Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly suggested members of the National Security Council be subject to polygraph exams in order to root out leakers in President Donald Trump’s administration. It is widely perceived as an extraordinary and alarming recommendation, however, if tests are administered, it will be a natural progression of an institutional crackdown on leaks, which former President Barack Obama’s administration bolstered.
According to Axios, “Sessions’ idea is to do a one-time, one-issue, polygraph test of everyone on the [National Security Council] staff. Interrogators would sit down with every single NSC staffer (there’s more than 100 of them), and ask them, individually, what they know about the leaks of transcripts of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders.”
“Sessions suspects those leaks came from within the NSC, and thinks that a polygraph test—at the very least—would scare them out of leaking again.”
The report, picked up by several prominent media outlets, does not mention anything about the source of this “scoop.” As FiveThirtyEight.com previously highlighted, Axios is a publication “targeted at political junkies” that will “often float ‘scoops’ predicting that something will happen that never does.”
What Axios “reported” is certainly plausible. In August, Sessions, who was already known as an aggressive supporter of anti-leaks policies, announced more leak cases would be referred to the Justice Department. The Justice Department would investigate and prosecute more leakers.
But while it may seem like a dramatic overreach for Sessions to reportedly talk about using lie detector tests, it is a rather dull and uninspired idea. The Obama administration considered such exams in its crackdown on leaks.
In 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced intelligence employees would be required during their “counterespionage polygraph examination” to answer a question on whether they leaked “restricted information” to journalists or the news media. “Investigators” would also be able to “call in anyone for a polygraph test about a particular leak, apart from a criminal leak investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
A major McClatchy News investigation exposed in 2013 how federal agencies pushed “legal and ethical limits during screenings of job applicants and employees.”
Mark S. Phillips, a polygraph examiner assigned by the Air Force to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), submitted a complaint to the inspector general alleging systematic abuse of polygraph tests. He said he was asked to obtain “lifestyle” information from those who took exams. When he challenged the legality of pursuing such information, officials retaliated against him with “harassment and poor performance evaluations.”
“Lifestyle” information includes “deviant/criminal sexual behavior, alcohol abuse, illicit drug use, serious criminal activity, unexplained wealth, financial irresponsibility, personal conduct-related behaviors.” These are intrusive subject matters outside the scope of whether someone is a terrorist or spy and yet administrators wanted the information to call into question individual’s trustworthiness as well as their “psychological conditions.”
In April 2015, “a federal jury awarded $4 million to nine former translators,” who were “forced at the behest of the Drug Enforcement Administration to undergo illegal lie-detector tests.” McClatchy described the development as a “rare rebuke of the federal government’s reliance on lie detector tests.” When the award was issued, a federal judge already had determined the tests were in violation of federal law and the DEA paid half a million to settle the lawsuit with the translators.
“Requiring employees or job applicants to take lie-detector tests is controversial because of scientific questions about the reliability of the technique and complaints that it’s too invasive,” McClatchy noted. “Most criminal courts do not permit polygraph results to be used as evidence against criminal suspects because of doubts about whether the tests can actually determine if someone is lying.”
Still, in the aftermath of WikiLeaks publications in 2010 and 2011 and multiple high-profile leaks in 2012, the Obama administration allowed United States intelligence agencies to revamp and expand the use of polygraphs to control the flow of information. Officials maintained interest in refining the use of such tests, even when systematic abuse by federal agencies was exposed to the public.
That makes Sessions’ notion of using lie detector exams to root out leakers in the White House fairly run-of-the-mill. In fact, naturally, if U.S. intelligence agencies rely on them, it would make sense that officials in the White House would take their advice and adopt it. It is part of the militarization of government through a clear chain of command in which only a few at the top are allowed to speak to media on government policies.