American Polygraph Association Disapproves Fox’s Moment of Truth Lie Detector Show

Scott Michels reports for ABC News in “Is the Truth Worth $500,000?”:

Is the Truth Worth $500,000?
‘Truth’ or Fiction? Polygraph Association Questions New Reality Show
By SCOTT MICHELS

Dec. 13, 2007—

Hook someone up to a lie detector. Ask personal questions. Watch the person squirm.

That’s the premise of the new Fox TV reality show, “The Moment of Truth,” which some polygraph experts have criticized.

Contestants are asked a series of personal — and potentially embarrassing — questions while connected to a polygraph machine. Answer honestly, the premise goes, and you win money.

But an association of polygraph examiners is already questioning the accuracy of the show, which airs next month. The American Polygraph Association, a trade association of polygraph examiners that promotes the use of the machines, calls the show an irresponsible misuse of lie detectors.

“This is a wholesale abuse of a technology that has appropriate use in national security and community safety,” said Don Krapohl, the association’s chairman.

In the show, contestants undergo a pretape polygraph test, taken by a certified polygraph expert, of about 75 questions. They are not told the results of the test.

A few days later, they are asked 21 of those questions on camera and in front of an audience. The more answers that match what the lie detector says is true, the more money they win, up to $500,000.

Friends and family, who are in the audience, have a button they can hit to stop the contestant from answering.

Similar programs are being produced in 23 other countries, according to Fox, not always without controversy. A similar show has been a hit in Colombia but was briefly taken off the air earlier this year after a woman reportedly admitted on air that she had hired a hitman to kill her husband.

The questions in the U.S. version tend toward the confidential. Some samples: “Is there a part of your husband’s body that repulses you?” “Do you really care about the starving children in Africa?” “Are you sexually attracted to one of your wife’s friends?” “Do you like your mother-in-law?” “Do you think you’ll be with your husband five years from now?”

Answering the questions, sometimes in front of the very people who may be hurt by the answers, is all part of the novelty and intentional controversy of the show, says Fox. “What deep, dark secret will someone divulge for hundreds of thousands of dollars?” the network’s promotional materials ask.

But Krapohl of the American Polygraph Association said polygraph machines are unable to measure some of the kinds of questions that appear to be asked on the show, such as ones that measure attitudes and inclinations.

Polygraphs “test on past behavior, not on what’s going on in your head,” he said. The former head of the FBI’s polygraph unit, who was not familiar with the show, said the machines also cannot accurately measure a person’s beliefs, opinions or expectations.

A Fox spokesman, Michael Roach, declined to comment on the criticism. Mike Darnell, the station’s president of alternative entertainment, told the Los Angeles Times that early tapings show that contestants do lie during the show but don’t challenge the lie detector.

“It’s like a reality soap,” he told the paper. “Every one of us thinks about these things and has these thoughts, but we never have to say a word. But this show reads people’s minds. If they want the money, they have to be honest.”

Polygraphs work by tracking how a person’s body, through measurements such as blood pressure and pulse, responds to a series of questions. Though they accurately measure stress, the National Academy of Sciences has warned that the tests don’t necessarily show that a person is lying. A 2002 study warned that polygraphs are “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results.”

Polygraphs are widely used by law enforcement agencies, who stand by their usefulness as investigative tools, though the results of the tests are generally inadmissible in court.

The Polygraph Association, which promotes the use of the tests, says studies have shown they are about 90 percent accurate in field tests, when used to ask about specific events in the past. They are less accurate when used in laboratory simulations. The National Academy of Sciences put it this way: “Specific-incident polygraph tests can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection.”

This quote from the executive summary of the National Academy of Sciences’ report, The Polygraph and Lie Detection, has been stripped of important context. Here it is, the passage in-context:

CONCLUSION: Notwithstanding the limitations of the quality of the empirical research and the limited ability to generalize to real-world settings, we conclude that in populations of examinees such as those represented in the polygraph research literature, untrained in countermeasures, specific-incident polygraph tests can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates well above chance, though well below perfection. Because the studies of acceptable quality all focus on specific incidents, generalization from them to uses for screening is not justified. Because actual screening applications involve considerably more ambiguity for the examinee and in determining truth than arises in specific-incident studies, polygraph accuracy for screening purposes is almost certainly lower than what can be achieved by specific-incident polygraph tests in the field.

Note that the Academy’s conclusion is based on the examinee being untrained in polygraph countermeasures. Information on how to fool the polygraph is readily available to anyone who seeks it, and polygraphers have no way of ascertaining whether a person has learned how to beat the lie detector.

Scott Michels of ABC News continues:

The tests are far less accurate when used in employment screening, according to the Academy, and federal courts have warned that their accuracy is still subject to debate.

Kendall Shull, the former head of the FBI’s polygraph program, said that for questions to be reliable, they should be focused on past actions; questions that are too general or too broad could produce inaccurate results, he said.

The questions shouldn’t focus on a person’s intentions. “You cannot ask questions that ask for a person’s beliefs, opinions or expectations,” he said.

“You can’t ask if your spouse loves you. You can’t ask if they intend to divorce you,” he said. “But you can ask if they’ve visited an attorney.”

Contestants sign an agreement not to challenge the results of the polygraph test and Darnell told the Times that contestants tend not to dispute the accuracy of the test when caught in a lie.

James Blascovich, a University of California at Santa Barbara psychology professor who has done research on polygraph tests, suggested that the tests are useful because people believe they are accurate. “Because people believe, they might confess,” he said.

While the American Polygraph Association may be chagrined to see the polygraph used for entertainment purposes on a lowbrow television program, this use of the lie detector can at least do relatively little harm. There is broad consensus among scientists that polygraph testing is completely without scientific basis. Yet governmental agencies persist in using it for purposes of national security and public safety, and that can cause (and indeed has caused) great harm. To the extent that Fox’s “Moment of Truth” program fosters public re-examination of our reliance on this pseudoscience, some good may ultimately come of it.

For discussion of Fox’s Moment of Truth, see New Fox Gameshow “Moment of Truth” May Be a Golden Opportunity for Exposing Polygraphy as Quackery on the AntiPolygraph.org message board.

“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 AntiPolygraph.org 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 AntiPolygraph.org, 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, http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20051800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2005/05-248.htm .

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

“UNK to Receive $1 Million for Polygraph and Transportation Research”

SWNEBR.net reports. Excerpt:

KEARNEY, NE–In Kearney, Nebraska today Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson announced that the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) will receive one million federal research dollars to study two important issues.

The first project is to improve the reliability of polygraph technology in an effort to make it more useful in law enforcement and national security settings. Approximately half a million dollars has been dedicated to this polygraph research venture.

UNK researchers will investigate the influence of polygraph testing on false confessions and the use of lie detectors in the evaluation and monitoring of post conviction behavior.

Development of this project is in direct response to recommendations made by the National Research Council and the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute.

It should be noted that the National Research concluded with regard to future polygraph research that “[t]he inherent ambiguity of the physiological measures used in the polygraph suggest that further investments in improving polygraph technique and interpretation will bring only modest improvements in accuracy.” (original emphasis)

“Polygraphs? They’re Basically Useless Devices”

Syndicated columnist Steve Chapman comments in an article published by the Prescott, Arizona Daily Courier:

In May 1978, police arrested four Chicago-area men on charges of murdering a suburban man and raping and murdering his fiancée. All of the suspects said they were innocent, but no real doubt existed about their guilt: Three of them, after all, had failed a polygraph exam.

Eventually, a jury convicted the Ford Heights Four, as the public came to call them, for these brutal slayings, and two of the defendants received death sentences. But in 1996, DNA evidence exonerated all four. They had spent 18 years behind bars, partly because the lie detector lied.

A report issued in October 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that the federal government stop using polygraphs to screen for security risks. Why? Because, in the words of the study, these devices are “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results.” That’s academese for “I wouldn’t trust one as far as I could throw it.”

The Energy Department adopted polygraph screening of employees in response to the case of Wen Ho Lee, a scientist who was accused of spying for China but who ended up convicted of only a minor security violation. DOE now tests about 2,000 people a year. But George Mason University systems engineering professor Kathryn Laskey, a member of the NAS committee, noted that “no spy has ever been caught using the polygraph.”

Particular dangers lurk in subjecting lots of people to polygraphs in the effort to find a few wrongdoers, because false positives greatly will outnumber “true” positives. Some employees who have done nothing wrong will nonetheless have physiological reactions that look suspicious. Some accomplished liars will be able to fool the machine.

To nab eight out of every 10 real spies, the NAS report found, the device probably would have to erroneously implicate nearly 1,600 people. If its operators set it to minimize false positives, 80 percent of the real spies would slip past. But even then, it would flag 20 innocent people for every guilty one.

The same fallibility that renders these machines unusable for employee monitoring makes them dangerous for criminal investigations as well. Police and prosecutors regard polygraph results as the closest thing to a dead-bang certainty. But that faith lacks any foundation. “Almost a century of research in scientific psychology and physiology provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy,” the panel concluded.

And there is no reason to think that better technology will help. People simply don’t respond in a clear and predictable way to questions about what they may have done wrong. The “inherent ambiguity of the physiological measures used in the polygraph suggest that further investments in improving polygraph technique and interpretation will bring only modest improvements in accuracy,” said the report. Polygraphs are a crude that’s impossible to refine.

The consequences of a misleading polygraph exam are bad enough in the employment arena, where someone can lose a job or not get one. But they’re much worse for criminal suspects, who can be locked away or even put to death because their pulse rate rose too much in a stressful situation.

A polygraph result generally can’t be used as evidence in court. But some states allow the information if both the prosecution and the defense concur. So prosecutors may offer suspects the opportunity to clear themselves. Innocent suspects sometimes think they have nothing to lose and much to gain from going along – only to fail the test.

In 2002, an Ohio court officially cleared Jimmy Williams after he spent 10 years in prison for the alleged rape of a 12-year-old girl. In fact, the rape never happened, but the Akron man nonetheless managed to fail a polygraph exam. Because his lawyer had agreed in advance to admit the results, the jury heard the lie that the lie detector had implicated him.

Other defendants have been victims not only of the polygraph itself but also its aura of infallibility. Gary Gauger received a death sentence for the murder of his parents on their McHenry County, Ill., farm but was eventually exonerated. He took a polygraph during his interrogation, and the results were inconclusive. But the police told him he had failed it.

Our medieval forebears had their own lie detector test: They dunked suspected witches in water, on the theory that the innocent would sink and the guilty would float. Polygraphs aren’t quite as preposterous, but they’re bad enough.

E-mail Steve Chapman through the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

“Labs Will Scale Back Polygraphs”

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.

“Energy Dept. to Limit Polygraphs’ Use”

Associated Press correspondent Robert Gehrke reports in this article published in Newsday. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department plans to use fewer polygraph tests to detect espionage at energy labs after a study said employees could be unjustly accused — in effect reversing a policy that grew out of the Wen Ho Lee investigation.

The department will continue to use the so-called lie detector tests to screen a smaller number of workers with access to the most critically sensitive material — roughly 4,500 instead of more than 20,000 — Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

A National Academies of Science study found that the lie detector tests were not an effective means to screen for spies and would almost certainly result in “false positives” — innocent lab workers mistakenly coming under suspicion for espionage.

That may be the case in nearly one in six cases, based on the NAS study, and could damage morale at the labs and discourage top-tier scientists from working there, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a longtime opponent of the polygraph program.

If 20,000 people were tested, 3,000 would fail the test, Bingaman said.

“We believe national security is too important to be left with such a blunt instrument,” said Stephen Fienberg, chairman of the National Research Council committee that reviewed the use of polygraphs.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said McSlarrow’s revisions mark a major improvement, but “I’m still skeptical about the effect of what they’re going to have.”

The Energy Department began requiring employees take lie detector tests several years ago in the aftermath of the Wen Ho Lee controversy at the department’s nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. Lee was accused in 1999 of mishandling nuclear weapons codes; the case ended with a plea bargain that freed the Taiwanese-born scientist.

Concerns that the tests were inaccurate prompted congressional demands for the NAS review and that the Energy Department incorporate the results into their polygraph program.

“Polygraph testing yields an unacceptable choice,” the NAS report stated. “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.”

“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.

“Labs to Keep Giving Polygraph Tests”

Andrea Widener reports for the Contra Costa County Times. Excerpt:

Last fall, a panel of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences found that polygraph tests are unproven, and perhaps even dangerous, as a tool to search for potential spies at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs.

Its measures of heart rate, breathing and sweaty palms are easily tripped by the nervous but innocent, and easily fooled by experts. What’s more, the panel said, the polygraph gives security experts a misleading sense of security because spies can pass the screening test.

Despite this overwhelming finding, and a congressional mandate to reevaluate use of the test, the Department of Energy has stuck by the polygraph.

Its policy, released in April, is essentially unchanged: Thousands of nuclear weapons employees must take the test to keep their top security clearance.

The agency, which oversees nuclear weapons labs and production plants, said its mission of protecting nuclear secrets overrides the risks, and it can’t take away the polygraph until something better replaces it.

“The DOE does not believe that the issues the (National Academy) raised about the polygraph’s accuracy are sufficient to warrant a decision by DOE to abandon it as a screening tool,” was the agency’s official statement.

Lab employees and other critics say Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham’s decision was misguided. A bad test is worse than no test at all, they say, especially because some polygraph test givers have abused their position by asking inappropriate questions.

It hurts morale of the employees the agency says it values — longtime scientists with nuclear weapons design and testing experience.

“We want an end to screening with polygraph testing entirely,” said Jeff Colvin, a Lawrence Livermore Laboratory scientist who follows the issue for the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers.

The rule could still change. The DOE is taking comments until June 13. Several congressmen, including Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., are calling for hearings to force the DOE to explain its choice and are calling for legislation to prevent polygraph tests from continuing. But few believe the agency will reverse itself on its own.

“If the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t convince them, I don’t know what is going to,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, who represents the area that includes Lawrence Livermore and Sandia/California labs and wants House hearings. “It’s voodoo. And voodoo doesn’t protect our secrets.”

Lab scientists have long been subjected to polygraph tests, but until 1999 it was only a small number with special security clearance. Then, in the wake of a security and espionage scandal surrounding Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, someone slipped a mandate into a congressional bill that required up to 15,000 DOE employees be tested. The subsequent uproar caused a policy change, and DOE commissioned the National Academy study.

The 18-month review said polygraphs are occasionally useful in interrogations. But there is no evidence to suggest they can sort spies from loyal employees or to deter those who might become spies.

Panel members say they are “disappointed” that DOE essentially ignored the study, and that the agency shouldn’t rely on 1920s technology.

Polygraph testing isn’t like treating a cold with grandma’s chicken soup, which may help but won’t hurt, said David Faigman, a panel member who studies science and law at UC’s Hastings College of the Law. Negative polygraph tests can lead security officials to believe secrets are safe when they’re not, endangering security.

“I think (DOE’s choice) is a naive approach to the problem,” Faigman said. “There are bones in this particular chicken soup.”

“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.