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.