Nuclear labs to continue giving workers polygraphs
Union wants screening process to end now after recent study shows tests as unreliable
By Ian Hoffman

Hundreds of nuclear weapons scientists and intelligence analysts will still be strapped to the polygraph machine for the time being, despite a recent report concluding that polygraphs miss spies and tar the innocent as security risks.

The U.S. Energy Department is racing to change its routine polygraph screening program before a six-month congressional deadline, but its lawyers argue that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is legally barred from suspending the controversial lie-detector tests until a new program is in place, according to an internal memo issued Wednesday.

"We are committed to moving rapidly on this issue but, until the secretary issues new regulations, we are obligated by law to continue the present program," wrote Linton F. Brooks, acting chief of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos weapons labs.

More than 750 Sandia and Livermore employees in California who handle plutonium or nuclear weapons or have access to human intelligence face polygraph tests this year.

A Livermore union, the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers, had written Brooks urging suspension of the tests after a panel of national experts found that polygraphs were based on poor science and too unreliable to justify such heavy use by federal national-security agencies to screen their workers.

The National Research Council, an arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, found that polygraphs -- especially the ones used by the Energy Department -- will unavoidably "pass" real spies but fail honest workers, tarring their careers and reputations.

"We want polygraph testing to end now," said SPSE union president and Livermore physicist Jeff Colvin. The Energy Department reported that first round of lab polygraphs produced 20 percent false positives -- one in five employees tested was improperly deemed deceptive, he noted.

"So keeping this program in its present form will just continue to result in a high false-positive rate and a continuing demoralization of the work force here," Colvin said.

Given Brooks' memo, the union now will ask Congress to scrap the law requiring polygraphs. "We're going to follow up our letter with visits to (Democratic congresswoman) Ellen Tauscher and others to address this issue," Colvin said.

Stephen Fienberg, the statistics professor who headed the NRC polygraph panel, said no one really expected the federal government to drop lie-detector tests overnight, in part because no proven substitute exists. Flatly put, no technique or machine, polygraph included, can reliably tell truth from lies.

"There isn't an alternative sitting there, waiting in the wings for use, that our committee was prepared to endorse or recommend," Fienberg said.

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