Scientists and polygraph experts testified at a public hearing yesterday that a plan to uncover foreign spies by administering so-called lie detector tests to as many as 12,000 employees would backfire and damage national security.

Roger Johnston, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, called the proposed polygraph testing "bad science and bad personnel management" that would only serve to drive top-flight scientists out of the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons complex.

His comment came at the DOE's fourth and final public hearing on the testing program, which was proposed early this year by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to tighten security in the wake of alleged Chinese espionage at Los Alamos. Congress subsequently passed legislation requiring the polygraphs.

The earlier hearings took place last week at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. They proved highly emotional, including threats by scientists to quit and angry references to the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy's hunt for communists inside the federal government. More than 120 employees at the three labs spoke at the hearings, and all but a handful opposed DOE's plan to institute polygraphs for those working on nuclear weapons programs.

According to the department's proposed regulations, the polygraph exams will be voluntary, but employees who refuse to take them may be transferred to new job assignments.

At Los Alamos last Friday, one scientist who works with computer codes said: "Not since McCarthy have Americans been asked to take loyalty oaths." The scientist, John Ambrosiano, also described Richardson's recent taking of a polygraph exam as "a stunt."

Retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, a former head of the U.S. Strategic Command who was hired by Richardson as DOE's "security czar," attended all four hearings. He said it was no surprise that there was "almost unanimous opposition" at each of the labs. "The comments ranged from practical suggestions on word changes to 'you don't trust me,' to 'my integrity is in question--I don't like that,' " he said.

The department is expanding a polygraph center in Albuquerque to handle all tests for the department, said John C. Browne, director of Los Alamos. Because each exam takes about half a working day, only 50 can be done a week, or 2,500 a year. That means it will take at least five years to cover all targeted employees, Browne said.

David Renzelman, manager of the polygraph program in DOE's Office of Counterintelligence, said examiners will ask only four questions: whether employees have engaged in sabotage, espionage, unauthorized contact with foreign agents and unauthorized passing of classified information.

"The [scientists] will be treated with dignity and respect," Renzelman said. "It will be done professionally. It will be done once. It will be done right."

Los Alamos posted some comments by employees on its World Wide Web site. John Longer, an administrator, said polygraph testing "will give Congress a chance to feel good about themselves" but would create anxiety among staffers and still "allow the trained spy to go free."

Bob Kares of the weapons design section likened polygraph exams to "dousing for water with a willow stick." He said the test has led him to consider leaving his job.

James Theiler, an employee in the Space and Remote Sensing Sciences section at Los Alamos, asked whether the Energy Department would use polygraphs to catch spies "or if they're too lazy to conduct honest investigations." At the Sandia lab, three opponents presented scientific attacks on the reliability of polygraphs, including slides, Habiger said.

After reviewing the public comments, the DOE can keep the rules as proposed, change them, decide that no polygraphs are needed, or make significant changes and issue a second draft of regulations that would require a new round of hearings. DOE officials said they hope that changes will be few and that tests can begin early next year.

Truth or Consequences

The polygraph test proposed for Energy Department employees working on nuclear weapons programs takes about four hours, most of which involves pre-test questioning, according to a senior department official who recently took the test.

For instance, he was told to write a number between three and five, and then directed to answer "no" when asked whether he wrote one, two, three, four or five. He was then shown that the machine reacted to his answer at four.

Finally, before the actual test, he and the polygraph operator went over the four questions he would be asked.

Have you ever:

Committed espionage?

Committed sabotage?

Had unauthorized contact with a foreign intelligence service?

Given unauthorized information to a foreign intelligence service?