Sean Reilly, of the Mobile Register Washington bureau reports. Excerpt:
WASHINGTON — As the FBI hunts the source of a news leak involving the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some members of Congress have agreed to undergo lie detector tests. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama isn’t one of them.
“The Senate, and I assume, the House, has always investigated their own,” Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, recently told the Associated Press, arguing that the tests would violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.
That nuanced argument doesn’t sit well with some scientists at the nation’s high-security nuclear weapons labs, who blame Shelby for bluntly forcing the controversial test on many of their colleagues after a furor over alleged Chinese espionage.
“He’s not only a hypocrite, he’s illogical,” said Dr. Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist and physician at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. If Congress can require lie-detector tests at executive branch departments, Zelicoff suggested Wednesday, why not the reverse?
The dispute in effect went national last week. In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Zelicoff accused Shelby of adding language to a defense bill two years ago that subjected 15,000 scientists to polygraph tests — with their security clearances on the line if they refused. The Mobile Register ran the column in Wednesday’s newspaper.
In an interview Wednesday, Zelicoff said his information came from congressional sources that he would not name.
In response, Shelby spokeswoman Andrea Andrews denied responsibility for the lie-detector language. Shelby’s sole action, she said, was to offer an amendment pertaining to waivers from the testing requirements. Andrews could not immediately say late in the afternoon whether Shelby supported the new, expanded requirements.
Whoever bears responsibility, the exchange underscores the unease that continues to surround lie-detector machines, also known as polygraphs. They operate on the principle that heart rate, perspiration and other physical responses are tell-tale signals of someone’s truthfulness.
The problem is that experience just doesn’t bear out that assumption, critics charge. Not only have some notorious spies succeeded in beating the machine, they say, but polygraphs sometimes mistakenly indicate that someone is lying.
“As long as even one person is being polygraphed, there’s a problem because it’s an unreliable device,” said Patrick Weidhaas, a long-time computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Several members of the U.S. Supreme Court summed up the debate in a 1998 decision.
“There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable,” they concluded. “To this day, the scientific community remains extremely polarized about the reliability of polygraph techniques.”