DOE lie-detector tests for employees criticized

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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.