Sen. Pete Domenici Assails DOE Polygraph Screening

Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico criticizes the Department of Energy’s decision to continue its reliance on polygraph screening:


APRIL 14, 2003                  (202) 224-7082


WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Pete Domenici today questioned the Department of Energy intention to continue heavy reliance on the use of extensive polygraph tests as a security screening tool for its employees, including workers at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.

“There is no question that DOE is under pressure because of problems involving security and lab management. This, however, should not be the basis for continuing a polygraph program that has been studied and found wanting,” Domenici said.

“This is definitely not the more focused polygraph policy I had hoped DOE and the NNSA would develop. I continue to believe that the system is too much and an affront especially since the polygraph program was so thoroughly criticized by the National Academy of Sciences. I hope the department will rethink this situation,” he said.

Domenici authored legislation, later incorporated into the FY2002 Defense Authorization Act, that required the DOE secretary and National Nuclear Security Administration administrator to implement a new DOE polygraph program based on the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Polygraph Review. Senator Jeff Bingaman cosponsored the legislation.

The NAS subsequently issued a report concluding that while polygraph tests have proven effective under some circumstances, they are not an effective way for DOE to screen current and prospective employees.

Domenici is chairman of both the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee that funds DOE and its national laboratory network.


“Lie-Detector Screening to Stay in Nuclear Labs”

Oakland Tribune staff writer Ian Hoffman reports. Excerpt:

Hundreds of nuclear weapons scientists and intelligence analysts will still be strapped to the polygraph machine for the time being, despite a recent report concluding that polygraphs miss spies and tar the innocent as security risks.

The U.S. Energy Department is racing to change its routine polygraph screening program before a six-month congressional deadline. But its lawyers argue that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is legally barred from suspending the controversial lie-detector tests until a new program is in place, according to an internal memo issued Wednesday.

“We are committed to moving rapidly on this issue but, until the secretary issues new regulations, we are obligated by law to continue the present program,” wrote Linton F. Brooks, acting chief of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos weapons labs.

More than 750 Sandia and Livermore employees in California who handle plutonium or nuclear weapons or have access to human intelligence face polygraph tests this year.

A Livermore union, the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers, had written Brooks urging suspension of the tests after a panel of national experts found that polygraphs were based on poor science and too unreliable to justify such heavy use by federal national-security agencies to screen their workers.

Given Brooks’ memo, the union now will ask Congress to scrap the law requiring polygraphs.

“Scientists Give the Lie to Polygraph Testing”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Charles Piller reports. Excerpt:

Polygraph testing for national security screening is little more than junk science, with results so inaccurate that they tend to be counterproductive, according to a long-awaited report released Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences.

The nation’s premier scientific organization said such tests, a key counterespionage tool for 50 years, promote false confidence that spies and other national security threats have been ferreted out.

Produced by experts in psychology, engineering, law and other fields, the report confirms long-standing doubts about the validity of polygraph testing that led to a 1988 federal law banning the use of such tests for employment screening in most private businesses.

Polygraph results are also inadmissible as evidence in nearly all state courts, with federal courts leaving the decision up to the judges.

“If logic has anything to do with it, then the report will have a major policy impact,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.

“I don’t think federal agencies stop and ask themselves how many spies have we caught with this—because the answer is ‘none’—or how many people have been unfairly denied employment, because the answer is ‘many.’ “

Federal security agencies would not discuss the report’s conclusions Tuesday, saying they needed time to review the 333-page report in detail.

The U.S. government subjects thousands of job applicants or employees in sensitive positions to “lie detector” tests each year.

The CIA and the National Security Agency administer polygraph tests to all job applicants and employees. The FBI and the Defense Department also test extensively, particularly since last year’s terrorist attacks. Such screenings are also common at large police departments nationwide.

“The polygraph has been, and continues to be, one of a number of useful tools in the applicant screening process,” said CIA spokesman Paul Nowack.

Linton Brooks, acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration—the agency responsible for the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile—said the agency will reassess its use of polygraphs in light of the new report.

“It is used not on a stand-alone basis but as part of a larger fabric of investigative and analytical reviews to help security personnel determine who should have access to classified information,” Brooks said.

A Pentagon spokesperson said the Defense Department has valued the polygraph “as an investigative tool” for half a century, but agrees that further research would be valuable.

Some experts say the wide-ranging and authoritative report, which was prepared by the academy’s research council based on 19 months of study, could trigger changes in security practice for agencies that depend on polygraph testing.

“It is going to be a watershed” that shifts the burden of proof from polygraph skeptics to its advocates, said Paul Giannelli, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and a consultant to the national academy panel.

“The report is so devastating that it will affect all uses of the polygraph,” he said, noting that the panel concluded that the government has “wasted millions of dollars and ought to go in a different direction.”

“Senators Propose Limited Polygraph Policy”

Roger Snodgrass of the Los Alamos Monitor reports. Excerpt:

New Mexico’s senators teamed up on Monday to strike another blow to a controversial polygraph testing program in the nation’s weapons laboratories.

Senate Bill 1261 [sic, correct 1276], cosponsored by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, would narrow the focus of Department of Energy polygraph tests to those who would most realistically pose an individual threat to American security secrets.

The statements of both senators on introducing the legislation were critical of the recent history of lie-detector escalation, which was imposed on the national laboratories in 1999 and expanded last year. The bill is intended to grant more flexibility to the Energy Secretary and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), directly in charge of the labs, to put in place a less restrictive polygraph policy.

NNSA Administrator Gen. John Gordon also has acknowledged the connection between polygraph testing and low morale in the weapons laboratories’ workforce.

“We have yet to convince the current workforce of the validity of the polygraph test as a screening tool,” Gordon testified to a House Armed Services Committee Hearing in April.

LANL employees have voiced their concerns since the first polygraph crackdown was imposed. The “Ask the Director” feature on the lab’s web page has produced four special editions answering questions about the polygraph policy.

In answer to one question, LANL Director John Browne wrote, “I have been very concerned about the significant increase in required polygraph testing among DOE contractors that was mandated by Congressional law last year.”

“I have been consistent in arguing that screening polygraphs do not add much value to security, unless you believe that they serve as a deterrent to people contemplating espionage,” he added, noting there are many examples to suggest that the deterrence value is low.

“Having stated this opinion,” he said, “we are required by our contract to follow the laws of the land.”

Browne’s answers were in response to employees who, among other complaints, pointed out inconsistencies in LANL’s official policies that define polygraph testing as voluntary, and yet treat a refusal to submit to a mandatory polygraph by leave without pay and termination with loss of severance pay.

“N.M. Senators Seek to Rein in Polygraph Testing by DOE”

Maria Cranor reports for the Albuquerque Tribune. Excerpt:

U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman have introduced legislation to reform current Department of Energy polygraphing practices at the agency’s national laboratories.

Domenici was a vocal opponent of Congress’ decision to expand polygraph testing in the DOE’s nuclear weapons labs last year. The expanded program, introduced to strengthen security at the labs, will require administering the tests to 5,000 or more DOE employees. In the aftermath of that decision, critics inside and outside the labs have increasingly questioned the scientific validity of the tests.

“Morale within the DOE nuclear laboratories and plants is declining, in part because of the implementation of the polygraph policy,” Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican, said. “These tests are simply not viewed as scientifically credible by many lab employees.”

The bill authorizes the DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to develop an interim polygraph program which would remain in effect until the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completes its analysis of the scientific validity of polygraphing. The NAS study, initiated last year at the request of the Clinton administration, is scheduled for completion in June 2002.