Since Wednesday afternoon, when the New York Times published an incendiary op-ed by an anonymous senior Trump administration official—one in which the author admits to “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [the president’s] agenda and his worst inclinations”—the White House has been in a panicked hunt for its author.
The op-ed could scarcely have come at a worse time for the White House, where hackles were already raised over the contents of Bob Woodward’s newest book, Fear, which paints a portrait of an unstable president out of his intellectual depth and surrounded to some degree by aides who have to work day and night to prevent him from engaging in reckless and destructive behavior.
In order to track down the members of what the Times op-ed termed the “steady state”—that is, senior aides who keep in check a president they view as erratic but whom they are enabling in order to achieve their own policy objectives—Senator Rand Paul recently raised the prospect of subjecting everyone in the White House who holds a security clearance to a polygraph examination in order to root out leakers—even those who share unclassified information.
We have a combined 30-plus years of experience handling issues surrounding the polygraph, including past congressional testimony on the topic. Relying upon that experience, we can say with considerable confidence that Sen. Paul’s proposal is ridiculous, completely counterproductive and sets a dangerous precedent.
Let’s make one thing absolutely clear: The polygraph is not a lie-detector test. It does not determine if you are telling the truth. The examiner reviewing the readings from the polygraph cannot determine if you are telling the truth. No matter how much Hollywood might try to convince you otherwise, the polygraph is not a mechanized version of truth serum.
The polygraph is merely a device that evaluates various physiological reactions your body makes when answering questions. It measures your heart rate, respiration and perspiration, among other things. Examiners are trained how to “read between the lines” in terms of what those measurements may suggest about the truthfulness of your answers. If their interpretation of the readings suggests deception, the examiners are further trained in how to coax individuals into subsequently divulging more information in order to “put their mind at ease” so that their reactions will be lessened. Polygraph examiners are skillful and trained interrogators, nothing more and nothing less.
As part of our law practice, we represent contractors and federal employees working across the intelligence and law enforcement communities who have run into problems with the polygraph. We routinely have to address the fallout of alleged “admissions” made by our clients during polygraph sessions and which are subsequently used as the basis for personnel or security clearance proceedings.
There are two primary circumstances in which the federal government commonly uses polygraph examinations: one is for the security clearance-screening of individuals being considered for access to classified information (most agencies using polygraphs deal with Sensitive Compartmented Information, some of the government’s most sensitive secrets); and the other is in a more narrow situation where specific allegations of misconduct have been levied against an existing employee or contractor. In both situations, the polygraph is often just one of several investigative tools used to gather relevant and material information.
It is virtually unheard of to do what Sen. Paul is suggesting: submitting entire offices, departments or agencies to a categorical polygraph screening merely to root out a “mole,” and it would undoubtedly be counterproductive.
Moreover, there is no reason to believe that it would even work as intended. History is littered with actual moles and spies working for years within the U.S. government despitebeing subjected to polygraph examinations. Aldrich Ames and Ana Belen Montes, convicted spies who committed espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and Cuba, respectively, were able to “pass” polygraph examinations on multiple occasions during their careers in the government. The Department of Justice has itself argued before the Supreme Court that polygraph evidence should be inadmissible in court due to its inaccuracy. Government polygraph experts also acknowledge the existence of false positives (innocent people suggesting guilt) and false negatives (guilty people displaying innocence), calling into question any obtained results.
It is certainly possible that such a broad polygraph screening would find some leakers. People inevitably crack under pressure, and it is plausible that some subjects would admit to leaking information. But there is no particular scientific basis or reason to believe that it would be the actual leakers the screening was designed to find.
In the meantime, the entire charade would severely disrupt White House operations and morale, especially if certain senior individuals— such as Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway and John Kelly, to name a few—were exempted from the screening (or any punishment for admissions they might make during it).
The president routinely denounces the ongoing Russia probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as a “witch hunt.” But a broad polygraph screening of the White House would truly be a “witch hunt.” Yes, it might find some peripheral “witches,” but would be unlikely to locate the true perpetrators, and in the meantime, it will have been an incredible misuse of resources.
Humanity has always found the idea of a tool that compels people to be honest compelling. It’s no coincidence that Wonder Woman, who wields a “lasso of truth,” was created by William Moulton Marston, a man who invented an early prototype of the polygraph. But treating the latter like it’s the former is pure fantasy.