“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.

“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 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.

“Agency Uses Polygraph Despite Shortcomings”

The Associated Press reports in this story published in the Washington Times. Excerpt:

The Energy Department decided yesterday to continue using polygraph tests to protect the nation’s nuclear-arms stockpile, despite a scientific study that found severe shortcomings in the tests’ accuracy.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the department must use the best tools available to protect sensitive information about the stockpile. Critics said the department is making a mistake by ignoring recommendations of the study of polygraph effectiveness conducted six months ago at the urging of Congress.

“Basically they’ve ignored the evidence,” said Stephen Fienberg of Carnegie Mellon University, who was chairman of the National Academy of Sciences study.

A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, said the Energy Department’s response to the National Academy of Sciences is a “surprising and disappointing result” that is hard to understand.

The Energy Department imposed polygraph requirements on employees several years ago in the aftermath of the Wen Ho Lee spy situation at the department’s nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. Many scientists at department labs objected that the tests were inherently inaccurate, which prompted congressional inquiries and the scientific review.

Congress ordered the Energy Department to take the study’s findings into account.

In a proposed rule, however, the department says that retaining the program is well-suited to fulfilling national security needs.

The scientific review led by Mr. Fienberg concluded that federal agencies should not rely on polygraphs to screen workers and job applicants because the machines are too inaccurate.

The likelihood of ignoring a spy because he passed a polygraph test is so high that relying on the tests is probably a greater danger to national security than discarding them, Mr. Fienberg said in response to the proposed Energy Department rule.

“It’s bureaucratic impudence,” said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. “Energy said, ‘We’ll replace the existing policy with precisely the same policy.’ “

By refusing to change, Mr. Abraham is expressing unwillingness to make life difficult for intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, which made the mistake long ago of using polygraphs as their primary counterintelligence tool, said Dr. Alan Zelicoff, senior scientist in the Center for National Security and Arms Control at Sandia National Laboratory.

Dr. Zelicoff, whose laboratory is covered by the Energy Department policy, said the careers of some scientists have been ruined because of false positive results on polygraph tests.

“Lying About Polygraphs”

Noted skeptic James Randi comments on polygraphy in this week’s Swift newsletter:

We’ve assailed the use of polygraph (“lie detector”) technology here, many times. It is simply an area of failed technology, one that seemed promising, but then proved to be not only faulty, but quite dangerous to those upon whom was inflicted. State and federal governments, however, opted to embrace it despite the facts. Why are we not surprised? We can’t forget that jailed nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee was misled by federal investigators who told him he had failed a Department of Energy lie-detector test. During a lengthy interrogation, FBI agents pressured Lee to admit to passing nuclear weapons secrets to China. Lee said he had not and insisted he was telling the truth. His interrogators, however, never told him that DOE polygraph operators had actually given him a high score for honesty. Lee is only one victim of this mis-use of technology.

Now, in the latest reality check, Dr. Stephen E. Fienberg, chairman of the statistics department at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, concluded that “almost a century of research has produced a pseudoscience good for tricking naive people into blurting out the truth, but not much else.”

Fienberg headed up a panel appointed by the National Academies of Science to evaluate the worth of polygraphy, and found it used by “every three- and four-letter agency you can imagine, including the US Postal Service.” The report was released last October, but the US Department of Defense (DOD) happily found a loophole that allowed them to notify Congress that it might ask for authorization to conduct more than the 5,000 polygraph exams now allowed per year under Public Law 100-180, passed in 1991, because the NAS report said that the polygraph technique is “the best tool currently available to detect deception and assess credibility.” “Yes sir, we’re still going to remove your appendix, even though we have to use a pickaxe — the best available tool, don’tcha know?”

As Fienberg noted, the DOD is only one of many government agencies that use polygraph examinations on employees and contractors. When asked, a spokesman for the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services would not discuss whether polygraph tests were in their investigative arsenal, but the DOD spokesman did name OIG as one of the government bodies that use polygraphs.

Fienberg’s panel was organized at a time when scientists were protesting the use of lie detector tests at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and as a science recruiter has warned, the use of this failed technology “causes so much more turmoil than it solves. The big concern is that you’re going to chase away scientific talent. It’s not an environment scientists want to work in, where pseudoscience can end your career.”

I would add that any responsible scientist would balk at working for an organization that uses pseudoscience to test his suitability for the position. That would also apply to tarot cards, tea leaves, and fortune-cookies as tools of the Truth Trade. Not much sillier, folks!

“Pseudoscience Applied to Scientists: US Government Agencies Still Using Discredited Polygraphy in Security Checks”

Peggy Brickley reports for The Scientist. Excerpt:

Life scientists who work on sensitive government projects could find themselves hooked-up to polygraph machines in spite of continued criticism of the science behind such lie-detector tests.

“It’s everywhere — every three- and four-letter agency you can imagine, including the US Postal Service,” said Stephen E. Fienberg, chairman of the statistics department at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Fienberg led a panel appointed by the National Academies of Science to evaluate the worth of polygraphy. Released in October, their report concluded that almost a century of research has produced a pseudoscience good for tricking naive people into blurting out the truth, but not much else.

So Fienberg was surprised to find his panel’s report cited in favor of potentially raising the number of lie detector tests the Department of Defense (DOD) is allowed to administer. In the annual report it filed with Congress in January, DOD stated it had administered more than 11,500 of the tests in fiscal year 2002. Of that total, 4,219 were “counterintelligence-scope polygraph,” or CSP, exams, subject to a 5,000-exam-per-year limit under a Public Law 100-180, passed in 1991.

In its January report, DOD put Congress on notice that it might ask for authorization to conduct more than the allowed 5,000 polygraph exams per year, and cited the NAS report in support, according to Steven Aftergood, who monitors polygraph policy for the Federation of American Scientists.

“[I]t is important to note that the NRC Report also concluded that the polygraph technique is the best tool currently available to detect deception and assess credibility,” the DOD FY2002 report stated. “The Department will continue to use the polygraph technique as it has in the past, until improved technologies or methodologies are developed as a result of scientific research.”

Fienberg called DOD’s reference to the NAS report “disingenuous.” A DOD spokesman said it was drawn directly from the NAS panel’s conclusion that, while more promising technologies are on the horizon, none yet has supplanted polygraphy.

For discussion of this article, see the AntiPolygraph.org message board thread, Polygraph article.

“Spies Get Past Polygraphs, Panel Says”

Reuters health and science correspondent Maggie Fox reports. Excerpt:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Lie detectors may work in some cases, but they are too flawed to use for general security screening and could let through skilled spies, an independent panel said on Tuesday.

Not only do polygraphs cost many honest people a government job, but there are spies and criminals who probably know how to deceive them, said the National Academy of Sciences panel, appointed at the request of the Department of Energy.

“Someone who passes a polygraph is often treated as if he were no longer a security threat,” Kevin Murphy, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, told a news conference. “We believe that is not justified.”

“It means that if there were spies or major violators in their organization, they are not catching them,” added Stephen Fienberg, chairman of the committee and a professor of statistics and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “This is clearly a problem for national security.”

The skill or technique of the questioner, and the equipment used, makes no difference, the report concluded.

“We stress that no spy has been caught yet using a polygraph,” said Kathryn Laskey, an associate professor of systems engineering and operations research at George Mason University in Virginia.

The academy committee, made up of lawyers, psychologists, engineers and other professionals who had no experience with polygraphs, spent a year and a half studying the issue. They interviewed polygraph experts at the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, as well as at the Energy Department, and reviewed previous studies.


It is clear that agencies rely heavily upon them.

“The U.S. federal government, through a variety of agencies, carries out thousands of polygraph tests each year on job applicants and current employees, and there are inevitable disputes that are sometimes highly publicized when someone ‘fails’ a polygraph test,” the panel wrote.

“The polygraph seems to have received undue deference,” said Fienberg.

He said people believe having to pass a polygraph test acts as a deterrent to would-be criminals and spies, and the committee could not say whether this was indeed the case.

Murphy said thousands of people had likely been turned down for government jobs for flunking a polygraph test — tens of thousands when local police and law enforcement departments were included.

“Certainly many are turned away erroneously,” Fienberg added.

“How Not to Catch a Spy: Use a Lie Detector”

Pittsburg Post-Gazette science editor Byron Spice reports. Excerpt:

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Not polygraph examiners, at least not those charged with finding spies and other security risks within the ranks of federal employees, a new National Research Council report concludes.

Lie detectors simply aren’t accurate enough to ferret out of what is presumably a handful of spies amid the tens of thousands of federal employees who undergo polygraph examinations each year, said Stephen Fienberg, a Carnegie Mellon University statistician who headed the study.

“The polygraph itself has not caught a single spy,” Fienberg said yesterday following the release of his panel’s two-year study on the use of polygraphs for screening employees. Lie detector results, he explained, “are better than chance, but well below perfection.”

That can make lie detectors an effective interrogation tool for police trying to choose from among a handful of suspects, but even then, a large part of their effectiveness owes to their mystique, Fienberg said. The widespread belief that they work — or might work — can lead to confessions.

But when used as a screening tool, polygraphs can be expected to miss many, if not most, spies, while misidentifying untold numbers of loyal citizens as suspicious.

Even if the test were designed to catch eight of every 10 spies, it would produce false results for large numbers of people. For every 10,000 employees screened, Fienberg said, eight real spies would be singled out, but 1,598 innocent people would be singled out with them, with no hint of who’s a spy and who isn’t.

Yet use of lie detectors as screening tools has expanded, particularly at the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons laboratories following the Wen Ho Lee “spy” case at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“But it’s not just the DOE,” Fienberg said. “It’s the CIA, the FBI, the NSA. It’s every three-letter agency. Even the Postal Service is using polygraphs.” The Department of Defense alone administers 10,000 polygraph examinations every year.

“The polygraph is one of many tools we use to protect some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets,” said Linton Brooks, acting administrator of DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. “It is used not on a stand-alone basis, but as part of a fabric of investigative and analytical reviews to help security personnel determine who should have access to classified information.”

Still, law enforcement and security personnel seem to trust the polygraph more than other tools, Fienberg said. The study panel concluded that this is a misplaced trust that leads to overconfidence. “And this overconfidence can lead to a false sense of security,” he added.

Al Zelicoff, a bioweapons expert at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., and an outspoken critic of DOE’s polygraph use, agreed that the cloud of suspicion almost always lifts once an individual has passed a lie detector test. “That’s a very bad assumption,” he added, given that no one claims that polygraphs are perfect.

But the new report makes clear that the polygraph “is worse than worthless when used in a screening mode,” said Zelicoff, a Pittsburgh native and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Lots of honest people are unfairly placed under suspicion and precious resources are diverted from other security measures, he maintained.

“Telling the Truth About Lie Detectors”

Dan Vergano reports for USA Today. Excerpt:

A long-time law enforcement favorite, the lie detector, now finds itself sweating the hot lights of scientific inquiry.

Crime dramas have long depicted the polygraph’s tangle of wires and wiggling chart lines uncovering lies during a hard-boiled criminal interrogation. As suspects are questioned, the device checks for sweaty skin or racing hearts to root out deception, but the machine’s accuracy has long been in dispute.

Nonetheless, the polygraph has a higher-than-ever profile. It’s an ongoing bone of contention on Capitol Hill and a factor in recent spy investigations of FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen and physicist Wen Ho Lee. In the Lee case, the FBI’s contention the physicist had lied on a polygraph test in 1998 led to 59 charges, all but one dropped in a plea bargain two years later. That sparked a request for a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, due as soon as the first week of October, on the validity of the polygraph.

Now, some of the same politicians who called for polygraphs of federal employees are involved in an FBI investigation aimed at finding who’s responsible for a classified intelligence leak about two intercepted messages that hinted at the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many House-Senate intelligence committee staffers and legislators, perhaps most prominently Sen. Richard Shelby, R.-Ala., have declined to take polygraph tests.

“Allowing the executive branch to submit the legislative branch to lie-detector tests raises constitutional issues of separation of powers,” Shelby says, in a statement.

Polygraph critics such as Alan Zelicoff of Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico find the sensitivity of Shelby and his committee peers ironic, noting two years ago that the committee helped instigate the polygraph screening of weapons scientists designed to root out spies.

A physician biodefense researcher at the weapons lab, Zelicoff has led opposition to the polygraph there, saying that for screening purposes, the device’s measures — pulse, blood pressure, breathing and sweating — reveal deception about as well as a coin flip. He likens the polygraph to a defective medical test, one whose high false-positive rate, depicting honest people as liars, makes it unreliable as a diagnostic tool. Last year, Attorney General John Ashcroft estimated the false-positive rate of polygraphs at 15%, about a one-in-six chance, at a news conference.

Polygraphs are perhaps the most controversial tool in law enforcement. Some states and federal court judges now accept lie-detector results, but many states ban them outright. A 1998 Supreme Court decision allowed such bans, but read in part, “There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable: The scientific community and the state and federal courts are extremely polarized on the matter.”

The disagreements have become so entrenched that the NAS deliberately sought members for its report committee who had never staked out a position on the issue. “My primary qualification is I’ve never worked on the topic,” noted committee chair Stephen Fienberg, a statistics expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The key question before his committee is whether the lie-detector test is a scientific test of deception.