Polygraph Tests: a `Dumb Mistake'

LAST year nearly 2 million Americans looking for work were forced to submit to polygraph, or lie detector, tests. The most conservative estimates suggest that approximately 300,000 law-abiding citizens failed their tests, were assumed to be poor employment risks, and thus lost any chance of being hired. According to some estimates, it is possible that three times that number of innocent job applicants did not pass polygraph examinations. In response to statistics of this sort, and to what some have termed the ``explosive growth'' of polygraph testing in the last decade, Congress recently passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988. This legislation, which went into effect Dec. 27, has already had a huge impact on private employers.

Oddly enough, while the act almost completely bans polygraph testing in the private sector, it exempts federal, state, and local governments from its provisions, and allows the federal government to continue testing private individuals engaged in activities perceived to be related to national security.

The majority of lawmakers voting for the law recognized the art of lie detection for what it is: pseudo-science dressed in a high-tech fa,cade. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, one of the bill's major supporters, referred to lie detectors as ``inaccurate instruments of intimidation'' and called polygraph testing ``little more than a 20th-century version of witchcraft.'' Rep. Matthew Martinez (D) of California characterized the polygraph machine as a ``black voodoo box,'' while then-Rep. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont denounced lie detection as being no more accurate ``than flipping a coin.''

Yet Congress sanctioned an embarrassing piece of legislative hypocrisy. Why retain the privilege of hooking present or prospective public employees up to machines that are no more useful than astrological charts, handwriting analysis, or palmistry?

Many of those opposing the law shared deep skepticism about polygraph testing, but few moved to delete the governmental immunity, opting instead either to weaken or defeat the law's existing provisions. ``It can be stated unequivocally,'' asserted Rep. Fred Grandy (R) of Iowa, ``that many innocent people have failed the exam.'' Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa stated that the lie detector ``problem needs to be addressed'' and expressed his desire that Americans ``be protected from unwarranted invasions by employers and those who administer the polygraph.''

Yet Representative Grandy pressed for increased private-sector exemptions from the bill, while Senator Grassley fought to defeat the entire bill, thereby maintaining current widespread polygraph usage.

Also in opposition, then-Sen. Dan Quayle expressed a ``great lack of confidence'' in lie detection, saying that he considered pre-employment polygraph screening a ``dumb mistake.'' Yet, he said, it is not ``the role of the federal government to clear up those mistakes'' made in the private sector. Perhaps not, but why should the government itself be permitted to commit those same dumb mistakes?

The federal government has been responsible for an incredible number of ``dumb mistakes.'' Within the last three decades, Uncle Sam has been forcing lie detection upon public employees with rapidly increasing frequency. In 1973, the federal government administered about 7,000 polygraph examinations. By 1982, the number of tests had risen to 23,000. Last year, according to conservative estimates, the frequency of testing exploded: The government strapped close to 150,000 Americans to these ``instruments of intimidation.''

This year, hundreds of thousands of government workers and job applicants will be forced to stake their futures on what Congress itself has long recognized to be ``witchcraft.'' It is time for our lawmakers to distance themselves from the discredited pseudo-science of lie detection and to put an end to a double standard that enables the continued and unacceptable victimization of those in their own employ.

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