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Polygraphs and You  

New Security at the Labs

The last two years have not been good ones for the reputations of the national weapons laboratories. Security scandals have rocked the Los Alamos National Lab. Fiscal and management scandals have plague the National Ignition Facility program at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. As if Mother Nature wanted in on the action, in May of 2000, fires swept across New Mexico, burning in and around the Los Alamos Lab. All of these things have shaken the certainty and stability of the labs, but the security issues have brought the most anger from lab employees. Starting in 2000, many current lab employees and new hires are now required to submit to polygraph exams.

The two most visible changes to security were a temporary suspension of the foreign scientist visitor program and institution of the polygraph requirement. The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2000 passed a requirement for an expanded DOE polygraph program for lab employees. Amended by the Defense Authorization Act for FY2001 to include more personnel, this law requires DOE to administer polygraph examinations to certain personnel at the labs and headquarters who have access to sensitive and classified information. Personnel must be polygraphed prior to accessing certain categories of information and again every five years.

Will You Have to Take a Polygraph Test?

The scope of DOE's polygraph program is fairly broad. Although DOE tried to implement a rule for testing that covered only about 800 people, Congress amended the law in 2000 such that it covers about 20,000 people across the labs, weapons complex, and DOE headquarters (More Than 2,000 [LANL] Lab Workers Could Face Polygraph Tests. Associated Press. November 2, 2000). The requirement for polygraph testing covers people already working at the labs in certain areas, plus anyone applying for a job in those areas. There are eight categories of employment that require polygraphs.

  • Work that includes counterintelligence activities or access to counterintelligence sources and methods

  • Work that includes intelligence activities or access to intelligence sources and methods

  • Work in Special Access Programs

  • Work that is subject to the Personnel Security Assurance Program

  • Work that is subject to the Personnel Assurance Program

  • Positions that operate on a need-to-know basis regarding weapons design and operation

  • Positions within the Office of Independent Oversight and Performance Assurance

  • Positions within the Office of Security and Emergency Operations (Secretary of Energy Memorandum, Counterintelligence Polygraph Implementation Plan, Dec. 13, 1999)

Why Should I Worry? I've Got Nothing to Hide

The scientific basis for polygraph testing is extremely questionable. Known spies, such as Aldrich Ames, repeatedly defeated it. False positives can and do occur. The polygraph test itself measure physiological response to questions by measuring skin conductivity (a measure of perspiration), heart rate, respiration rates, and other responses supposedly indicative of the person's stress level under questioning. However these outputs are not definitive, and must be read by a polygraph examiner, a process that is as much art as science. Different examiners can come to vastly different conclusions. For example, Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee underwent a polygraph exam in 1998; it was reviewed by three different polygraphers, all who found no evidence of deception. A fourth FBI examiner looking at the exact same test results concluded that Lee was lying. (Polygraph Testing and the DOE National Laboratories, Steven Aftergood. Science, November 3, 2000). Since the polygraph is based on the variation of response within an individual, rather than a standardized metric, the results will always be subject to interpretation.

In many ways, the polygraph test itself is not the point. Counterintelligence and interrogation experts claim that polygraphs generate valuable information during the pretest and posttest interviews. (Scientific Validity of Polygraph Testing: A Research Review and Evaluation--A Technical Memorandum. US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-TM-H-15, November 1983.) In other words, fear of the test or fear of the results catalyzes many people to confess their "crimes" without even being attached to the machine. A polygraph examiner may point to a section of the printout, meaningless to you, and state that you expressed some stress around a particular question. Your efforts to explain yourself could be very illuminating. (A Tremor in the Blood: Uses and Abuses of the Lie Detector. David Thoreson Lykken. Plenum Press, 1998)

Polygraph testing as a means of screening employees has never been proven reliable. As a means of intimidation and coercion, however, polygraphs can be very useful. You cannot be sure, as an innocent person, that you will pass the test. Since you know you must take the test, to get or keep your job, the pressure to monitor and censor all your activities becomes greater.

Can't I Just Say No?

You always have choices in your life. You can choose to say no to a job at the lab. You can choose to say no to working on nuclear weapons. You can also choose to say no to the polygraph exam. DOE can't force you to take it. However, if you are already working in a polygraph zone, and you refuse the test, you will no longer have access to the information and knowledge necessary for your job. DOE states in its rulemaking that it will strive to relocate you to a different job in your local commuting area. It may not be possible to do so, in which case DOE "may have no reasonable option other than to terminate..[your employment.]"( Dec. 17, 1999 Federal Register, Polygraph Examination Regulation, Final Rule Title 10, Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 709, 710, and 711) The bottom line is that if you want to work at the labs, the conditions of your employment are background checks, security clearances, and polygraph testing.

What Do Lab Employees Think?

DOE received over 100 written comments on the proposed polygraph rule 9 (Dec. 17, 1999 Federal Register, Polygraph Examination Regulation, Final Rule Title 10, Code of Federal Regulations, Parts 709, 710, and 711). Additional people spoke out at public meetings. Many people questioned the validity of polygraphs. Employees have found the new security measures, including polygraphs, to be both annoying and insulting, calling into question their loyalty to the nation (Letter to Editor, Los Alamos Monitor, August 8, 2000). The Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers, an employee organization at the national labs, states in their August, 13 1999 position statement, "polygraphs will not increase security, but instead will lead to intimidation and resentment of the laboratories' workforce." Despite widespread anger over the polygraph program when it was announced in 1999, Congress passed a law in 2000 that requires even more positions and personnel to fall under polygraph requirements (Defense Authorization Act for FY2001, section 3135).

Other Resources


Los Alamos Study Group • 2901 Summit Place NE • Albuquerque, NM 87106 • ph 505-265-1200

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