“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.

“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.”