The Buzz

Polygraphs Passé

In 1985, saying he was "up to my keister in leaks," President Ronald Reagan floated a plan to give all his Cabinet members lie detector tests. Secretary of State George Schultz threatened to resign, saying, "Management through fear and intimidation is not the way to promote honesty and protect security." Cabinet members weren't tested.

On Sept. 29, the Energy Department issued a new rule it says will reduce the number of individuals taking a polygraph exam. The department decided to eliminate such testing "for general screening of applicants for employment and incumbent employees without specific cause."

The polygraph has proved to be a questionable indicator. Aldrich Ames, who sold out to the Russians in the mid-1980s for nearly $3 million, betraying 30 CIA agents-10 of whom were killed-clearly beat the lie detector more than once.

Ames drips disdain for the instrument. He wrote to Stephen Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists responding to Aftergood's essay about polygraphs in the November 2000 issue of Science magazine. "Its most obvious use is as a coercive aid to interrogators, lying somewhere on the scale between the rubber truncheon and the diploma on the wall behind the interrogator's desk," Ames wrote.

In a 2003 report, "The Polygraph and Lie Detection," the National Academy of Sciences was no more laudatory. "The polygraph as currently used has extremely serious limitations," it found. The report noted the danger of incorrectly implicating innocent staffers and suggested that testing would lower morale and productivity and deter people with scarce and valuable skills from working in organizations that use it.

Risky Business

Homeland Security Department buying is ballooning, up from $9.8 billion in 2004 to $17.5 billion in 2005. Though most money is spent through DHS contracts, the proportion of procurement through interagency contracts is booming, too, doubling in just a year. In September, the Government Accountability Office warned DHS to better plan and assess the outcomes of interagency contracting.

Homeland Security Contracting
2004 2005
DHS contracts $6 billion $11 billion
Interagency agreements $3 billion $5 billion
Interagency contracts, GSA schedules, *GWACs $778 million $1.5 billion

* Governmentwide acquisition contracts

2005 Interagency contracts, GSA schedules, *GWACs
Customs and Border Protection $341
Office of Procurement Operations 280
Federal Emergency Management Agency 255
Immigration and Customs Enforcement 254
Coast Guard 211
Transportation Security Administration 82
Secret Service 31
Federal Law Enforcement Training Center 17

Source: Government Accountability Office (GAO-06-996)

Lock Down Your Laptops

In the words of famous cartoon opossum Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. It's not hackers who are endangering sensitive personal information held by the government, it's careless employees.

When agencies imperil information, a laptop computer often is involved. Laptops fall off motorcycles, are stolen from cars and offices and walk off with temporary workers, according to an Oct. 13 report by the House Government Reform Committee.

The committee reviewed security breaches in response to the May 2006 Veterans Affairs Department data loss, in which a laptop containing information for about 26.5 million veterans and active-duty military members was stolen from the home of a VA employee. It later was recovered.

More than a dozen agencies have since revealed security breaches. On July 10, the committee asked agencies to provide details about every incident since 2003 involving the loss or compromise of information they or their contractors held. The report details nearly 50 incidents. Agencies' responses varied-some notified all affected individuals and others made no notification.

A bill proposed by House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., would require agencies to notify the public if personal information was compromised. It passed the House and awaits Senate action.

By the Numbers
1,137 Laptop computers reported lost or stolen since 2001 by the Commerce Department
214 Laptops belonging to Census Bureau lost, stolen or misplaced since Jan. 1, 2003
30,000 The number of applicants, recruiters and prospects whose personal data was lost when a laptop fell off the motorcycle of a Navy recruiter in August 2006
-Daniel Pulliam contributed to this story.
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