Polygraph tests are bad policy

Tests: It is hypocritical to require them for many federal employees while exempting top officials, a critic charges.

August 01, 1999|By Laird B. Anderson

SPARKED BY allegations that Chinese spies stole secrets from U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, the Department of Energy plans to administer polygraph tests to an estimated 5,000 scientists and others who handle sensitive national security information.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered the tests last fall despite protests from lower-ranking DOE officials. At the time, it was unclear that the so-called "lie detector" tests would be given on a broad scale instead of a case-by-case basis in instances in which espionage was suspected.

After the first round of testing at the DOE, the employees will be retested every five years. The Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency have similar policies authorizing the broad use of polygraph tests to monitor employees.

The widespread use of the tests by these agencies is troubling for a couple of reasons.

First, the tests show changes in blood pressure, pulse and respiration rates -- not whether someone is lying. Aldrich Ames, the convicted CIA spy, fooled the machine, while innocent people often have registered false positives.

In 1983, the House Committee on Operations reporting on Reagan administration proposals to expand the use of polygraph tests and enhance government reliance on them concluded that "there is no scientifically acceptable evidence to support" the increased use of polygraphs, and there is "good reason" to believe that more testing would "result in high error rate, thereby causing harm to many innocent people and our government."

Second, the use of the tests is hypocritical. In 1988, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act was passed to prohibit the use of polygraphs as a wholesale screening device for workers in the private sector. The law restricts polygraph testing to instances in which there is probable cause to suspect a worker of wrongdoing.

Why, then, must lower-ranking government workers -- as a condition for keeping their jobs -- submit to being strapped to a machine when the people at the top of the organizational chart are exempt from polygraphs?

Richardson, for example, is the ultimate handler of super-sensitive nuclear information, but he is not required to take the test. Why? Because he is a presidential appointee, who must undergo a FBI background check and Senate confirmation.

Meanwhile, Richardson, presumably to boost morale and to head off criticism, has told a group of employees, including scientists, that he would voluntarily undergo a polygraph test.

Most employees of DOE's new Office of Counterintelligence have been polygraphed, including its director, Edward J. Curran, a former counterespionage official at the FBI. Eugene Habiger, a retired Air Force four-star general who is chief of the agency's newly formed Office of Security and Emergency Operations, is scheduled for an exam.

While the DOE says the test questions will focus on possible espionage, sabotage, terrorism, leaks of classified information and unauthorized disclosures of classified information, many employees are concerned about possible invasions of their personal lives.

Officials are trying to reassure them that questions concerning their lifestyles and individual beliefs are out of bounds. But Richardson recently acknowledged the hazards when he said, "I expect continued concern and opposition from some of the [nuclear] laboratories and lab employees and civil liberties groups, and I fully expect lawsuits."

The FBI is another high-profile agency that recently began using polygraphs. Job applicants have been given the tests since 1994. By mid-1997, 8,014 applicants had been screened by the tests, according to agency figures.

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh didn't have to take the exam when he was appointed in 1993 but was later tested for national security reasons. Also, future directors will be required to take a polygraph test as other applicants are, an FBI official said.

While some agencies have only recently begun using polygraphs, the Department of Defense, where security clearance investigations are routine, has been using the tests for nearly 50 years.

During fiscal 1998, DOD conducted nearly 11,000 polygraph examinations, almost 7,500 of them as conditions of access to highly classified information. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen were exempted from the testing in addition to officers above the three-star level and civilians at equivalent levels.

In a 1998 report to Congress, DOD said the polygraph is "one of our most effective investigative tools" and "often is the only investigative technique capable of providing essential information to resolve national security and criminal investigations."

That view is not necessarily universal. Detractors criticize the exam as highly unreliable. In most legal cases, polygraph results are not admissible as evidence.

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