Security and lie detectors

ONE of a democratic government's continuing challenges is finding a way to protect national-security secrets without impinging the liberties that democracy exists to protect. In the United States, as in other democracies, the issue waxes and wanes in the public domain, paralleling the changing public knowledge of espionage acts. Today the question is receiving renewed attention. Disclosure of a string of espionage efforts, resulting in arrests of several Americans, has increased pressure for the US to guard more zealously information important to national security. It is a proper aim.

But one of the responsive moves by the Reagan administration raises concern: broader use of polygraphs -- so-called lie detectors -- among government officials. The potential for misuse is high.

The net can be cast too broadly, with many totally honorable people subjected to interrogation. A consequence can be destruction of the trust that ought to exist between employee and employer, either in government or private industry. The specter of intimidation-by-polygraph also exists. Some companies have implicitly used the device to threaten present or prospective employees, and the potential exists for similar misuse by government. People who refuse to take lie-detector tests are too often lo oked at askance, as if their refusal were an admission of guilt; it may instead have stemmed either from principle or well-founded distrust of the device's accuracy.

The polygraph's findings are far from foolproof. A polygraph actually detects neither lies nor truths. Rather, it measures a subject's physiological reactions in a question-and-answer session; it is up to the machine's operator to determine whether the person is telling the truth, a variable that depends in part on the operator's skill. Far too many people have been falsely accused of crimes as the result of a misreading of the findings; of itself, the polygraph cannot be considered reliable.

Good, hard detective work is far preferable to -- and more accurate than -- reliance on polygraphs, in matters of national security as in cases of industrial theft.

Judiciously used, polygraphs may have a place as one investigative tool among many. Yet the current administration net is being cast too widely.

Administrations in the past have planned an increased use of lie detectors, only to think again. The current administration should similarly reconsider. ----30--{et

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