“Energy Dept. to Cut Use of Lie Detectors”

Richard Willing reports for USA Today. This short article is cited here in full:

WASHINGTON — Citing ongoing doubts about the accuracy of lie detectors, a top Energy Department official said Thursday the department plans to eliminate routine screening of most employees.

About 20,000 Energy Department workers, including many with access to secret weapons programs, are subject to random lie detector tests. Those tests were imposed after the Wen Ho Lee controversy at the department’s Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory. Lee was accused in 1999 of mishandling nuclear weapons codes; the case ended with a plea bargain that freed the scientist.

Under the new plan, the random tests would be limited to 4,500 employees with greatest access to secure programs. Workers whose polygraph tests show they are being deceptive will be investigated, but they will not be fired or lose access to secret programs unless the investigation confirms that they are a security risk.

“The bottom line is that we intend that a polygraph screen serve (as) a ‘trigger’ that may often be useful for subsequent investigations,” Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow told a hearing of the Senate’s energy committee.

Critics who say lie detectors often produce faulty results applauded the policy but suggested the tests should be eliminated. “National security is too important to be left to such a blunt instrument,” Stephen Fienberg, professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said.

Polygraphs measure changes in breathing patterns and other biological indicators of stress. They are used in criminal investigations and to screen for security risks.

Fienberg was the principal author of a study last year by the National Academy of Sciences that found polygraphs used to screen potential spies are often inaccurate. The study estimated that in a group of 10,000 employees, about 1,600, or 16%, would test as “false positives.” McSlarrow said testing by the Department of Energy has produced a “far smaller” rate, but the figure is classified.

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