Andrea Widener reports for the Contra Costa Times. Excerpt:
Under mounting pressure, the Department of Energy will scale back its massive polygraph testing program to half its previous size, a move that may halt mandatory screening tests for some nuclear weapons workers.
The decision is a sudden turnaround for the DOE, which this summer had refused to acknowledge a polygraph testing study by a prestigious scientific panel that was critical of the DOE’s policy.
That study, by the National Academy of Sciences, said polygraph tests do not help screen out spies and may even be dangerous, because they give counterintelligence officials a false sense of security.
At a Senate hearing Thursday, Undersecretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow acknowledged the test’s problems and its impact on morale of employees at nuclear weapons laboratories, including the Bay Area’s Lawrence Livermore and Sandia/California.
“If you can’t eliminate it, you have to manage it,” he said in unveiling the plan.
Polygraph critics were pleased with the acknowledgment of the test’s problems but remained skeptical about its use as a screening tool.
“As a nation, we should not allow ourselves to continue to be blinded by the polygraph,” said Stephen Fienberg, chairman of the National Academy study, who also testified Thursday.
Under the proposed plan, 4,500 nuclear weapons workers and DOE employees in the most sensitive jobs will receive mandatory polygraph tests, down from about 20,000 who had been eligible for the previous tests.
6,000 others will be subject to random polygraph tests, a new part of the program that McSlarrow said was meant to retain the deterrent effects of the tests — something critics say is unproven.
At Lawrence Livermore, that will likely mean no more than 500 people will get mandatory polygraph tests and about 1,000 may be eligible for the random tests, said lab spokeswoman Susan Houghton. That is significantly lower than the number of employees who were getting tests before.
Some observers, including lab employees, wondered if the move was any change at all, as nowhere near 20,000 employees had been polygraphed even in the height of testing.
“It is certainly good that they’re scaling back the numbers, but if this is wrong for 20,000 people then it is wrong for 4,500,” said Lawrence Livermore scientist Jeff Colvin, who has been following the issue for the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers.
While praising the scale-back, the New Mexico senators who conducted the hearings remained skeptical.
“It still seems to me that a large number of scientists in our employ or in the employ of (lab) contractors will be placed under suspicion,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, said at the hearing.
“It makes little difference to the scientist at our labs if the polygraphs are administered to 20,000 or 6,000 when all it takes is one false-positive to ruin a career,” Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, said in a statement.