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Inside the Pentagon, September 30, 1999
copyright Inside the Pentagon
republished with permission

Tauscher wants scaled-down plan


Calling the Energy Department's plans to expand polygraph testing at the agency nuclear labs "overly broad," Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), a member of the Armed Services Committee, is asking Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to drop those plans and enact a moratorium on all polygraph tests until an alternative system for testing DOE employees is developed.

Richardson had proposed expanding the use of polygraph testing as part of a larger initiative to improve the agency's counterintelligence operations. The initiative has been bitterly opposed by lab employees who question the value of widespread testing and fear their careers could be threatened if polygraphs give a false reading.

Although she applauds Richardson's efforts to beef up counterintelligence and security at agency nuclear labs, both of which, she says, have endured "decades-long mismanagement," Tauscher also expresses concerns that the expanded polygraph program could undermine civil liberties.

"In this effort to secure our most prized nuclear secrets, we must guard against methods that may offer a false sense of security," Tauscher writes in a Sept. 28 letter to Richardson. "We also must reject remedies that are out of balance with our constitutional commitment to the personal rights and freedoms of all Americans. I believe the department's expanded polygraph program fails these tests."

With such strong opposition from the scientific community to Richardson's proposal, the initiative could harm recruitment and retention of key personnel at the labs, she says. The lawmaker's district includes Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories.

In addition, the lawmaker questions the added value of expanded polygraph testing, arguing that the program will likely have only a "minimal impact on overall security," and she raises concerns about the efficacy of polygraph testing.

"If not used correctly, polygraphs can do more harm than good," Tauscher says. "The physical manifestations that trigger the machine could just as easily result from a lie as from a truthful statement made by someone who is understandably nervous. Conversely, icy, pathological liars could pass just as easily as those who are truly honest."

In the letter, reprinted with this article, Tauscher notes that convicted spy Aldrich Ames, who gave U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union, passed numerous polygraph tests.

"Even if polygraph tests match their optimistic expectations of 95 percent proficiency, 50 scientists out of every thousand tested could be put in a career threatening predicament by registering a false positive," she writes.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore spoke out at a DOE hearing this month on the polygraph initiative. Several of them said they "fear that a false positive could end their careers as quickly as a guilty verdict," the letter says. "Many of these scientists . . . said that they would rather take early retirement than face the prospect of random polygraph testing," Tauscher adds.

Polygraph testing could deter prospective employees from choosing to work at the labs, according to Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy.

At a Sept. 22 DOE public hearing on the proposed polygraph program, Aftergood, taking note of the scientific community's opposition to the proposed changes, said Richardson's plan may "damage the department's ability to attract and retain the finest scientific personnel."

"If the polygraph requirement significantly diminishes the ability of the labs to retain and attract employees, then the department will have caused what no foreign adversary and no spy has ever been able to accomplish -- the weakening of the national security technology base," he said. "It is after all the employees of the national laboratories -- rather than documents or computers -- that hold the promise of innovation in national security science and technology and that are the labs' most precious asset."

Tauscher advocates a "scaled-down" polygraph program like the one proposed in the fiscal year 2000 defense authorization act. Language in the bill requires tests only for "a select group of scientists who have a heightened responsibility for security because of their 'special access' to our most sensitive security secrets."

The authorization bill, which also creates a semi-autonomous agency within DOE to oversee the nuclear weapons complex, has recently, yet begrudgingly, been endorsed by Richardson.

In addition to limiting the use of polygraphs, the lawmaker also wants Richardson to relegate "polygraph testing from a primary determinant of loyalty to its appropriate and proportional role as one of many investigatory tools."

The authorization bill stipulates that failure to pass a polygraph test should not be the sole reason for terminating an employee, she says.

Tauscher asks Richardson to consider and respond to a number of questions and concerns she has about DOE's polygraph testing plans, including:

Tauscher says she supports the use of polygraph testing when "used within the context" of a broader investigation, and she supports embracing reliable state-of-the-art technology in counterintelligence efforts.

"If used properly, polygraph tests can be effective," she writes. "But we also need to ensure that any new measures employed to fight espionage do so effectively and do not unduly compromise the work at our labs or the rights of our lab employees." -- Keith J. Costa

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