Knight Ridder/Tribune News ServiceSAN JOSE, Calif. -- The already sensitive issue of polygraph testing for employees at the nation's weapons design laboratories has been inflamed by a new law that requires the controversial security measure for even more lab workers.
Contra Costa Times
November 9, 2000
New polygraph law may mean tests for thousands of lab employeesBy Andrea Widener
Up to 20,000 employees throughout the Department of Energy will have to take the tests, which many scientists see as both unreliable and ineffective when it comes to strengthening oft-criticized lab security.
That means hundreds more employees at weapons design laboratories like Lawrence Livermore and Sandia/California -- between 6,000 and 7,000 more throughout the DOE -- will be subject to the tests.
News of the new law, which President Clinton signed last week, is just now filtering down to lab employees. It is sure to bring the kind of criticism that inspired letters of protest and buttons proclaiming "Just say no to Polygraphs."
Critics also say the tests won't help widely acknowledged recruitment and retention problems plaguing the weapons design labs after a year of security crackdowns and bad publicity.
"Very little about the current implementation of polygraph requirements makes sense," said Larry Wiley, a physicist in one of Lawrence Livermore's weapons design divisions. "These directives diminish morale at the national labs and destroy scientists' confidence in our Congressional leadership."
The provision mandating the polygraph tests was created late in the Congressional law-making process, which means there was little to no public input. In fact, the DOE had been encouraging Congress wait and, instead, give previously mandated security regulations a chance to work, said Edward Curran, the DOE's director of counterintelligence.
Congress had no real reason to expand the program, he said. Just fewer than 1,500 employees have taken polygraph tests so far. None have failed and no spies have been caught.
"This is a punishment to DOE," said Curran, explaining many people in the intelligence community agree fewer people need to have polygraph tests. "We were up on the hill saying, 'This is not necessary. They obviously totally ignored that."
The President also protested the new provision when he signed the bill into law last week.
"I am deeply disappointed that the Congress has taken upon itself to set greatly increased polygraph requirements that are unrealistic in scope, impractical in execution and that would be strongly counterproductive in their impact on our national security," Clinton wrote.
The DOE had originally designed a program that would give the tests to fewer than 3,000 employees, Curran said. After protests from lab employees that the tests were both unscientific and ineffective at preventing spying, that number was settled at about 800 employees nationwide.
"Ever since I've been here, which was 28 years ago, I've seen a lot of respect for security rules and policies, and the reason was that they made sense," said Lawrence Livermore computer scientist Patrick Weidhaas, president of the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers. "Then along comes the polygraph. . . . They are not objecting to security measures that make sense."
A congressional mandate last year, tied into a reorganization of the DOE, mandated tests for 13,000 to 14,000 employees, Curran said.
Under the new law, some employees will be able to get temporary waivers from the tests. Just how many has not yet been determined.
"For all of their posturing about improving security, (members of Congress) are actually doing damage to what they claim to want to protect," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project.
Curran said the DOE did not give them more money to implement the program. The DOE has hired about a dozen professional polygraph administrators, but they cannot administer more than about 1,000 tests per year. And they have been given no new money to set up the program.
In probably six months or a year, after they have some solid data on the program's effectiveness, DOE officials will likely go back to Congress and ask them to change the law, Curran said. But they will wait until there is a new Congress.
Aftergood said there are two basic approaches to security, one assumes anyone could be a spy and the other assumes 99.99 percent of employees are not spies.
"You have to decide whether lab employees are your allies or suspects," he said. "Congress has decided they are suspects."
Copyright 2000 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service