Rejecting pleas from Energy Department officials, Congress has approved a provision that will require polygraphs for 5,000 additional employees of the department's nuclear weapons complex, raising to near 20,000 the overall number that will be tested.

The new language, part of the fiscal 2001 defense authorization bill that Congress passed Thursday night, requires the department to polygraph all employees with access to "sensitive compartmented information" (SCI)--highly classified intelligence data, produced under supervision of the CIA, that include data from electronic intercepts.

No State Department employees with SCI access are required to be polygraphed, nor are most Pentagon employees eligible to receive such materials. Ironically, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, made clear that the defense bill exempts State Department employees in the diplomatic telecommunications service--so-called code clerks--from being polygraphed.

Last year, in response to allegations of Chinese espionage at nuclear weapons laboratories, Congress required the Energy Department to polygraph 15,000 employees at the complexes, including not only scientists involved in special nuclear weapons programs and people dealing in counterintelligence, but also guards and truck drivers who handle nuclear materials.

"It will take five years to complete," a senior department official said yesterday of the new polygraph program.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles the Energy Department budget and whose state contains two of the nuclear labs, criticized the new polygraph program. "I am dismayed that the conferees took it upon themselves to adopt additional provisions on polygraphs," Domenici said.

Energy Department employees who work on nuclear weapons programs and who have voiced sharp resentment against the polygraph program now face a testing regime equal in government only to that of the CIA.

In an apparent reference to the case of former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, who pleaded guilty to one felony count of mishandling classified information by downloading secret nuclear data, Congress added a new question for Energy Department personnel. By law they are to be asked whether they caused "deliberate damage to or malicious misuse of a United States government information or defense system."

The requirement to polygraph more than 3,000 new guards and drivers before they can begin work is unique in government, because these workers already have undergone full background investigations and drug tests. "It delayed our testing of scientists, because we have a limited capability," one senior department official said yesterday.

Earlier this year, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and his head of counterintelligence, former FBI official Edward Curran, tried to have last year's congressional directive eased by limiting tests to scientists and others with access to special nuclear programs. Richardson had said he hoped that only 800 lab employees would face immediate polygraphing, with 2,200 others to be done later.

Congress granted Richardson the right to waive polygraphs for individuals, but only for 120 days and only after submitting his criteria to House and Senate committees.