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The Polygraph and Lie Detection
negative polygraph test results. On the basis of discussions with polygraph program and counterintelligence officials in several federal agencies (including the FBI), we believe there is a widespread belief in this community that someone who “passes” the polygraph is “cleared” of suspicion. Acting on such a belief with security screening polygraph results could pose a danger to the national security because a negative polygraph result provides little additional information on deceptiveness, beyond the knowledge that very few examinees are major violators, especially when the test protocol produces a very small percentage of positive test results. As already noted, a spy like Robert Hanssen might easily have produced consistently negative results on a series of polygraph tests under a protocol like the one currently being used with FBI employees. Negative polygraph results on individuals or on populations of federal employees should not be taken as justification for relaxing other security precautions.
Another recent policy report raises some similar issues in the context of security in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories. The Commission on Science and Security (2002:62), headed by John H. Hamre (the “Hamre Commission”) issued a recommendation to reduce the use of polygraph testing in the laboratories and to use it “chiefly as an investigative tool” and “sparingly as a screening tool.” It recommended polygraph screening “for individuals with access only to the most highly sensitive classified information”—a much more restricted group than those subjected to polygraph screening under the applicable federal law.
Several justifications are given for reducing the use of polygraph screening, including the “severe morale problems” that polygraph screening has caused, the lack of acceptance of polygraph screening among the DOE laboratory employees, and the lack of “conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of polygraphs as a screening technique” (Commission on Science and Security, 2002:54). The report goes so far as to say that use of polygraphs “as a simplistic screening device . . . will undermine morale and eventually undermine the very goal of good security” (p. 55). Much of this rationale thus concerns the need to reduce the costs of false positives, although the report makes no reference to the extent to which false positives may occur.
The Hamre Commission did not address the false negative problem directly, but its recommendations for reducing security threats can be seen as addressing the problem indirectly. The commission recommended various management and technological changes at the DOE laboratories that would, if effective, make espionage more difficult to conduct and easier to detect in ways that do not rely on the polygraph or other methods of employee screening. Such changes, if effective, would reduce the costs inflicted by undetected spies, and therefore the costs of false