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Polygraphs and the National Labs: Dangerous Ruse Undermines National Security

Comment and Opinion

Alan P. Zelicoff

Volume 25.4, July / August 2001

In ancient Rome, emperors would divine truth by reading the entrails of animals or vanquished foes. The twists and turns of the digestive guts held secrets that only “experts” could see. No self-respecting general would take his legions into battle before seeking the wisdom of the shamans who predicted the battle’s outcome from the appearance of the intestines of chickens and men. It was a brutal approach, and not at all effective. In the end, we all know what happened to the Roman Empire.

Today, under the mandate of the Congress and in the name of “national security,” the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is using much the same technique with a little box wired to unwary subjects: the polygraph. The polygraph has its own colorful history, not unlike its Roman predecessor. In 1915, a Harvard professor named William Moulton Marston developed what he termed a “lie detector” based on measurements of blood pressure. A few other bells and whistles were added over time, but for all intents and purposes the polygraph has remained unchanged over the past eighty-five years. Marston went on to gain fame not as the inventor of the polygraph, but from the cartoon character he created: Wonder Woman, who snapped a magic lasso that corralled evildoers and forced them to tell the truth.

Perhaps polygraphers would do better with Wonder Woman’s lasso than they have been doing with their box. The secret of the polygraph-the polygraphers’ own shameless deception-is that their machine is no more capable of assessing truth telling than were the priests of ancient Rome standing knee-deep in chicken parts. Nonetheless, the polygrapher tries to persuade the unwitting subject that their measurements indicate when a lie is being told. The subject, nervously strapped in a chair, is often convinced by the aura surrounding this cheap parlor trick, and is then putty in the hands of the polygrapher, who launches into an intrusive, illegal, and wide-ranging inquisition. The subject is told, from time to time, that the machine is indicating “deception” (it isn't, of course), and he is continuously urged to “clarify” his answers, by providing more and more personal information. At some point (it’s completely arbitrary and up to the judgment of the polygrapher), the test is stopped and the polygrapher renders a subjective assessment of “deceptive response.” Even J. Edgar Hoover knew this was senseless. He banned the polygraph test from within the ranks of the FBI as a waste of time.

Every first-year medical student knows that the four parameters measured during a polygraph-blood pressure, pulse, sweat production, and breathing rate-are affected by an uncountable myriad of emotions: joy, hate, elation, sadness, anxiety, depression, and so forth. But, there is not one chapter-not one-in any medical text that associates these quantities in any way with an individual’s intent to deceive. More important, dozens of studies over the past twenty years conducted in psychology departments and medical schools all over the world have shown that the polygraph cannot distinguish between truth-telling and lying. Despite testimonials from polygraphers, no evidence exists that they can find spies with their mystical box. Indeed, their track record is miserable: Aldrich Ames and the Walker brothers, unquestionably among the most damaging of moles within the intelligence community, all passed their polygraphs-repeatedly-every five years.

The truth is this: The polygraph is a ruse, carefully constructed as a tool of intimidation, and used as an excuse to conduct an illegal inquisition under psychologically and physically unpleasant circumstances. Spies know how to beat it, and no court in the land permits submission of polygraphs, even to exonerate the accused.

Many innocent people have had their lives and careers ruined by thoughtless interrogation initiated during polygraphy. David King, a twenty-year Navy veteran suspected of selling classified information, was held in prison for 500 days and subjected to multiple polygraphs, many lasting as long as nineteen hours. A military judge dismissed all evidence against him. Mark Mullah, a career FBI agent, was the subject of a massive, nighttime surprise search of his home, followed by a review of every financial record, appointment book, personal calendar, daily “to-do” list, personal diary, and piece of correspondence-all as a result of a “positive” polygraph test. He was then placed under surveillance around the clock, and was followed by aircraft as he moved about during the day. Nothing was ever proved, and his FBI badge was restored, without apologies. But his career was destroyed, and he was never again above suspicion, all because a polygrapher-with eighty hours of “training”-asserted that he had lied. Even barbers must have 1,000 hours of schooling before earning a license to cut hair.

And yet the polygraph is one of the major tools in the new DOE program to bolster security at the nation’s nuclear weapons labs: Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore. In the wake of the Wen Ho Lee debacle in 1999, bureaucratic Washington, in search of a “quick fix,” made the classic bureaucratic mistake: doing something first, and thinking later. It was the high point of the election cycle, and then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was hoping to be nominated as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. But Richardson, reeling from massive cost-overruns on a gigantic laser project in Livermore, calculated that he needed to show toughness rather than intelligence. Instead of doing the difficult but correct thing-reinstating guards at entry points into the Labs that had been eliminated by his predecessor Hazel O'Leary-Richardson elected to recommend a widespread, screening polygraph program throughout the DOE. Congress went along, and real security was sacrificed on the altar of politics.

The response among the scientific staff at the Labs was universal and united: polygraphs should be avoided at all costs because they undermine national security. The scientists reasoned as follows: first, polygraphs create a false sense of security. As the Aldrich Ames scandal showed so clearly, even when repeated many times, polygraphs are incapable of ferreting out spies. Second, polygraphs would drain enormous resources from sensible security measures and replace them with a feckless deterrent. And finally, polygraphs would demoralize staff, and threaten the vital work of guaranteeing the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons.

After days of official hearings before polygraphs became official policy, neither the DOE nor the Congress paid any attention to the scientists’ concerns. Each of the predictions has come to pass. Wen Ho Lee passed, then failed, then again passed a polygraph, and his polygraphers (both of whom are still working for the DOE) disagree to this day on his veracity. The DOE polygraph program has wasted millions of dollars during the past six months, and will squander $10 million more before the first phase of testing is finished. And, most disturbing of all, the majority of Sandia engineers and scientists who service nuclear weapons in the field have refused to take the test, and the DOE is suddenly without authorized staff to deal with a nuclear weapons emergency. Recruitment of new scientists to this program and to the Labs in general has become nearly impossible. The Laboratories’ leaders are learning that no one feels valued if they are presumed guilty until “proven” innocent by a disreputable test.

But the damage and foolishness doesn't stop there. The DOE has run roughshod over the sensibilities of scientists through a continuous series of distortions over implementation of polygraphs. For example, DOE polygraphers claim that there are but four questions to the examination, all directly related to national security. This is a lie. In each and every polygraph exam, the subject will invariably be told something like this: “You've done pretty well, but there is a problem here with question number 3. Is there something you were thinking or worried about that you would like to get off your chest before we continue?” This isn't directed questioning; it is a fishing expedition, and has no place among loyal scientists nor in civil society.

Further, during the public hearings, polygraphers admitted that there was no scientific evidence that medical conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease) affected the outcome of the polygraph. Yet, they still insist that each subject provide a list of all prescription medications and a complete history of medical conditions. The reason they do so is to maintain the aura of the magical polygraph: “We need to know about medications,” said David Renzelman, chief of the DOE polygraph program, “so we can adjust our machine and our readings.” Really? I must have slept through that lecture in medical school.

But things are changing. At the recommendation of Sandia National Laboratories’ chief medical officer, who has determined that polygraphs are a risk to the health and safety of employees, President C. Paul Robinson has informed the DOE that intrusive medical questions will stop, or he will instruct Sandians not to take the polygraph. This principled action may precipitate Congressional hearings-long avoided by polygraphers-which could finally reveal the truth about the polygraphs grave effects on national security.

Protecting secrets is a challenging task. Spies, particularly those operating within the national security establishment, are very difficult to find. But certainly we should not make their task easier with measures like the polygraph that are, in the end, self-defeating. The scientists at the national laboratories are willing to sacrifice some of their constitutional protections for meaningful benefits to security, but they are unwilling to do so for nonsense. It is time to relegate the polygraph-the fanciful creation of a comic book writer-to the ash heap of bad ideas and misplaced belief.

Alan P. Zelicoff

Alan P. Zelicoff, a physician and physicist, is Senior Scientist in the Center for National Security and Arms Control at Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, NM 87185-1203.