DOE weighs random polygraph tests for employees

The Energy Department is considering administering random polygraph tests to some personnel as part of new counterintelligence regulations proposed this month.

Those who could be subject to the random tests include personnel with access to classified nuclear weapons-related information, according to a notice published Jan. 7 in the Federal Register.

One of the main goals of the random tests is "deterrence" against "damaging disclosures" by employees whose level of access to sensitive information did not warrant mandatory polygraph testing, the department said.

Noting that the number of workers expected to be subject to random tests is "small," the Energy Department said it plans to create a random test program that would be applied to the "minimum" number of people while still serving the deterrence goal.

The proposed regulations would also result in a dramatic reduction in the number of employees who would be subject to mandatory screening, from potentially 20,000 to about 4,500, according to the Energy Department. The reduction would be achieved, the department said, by the narrowing the range of information that would require mandatory screening prior to being accessed.

The Energy Department first began polygraph testing in the wake of the 1999 Wen Ho Lee controversy, which involved a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist accused of mishandling nuclear weapons codes. In late 2001, though, Congress ordered the department to create new polygraph regulations, taking into account the results of a study being conducted at the time by the National Academy of Sciences.

That study, released in 2002, said polygraph tests were ineffective as a screening tool for potential security risks, warning of both "false positive" and "false negative" results.

"Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice," the study found. "Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies."

Opposition to polygraph testing has been greater at the U.S. national laboratories than in any other government sector, according to Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. Scientists at the laboratories, he said yesterday, view polygraph tests as "idiotic, unfounded and degrading."

In its notice, the Energy Department said that polygraph testing is intended as a possible "trigger," the result of which could lead to further investigation of potential security risks posed by an employee. As a result, the department said, the proposed regulations would maintain policies against taking "adverse" action or limiting information access based solely on polygraph results.

"In every case of an adverse personnel action, it is DOE policy that such an action or decision is based on other information as well," the notice says.

The proposed regulations would also provide for the creation of a review board, convened by the agency's director of the counterintelligence office, to consider the results of positive evaluations.

Aftergood said the proposed regulations are "a big step in the right direction," as they acknowledge concerns over problems with polygraph testing.

The Energy Department plans to accept public comment on the proposed regulations until March 8, after which final regulations will be released.

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