The Washington Times|
Agency uses polygraph despite shortcomings
Published April 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 News World Communications, Inc. All rights
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
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
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
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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