“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.

“Government to Give Fewer Lie Detector Tests”

New York Times correspondent William J. Broad reports. Excerpt:

The Energy Department said yesterday in a surprise announcement that it was sharply cutting the number of lie detector tests it would give to people with access to nuclear secrets, particularly at the nation’s weapons laboratories.

The deputy energy secretary, Kyle E. McSlarrow, said at a Senate hearing that the new policy was likely to reduce the number of people given polygraph tests to 4,500, mainly in sensitive arms and intelligence posts, from some 20,000 now.

“No one,” Mr. McSlarrow said, “has suggested that we abandon their use, or that we hire people and entrust them with national defense information with no prior checks or reviews whatsoever.”

But he acknowledged that the department, which runs the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories, had faced many criticisms of the polygraph technique in the last year and had come to agree with some of them. Thus, he said, officials proposed “substantial changes” in the tests’ routine use for trying to ferret out spies.

In 2001, Congress instructed the Department of Energy to adopt widespread polygraph screening in reaction to the case of Wen Ho Lee, the scientist at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico who was suspected of being a spy but was freed from jail in September 2000 after admitting to a security violation. That order raised an outcry from experts who ridiculed lie detector tests as pseudoscientific and a potential threat to national security.

Last October, in a report requested and paid for by the Energy Department, a panel convened by an arm of the National Academy of Sciences said polygraph testing was too flawed to use for security screening. The panel said lie detector tests did a poor job of identifying national security risks and were likely to produce accusations against innocent people.

The department’s retreat came as a surprise to members of Congress and scientific experts who were preparing to criticize the widespread testing yesterday before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. At the hearing, the panel’s chairman, Senator Pete V. Domenici, whose New Mexico constituents include thousands of employees of the Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear arms laboratories, praised the department’s announcement.

“This is a smart decision,” Mr. Domenici said. “I have been appalled by the D.O.E.’s continued massive use of polygraph tests in the wake of a national study condemning the reliability of these tests. Our national scientists deserve better.”

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.