By Jennifer McKee
More than 2,000 Los Alamos National Laboratory employees may have to take lie-detector tests as part of an anti-spying program included in the Defense Authorization Bill signed into law this week.
The program, which expands polygraph tests to as many 20,000 employees throughout the Department of Energy, has sparked criticism from many, including President Clinton, who called the program "unrealistic" and "impractical."
Department of Energy officials haven't tallied the exact number of employees subject to the new polygraph tests, said Douglas Hinckley, program director for the DOE's Counterintelligence Evaluation Board. Most estimates, including those from Los Alamos, are high, he said, because of the way the law is written. The bill lists the various DOE programs covered by the new polygraph requirements, but many DOE employees are members of more than one program.
Hinckley estimated that between 19,000 and 20,000 employees throughout the DOE will need to take lie detector tests. Some of them already took polygraphs after last year's Defense Authorization Bill pioneered widespread polygraph testing in the department.
At the Los Alamos lab, spokesperson Jim Danneskiold estimated Wednesday that upwards of 2,000 people would fall under the new polygraph regulations. About 100 of those have already taken lie detector tests, he said. His estimate includes both the employees covered under last year's guidelines and the new DOE departments Congress added in this year's authorization bill.
"We cannot determine the exact number," Danneskiold said. "It would certainly exceed 2,000."
Congress started requiring mass polygraphing in the department last year, said Jane Brody, a DOE spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.
The testing began amid concerns that spies were feeding nuclear secrets to the Chinese, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
The 2000 Defense Authorization Bill required as many 14,000 people to take lie detector tests, Brody said.
"DOE thought that was too many," she said. Far fewer than that have actually taken the tests so far, as the DOE tried to keep the numbers low.
Nevertheless, Congress expanded the polygraph program this year, adding four more programs to the list.
In all, about 5,000 people were added, Hinckley said.
The bill passed amid national debate about the value of polygraphs.
Posted on the White House Web site is a critical statement from President Clinton. In the statement, Clinton said the tests would be "counterproductive in their impact on our national security. The bill also micromanages the Secretary of Energy."
New Mexico's Sen. Pete Domenici also came out against the additional testing, saying the tests further deflate the already flattened morale at many weapons labs. Domenici promised to push for an end to the program within the next year, one of his aides said Wednesday. In a news release, Domenici said he hoped DOE would be cautious in putting the new law into action.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the jury is still out on polygraphs.
"Their validity has never been proven scientifically," Aftergood said, adding that "almost every scientist" who has studied polygraphs has concluded that the tests are not reliable. New Mexico is the only state in the country that allows polygraphs as evidence in court trials, he said.
The tests fail for two reasons, Aftergood said. By measuring heart rate and sweaty palms, polygraphs pick up physiological changes sometimes associated with lying. But a good liar doesn't always experience such changes, he said, and some honest people can also have a quickened heart rate.
The big question, Aftergood said, is do the benefits of polygraphs outweigh some of the morale problems they cause?
"I am not aware that a single spy has been caught at Los Alamos using a polygraph," he said. "But I know it has had an impact on recruitment of new scientists (throughout DOE) and probably has had an impact on retention."
According to Hinckley, the tests don't actually catch spies, but they might deter potential spies from taking nuclear secrets.
"You want to be able to detect (espionage)," he said, "but you'd rather be proactive in trying to prevent it in the first place."