Home Page > Reading Room

Dr. Alan P. Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, sent the following letter to Senator Richard Shelby, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, regarding the Senator's insertion of language into the Fiscal Year 2001 Defense Authorization Act vastly expanding polygraph "testing" in the Department of Energy. Senator Shelby did not reply.

By Fax Transmission to: (202) 224-3416

November 6, 2000

The Honorable Richard Shelby
United States Senate
110 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

RE: Unwarranted expansion of the scope of counterintelligence polygraph testing through the addition of Subsection (c)(1) to FY01 Defense Authorization Act, Section 3135

Dear Senator Shelby:

I am writing to register my grave concern over the inclusion of a provision, in the FY01 Defense Authorization Bill, that will massively increase the scope of polygraph testing at the nuclear weapons National Laboratories. It is my understanding, and that of Gen. John Gordon, Director of the Nuclear National Security Agency at DOE, Senator Domenici's office, the office of Representative Heather Wilson, and the entire senior management of Sandia National Laboratories, that the disturbing new polygraph testing provision was introduced and advanced by your office.

Though I am a Senior Scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, working in the Center for National Security and Arms Control, please be advised that this communication is made solely on my personal behalf, and in my capacity as a private citizen, enlightened by training in medicine and physics, who is deeply troubled by the extremely harmful public consequences that shall inevitably flow from the new legislation's promotion of polygraphy as a counterintelligence tool.

The FY01 Defense Authorization Bill (DAB) was originally reported by the respective Armed Services Committees (Committee Reports S.106-292 and H.06-616) of both houses, and then approved, without expansion of counterintelligence polygraph testing at DOE's National Laboratories. The Bill's Conference Report (106-945), however, included the provision originating from your office that greatly increases the scope of polygraphy at the Laboratories. In particular, Subsection (c)(1) of Section 3135 of DAB effectuates a new statutory requirement according to which the personnel of "programs using information known as Sensitive Compartmented Information" will now be subjected to testing.

This new, and late-added, polygraph testing requirement will subject approximately 5,000 individuals across the DOE complex to what is a highly specious counterintelligence methodology. The new requirement will, undoubtedly, yield a great number of "false-positive" test results, which will have devastatingly adverse effects on test subjects, while also directly disserving the fundamental objectives of counterintelligence and national security.

Numerous papers appearing in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and published under the auspices of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), have confirmed the almost complete inability of the Counter-Intelligence Polygraph (also known as the Control Question Test polygraph, or CQT) to identify spies, and the role of the CQT in derailing promising scientific careers. The OTA review of polygraphy, which evaluates counterintelligence polygraphy procedures still actively in use today, is the most comprehensive scientific review of counterintelligence polygraphy published to date, and includes contributions from U.S. Government intelligence agencies and independent scientific publications. The OTA report concludes:

In 1965 and again in 1976, the House Government Operations Committee concluded that there was not adequate evidence to establish the validity of the polygraph. OTA has assessed the research to determine the present state of scientific evidence, [and] OTA [has] concluded that no overall measure or single, simple judgment of polygraph testing validity can be established based on available scientific evidence. Validity is the extent to which polygraph testing can accurately detect truthfulness and deception. (pg. 4)

A 1980 survey conducted by the Director of Central Intelligence Security Committee concluded that the polygraph was the most productive of all background investigation techniques. However, this was a utility study not a validity study, and had many qualifications. OTA recognizes that NSA and CIA believe that the polygraph is a useful screening tool. However, OTA concluded that the available research evidence does not establish the scientific validity of the polygraph for this purpose. In addition, there is a legitimate concern that the use of polygraph tests for personnel security screening may be especially susceptible to: 1) countermeasures by persons trained to use physical movement, drugs, or other techniques to avoid detection as deceptive; and 2) false positive errors where innocent persons are incorrectly identified as deceptive. (pg. 5)

Advocates of polygraph testing argue that thousands of polygraphs have been conducted which substantiate its usefulness in criminal or screening situations÷ However, there is very little research or scientific evidence to establish polygraph test validity in large-scale screening as part of unauthorized disclosure investigations, or in personnel security screening situations, whether they be pre-employment, pre-clearance, periodic or aperiodic, random, or "dragnet. " (pg 7).

The American Psychological Association (APA), moreover, has summarized the consensus of psychology professionals on the question of the validity of the CQT as follows:

"[Psychologist] respondents to ÷ our surveys do not accept the accuracy claims of the polygraph community. Three-fourths of the Society for Psychophysiologic Research members thought it unlikely that the validity of the CQT could be as high as 85%, and the APA Fellows estimated its average validity at about 61% (vs. 50% accuracy reflecting chance). They do not believe CQT results should be admitted as evidence in court. ÷ APA Fellows indicated that they believe both criminals and they themselves could learn countermeasures to defeat the CQT÷which they characterize as neither standardized nor objective."

Personnel at the National Labs are quite familiar with the research that has discredited the validity of the CQT. Accordingly, any trend in the direction of widening the scope of CQT polygraphy at the Labs is justifiably a source of enormous frustration, and even anxiety, for these already under-appreciated professionals. In a recent review of the effectiveness of the new security infrastructure at the Labs, and of the problems associated therewith, Sandia Vice-President Lynn Jones recently noted that staff felt that the single most destructive new measure has been polygraph testing. Lab employees describe the tests as "insulting," "counter-productive," and "wasteful." One Lab employee has even noted that "if one wanted to conspire to destroy the labs, the best way to do so is by using screening polygraphs to Žprove' the loyalty of Lab staff."

Up to now, you have distinguished yourself as a champion of the interests of the scientists who so often make enormous sacrifices in order to enter the ranks of the National Labs. As recently as June 21, 2000, on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, you revealed a sophisticated understanding of the inextricable link between national security and protection of the rights of National Lab scientists, when you participated in the following exchange:

GWEN IFILL: Senator Shelby, Secretary Richardson has said in answer to questions that he's trying to find the right balance between science and security. What is that balance?

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, that's a good question. What is the balance between science and security? We have to have science to continue to improve our weapons systems. We've got to have some of the best and the brightest that we can get in the U.S. and around the world that will work at these labs and continue, but at the same time, we cannot ever overlook security because it goes to the vital security needs of this nation.

It therefore came as a most unpleasant surprise that it was your office that inserted the new polygraph testing provision into the Authorization Bill. Especially disturbing was the fact that your office's introduction of the new provision at the closing stage of drafting represented by Conference Committee review virtually foreclosed all possibility of meaningful debate and discussion regarding the legal and policy implications of extending CQT requirements to new classes of personnel.

While it is perplexing that you should initiate an expansion of polygraph testing at the Labs, with what I believe is a full awareness of the demoralizing and career-damaging effects this will have on large numbers of personnel, it is also puzzling that you have seemed willing, through this initiative, to give the appearance that you may be unaware of the overwhelming body of evidence refuting the scientific validity of the CQT, and demonstrating the CQT's counterproductive effects on national security. Those of us who have come to admire your work as a very senior Senator, and as Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, cannot help but question whether, in all this, you may have allowed your own best judgment to be overridden by the self-serving arguments of polygraphers based in the Agencies that your committee oversees, who have been known to pad their own careers and paychecks by pushing for an expanded use of their arbitrary testing tool.

Already the National Labs are experiencing an exodus of the very "best and brightest" you have previously sought to protect, and every Lab director will tell you that their problems with recruiting (perennially difficult in the era of the rise of Silicon Valley) have become ever more problematic since the implementation of last year's relatively limited polygraph program. Among the ranks of National Lab scientists, now beset with broader testing requirements, cynicism is already flourishing, and careers are being ruined. While it is too late to reverse the particular damage done in the current legislative session, it is not too late to begin an effort aimed at fostering a robust security environment through genuinely effective means. A public acknowledgment of your responsibility for changing the Defense Authorization Bill in Conference (perhaps, initially, in the context of an interview given to one of the Capitol Hill news organs), and a formal pledge to seek removal of the expanded requirement for polygraphy in the next Session of Congress, would be excellent harbingers of such an effort, and would, at the same time, help to restore your office's credibility within the National Laboratories.

I would be delighted if, in the coming weeks, I might hear from your office that you are willing to undertake these measures, or, at least, to confer with me and other concerned parties about ways in which the current situation may be remedied. In meantime, I thank you for your attention, and offer you any assistance that I am able legitimately to provide in this direction.

Respectfully Yours,


Alan P. Zelicoff, MD
801 Morningside Dr. NE
Albuquerque, NM 87110 Home Page > Reading Room