Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam reports. Excerpt:
Polygraph tests are ineffective in catching spies and have probably tarred thousands of innocent government employees and applicants with unwarranted suspicion, a top scientific panel has concluded.
While lie detectors may have some utility in criminal investigations, where subjects can be tested on specific questions about a crime, they tend to be unreliable in countering espionage, where large numbers of people are asked general questions about whether they have done anything wrong, the scientists said in a report.
“Too many loyal employees may be falsely judged as deceptive, or too many major security threats could go undetected,” the scientists said, warning against reliance on the tests.
The study was commissioned by the Department of Energy in the wake of controversy over the case of scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was wrongly accused of passing U.S. secrets to China. Lee was subjected to polygraph testing, and controversy has swirled around how the tests were administered.
Polygraph tests have long been controversial; they are largely rejected by the courts and most countries, the scientists said. Still, investigators use them routinely, in part because of the belief that simply administering the tests make subjects more compliant and amenable to making confessions.
“We stress, though, that no spy has ever been caught using the polygraph,” said Kathryn Laskey, a researcher at George Mason University in Fairfax and a member of the study team assembled by the National Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences.
For the study, the 17-member panel conducted the most exhaustive review to date of published studies on polygraphs and current government polygraph procedures.
The CIA and FBI now administer polygraph tests to all prospective employees, and both agencies and the national energy labs administer periodic tests to employees with access to secret material.
Spokesmen at the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Energy said they would evaluate the report. Linton F. Brooks, acting director of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile and government labs, said the tests were not used on a stand-alone basis, but as part of a larger investigative fabric.
Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) yesterday called on the department to abolish the tests. The senators sponsored legislation requiring Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and the administrator of the NNSA to implement a new polygraph rule based on the new report.