Lie detectors -- loyalty sweeps

THE irony was unmistakable. Here was US Secretary of State George Shultz -- just back from a trip to Eastern Europe in which Mr. Shultz faulted communist regimes for their shortcomings on human rights -- having to remind Washington that egregious assaults on civil liberties are not confined just to East-bloc nations. Specifically, Mr. Shultz registered his disagreement with President Reagan's recent ill-advised directive requiring federal officials with access to highly secret information to take random polygraph, or lie-detector, tests -- in effect, loyalty sweeps. Mr. Shultz said that he had ``grave reservations'' about such tests and would resign ``the minute in this government I am told that I'm not trusted.''

Mr. Shultz deserves commendation for his strong stand. Polygraph tests, while perhaps useful as one form of investigation, are at the mercy of the professionalism of the person administering the examination, or the physiological or emotional state of the person taking the test. It is interesting to note that one of the Americans recently indicted for spying for another nation had reportedly passed several polygraph tests.

The tests pose legal problems. In America a person is considered innocent until proved otherwise.

Requiring a polygraph as a condition of employment seems to be saying that a person may be guilty of an offense until proved innocent.

The government needs to identify spies and dangerous security risks. But solid detection work can do that better than resorting to something as dubious -- and yes, as reminiscent of today's Eastern Europe -- as forced polygraph tests for thousands of federal employees.

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