the department's nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. Many scientists at department labs objected that the tests were inherently inaccurate, which prompted congressional inquiries and the scientific review.
     Congress ordered the Energy Department to take the study's findings into account.
     In a proposed rule, however, the department says that retaining the program is well-suited to fulfilling national security needs.
     The scientific review led by Mr. Fienberg concluded that federal agencies should not rely on polygraphs to screen workers and job applicants because the machines are too inaccurate.
     The likelihood of ignoring a spy because he passed a polygraph test is so high that relying on the tests is probably a greater danger to national security than discarding them, Mr. Fienberg said in response to the proposed Energy Department rule.
     "It's bureaucratic impudence," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. "Energy said, 'We'll replace the existing policy with precisely the same policy.' "
     By refusing to change, Mr. Abraham is expressing unwillingness to make life difficult for intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, which made the mistake long ago of using polygraphs as their primary counterintelligence tool, said Dr. Alan Zelicoff, senior scientist in the Center for National Security and Arms Control at Sandia National Laboratory.
     Dr. Zelicoff, whose laboratory is covered by the Energy Department policy, said the careers of some scientists have been ruined because of false positive results on polygraph tests.
     In justifying keeping the polygraph program as it is, the Energy Department pointed to language in the scientific study about use of polygraphs as a trigger for detailed follow-up investigations.
     Mr. Abraham said the polygraph is not used on a "stand-alone basis but as part of a larger fabric of investigative and analytical reviews."
     The Energy Department's position follows a move by the Pentagon to expand its polygraph program. The Pentagon told Congress recently that it might seek authorization to conduct more than the allowed 5,000 polygraph exams per year.

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