Pentagon officials announced Thursday that they have a new machine that will be able to determine the "trustworthiness, patriotism and integrity" of job applicants. It's called a lie detector. You may have thought that a polygraph was just a machine to measure stress -- a "fear detector," as one expert called it in testimony before a House committee. But planners at the Defense Department seem to have much greater faith in the machine's magical powers.
In 1983, the president issued a directive authorizing lie detector tests for 2.5 million civilian and military federal workers and 1.5 million employees of government contractors with security clearances. After strong congressional opposition was heard, the order was suspended, but a provision in the defense authorization bill allows the Pentagon to conduct a pilot program of 3,500 lie detector tests this year. These would not necessarily be administered in the course of a criminal or national security investigation to people suspected of wrongdoing. They would be required of applicants for jobs and promotions who could then be turned down on the basis of what the tests revealed.
Even proponents of this scheme will tell you that lie detector tests are accurate only 75 to 90 percent of the time. Others will argue that that estimate is high. Most American courts will not admit lie detector test results in evidence because they are so unreliable. John DeLorean, the recently acquitted auto executive, for example, passed a test administered by his own defense experts and failed one supervised by the FBI. Just as the tests will unfairly deny people jobs and promotions, they will also create, as Rep. Jack Brooks points out, a false sense of security if government officials believe they effectively screen out those who shouldn't be hired.
The national security cannot be protected with a polygraph that is inaccurate in judging factual statements -- let alone in judging such abstract qualities as patriotism and integrity. The notion that dubious mechanical assessments should be imposed on thousands of presumably loyal and trustworthy government employees is outrageous.