DOE partially yields on mandatory polygraphs for employees

DOE final rule on polygraphs

After years of controversy, the Department of Energy has decided to decrease reliance on polygraph testing in screening prospective counterintelligence employees.

A final rule published in the Federal Register will end across-the-board testing of applicants effective Oct. 30.

“Consistent with the practices of the intelligence community, and [a National Academy of Sciences] report, DOE has decided to alter the role of polygraph testing as a required element of the counterintelligence evaluation program by eliminating such testing for general screening of applicants for employment and incumbent employees without specific,” states the Sept. 29 notice in Federal Register.

The move marks a compromise in the wake of criticism that DOE had been ignoring studies showing that polygraph testing is not reliable. DOE screens employees with a computerized polygraph system to prevent insiders from leaking classified information to enemies of the United States.

DOE had been administering polygraphs to all department employees, consultants and contractor employees before granting them access to sensitive information.

In 2001, Congress directed DOE to refine the screening method based on the findings of an incomplete DOE-funded NAS study. DOE had asked NAS to conduct a review of the existing research on the validity and reliability of polygraph examinations, specifically in regard to employee security screening.

“Overall, the evidence is scanty and scientifically weak," the NAS committee’s final report states. "Our conclusions are necessarily based on the far from satisfactory body of evidence on polygraph accuracy, as well as basic knowledge about the physiological responses the polygraph measures.”

Based on this report, public comments and internal reviews, DOE published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2005, mandating that the screening program continue for individuals with ‘‘regular and routine access” to DOE’s most sensitive information. In justifying its decision, DOE noted that the report’s conclusion only addressed polygraphs as the sole basis for evaluation. DOE’s proposal emphasized that polygraphs would be one element of counterintelligence evaluations.

In response to the 2005 proposal, DOE received comments from 10 sources, including members of the public, current and former DOE employees and two groups representing employees at two DOE national laboratories. All but one strongly opposed the plan to keep mandatory polygraph screening. Most cited the NAS report to support their positions, and they challenged DOE’s interpretation of the NAS report’s conclusion.

These critics argued that, without scientific reliability, there is a high probability of an unacceptable number of false positives.

Last week’s Federal Register final rule states, “Because of problems associated with examination results that produce false positives and false negatives, many of the commenters contended that continued use of polygraph testing would have a highly negative effect on employee morale, retention of present employees and recruitment of new employees.”

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