- By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lie detectors may work in some
cases, but they are too flawed to use for general security
screening and could let through skilled spies, an independent
panel said on Tuesday.
Not only do polygraphs cost many honest people a government
job, but there are spies and criminals who probably know how to
deceive them, said the National Academy of Sciences panel,
appointed at the request of the Department of Energy.
"Someone who passes a polygraph is often treated as if he
were no longer a security threat," Kevin Murphy, a professor of
psychology at Pennsylvania State University, told a news
conference. "We believe that is not justified."
"It means that if there were spies or major violators in
their organization, they are not catching them," added Stephen
Fienberg, chairman of the committee and a professor of
statistics and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University
in Pittsburgh. "This is clearly a problem for national
The skill or technique of the questioner, and the equipment
used, makes no difference, the report concluded.
"We stress that no spy has been caught yet using a
polygraph," said Kathryn Laskey, an associate professor of
systems engineering and operations research at George Mason
University in Virginia.
The academy committee, made up of lawyers, psychologists,
engineers and other professionals who had no experience with
polygraphs, spent a year and a half studying the issue. They
interviewed polygraph experts at the FBI, CIA and National
Security Agency, as well as at the Energy Department, and
reviewed previous studies.
MYSTIQUE SURROUNDING POLYGRAPHS
It is clear that agencies rely heavily upon them.
"The U.S. federal government, through a variety of
agencies, carries out thousands of polygraph tests each year on
job applicants and current employees, and there are inevitable
disputes that are sometimes highly publicized when someone
'fails' a polygraph test," the panel wrote.
"The polygraph seems to have received undue deference,"
He said people believe having to pass a polygraph test acts
as a deterrent to would-be criminals and spies, and the
committee could not say whether this was indeed the case.
Murphy said thousands of people had likely been turned down
for government jobs for flunking a polygraph test -- tens of
thousands when local police and law enforcement departments
"Certainly many are turned away erroneously," Fienberg
David Faigman, a law professor at the University of
California San Francisco, said the report did not look into
whether polygraphs were good at detecting criminals. But he
noted courts were skeptical of lie detector tests, anyway.
On a case-by-case basis, they may work, Faigman said. But
the panel said something better was clearly needed.
Radiologist Dr. Marcus Raichle of Washington University in
St. Louis, Missouri, said none of the alternatives looked at by
the committee, ranging from brain scans to temperature sensors,
were "ready for prime time."
The government seems to have done little to find a better
alternative, the committee said. "We are talking about a need
for systematic research over a number of years," Fienberg said.
A spokesman for the Energy Department was not available for
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