By Sue Vorenberg
A new study saying polygraph tests are not accurate enough to screen government employees for potential security risks doesn't surprise Al Zelicoff.
But it doesn't go far enough for him, either.
Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories and a leading critic of polygraph tests, said Congress should change a law requiring the tests.
"The polygraph itself is not only worthless, it creates a climate of fear and paranoia," Zelicoff said. "That can't be good for national security."
The National Research Council released its study of polygraph testing Tuesday.
"Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies," the study said.
National laboratories, including Los Alamos and Sandia, have used polygraphs for workers in sensitive positions since the polygraph was created. In 1999, Congress mandated that the Department of Energy start using them in routine security checks. And that was when it all went wrong, Zelicoff said.
"The polygraph is a ruse designed to provide an excuse to conduct a wide-ranging inquisition under unpleasant psychological conditions," he said. "It gets worse: `You're lying to me.' `You're too immature to have a security clearance.' `I don't think I can help you anymore.' Those are real statements that have been made to Sandians in the past year. Does that qualify as harassment in the workplace? If it doesn't have any value, it does. That's what the NRC just said."
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Silver City Democrat, asked the National Research Council to study polygraph testing after Congress mandated its use. Both Bingaman and Sen. Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, have voiced concern that the policy would damage morale at the labs - and both called Tuesday for the DOE to change its policy.
"Polygraph tests may have a role to play in law enforcement, but they don't work as a screening tool for our national laboratories," Bingaman said. "In the panic to protect classified information, Congress rushed to implement a policy that had the effect of treating prospective lab employees as suspects. From a practical standpoint, this policy never made sense to me. Now we have scientific evidence that it doesn't work."
Zelicoff called the NRC report "the clearest statement about a scientific issue I've ever seen the NRC make about anything." But he added that a lot of damage has already been done by the machines.
"This is a vindication of science," Zelicoff said. "It's not a victory for the people that have suffered. This has been terrible for the labs."
Zelicoff said he hopes the labs will use the report as a starting point to create a quality assurance program for polygraphs if Congress decides to do away with its mandate that DOE use them.
Quality assurance would force polygraph testers to only ask the four security questions they are mandated to ask and nothing more, he said.
"They have to ask things like `Have you ever spied for a foreign agency?' `Have you revealed confidential information to someone who didn't need to know?'" he said. "But most of the time they use that as an excuse to go off the polygraph and go on a fishing expedition. That has no value whatsoever."
Instead of using the polygraph tests, Zelicoff suggests switching back to having guards check backpacks and briefcases of lab employees working in technical areas, which he said was the policy before 1994.
"How about hiring one guard at each of the six national labs to look in those briefcases? We lost that," he said. "Let's hire those guards and make sure background investigations are done. There is no justification for any federal agency to do polygraphs at any time."