Jeff Sessions is hunting White House leakers. To succeed, the U.S. attorney general apparently wants to find some liars first.
In a bid to root out people sharing classified data, Sessions reportedly recommended during a White House meeting last month that National Security Council staff should undergo lie-detector tests, an idea that former NSC officials say is so extreme and offensive that it risks demoralizing the president's brain trust and triggering resignations — all for a quick deterrent.
Former president Richard Nixon, no stranger to a leaky White House, understood the power of a deterrent, as he revealed in the 1971 Watergate Tapes.
"I don't know anything about polygraphs, and I don't know how accurate they are. But I know they'll scare the hell out of people," Nixon said.
As Axios first reported, Sessions, who arguably lied during his own confirmation hearings, floated the idea of subjecting the entire NSC to polygraph exams, reasoning the threat alone could put a chilling effect over aides leaking classified information.
Maybe so when it comes to political appointees, says Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and NSC spokesman during the Obama administration.
"But to immediately pass suspicion on career public servants and subject them to a polygraph test indicates such a level of mistrust and distrust within the organization," he says. "It's a brute force way to root out leakers. And it would be a mistake to do this before looking closer to home within the political ranks of the West Wing."
Cracking down on 'culture of leaks'
Sessions announced in early August that the Trump administration was "taking a stand" against what he called a "culture of leaks," threatening prosecution as part of a crackdown. The investigation came after the Washington Post released transcripts detailing embarrassing details of President Donald Trump's phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
Price says the NSC and the wider intelligence community have "already been battered broadly" since Trump's inauguration.
Strapping staffers to polygraph machines might curtail leaks, but another former NSC official warns it would further corrode morale, "which I imagine is already pretty low."
"Imposing the procedure periodically on officials who work 16-hour days would be burdensome."
If the polygraph examinations proposal comes to fruition, the same former official expected some staffers wouldn't stand for it, leading to a "hollowing out" of the NSC due to voluntary or forced resignations.
Aside from growing scientific doubt about the reliability of the machines, Price says conducting polygraph exams might not be easy to pull off logistically, either. More than 200 policy and leadership officials comprised the NSC workforce during the Obama administration.
Price says career officials tend to be duty-bound, "deep believers in the mission" who, regardless of the administration, would still submit to demands for polygraphs.
But Karl Inderfurth, co-editor of Fateful Decisions: Inside the National Security Council, was floored that Sessions would even consider using lie-detectors against the administration's principal forum for planning national security and foreign policy matters.
"My gosh. I think NSC staffers will be highly offended at this technique," said the adjunct professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.
"You've got professionals on the NSC who, with very little exception, would never consider leaking. These intrusive ways, of lie-detector tests, of wiretapping, they are fraught with problems and reliability issues."
Sessions would be wise to learn from history
Inderfurth said Sessions would be wise to review the history of Nixon's former national security advisor Henry Kissinger, who until 1992 was dogged for 19 years by a lawsuit seeking damages for wiretapping White House aide Morton Halperin without a court order. Halperin was suspected of disclosing classified information to reporters about the Pentagon Papers.
"Halperin took him to court and it just plagued Kissinger, who rued the day he went after Morton Halperin," Inderfurth said.
NSC staffers suspected of being leakers would have "legal course to go after those who put them on a list," he added.
Leak probes can also produce undesired results. Inderfurth noted that the Obama administration opened more leak probes than any other in recent history.
That dragnet approach ensnared James Cartwright, who served as a key member of Barack Obama's national security team and was widely known as "Obama's favourite general." He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussing Iran's nuclear program with journalists before Obama pardoned him in January before his sentencing.
There are no promises, in other words, that if Sessions proceeds with a harsh crackdown employing polygraph testing, he won't scoop up Trump loyalists brought in with political connections, Inderfurth said.
"Because if they want to find those leakers, all they need to do is look in the mirror."
Polygraph accuracy widely disputed
The accuracy of polygraph machines as diviners of truth has been widely disputed. Proponents have long touted accuracy rates of at least 95 per cent in interrogations, but former Oklahoma police officer Doug Williams, who administered thousands of tests, says they're based on a "faulty scientific premise" about physiological reactions to deception.
Williams was released from prison two months ago after spending two years behind bars on charges related to coaching people how to pass the exams. He heard about Sessions floating the idea of using polygraphs on NSC officials.
"This nonsense has been going on for years, and it's got to stop," he said. "The government loves the polygraph. Same thing I've been battling back when Reagan tried to do this for his own National Security Council."
More than 30 years ago, Reagan authorized using the polygraph to try to root out leakers of discussions regarding negotiations in Lebanon.
Williams administered polygraph tests for seven years until he became disenchanted with the machines and quit in 1979. Too often, he said, truth-tellers flunked because their nerves overcame them. He began offering tips on how to beat the tests.
"It's a great tool for interrogation, if by 'tool' you mean a psychological billy club that will coerce a person into a confession," he said.
To the NSC staffers who might be subjected to Sessions's proposal, Williams' advice was simple: "If they've got any sense, they would absolutely refuse to take it. Unfortunately, a lot of times, people have no choice."