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US

Polygraph test proposal spurs talk of union at Los Alamos lab

Polygraph machine
If imposed, the lie-detector test would deal only with job-related questions, lab officials say  


MESSAGE BOARD:

Nuclear secrets

September 12, 1999
Web posted at: 11:06 a.m. EDT (1506 GMT)

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico (CNN) -- Labor advocates are using the prospect of a government-imposed lie detector test to build support for the formation of a union at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

About 7,300 employees work at the nuclear weapons lab, which is run by the University of California. The U.S. Department of Energy is holding public hearings through October 4 on its proposal to subject Los Alamos lab workers to polygraph tests.

Worker discontent is brewing.

"Almost all employees have already had a 'Q' clearance (and) investigation done on them, (but) they still don't trust us," said Gilbert Merriman, who rates procedures at the lab where scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired for transferring secret nuclear codes to an unclassified computer system. "And I think it's primarily Congress that doesn't trust us."

A "Q" clearance is the highest rating relating to nuclear weapons.

Merriman, who has worked at the lab for nearly 15 years, said "there has been a lot of buzz on the newsletter" recently about the possibility of unionizing, due to the polygraph proposal.

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

Lab officials say the lie detector test, if imposed, would deal only with job-related, not personal, questions. The test would include such inquiries as "Have you provided unauthorized, classified information to a foreign national?" and "Have you intentionally committed espionage against the United States?"

"The scope is strictly counter-intelligence," said Ken Schiffer, the lab's director of internal security.

Should a worker fail the polygraph or refuse to take it, he or she would likely be reassigned, not fired, lab officials said.

But the possibility remains that workers might be falsely accused of security leaks and covert behavior, said union organizer Betty Gunther of the University of Professional and Technical Employees.

"The biggest concern (of the lie detector test) is the 'false positives,'" she said. "If you take 2 percent (of the total number of tests), that would be 100 false positives at the laboratory."

Correspondent Jennifer Auther contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
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September 1, 1999
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RELATED SITES:
Department of Energy
Department of Justice
Los Alamos National Laboratory
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