It seemed like a fairly straightforward idea: Make thousands of key scientists who run the Energy Department's top-secret nuclear labs take a lie-detector test to deter espionage.
After all, the reasoning goes, tens of thousands of other contractors and federal employees with on-the job exposure to sensitive classified materials - from satellite imagery to intelligence gathering - are routinely required to submit to repeated polygraph testing.
But Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has decided to scale back a plan to give a polygraph test to as many as 12,000 DOE scientists and contractors starting in January. The sweeping measure was proposed by DOE counterintelligence as part of an effort to beef up security in the wake of the Chinese espionage scandal.
Under the new plan, the Energy Department will instead test only a few hundred employees from three main labs.
For the scientists and congressional delegation that lobbied Mr. Richardson against the expansive screening program, the decision is a victory.
"What was first proposed was an overreaction to the concerns that arose to the espionage case at Los Alamos," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who opposed the plan. "This is a more reasoned approach."
Senator Bingaman's and others' concerns centered on the damage a failed polygraph test might have on the careers of those simply nervous and unaccustomed to the testing process.
Also of concern was the negative impact the screening might have on efforts to recruit America's top scientists to work at nuclear labs in the future.
Finally, some thought the testing was, at its core, an insult. "If there is a presumption implied that your patriotism is questioned when you come to work the first day, over time, I think that's harmful," says Bingaman.
In the wake of revelations that a Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist may have passed US nuclear data to Beijing, a special counterintelligence team reviewed security procedures at labs and outlined 46 steps to enhance security.
Still undecided is exactly how many and which employees will be subjected to questioning. Weapons designers and those at production facilities are likely screening candidates.
Unlike many of the other 400,000 investigations conducted in the course of a year, the DOE polygraph is intended to be less intrusive than the more personal, probing line of questioning others, such as CIA employees, face.
If approved, the DOE polygraph will focus on four key questions: Have you committed espionage? Handed over classified information to any unauthorized person? Failed to notify, as required, contact with citizens of sensitive countries including China? Have you been involved in sabotage?
The reduced scope of the polygraph program is currently in the final stages of review. Implementation is scheduled to begin in the New Year.
While New Mexico's congressional delegation and others believe the original plan cast too wide a net in its screening efforts, others say a key tool to augment counterespionage detection has been sacrificed because of political pressure.
"They should have been doing it all along," believes a member of the intelligence community who submits to a polygraph every five years and asked that his name not be used.
Proponents of the polygraph program and DOE counterintelligence experts dismiss concerns that tests would result in ruined careers.
They point to similar screenings by the Department of Defense, which last year polygraphed almost 8,000 employees and contractors. According to Ed Curran, an FBI agent directing the DOE's current antispying plan, fewer than 400 Defense Department employees raised red flags. Of those, only eight could not clear the test.
"I expect far less than that," Mr. Curran says of the percentage of those at DOE who will run into problems. He also points out that the polygraph test is only one aspect of the plan to tighten security at nuclear facilities. "I don't know of any in the intelligence community who would rely totally on a polygraph machine."
Polygraphs are generally prohibited within the executive branch unless one of three criteria are met, including intelligence or counterintelligence investigations.
Government agencies seeking to test an employee must seek permission from the Office of Personnel Management. Permission for the limited testing at DOE has been applied for but not yet granted. Already, however, nearly 100 federal employees working in the DOE's counterintelligence program have undergone lie-detector tests.
"We are looking into their loyalty, at their general character and trustworthiness and reliability," says Carol Clubb, spokeswoman for the Defense Security Service, the agency responsible for conducting the Pentagon's personnel investigations.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society