Sunday, July 2, 2000
Polygraph Bill Raises Concerns
By Ian Hoffman
Journal Staff Writer
As scientists feared, House Republicans are again pushing polygraph tests for potentially thousands of weapons lab workers with access to even the least significant bomb secrets.
Lab scientists already revile the use of polygraphs for security screening as scientifically unproven and an insult. Several scientists abandoned weapons work at Los Alamos National Laboratory last year, and Congress' angry rhetoric over two lost, then found hard drives containing nuclear weapons information has increased talk of defections.
"So the flogging continues until morale improves," quipped Sandia National Laboratories engineer William Sullivan.
"Working at the labs and working on classified (weapons research) is a choice," Sullivan said. "If you make it threatening enough, people aren't going to choose classified work or even work at the labs."
The House last week voted for a Republican idea to withhold the salary for any Los Alamos National Laboratory employee who has "failed" to undergo polygraphs ordered by Congress last year.
And on Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee unanimously passed a bill by California Republican Duncan Hunter requiring polygraphs for anyone with access to a vault containing "restricted data."
Some New Mexico lawmakers oppose broader use of polygraphs and have pledged to kill both provisions before they become law.
"A lot of this talk about polygraphs is ill-informed," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. She said she will press the House Select Intelligence and Commerce committees to vote on Hunter's bill before it reaches the House floor. And she predicted fellow Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Democrat Sen. Jeff Bingaman will oppose both measures in the Senate.
"I will work with the good senators to make sure it never sees the light of day," Wilson said.
Restricted data is the general classification for data on the design and making of nuclear weapons, plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
A "Q" clearance is required for handling top-secret and secret restricted data, but data classified at the lower confidential level can be handled by "L" cleared employees. That means Hunter's polygraph requirement would cover thousands more workers than any previous polygraph proposal.
The rest of his bill calls for an inventory of restricted data in vaults, plus visual identification of anyone entering a vault at any time.
"To a large extent, it's knee-jerk stuff," said Steve Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of American Scientists.
"Many members of the current Congress are given to this kind of chest thumping," Aftergood said. "The message here is a lack of confidence in the Department of Energy and Los Alamos with respect to security policy. And they are trying to dictate the details of policy from the halls of Congress, which is simply bound to be a mistake."
Government policies on security are never so simple as locking up secrets and polygraphing employees who might see them, according to Aftergood. Security professionals make policy by weighing a number of factors, such as the threat to national security of losing secrets and the cost of protecting them, measured in money, research and the morale of scientists.
"Congress isn't taking any of that into account," Aftergood said.
Particle physicist Sidney Drell, a government adviser on nuclear-weapons science and a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, said he believes science and security can co-exist in balance.
"But you can't just say we're going to impose all kinds of strict procedures to make it a place where people feel they're always under the gun," Drell said.
Screening polygraphs, unlike those used in criminal investigations, tend to produce false positives. That is, they find more people lying than truly are.
"Here you're expecting scientists for whom the coin of the realm is data to put their careers on the line with an instrument that has never been scientifically validated," Drell said.
Congress and the Energy Department must delicately balance security with the labs' ability to attract bright scientists and to push American military technology ahead, he said.
"It's the ability to make the big knowledge breaks that add to our national security," Drell said. "If you kill the culture of science and close it down, those kinds of advances will be gone."