“Lie Detectors Called Useless in Spy Hunt: Scientists Blast Security Screenings”

Dan Stober reports for the San Jose Mercury News. Excerpt:

Lie-detector tests are useless in ferreting out spies and they have unfairly tainted innocent employees and job applicants, the nation’s leading researchers concluded in a report issued Tuesday.

Prompted by the controversial case of Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of spying for China, the National Research Council found virtually no scientific evidence that polygraphs work for the type of security screenings given to nuclear weapons designers, FBI agents and CIA officers. No spy has ever been caught by a polygraph, the 318-page report noted, while a rigorous test could falsely implicate up to 16 percent of those tested.

“National security is too important to be left to such a blunt instrument,” said Stephen Fienberg, who heads the panel of the National Academy of Sciences. “The polygraph’s serious limitations in employee security screening underscore the need to look more broadly for effective, alternative methods.”

Thousands of federal job applicants and employees in sensitive positions undergo polygraph tests every year. The CIA and National Security Agency give polygraph tests to all job applicants and employees. The FBI and Pentagon also test extensively, especially since last year’s terrorist attacks, and polygraphs have increased at nuclear power plants.

In addition, large police departments nationwide employ polygraphs to screen applicants and employees.

The political uproar over the 1999 case of Lee, a former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, led to much-resented polygraphs there, and at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Polygraphs increased at the FBI and CIA after Alrich Ames and Rick Hanssen were found to have spied for Russia and the former Soviet Union for many years.

It was the rebellion against the polygraphs by the nuclear weapons scientists that triggered the study. The U.S. Energy Department, which owns the labs, is required by law to incorporate the findings in a new polygraph policy by the end of the year.

Tuesday, Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., called on the department to abolish the tests. The senators, who have heard the complaints of Los Alamos and Sandia scientists, sponsored the legislation creating the study.

The report’s conclusions were music to the ears of polygraph opponents who have long called the tests “junk science.”

The report “unambiguously, irrefutably, undeniably rejected the hypothesis that the polygraph has any value whatsoever when used in a screening mode,” crowed Al Zelicoff, a physicist and physician who does bioterrorism research at the Sandia lab in Albuquerque, N.M.

There is hope among the nuclear scientists that polygraphs will now go away.

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