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Proposal to polygraph Los Alamos workers fuels union drive

los alamos
The proposal for polygraph testing is part of an increase of security at the Los Alamos National Laboratory  

September 8, 1999
Web posted at: 6:31 p.m. EDT (2231 GMT)

From Correspondent Jennifer Auther

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico (CNN) -- A proposal by the Energy Department to give polygraph tests to employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory appears to be strengthening efforts to unionize workers there.

"There has been a lot of buzz on the (employee) newsletter about espionage, about polygraph testing, about unionizing -- particularly about unionizing," says Gilbert Merriman, who has worked at Los Alamos for almost 15 years.

The polygraph proposal is part of an overall tightening of security in the wake of allegations that China may have garnered nuclear secrets from Los Alamos, an Energy Department nuclear weapons facility.

Scientist Wen Ho Lee, an American citizen born in Taiwan, was fired for allegedly transferring secret nuclear codes to an unclassified computer system, but he has not been charged with espionage.

The director of internal security for Los Alamos, Ken Schiffer, says questions on polygraph tests would be limited and would not delve into employees' personal lives.

"The scope is strictly counterintelligence, such questions as 'Have you provided unauthorized classified information to a foreign national? Have you committed espionage against the United States?'" Schiffer said.

Still, many employees are concerned about the possibility that polygraph tests could tar them as deceptive when they were being truthful.

"The biggest concern is the 'false positives,'" says Betty Gunther, an organizer with the University Professional and Technical Employees union. "If you take 2 percent, that would be 100 false positives at the laboratory."

"Even one person being falsely accused and maybe having a career tarnished is probably too much to put up with," says Merriman.

However, Los Alamos officials say failing a polygraph alone isn't enough to get someone fired. They say that if someone fails or refuses to take the test, the worst that can happen is reassignment.

The Energy Department is conducting public hearings on the polygraph proposal through October 4.

ASIANOW - Chinese-Americans see distrust after spying scandal
September 1, 1999
Intelligence official who sparked Los Alamos probe resigns
August 8, 1999
Reno defends handling of nuclear secrets probe
August 5, 1999
Security training ordered by Energy Department
July 29, 1999
Reno defends handling of nuclear secrets probe
August 5, 1999

Department of Energy
Department of Justice
Chinese Embassy to the U.S.
Office of the Director of Central Intelligence
Consulate General of the People's Republic of China
Attorney General Janet Reno
The White House
National Security Council
Los Alamos National Laboratory
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