Department of Energy to Begin Random Polygraph Screening of Thousands

Despite a 2003 finding by the National Academy of Sciences that “[polygraph testing’s] 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,” an internal memorandum to employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory posted on the blog, LANL: The Rest of the Story, announces the implementation of a program of random polygraph screening encompassing over 5,000 LANL employees and some 3,800 employees at Sandia National Laboratories.

Last year, News anticipated the possibility that DOE’s publicly announced reduction in the number of employees subject to routine polygraph screening might result in a significant ramp up of its program of random polygraph screening as the Office of Counterintelligence attempts to ensure full employment for its complement of polygraph operators. This seems to be precisely what has happened.

Final Exam: CBS 60 Minutes II Report on Polygraph Screening

On 12 December 2001, CBS 60 Minutes II aired an investigative report on polygraph screening. Produced by Shawn Efran and reported by Scott Pelley, the report takes an in-depth look at the U.S. Government’s misplaced reliance on polygraph screening. The concerns raised in this report remain as valid today as they were five years ago. Indeed, despite overwhelming scientific evidence against polygraph screening, governmental reliance on it has actually grown.

For discussion of this report, including an unofficial transcript, see the message board thread, Poly Segment on 60 Minutes II, 12/12/01.

(The following video is 33 mb in size and may take some time to load)

Los Alamos Scientist Organizes Resistance Against Polygraph Screening

Brad Lee Holian, a Laboratory Associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and fellow of the American Physical Society, is organizing employee resistance against planned random polygraph and drug screening at the lab. Holian, who has worked as a theoretical physicist at LANL for more than thirty years, has publicized his proposal via the blog LANL: The Corporate Story. Holian writes, among other things:

Polygraphy is an insulting affront to scientists, since a committee of the National Academy of Sciences has declared that, beyond being inadmissible in court, there is no scientific basis for polygraphs. In my opinion, by agreeing to be polygraphed, one thereby seriously jeopardizes his or her claim to being a scientist, which is presumably the principal reason for employment for many scientists at Los Alamos….

He proposes that laboratory employees sign a letter to the LANL’s director along the lines of the following:

Director Anastasio:

I refuse to be subjected to polygraph testing for any reason whatsoever. Polygraphs are inadmissible in a court of law and have no scientific basis.

-Brad Lee Holian (

In an earlier post on this blog, expressed the concern that while an announced Department of Energy plan to curtail its polygraph screening program might reduce the number of persons subject to polygraph screening, it might not reduce the number of polygraph examinations administered if random polygraph screening were stepped up to ensure full employment for DOE’s polygraph operators.

If scientists won’t speak out, politicians go unchecked

Alan P. Zelicoff, M.D., speaks plainly in this op-ed piece published today in the Albuquerque Tribune:

Politicians will create uninformed, dangerous policies unless scientists are willing to talk truth to power, despite possible risks to their funding

Alan Zelicoff
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Somewhere in the bowels of the Department of Energy lies the answer to a mystery: Why did the U.S. Department of Energy suddenly discontinue its seven-year polygraph-test program for employees at the national nuclear weapons laboratories?

This decision was revealed without fanfare in the Code of Federal Regulations just a few days ago.

The birth of this peculiar policy began with willful ignorance of scientific data – carefully presented by the National Academy of Sciences and 40 senior scientists at Sandia Labs. They unanimously concluded that the polygraph was worse than worthless as a security tool. The vapid political response was thoroughly bipartisan.

From her seat, at the time, on the House Intelligence Committee, Albuquerque’s Republican Rep. Heather Wilson advocated strongly for the polygraph program, joined by her colleague Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, then the ranking member of the sister committee in the Senate. Chiming in simultaneously – hoping to not be seen as weak on security, was then-DOE secretary and now New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who was in the running for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination.

All were complicit in the classical bureaucratic blunder of confusing doing something with doing something useful. But it served their short-sighted purpose of selfishly protecting political power and the multibillion-dollar cash flow to the labs.

Laboratory management shared in the malfeasance, effecting none of the oversight responsibilities it routinely applies in much less consequential matters. Sandia’s president was publicly silent until he was embarrassed into action, when CBS News revealed that polygraphers were going beyond their legal authority by demanding private medical and psychiatric information from lab employees.

Thousands of lab employees had been subjected to feckless questioning from polygraphers. No spies were identified, yet staff morale collapsed and countless lives were ruined by false characterizations of “deception,” as if polygraphers eight weeks of training somehow made them infallible mind readers.

Most of the mislabeled scientists have suffered in silence, yet these outcomes were wholly unsurprising to Sandia researchers, who predicted them all in 1999, – along with Sandia’s squandering of millions of dollars – while warning of unaddressed vulnerabilities of lab computer systems. Those holes remain open even today.

The labs have traditionally provided high-level policy-makers with an unbiased assessment on difficult technical issues – not necessarily the answers officials wanted to hear. So this disheartening history begs an uncomfortable question: Because the scientific evidence of the uselessness – indeed, self-deceptiveness – of polygraphs was squarely on their side, why weren’t scientists at the labs more outspoken? To be so is their raison d’etre, the one thing that distinguishes them from contractors who never question anyone sending money.

It’s different now. I’ve been contacted by dozens of lab staff who bemoan their loss of scientific independence and describe a culture at diametric variance with the Sandia motto of “Exceptional Service in the National Interest.” The culture is one of fear: fear of challenging senior managers who, in turn, fret over any reduction in the unbridled flow of congressional largesse; and the mongering of fear, exemplified by the frenzied attempt, rooted in a once-successful Cold War mentality, to persuade federal planners that yet another generation of thoughtlessly unusable nuclear weapons should be funded.

To be sure, some advances have come out of the labs. Promising research has been done to advance nuclear reactor safety which, though years away, will mitigate the energy insecurities that are the source of many troubles now facing us.

But at budgets of $2.5 billion per year per lab, are these adequate returns, when universities might do the same at much less cost? No one has openly voiced this question in Washington, but it is much on the minds of lawmakers as deficits balloon and homegrown technology meets new international competition.

Soon enough the labs will be scrutinized, and the result may not be pretty. It may be true that scientists finally prevailed in persuading DOE to end its damaging polygraph program, in spite of the dangers of speaking truth to power. But I suspect the course change has other origins.

Laboratory employees will have to speak firmly and loudly on the basis of scientific integrity, or they will be relegated to the caste of Beltway bandits.

That can’t be good for the labs, New Mexico or the nation.

DOE Quietly Backs Away from Voodoo of Polygraphs

Dr. Alan P. Zelicoff, M.D. comments on the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent decision to scale back its polygraph screening program in an Albuquerque Journal op-ed article titled, “DOE Quietly Backs Away from Voodoo of Polygraphs.” In 2003, Dr. Zelicoff was forced out of his job at Sandia National Laboratories because his work to disprove the polygraph embarrassed too many important people at DOE and the national labs:

DOE Quietly Backs Away From Voodoo of Polygraphs

By Alan Zelicoff
Science Consultant

The U.S. Department of Energy has quietly slipped a new “rule” of great significance into the Code of Federal Regulations: The program of lie-detector “screening” at the premiere national laboratories has been rescinded.

This change reflects an unflattering judgment on positions staked out by a bipartisan collection of political and lab leaders.

First proposed in 1999 by Gov. Bill Richardson — then secretary of energy — during the uproar over alleged spying at the national labs, the lie-detector policy elicited the derision of scientists everywhere. The American Psychological Association, the Federation of American Scientists, the Senior Scientists at Sandia National Labs and the National Academy of Sciences uniformly rejected the [sic] Richardson’s contention that polygraphs would improve security.

The expedient (though hardly inexpensive) attempt to paper over extraordinarily damaging security lapses with polygraphs has failed catastrophically.

On those rare occasions when bad policy-making is repudiated, winners and losers emerge. The winners this time are obvious:

*Applicants for jobs at the labs, who will no longer have their careers ruined by flunking a thoroughly disproved test for “deception.”

*The labs themselves, as they may once again be able to attract top students who have routinely shunned opportunities simply because graduates from top universities realize that any institution that used the polygraph wasn’t exactly a place to build a serious scientific career.

The losers include Rep. Heather Wilson, the then-responsible lab managers, Richardson and agencies that continue to rely upon polygraphs.

Wilson, D-N.M. [sic; editor’s error: Wilson is a Republican], originated the DOE polygraph legislation in 2000 as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. She repeatedly touts her “science and engineering training at the Air Force Academy” as her guiding philosophy. Yet, Wilson ignored all the the scientific literature provided to her on the uselessness of polygraph screening.

Her judgment appears as self-serving rather than the stuff of principled leadership. Since her re-election in this election — perhaps the closest of her career, may be the ticket to a Senate seat, voters should examine her rhetoric and record.

Ex-Sandia President C. Paul Robinson and Director Dori Ellis, charged with maintaining the health and scientific integrity of employees, couldn’t stop the polygraph program. But by putting into place an independent community-based oversight committee — routine at the labs in all processes involving human subjects — the illegal excesses and undermining of careers could have been mitigated. (Testimonials of many lab employees are on my web site:

Instead, Robinson and Ellis disciplined lab scientists who called for oversight with career-busting disciplinary suspensions based on “insubordination.”

Richardson announced the polygraph program as his own idea when he headed the DOE. When he visited the national laboratories in 1999, he quite literally waved his hand dismissively in answer to staff questions. “The polygraph is easy to pass if you’ve nothing to hide. I’ve had one. It’s no big deal,” the future governor said, offering a fool’s gambit to some of the country’s best scientists, who weren’t buying his argument then anymore than they do now.

By seeking to maintain his then vice-presidential prospects in the face of security snafus at the DOE, Richardson may be exhibit “A” in incompetent national security policymaking. Perhaps voters’ memories will be long enough to recall Richardson’s malfeasance when he makes another run for national office in 2008.

The agencies that continue to worship the screening polygraph as a counter-intelligence tool — the CIA, and the NSA and others — come out looking silliest by far. Hundreds of perfectly loyal Americans possessing desperately needed skills in Arabic, Persian and other languages have passed through the exacting application requirements for employment in the intelligence community only to have their hopes dashed by “failing” a polygraph.

In the end, it is the American people who pay the biggest price: countless millions spent on feckless technology that has a dismal record of catching spies, yet eliminates the very people we need to protect our freedoms.

Seven year after the Sandia senior scientists’ recommendation, the DOE has reluctantly admitted that it made a mistake by placing reliance in the polygraph. Might other agencies follow? Only an inveterate optimist would so conclude.

Alan Zelicoff, former senior scientist in the Center for National Security and Arms Control at Sandia National Laboratories is a writer, consulting physicist and physician residing in Albuquerque. His latest book is: “Microbe: Are We Ready for the Next Plague?” published by Amacom.

“DOE Weighs Random Polygraph Tests for Employees”

Mike Nartker of Global Security Newswire reports in this article published by Excerpt:

The Energy Department is considering administering random polygraph tests to some personnel as part of new counterintelligence regulations proposed this month.

Those who could be subject to the random tests include personnel with access to classified nuclear weapons-related information, according to a notice published Jan. 7 in the Federal Register.

One of the main goals of the random tests is “deterrence” against “damaging disclosures” by employees whose level of access to sensitive information did not warrant mandatory polygraph testing, the department said.

Noting that the number of workers expected to be subject to random tests is “small,” the Energy Department said it plans to create a random test program that would be applied to the “minimum” number of people while still serving the deterrence goal.

The proposed regulations would also result in a dramatic reduction in the number of employees who would be subject to mandatory screening, from potentially 20,000 to about 4,500, according to the Energy Department. The reduction would be achieved, the department said, by the narrowing the range of information that would require mandatory screening prior to being accessed.

The Energy Department first began polygraph testing in the wake of the 1999 Wen Ho Lee controversy, which involved a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist accused of mishandling nuclear weapons codes. In late 2001, though, Congress ordered the department to create new polygraph regulations, taking into account the results of a study being conducted at the time by the National Academy of Sciences.

That study, released in 2002, said polygraph tests were ineffective as a screening tool for potential security risks, warning of both “false positive” and “false negative” results.

“Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice,” the study found. “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.”

Opposition to polygraph testing has been greater at the U.S. national laboratories than in any other government sector, according to Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. Scientists at the laboratories, he said yesterday, view polygraph tests as “idiotic, unfounded and degrading.”

To discuss the DOE’s planned changes to its polygraph policy, see the message board thread, DOE Proposed Rulemaking on CI/Polygraph Policy.

“DOE Reducing Number of Required Polygraphs”

The Associated Press reports in this article published by the Albuquerque Journal:

LOS ALAMOS — The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed reducing the number of employees subject to lie detector tests, but opponents of the tests say the department misconstrued National Academy of Sciences findings on their use.

The revised rule would allow random polygraph tests, but will prohibit managers from relying solely on those tests to take action against employees.

The Energy Department “proposes to conclude that the utility of polygraphs is strong enough to merit their use in certain situations, for certain classes of individuals and with certain protections that minimize legitimate concerns,” according to the DOE’s revised polygraph rule published Friday.

In April 2003, the DOE proposed fewer polygraph tests after a study said employees could be unjustly accused. The National Academy of Sciences found lie detector tests weren’t an effective means to screen for spies and could result in “false positives” — innocent lab workers coming under suspicion for espionage.

The DOE began requiring employees take lie detector tests following the Wen Ho Lee controversy at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lee was accused in 1999 of mishandling nuclear weapons codes; the case ended with a plea bargain that freed him after nine months.

Concerns over the tests prompted congressional demands for the NAS review and that the Energy Department incorporate the results into its polygraph program.

“Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice,” the NAS said. “Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violations from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.”

The April 2003 proposal reduced the number of people who would be required to take the tests from 20,000 to about 4,000, then added a pool of 6,000 employees who would be tested randomly.

The latest proposal doesn’t estimate the number of employees who could be randomly tested but said the total would be much lower.

The DOE misconstrued the NAS findings on polygraph tests and “unduly relied on the counsels of bureaucrats with a vested interest in the perpetuation” of such tests, George W. Maschke of wrote the Los Alamos Monitor in an e-mail after the latest draft rule was published.

Stephen Fienberg, who headed the National Research Council committee that reviewed polygraph use, told a Senate committee hearing in September 2003 that the scientific foundations of the screening for national security “were weak at best, and are insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.”

While acknowledging the DOE should use all effective tools available to conduct thorough background checks, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., expressed concerns “that DOE would pursue a polygraph policy at odds with the National Academy of Sciences findings.”

“While polygraph tests might be effective as an investigative tool, there is no evidence it is a useful screening tool so I’m not clear on why the DOE wants to use it for that purpose,” he said.

“Polygraphs Reduced by DOE Order”

Roger Snodgrass of the Los Alamos Monitor reports on the Department of Energy’s proposed changes to its polygraph rule.

The Department of Energy will significantly reduce the number of individuals now subject to lie detectors, according to a revision of the proposed rule published Friday.

Random use of polygraph tests will take place, however, although sole reliance on polygraph results for adverse actions against employees will be strictly prohibited.

More than two years after floating a polygraph proposal that essentially repudiated the findings of a study by the research body of the National Academies of Science, the rule is back again with supplemental revisions.

“My immediate observation is that the DOE has largely misconstrued the findings of the National Academies of Science regarding polygraphy and unduly relied on the counsels of bureaucrats with a vested interest in the perpetuation of polygraphy,” wrote George W. Maschke of, in an e-mail shortly after the latest draft rule was published.

Moreover, he added, “DOE still fails to address the fact that information on how to beat the polygraph is readily available to anyone who seeks it, and that no polygrapher has ever demonstrated any ability to detect polygraph countermeasures.”

DOE’s notice acknowledges that the question of using polygraphs is “the latest manifestation of this perennial struggle” – between openness and national security concerns.

“There are no easy answers to the dilemma of how best to reconcile these competing considerations,” the notice states in an introduction to the background of the rule.

Despite the NAS’s concerns about the “validity” of polygraph testing, DOE continues its call for a testing program that includes what the proposal characterizes as, “substantial changes” in response to previous critics.

“DOE proposes to conclude that the utility of polygraphs is strong enough to merit their use in certain situations, for certain classes of individuals and with certain protections that minimize legitimate concerns,” the document states.

In its proposal of April 2003, DOE reduced the number of people designated for mandatory screening from 20,000 to about 4,000, and then added another pool of 6,000 employees who would be tested randomly.

The latest proposal does not estimate the number of employees eligible for random testing but says the total tested would be much lower.

After a previous version of the rule met with criticism from employees and the scientific community, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham asked Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow to consider longer-term changes.

McSlarrow told a Senate committee at the time that he found many of NAS’s concerns to be well taken.

Dr. Stephen Fienberg, who chaired the National Research Council committee that authored the white paper critical of polygraphing, reminded senators at that time of its conclusions.

“The scientific foundations of polygraph screening for national security were weak at best,” he said, “and are insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.”

A public hearing at DOE headquarters in Washington has been scheduled for Mar. 2. Written comments (10 copies required) are due Mar. 8.

The rule can be read or downloaded from the Federal Register, .

To discuss DOE’s proposed rule changes, see the message board thread, DOE Proposed Rulemaking on CI/Polygraph Policy.

Polygraphs Reportedly Ordered in Los Alamos Probe

In an article titled, “Entering unknown territory,” Los Alamos Monitor assistant editor Roger Snodgrass confirms that some employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been ordered to undergo polygraph “testing” as the Deparment of Energy investigates the disappearance of two removable data storage devices. Excerpt:

According to sources, the investigation of lost computer recording data has narrowed suspects in the weapons physics department to 11 people. There were reports that some people were sobbing and others were sick to their stomach at the news that they would be subjected to a polygraph test and that some would likely be fired.

Yet Another Polygraph Dragnet at Los Alamos?

An Associated Press report published by under the title, “UC Halts Los Alamos’ Classified Work” mentions the possibility of a polygraph hunt for potential security violators as Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) attempts to locate two data storage devices containing classified information. Excerpt:

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. July 16, 2004 — All classified work at Los Alamos National Laboratory has come to a halt while officials conduct a wall-to-wall inventory of sensitive data.

The unprecedented stand-down began at noon Thursday, and the inventory of CDs, floppy disks and other data storage devices is expected to be completed within days, lab spokesman Kevin Roark said.

The stand-down comes after the lab reported last week that two items containing classified information turned up missing. The items were identified only as removable data storage devices.

It is the latest in a series of embarrassments that have prompted federal officials to put the Los Alamos management contract held by the University of California up for bid for the first time in the 61-year history of the lab.

The Energy Department has announced that Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow and Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, will personally oversee the probe into the latest security lapse.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said he told McSlarrow earlier this week to use “all available mechanisms” to find the missing items, including polygraphs.

And in an article titled, “Lost nuke disks sting lab,” Oakland Tribune staff writer Ian Hoffman reports that House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton is demanding that some 200 LANL employees be polygraphed. Excerpt:

SAN FRANCISCO — For the third time in five years, Los Alamos National Laboratory is shutting down all classified work and hunkering down for investigations and political lashings over the loss of two disks of nuclear-weapons related secrets.

Berated Thursday by University of California regents for the latest security failing, even senior university executives were in no mood to defend the birthplace of the bomb.

“I don’t like the culture at Los Alamos,” said UC Vice President for Lab Management Robert Foley. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t like the culture.”

As if replaying the lab’s painful sagas of 1999 and 2002, two members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. — arrive at Los Alamos on Monday to investigate, accompanied by Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow and National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks.

Barton on Tuesday demanded lie-detector tests for 200 lab employees and stiffer security measures on classified material safes.

It will be recalled that the Department of Energy conducted a polygraph dragnet of Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST) members at LANL’s X Division back in the spring of 2000 in an attempt to determine who was responsible for the disappearance of two classified hard drives (which were later discovered behind a copier in a room that had been searched by the FBI). The polygraph failed to solve the mystery.