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Polygraph Use by the Department of Energy: Issues for Congress

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Publication Date: October 2008

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL31988

Topic: Science and technology (Scientific equipment)


Four years after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) questioned the accuracy of polygraph testing, and some members of Congress urged the Department of Energy (DOE) to use the polygraph as a counterintelligence rather than as a general screening tool, DOE on October 30, 2006, eliminated the use of polygraph testing for screening applicants for employment and incumbent employees without specific cause.

DOE said its new counterintelligence evaluation regulations are consistent with Intelligence Community practices and more in line with NAS's 2002 recommendations, which questioned the scientific validity of the polygraph, particularly in cases when it is used to screen applicants rather than to investigate specific events.

Under its new regulations, DOE will require a polygraph examination only if one of the following five causes is triggered: (1) if a counterintelligence evaluation of an applicant or incumbent employee reveals foreign nexus issues which warrant a polygraph exam; (2) if an incumbent employee is to be assigned within DOE to activities involving another agency and a polygraph examination is required as a condition of access to the activities by the other agency; (3) if an incumbent employee is proposed to be assigned or detailed to another agency and the receiving agency requests DOE to administer a polygraph examination as a condition of the assignment or detail; (4) if an incumbent employee is selected for a random counterintelligence evaluation; or (5) if an incumbent employee is required to take a specific-incident polygraph examination.

DOE said that instituting a "specific-cause" standard will significantly reduce the number of individuals who will undergo polygraph testing.

This report examines how DOE's new polygraph screening policy has evolved and reviews certain scientific findings with regard to the polygraph's accuracy. As part of its continuing oversight of DOE's polygraph program, the 110th Congress could address several issues, including whether DOE's new screening program is sufficiently focused on a small number of individuals occupying only the most sensitive positions; program implementation; the desirability of further research into scientific validity of the polygraph and possible alternatives to the polygraph; and whether to continue or discontinue polygraph screening.

This report will be updated as warranted.