FBI steps up lie-detector tests in wake of spy case

The FBI will require employees to take lie-detector tests more frequently in response to allegations that a senior counterintelligence agent spied for Moscow for 15 years. At a press conference last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he and FBI Director Louis Freeh have agreed to step up polygraph tests of bureau agents as a security measure in the wake of the Robert Hanssen spy case. "The [FBI] director and I have agreed that, because of ... the very important consequences of breaches, we should elevate the use of polygraph in certain cases, as it relates to the bureau," said Ashcroft. The FBI already gives polygraph tests to all job applicants and requires additional tests when agents receive higher security clearances. Neither Ashcroft nor Justice Department officials would say when additional polygraph tests would be administered under the new policy. Ashcroft also said that the FBI would change the way it audits access to classified information to catch workers who improperly seek data. He described both this and the expansion of polygraph testing as interim steps that will be studied by William Webster, the former CIA and FBI director who is conducting an independent review of bureau security. The Energy Department dramatically scaled back plans to require lie-detector tests of workers at nuclear weapons labs last year because of controversies over the tests accuracy and necessity. Ashcroft admitted that polygraph tests do sometimes produce false results and that they have an effect on the culture of an agency. Polygraph testing is in error about 15 percent of the time, Ashcroft said. Ashcroft added that the polygraph is not a foolproof method for catching spies. Although experts have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of lie-detector tests, employees at other federal agencies--including the CIA and Secret Service--are required to take frequent polygraph tests. Hanssen avoided taking an FBI lie-detector test when he accepted a transfer to the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions in 1995. The State Department does not require employees to take polygraph tests as a condition of getting access to classified information.
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