LIVERMORE, Calif. -- The intent is to catch spies. But the effect of polygraph tests at Energy Department weapons labs will be to scare off new researchers and demoralize those who remain, scientists there say.
"I don't think you'll find very many people who are in favor of polygraphing," says Betty Gunther, who works in the computing division of Los Alamos in New Mexico. "What we're talking about is destroying a very good research institution."
The tests are proposed as part of a new spy-fighting initiative prompted by allegations that a Los Alamos scientist passed nuclear secrets to China. The investigation, which found the man had downloaded thousands of files of super-secret codes into his unclassified computer, brought accusations the labs aren't doing a good job of keeping nuclear secrets.
Since the Energy Department announced its plans earlier this year, scientists at the nation's three nuclear weapons labs, Livermore in California and Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, have made it clear they're worried about hanging their careers on the squiggly lines of a polygraph machine.
"Our concern here is that it will actually undermine, not bolster, national security," said Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia.
He said the tests have a very low "true positive" rate, meaning they won't be very efficient spycatchers, but probably will be effective at putting off bright young recruits.
"'Come to the DOE labs, we'll pay you a third of what you'd get in Silicon Valley and, by the way, you're guilty until proven innocent.' That's counterproductive," Zelicoff said.
National weapons lab scientist Patrick Weidhaas likened the situation to anti-Communist sweeps of the 1950s.
"This was America at its worst, and we do not need another witch hunt," he wrote in a newsletter this month to colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Details of the tests -- who must take them and when -- are still being worked out. The first of four public hearings on the issue will be held Sept. 14 in Livermore.
The tests consist of only four work-related questions -- "basically, are you a spy," says Jim Danneskiold, Los Alamos spokesman.
Opponents worry about the possibility of "false positives" from the polygraphs, which are generally not admitted in court because of questions about their reliability.
"Once that red flag goes up, it won't go down," Weidhaas said this week.
Energy Department officials say the tests should have a very small error rate. The department's security head, Eugene Habiger, who passed one last month, said the tests should have fewer than one error in a thousand.
Employees who fail can take a second, more detailed, test. A second failure triggers an evaluation that also includes such things as work history.
The testing is supported by the University of California, which manages Los Alamos and Livermore.
"National security now is of the utmost importance and with new technologies out there ... new ways of penetrating security systems, it is just more important than ever to make sure that those people in those sensitive positions are completely reliable and understand their responsibilities," said UC spokesman Rick Malaspina.
Sandia President C. Paul Robinson issued a statement saying the lab's manager, Lockheed Martin Corp., has a policy of asking employees to take polygraphs if so requested by the government.
At Livermore, spokeswoman Susan Houghton said officials respect the employees' feelings, "but the bottom line (is) that we have to do what is right for the United States."
Weidhaas doesn't agree that polygraphs are the way to achieve that.
"The polygraph introduces a totally new element," he said, "that basically, we're all suspects."