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Reuters Health Newswire
November 2, 2000

Lie Detector Rules Scientifically Unsound

By Merritt McKinney

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Congress's decision to require certain Department of Energy (DOE) employees and contractors to undergo lie detector tests is based on bad science, a Washington, DC, scientist contends.

Even though the move was intended to beef up security at government weapons laboratories after Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of espionage, the decision to use lie detector tests, or polygraphs, on employees actually may have reduced security at the labs, according to Dr. Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists.

"This is a case where politics have outstripped science and Congress has imposed new polygraph tests on thousands of people--thousands of Department of Energy employees and contractors--without stopping to consider the consequences of that policy," Aftergood told Reuters Health.

In the interview, Aftergood called into question the accuracy of polygraph tests. He said that there is no one physiological measure that can detect whether or not a person is lying. Some people will have an extra heartbeat when they lie, while others may have an extra heartbeat when they tell the truth under pressure, he said.

"There's something fraudulent about the procedure," according to Aftergood.

In a report in the November 3rd issue of the journal Science, he points out that Aldrich Ames, a CIA employee who spied for the Soviet Union, passed polygraph testing. And in the case of Wen Ho Lee, a DOE security contractor concluded that the scientist was telling the truth during a polygraph test, while the FBI reached the opposite conclusion when they analyzed the results of the same test.

Rather than implementing polygraph testing, the government should take measures that have been shown to improve security, according to Aftergood. "In a lot of places, the government has been slow to adopt even the security measures that are readily available," he said.

Besides improving "cyber security" by encrypting sensitive information, the government should also take steps to make sure that computers that contain classified information block the downloading of this information onto floppy disks, he said. Aftergood also noted that government laboratories should reevaluate their system of classifying information, perhaps declassifying some materials while upgrading others to a higher level of classification, which would limit access, he explained.

According to Aftergood, the policy has damaged morale at government laboratories, and may in fact deter qualified scientists from taking government jobs.

"What we're seeing is a groundswell of resistance among scientists to this procedure because there is no valid foundation to it," he said.

Aftergood noted that the polygraph policy "makes the laboratories more and more unattractive to the new young scientists they so desperately need."

SOURCE: Science 2000; 290:939-940.

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