Albuquerque JournalThe Department of Energy intends to sink almost a million dollars into an upcoming study to determine -- once and for all -- how well widespread lie detector tests work in preventing espionage.
December 5, 2000
$860,000 DOE Study to Evaluate PolygraphsBy Jennifer McKee, Journal Staff Writer
"While we must take the utmost precaution in protecting the nation's secrets with all prudent measures at our disposal, we must also protect the science at our national labs as well as the scientists who work there," said Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson in a prepared statement Monday. "The employees deserve reasonable assurance that the polygraph tests to which they are subject provide accurate results."
The DOE requested the study, which will be conducted over the next 18 months by the National Academy of Sciences at a cost of $860,000, according to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Bingaman suggested a similar study last year, said Jude McCartin, a spokesperson for the senator, and has questioned the validity of polygraphing in the past.
Polygraph tests work by measuring a variety of bodily responses — such as sweaty fingers or quickened breathing — under the assumption that the stress of lying can be measured, according to a recent article in Science Magazine by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.
The tests have come under fire recently, Aftergood said, especially among scientists who say results vary widely depending on who's interpreting the test.
At Congress' request, the Energy Department stepped up its policy of lie detector tests this year for employees who work with secret information. Congress expanded the program for next year, asking for about 20,000 DOE employees to be polygraphed, up from 14,000 the year before.
That policy could translate into thousands of polygraphs at Los Alamos National Lab, said lab spokesman Jim Danneskiold, although tighter estimates are not available and the actual number of tested employees could be much lower than that.
The policy has never been very popular.
"It has become a source of resentment among employees," Aftergood said. "It's intrinsically undignified. The message of the polygraph is, 'We don't believe you, but we believe your physiological responses.'"
Richardson vowed almost a year ago to roll back some of the tests Congress requested. He also alluded to the newly announced study last December.
Also last year, roughly half the employees at Los Alamos' weapons design division signed a petition asking for the DOE to scrap the policy.
"Lab director John Browne is well aware of employee concerns about the validity of polygraphs and welcomes the study," Danneskiold said.
But DOE doesn't write the rules on polygraph testing. Congress does, and that may be one reason behind the study.
"I think the DOE officials would like to see the polygraph legislation repealed or significantly reduced," Aftergood said. "A National Academy study that casts doubt on the validity of polygraph testing will give DOE some political leverage with Congress, and that's what it really boils down to."
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