“Police Turn to Polygraphs”

Maggie Shepard reports for the Albuquerque Tribune:

Anyone who wants to work in the Metropolitan Forensic Center evidence room will have to take a polygraph test, Albuquerque’s police chief said.

With an investigation having determined that $58,000 went missing from the evidence lockup, the Albuquerque Police Department is trying to minimize the chance that anyone with a dishonest streak can work in the operation.

“It is one of many tools to help verify honesty,” Police Chief Schultz said Tuesday regarding the use of polygraph testing as an employee screening method.

Polygraph tests have been administered to all officer applicants for the police department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. The test is part of the screening process, which also includes a background investigation and a psychological exam.

County Undersheriff Sal Baragiola said applicants are interviewed at length about their past, touching on details of drug use, theft, sexual misconduct and violence.

The interview details are distilled into questions that should elicit the same answer when asked during the polygraph test, he said.

“We’re looking for any criminal behavior that would indicate that you have a lack of integrity and that you shouldn’t be in a position of trust,” Baragiola said. “It is used to verify what we’ve already been told.”

Evidence room employees, mostly civilians, already went through the same background checks as every other police department employee. They took the mandatory drug test and got clearance to their designated areas.

But those precautions didn’t prevent theft from the evidence room.

A report released Monday by the state Attorney General’s Office after a yearlong investigation indicated at least one evidence room employee committed crimes. Record-keeping and supervision were so sloppy that investigators concluded they wouldn’t be able to make a case against anyone, according to the report.

Schultz said adding the polygraph test to the hiring process is an effort to make sure evidence room employees have the trust of the community.

Schultz said it is “absolutely imperative” to have evidence room employees with impeccable character – the temptations they face include hundreds of pounds of drugs, about 15,000 guns and about $1.4 million in cash under their control.

He got the idea of testing civilian employees during his recent tenure in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he oversaw the department’s investigations unit.

The evidence room employees will be the only civilians in the department to take polygraphs before being hired.

Passing a polygraph is no guarantee of honesty, and failing one is not a sure sign of untrustworthiness, one authority said.

Alan Zelicoff, a physician, physicist and polygraph expert, says the test can be beat and shouldn’t be the only screen used to protect against hiring criminal employees.

“A polygraph test is self-deceptive, increases the risk of security violations because deceptive people can easily pass the polygraph, and it adversely affects morale,” he said.

Zelicoff is a former Sandia National Laboratories employee who has pushed to remove the use of polygraph testing at national laboratories.

The polygraph measures physical reactions such pulse increases and sweating in reaction to questions. Federal law requires that the device be operated by a licensed technician.

Federal employment law forbids the use of polygraph testing to screen employees for private firms except for security and pharmaceutical companies. The law does not apply to employment with federal, state or local governments.

“Outspoken Nuclear Scientist ‘Forced Out’ Over Polygraph Row”

Jonathan Knight reports in the news section of the journal Nature, Vol. 428, p. 243. This short article is cited here in full:

A national security expert says he was forced to resign last year because of his vocal opposition to the use of lie detectors at his nuclear weapons lab.

Alan Zelicoff, formerly a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, last week spoke for the first time about his resignation last July. He quit following disciplinary action against him for public criticism of polygraph testing. The lab denies any link between Zelicoff’s departure and his public statements.

The Department of Energy instituted routine polygraph screening for employees at all nuclear weapons laboratories in 1999 to check for leaks of classified information. Zelicoff headed the many scientists at Sandia who objected to the move.

He published opinion pieces and cited research that suggested polygraph tests might finger innocent employees rather than catching spies.

A series of disciplinary actions followed the outbursts, culminating in a week-long suspension from the lab in June 2003, according to internal memos provided by Zelicoff. When he returned, he was barred from working on the disease-surveillance software he had developed (see Nature 411, 228; 2001). The lab claimed there was a commercial conflict of interest, which he denies.

John German, a spokesman for Sandia, said that while he could not discuss Zelicoff’s case, lab employees must follow procedures before speaking publicly on matters of national security. The lab memos refer to failures in this area, as well as to an alleged security infraction.

Zelicoff insists that he followed necessary procedures and says the charges in the memos are groundless. He spoke out about the affair after becoming frustrated that members of Congress to whom he had complained failed to act. Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, is dismayed by Zelicoff’s claims: “It tells scientists not to rock the boat.”

“The Polygraph vs. National Security”

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy comments in his Secrecy News e-mail publication:


As a technology for counterintelligence security screening, the polygraph has been a spectacular failure. It is hard to recall the last time that polygraph screening uncovered an actual spy, and easy to think of spies who had no difficulty escaping its clutches.

But U.S. government polygraph policy continues to penalize innocent individuals, and those who presume to challenge that policy.

Alan P. Zelicoff, a distinguished physician and expert on biological weapons arms control, was driven to resign his position as Senior Scientist at Sandia National Laboratories last year as a consequence of his outspoken criticism of polygraph testing.

For his diverse technical contributions, Zelicoff had been awarded Sandia’s Meritorious Achievement Award on several occasions as recently as 2002.

But after publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post last year criticizing the Lab’s polygraph policy, he was suspended and accused of “insubordination.”

Zelicoff was banned from working on a counterterrorism software tool he had invented to facilitate rapid reporting of disease outbreaks. When he continued to speak out on the polygraph, he was suspended a second time. Finally, he quit.

The polygraph won, but the Lab, and the nation that turns to it for scientific expertise, lost.

“As the only senior [Sandia] scientist who had also practiced medicine, I knew that continuation of polygraphs was going to be a disaster for individuals at Sandia and elsewhere in the DOE complex,” Dr. Zelicoff wrote recently. “And indeed it was.”

See his account of the episode in “The Polygraph Vs. National Security,” March 11, here:


Convicted spy Aldrich Ames offered an impudent but rather perceptive commentary on the polygraph in this 2000 letter he wrote to FAS from Allenwood federal penitentiary, where he is incarcerated:


In recent years, CIA polygraph examiners have added a new question to their standard exam, which is also asked in some official background investigations: Do you have friends in the media?

“Truth Tests Are Flawed, So Cut ‘Em Out, DOE”

The Albuquerque Tribune comments on polygraph screening in this editorial, cited here in full:

Truth tests are flawed, so cut ’em out, DOE

First, give the Department of Energy some credit. Then yank its chain – until it altogether stops using polygraph tests to try to find spies in its nuclear weapons program.

The oft-troubled department last week announced it will reduce the number of employees at its nuclear weapons laboratories – including Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico – who will be required to take polygraph tests.


Its reasoning was as sound as the strong reasoning of protesters that greeted DOE’s efforts to increase polygraph testing of employees in recent years. Those efforts followed congressional pressure and reports that said classified nuclear weapons information had been compromised.

For years, scientists – most notably, Dr. Alan Zelicoff, a physician and scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque – were vocal in warning DOE that polygraph technology and protocols are scientifically unreliable, unsound and essentially useless. They contended that relying on the tests could provide a false sense of security and therefore prove a threat to national security.

Many thousands of employees at Sandia and Los Alamos laboratories and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory east of San Francisco were subjected to the policy, and several thousands still will be – though polygraph testing has no credibility.

We applaud Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow’s testimony to Congress last week that DOE will “substantially lower” the number of workers – until now as many as 20,000 – required to take polygraphs as part of the department’s anti-espionage program. The chance of inaccurately implicating innocent workers with falsely positive polygraph results is just too great to ignore, he reported.

Good – but not good enough.

If, as the highly respected National Academy of Sciences has reported, polygraph tests don’t work, why use them at all? Why use them, when McSlarrow acknowledged that the academy is right in concluding that the technology is incapable of reliably distinguishing between people who are telling the truth and those who are lying?

Why use them, when the academy report found that polygraph machines determine that truthful people are being deceptive and inaccurately labels them as “security risks”?

Why use them at all, if, as McSlarrow states, such uncertainty actually risks “undermining the very national security goals we hope to attain”?

Why use them, if, as New Mexico senior Sen. Pete Domenici observed last week, “We hold our scientists’ work to the highest standard of accuracy and reliability, and then we impose on them something as sloppy and subjective as polygraph tests. That practice is indefensible”?


It is good to know that DOE will no longer cancel security clearances of employees in the nuclear weapons program based only on failed polygraph tests, as McSlarrow said. But why tarnish employees by branding them for having failed such a test when we all know the test isn’t to be trusted?

Certainly DOE has as grave a responsibility to protect the nation’s nuclear weapons information, technology and materials as it does to ensure our nuclear arsenal is safe, secure and functional.

But, in doing so, DOE should never rely upon so weak, uncertain, unreliable and dysfunctional a technology as polygraphs have proved to be.

“Polygraphs: Worse than Worthless”

Dr. Alan P. Zelicoff comments on polygraph screening in this Washington Post op-ed piece. Excerpt:

In 1999, in the midst of alleged leaks of nuclear weapons information from his department’s national laboratories, the secretary of energy, Bill Richardson, set out to show that he could be “tough” on national security matters. He sought congressional funding for a wide-ranging polygraph program to cover all employees with high-level clearances — about 15,000 people in all.

Congress agreed — despite the absence of any evidence that polygraphs have ever detected a spy operating anywhere in the U.S. government. But Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) managed to get the Senate to stipulate two important conditions — first, that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review the medical and scientific literature to determine whether use of polygraph tests for screening was in any way worthwhile and, second, that the secretary report back to Congress after the NAS report was completed.

Late last year the NAS published its findings. It determined that the polygraph was not a worthless tool — indeed, that it was much worse than worthless. The report said that “available evidence indicates that polygraph testing as currently used has extremely serious limitations . . . if the intent is both to identify security risks and protect valued employees.” The NAS panel, made up of internationally respected psychologists and statisticians, further determined that the test was so nonspecific that even if the polygraphers managed to finally uncover their first spy, at least 100 innocent laboratory employees would have their clearances yanked because of the “false positives” inherent in the test. The NAS concluded: “Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice . . . between too many loyal employees falsely judged deceptive and too many major security threats left undetected. Its accuracy . . . is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Spencer Abraham, the current energy secretary, was faced with a dilemma: If he did the right thing by openly recommending that Congress trash his predecessor’s polygraph program, he would embarrass his counterparts in the CIA and the Defense Department, where faith in the polygraph long ago reached cult status. If he kept the polygraphs, he would do so in the face of the academy’s clear rejection and more than 60 years of evidence that they waste taxpayers’ money while destroying the careers and lives of countless loyal Americans.

Abraham opted instead for a third course. In a memo to the national laboratory directors in late March, the secretary said he had decided to “defer” his decision on polygraphs until “after hostilities in Iraq had ended.” That wasn’t quite true. Just two weeks later, an official Energy Department “proposed rule” appeared in the Federal Register, in which the secretary gave it as his opinion that “DOE [the Energy Department] does not believe that the issues that the NAS has raised about the polygraph’s accuracy are sufficient to warrant a decision by DOE to abandon it as a screening tool. Doing so would mean that DOE would be giving up a tool that, while far from perfect, will help identify some individuals who should not be given access to classified data, materials, or information.”

There is supposedly an opportunity for the public to comment on the Energy Department’s proposal to do nothing. But there is little reason to believe the department has any intention of listening, given its willingness to dismiss all credible science on the issue without any explanation.

“Agency Uses Polygraph Despite Shortcomings”

The Associated Press reports in this story published in the Washington Times. Excerpt:

The Energy Department decided yesterday to continue using polygraph tests to protect the nation’s nuclear-arms stockpile, despite a scientific study that found severe shortcomings in the tests’ accuracy.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the department must use the best tools available to protect sensitive information about the stockpile. Critics said the department is making a mistake by ignoring recommendations of the study of polygraph effectiveness conducted six months ago at the urging of Congress.

“Basically they’ve ignored the evidence,” said Stephen Fienberg of Carnegie Mellon University, who was chairman of the National Academy of Sciences study.

A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, said the Energy Department’s response to the National Academy of Sciences is a “surprising and disappointing result” that is hard to understand.

The Energy Department imposed polygraph requirements on employees several years ago in the aftermath of the Wen Ho Lee spy situation at the department’s nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. Many scientists at department labs objected that the tests were inherently inaccurate, which prompted congressional inquiries and the scientific review.

Congress ordered the Energy Department to take the study’s findings into account.

In a proposed rule, however, the department says that retaining the program is well-suited to fulfilling national security needs.

The scientific review led by Mr. Fienberg concluded that federal agencies should not rely on polygraphs to screen workers and job applicants because the machines are too inaccurate.

The likelihood of ignoring a spy because he passed a polygraph test is so high that relying on the tests is probably a greater danger to national security than discarding them, Mr. Fienberg said in response to the proposed Energy Department rule.

“It’s bureaucratic impudence,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. “Energy said, ‘We’ll replace the existing policy with precisely the same policy.’ “

By refusing to change, Mr. Abraham is expressing unwillingness to make life difficult for intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, which made the mistake long ago of using polygraphs as their primary counterintelligence tool, said Dr. Alan Zelicoff, senior scientist in the Center for National Security and Arms Control at Sandia National Laboratory.

Dr. Zelicoff, whose laboratory is covered by the Energy Department policy, said the careers of some scientists have been ruined because of false positive results on polygraph tests.

“Sandia Scientist Says Polygraph Mandate Should Be Cut”

Sue Vorenberg reports for the Albuquerque Tribune. Excerpt:

A new study saying polygraph tests are not accurate enough to screen government employees for potential security risks doesn’t surprise Al Zelicoff.

But it doesn’t go far enough for him, either.

Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories and a leading critic of polygraph tests, said Congress should change a law requiring the tests.

“The polygraph itself is not only worthless, it creates a climate of fear and paranoia,” Zelicoff said. “That can’t be good for national security.”

The National Research Council released its study of polygraph testing Tuesday.

“Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies,” the study said.

National laboratories, including Los Alamos and Sandia, have used polygraphs for workers in sensitive positions since the polygraph was created. In 1999, Congress mandated that the Department of Energy start using them in routine security checks. And that was when it all went wrong, Zelicoff said.

“The polygraph is a ruse designed to provide an excuse to conduct a wide-ranging inquisition under unpleasant psychological conditions,” he said. “It gets worse: `You’re lying to me.’ `You’re too immature to have a security clearance.’ `I don’t think I can help you anymore.’ Those are real statements that have been made to Sandians in the past year. Does that qualify as harassment in the workplace? If it doesn’t have any value, it does. That’s what the NRC just said.”

“Scientists Attack Polygraph’s Accuracy”

Ian Hoffman reports for the Oakland Tribune. Excerpt:

Polygraph tests used by nearly every federal national-security agency as a screening tool will flag loyal workers as security risks and free actual spies from suspicion, a panel of top scientists reported Tuesday.

Gathered by the National Research Council, scientists said the theory and research supporting polygraphy is too weak and the accuracy of the test is “insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening.”

“National security is too important to be left to such a blunt instrument,” said panel chairman Stephen Fienberg, a statistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Two lawmakers called on the U.S. Department of Energy to replace its polygraph screening program, targeting 16,000 employees mostly in California, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., with a testing program solely for interrogation of suspects.

Yet beyond the Energy Department and its national labs — Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia — the polygraph is deeply embedded in the U.S. national-security apparatus, with an estimated 40,000 workers or applicants tested every year at the CIA, Defense Department, National Security Agency, Secret Service, DEA and — in the wake of the Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen spy cases — the FBI.

Thousands more are tested at state and local law-enforcement agencies. This summer, many in Congress who voted to polygraph nuclear weapons scientists were themselves “put on the box” in an FBI search for leaks at the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Inventors such as psychologist and feminist theorist William Moulton Marston — later known for creating Wonder Woman, whose lasso compelled truth telling — devised polygraphy to interrogate World War I spies. The polygraph became hugely popular over the next 80 years, and no one has been more captivated by its mystique than Americans and their law officers.

Yet, said NRC panelist Kathryn Laskey, a professor of systems engineering at George Mason University, “We stress that no spy ever has been caught using the polygraph.”

The conclusions of the 310-page report are not new. Scientists have criticized polygraphs as poorly grounded and researched since their creation.

The 310-page NRC report, however, is among the most comprehensive and authoritative on the subject, and the first to highlight the national security risks of growing federal reliance on a test that invariably clears the spies and saboteurs it was designed to catch.

Employees of the nation’s three nuclear-weapons labs hailed the report as powerful vindication, in large measure because it echoed their attacks on the scientific foundations of polygraphy and found them equally weak or nonexistent.

“It’s time to stop it, for everybody,” said Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Jeff Colvin, president of the Society for Professional Scientists and Engineers, a labor union.

“It doesn’t get any better than this. There’s no wiggle room here,” said Dr. Alan Zelicoff, a physicist and physician at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. “We’ve been spending millions of dollars on a test that is not worthless, but worse than worthless because it does more harm than good.”

In 1999, Congress went into a lather over suspected Chinese thefts of U.S. nuclear secrets and instituted polygraph tests for thousands of career nuclear-weapons employees. Scientists denounced the tests as “voodoo” and “junk science” that insulted their dedication to national-security work.

“You’re talking about people who for the most part are very loyal and find it terribly offensive that their loyalty is questioned,” veteran Livermore weapons designer David Dearborn said Tuesday. “Then you have an undependable piece of electronic flimflammery, and someone pops up and says ‘I think you’re being deceptive,’ and your clearance is pulled. … What are we getting as a nation in return? We’re getting political cover at best. Because if that’s the best we can do to catch spies, we’re in trouble. You’re not catching the people who are spying, and yet you are having large numbers of people suffer as they’re treated like criminals.”

“How Not to Catch a Spy: Use a Lie Detector”

Pittsburg Post-Gazette science editor Byron Spice reports. Excerpt:

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Not polygraph examiners, at least not those charged with finding spies and other security risks within the ranks of federal employees, a new National Research Council report concludes.

Lie detectors simply aren’t accurate enough to ferret out of what is presumably a handful of spies amid the tens of thousands of federal employees who undergo polygraph examinations each year, said Stephen Fienberg, a Carnegie Mellon University statistician who headed the study.

“The polygraph itself has not caught a single spy,” Fienberg said yesterday following the release of his panel’s two-year study on the use of polygraphs for screening employees. Lie detector results, he explained, “are better than chance, but well below perfection.”

That can make lie detectors an effective interrogation tool for police trying to choose from among a handful of suspects, but even then, a large part of their effectiveness owes to their mystique, Fienberg said. The widespread belief that they work — or might work — can lead to confessions.

But when used as a screening tool, polygraphs can be expected to miss many, if not most, spies, while misidentifying untold numbers of loyal citizens as suspicious.

Even if the test were designed to catch eight of every 10 spies, it would produce false results for large numbers of people. For every 10,000 employees screened, Fienberg said, eight real spies would be singled out, but 1,598 innocent people would be singled out with them, with no hint of who’s a spy and who isn’t.

Yet use of lie detectors as screening tools has expanded, particularly at the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons laboratories following the Wen Ho Lee “spy” case at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“But it’s not just the DOE,” Fienberg said. “It’s the CIA, the FBI, the NSA. It’s every three-letter agency. Even the Postal Service is using polygraphs.” The Department of Defense alone administers 10,000 polygraph examinations every year.

“The polygraph is one of many tools we use to protect some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets,” said Linton Brooks, acting administrator of DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. “It is used not on a stand-alone basis, but as part of a fabric of investigative and analytical reviews to help security personnel determine who should have access to classified information.”

Still, law enforcement and security personnel seem to trust the polygraph more than other tools, Fienberg said. The study panel concluded that this is a misplaced trust that leads to overconfidence. “And this overconfidence can lead to a false sense of security,” he added.

Al Zelicoff, a bioweapons expert at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., and an outspoken critic of DOE’s polygraph use, agreed that the cloud of suspicion almost always lifts once an individual has passed a lie detector test. “That’s a very bad assumption,” he added, given that no one claims that polygraphs are perfect.

But the new report makes clear that the polygraph “is worse than worthless when used in a screening mode,” said Zelicoff, a Pittsburgh native and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Lots of honest people are unfairly placed under suspicion and precious resources are diverted from other security measures, he maintained.

“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.