Hundreds of Energy Department employees and several prominent scientists say a new policy requiring employees of the nation's nuclear weapons complex to submit to lie-detector tests is a misguided approach that could damage, rather than protect, national security.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson issued an order Aug. 18 requiring several thousand employees at the labs to submit to polygraph examinations. DOE is slated to review the new policy Wednesday at a hearing at the department's Washington headquarters.
More than 300 nuclear weapons designers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site of an alleged Chinese espionage scandal, have signed a petition that opposes the tests on the grounds that polygraph examinations are unreliable. And nearly all scientists that have spoken on polygraphs at a series of national hearings have been critical of the idea.
The widespread use of lie-detector tests could have an unintended consequence-the inability of DOE to retain its technological expertise, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, in testimony prepared for Wednesday's hearing.
"If the polygraph requirement significantly diminishes the ability of the labs to retain and attract employees, then the department will have caused what no foreign adversary and no spy has ever been able to accomplish-the weakening of the national security technology base," he said.
Aftergood said recent studies show that polygraph tests fail to stem unauthorized disclosures of classified information. The CIA and the FBI have sought alternatives to polygraph tests, given their potential unreliability, he said.
One problem is that spies are often taught how to pass lie-detector tests, creating what are known as "false negative" results. "There is nothing to prevent a practiced deceiver from passing a polygraph examination," Aftergood said.
The potential for both false negative and false positive results-when truthful people are identified as liars-will create an environment of fear and distrust at the weapons complex, employees allege.
"Why don't we start a 'false negative' optional training course for employees? That way we can continue as we have been without endangering employees' careers and thumb our noses at Congress for their doubt," one employee wrote in a message posted to a Los Alamos employee electronic bulletin board recently.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the recent media attention to DOE security would make it difficult to clear an employee who has failed a test. "The person and DOE would be in the unenviable position of having to prove a negative to a skeptical press and a partisan Congress. This is not a fair spot to put someone in," Bingaman said.
DOE officials acknowledge that polygraph tests have limited use. "The polygraph alone can not determine a person's guilt or innocence. This is one of the reasons why polygraphs are not accepted in courts of law," Los Alamos director John Browne wrote in response to employee questions about the proposed regulations.
The DOE polygraph test, department officials note, will ask only four questions, covering espionage, sabotage, disclosure of sensitive material and unauthorized contact with foreign agents. Any employee who fails the polygraph test will be the subject of a more thorough investigation to determine whether he or she should be returned to his or her job, laid off or prevented from dealing with classified information, Browne said.
Aftergood argued that inconsistent application of the polygraph rule across government casts doubt on its usefulness as a security policy. Members of congressional oversight committee staffs are not required to take lie-detector tests, despite their access to nuclear weapons information. In addition, he noted, the State Department and the National Security Council do not have a polygraph requirement.
Richardson did, however, did submit to the DOE polygraph test on September 14, with no reported problems.