The United States government is gearing up to more than double the number of polygraph technicians trained each year -- to test the truthfulness of members of the federal work force. In an effort to overcome a shortfall in qualified polygraph examiners, the Defense Department is preparing to conduct around-the-clock training sessions at the Army's polygraph school at Fort McClellan near Anniston, Ala., according to Army spokesman Joseph Carter.
The expansion is expected to increase the number of annual graduates from the polygraph school from 48 currently to 108 by next year. In April, the school will be renamed the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute. It supplies virtually all of the trained polygraph technicians used by federal agencies.
Qualified polygraph examiners have been in sharp demand in recent months as a result of President Reagan's November executive order calling for the wider use of counterintelligence screening to help weed out security risks in sensitive government jobs.
Despite the Defense Department's push, polygraph screening remains a hotly debated and controversial issue both inside and outside the Reagan administration.
In December, Secretary of State George P. Shultz threatened to resign his post if he was asked to submit to a polygraph test.
And last week, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution saying that the organization had ``great reservations'' about the use of such tests. It noted that the scientific evidence for the validity of polygraph screening ``is still unsatisfactory.''
The Defense Department has long pushed for an expanded use of polygraphs to assist in detering and detecting hostile intelligence operations within the upper echelons of US bureaucracy. But Congress has historically been reluctant to grant the Pentagon wide discretion to use polygraphs out of concern that innocent careers might be ruined by inaccurate tests. Another concern has been that well-trained Soviet or other spies might be able to beat polygraph exams and thus receive an unwarranted seal of approval from security officials who place too much emphasis on polygraph results as an accurate indicator of truthfulness and loyalty.
Larry Wu-Tai Chin, who was convicted last week of spying for the Chinese, passed the only polygraph exam he was given during his 30-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Chin told Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that, had the polygraph test been administered in his native Chinese, he might have had more trouble passing the test. In addition, he said he was asked only vague questions rather than specific inquiries that might have revealed his deception.
Several polygraph experts said that as long as Chin clearly understood the questions during the exam, it would make no difference whether the exam was conducted in Chinese or English. The experts agree that specific questions are essential to accurate testing.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the Chin test, saying only that ``we are constantly reviewing and reassessing security procedures. It is an ongoing effort.''
The spokesman added that all newly hired employees at the CIA undergo a polygraph exam and are subject to periodic reexaminations.
The polygraph program ``has improved enormously since Mr. Chin took his one and only polygraph exam some 15 years ago,'' notes retired Lt. Gen. Richard Stillwell, who chaired a Pentagon commission that recently examined ways to protect US secrets. Among the commission's recommendations was the wider use of polygraphs in counterintelligence screening tests.
Some experts question the accuracy of such tests, and express concern that administering them to thousands of employees could result in hundreds of persons being wrongly accused of lying.
``There is no reason to believe that these tests are accurate,'' says Dr. Leonard Saxe of Boston University, who studied polygraph exams for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. He stresses that there is a lack of adquate research on the use of polygraphs for counterintelligence screening.
Dr. David Raskin of the University of Utah agrees. He feels advances are necessary in both the training of polygraph examiners and in the technological level of polygraph equipment.
Professor Raskin notes that, in his own research, he is using a computer to monitor changes in facial expressions and voice inflections to supplement physiological measurements made with current polygraph equipment.
According to Larry Talley, vice-president of the American Polygraph Association, polygraph exams should be only one of several tools used by security officials.
He notes that trained polygraph operators should be able to detect countermeasures designed to beat the polygraph. And he adds that some individuals ``are just not conducive to taking polygraph tests.'' In such cases, Mr. Talley says, it is up to the polygraph operator to recognize that fact and declare the test to be inconclusive. At that point, security officials would have to conduct a detailed background investigation, he adds.