Albuquerque TribuneA leading critic of government secrecy charged that a new congressional directive regarding polygraphs is likely to increase turmoil at America's nuclear weapons laboratories, further demoralize scientists and undermine national security.
November 3, 2000
New lie detector order at nuclear labs will hurt security, critic chargesBy Lawrence Spohn
Steve Aftergood said the latest congressional polygraph instructions to the Department of Energy actually threaten national security at the nation's nuclear laboratories, including Los Alamos and Sandia national labs.
Aftergood said he believes the measure likely will cast a pall over the already depressed national labs driving top scientists away and scaring off potential young recruits needed to bolster an aging and retiring nuclear weapons staff.
"I think Congress has derailed the debate with this legislation," said Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
Aftergood is the author of an article entitled "Polygraph Testing and the DOE National Laboratories," published in Thursday's issue of the prestigious journal Science.
The article challenges the effectiveness of polygraph testing, which he says has become "a symbol of security run amok" at the national labs.
Now, he added in an interview, "the Department of Energy does not have a lot of discretion, except to tell the truth and let the public know that it's Congress that is damaging the national security."
He referred to the Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress and signed Monday by President Clinton, who expressed extensive reservations about new polygraph testing at the labs.
In a bill message, Clinton called the new congressional measures disappointing and counterproductive to security. He signed the bill because of its overall positive impact on defense.
But the law apparently will require several thousand nuclear weapons scientists as opposed to the 900 finally identified last year by DOE to undergo routine lie detector testing.
Aftergood said the exact numbers haven't yet been determined, but they are large enough that it might take up to five years for DOE to meet the expanded legislative mandate for polygraph testing at Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Originally, DOE had expected to require 5,000 or more lab personnel to take the polygraph exams beginning last year. But officials severely reduced those numbers after their own lab scientists repeatedly and consistently challenged the scientific validity of polygraph testing.
Aftergood said Congress reacted after DOE interpreted the existing law "to apply to the smallest number of people that it could."
In the Science article, Aftergood reiterates the scientific challenges to polygraph testing voiced by scientists at all three nuclear weapons labs and cited the highly charged Wen Ho Lee case as an example of what nuclear weapons scientists might face.
Lee, the Los Alamos lab computer scientist who after months in jail pleaded guilty to a single charge of mishandling nuclear weapons information, originally passed a lie detector test at the lab in 1998, Aftergood noted in the article.
"Unusually strong readings indicated an absence of deception," he wrote, noting that two other polygraphers examined the results and concurred with the original findings.
However, he reported, the FBI reviewed "the very same data and concluded that Lee had failed the test."
"Clearly, if a single polygraph test can be used to support claims of both deception and non-deception, as in the unfortunate case of Dr. Lee, then this is not a mature methodology, to say the least," Aftergood concluded.
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