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October 09, 2002

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Panel questions polygraph reliablity

2002-10-09
By Ben Finley
Knight Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Polygraph tests are intrinsically unreliable when used to screen tens of thousands of federal employees for security breaches, a prestigious National Research Council panel concluded in a study released Tuesday.

There are no alternatives to the tests, according to the panelists who examined the polygraph's utility for the Department of Energy, which operates federal nuclear and weapons research facilities nationwide.

"This is a problem for national security and clearly a problem for the DOE," said Kevin Murphy, a panelist from Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.

Thousands of federal employees at the Department of Energy, the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency and other government facilities face regular polygraph screening.

The study involved only the polygraph's use as a general screening device for large populations. When focused on a specific crime or unique facts or events, it probably is more reliable, panelists said.

The problem, they said, is that polygraph tests, which measure and record distinctive variations in cardiovascular, respiratory and skin-surface conductivity that suggest deception, produce a lot of false-positive results.

That's because test responses viewed as deceptive can have other causes, such as stress and exertion, said Stephen Feinberg, a professor of statistics and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who chaired the polygraph investigation panel.


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