Inside Trump’s obsession with polygraphs

Inside Trump’s obsession with polygraphs

President Donald Trump has compared White House leakers to spies and mused obliquely to other officials about executing them. He’s attacked individual reporters by name. He rails frequently against press accounts of his administration, dismissing them as “fake news.”

But privately, the president is so obsessed with the leaks about him that he has frequently discussed whether to order polygraphs of White House staffers after major disclosures, according to four former White House officials — in what would be a stark and politically risky departure from past practice.

Trump has talked about ordering polygraphs “constantly” when anything major has leaked, according to a former White House official. “He talked about it a lot,” said the former official. After reading and watching reports about his presidency, “He’d be angry and ask, ‘Why can’t we stop these things?’”

“He wanted to polygraph every employee in the building to unearth who it was who spoke to the press,” said another former official, who noted that the president tended to be especially irate when he knew specific news accounts were true. Some White House staffers have even volunteered to take a polygraph to prove their innocence after they were suspected of leaking, according to the former official.

The new details of Trump’s repeated interest in polygraphing provide important context on the president’s state of mind as Democrats demand answers about the White House’s handling of records of his interactions with foreign leaders. A whistleblower has accused White House officials of improperly storing transcripts of the president’s phone calls in a system meant for highly classified intelligence secrets, including a conversation with the president of Ukraine that has set off a spiraling impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives.

Trump’s interest in polygraphing his own White House staffers began amid constant reports in the first six months of his presidency of infighting, his behind-closed-doors raging about various news stories — especially the Mueller investigation, and how the James Comey firing went down — according to the first former White House official. In particular, Trump has been upset about how certain call transcripts, draft executive orders and other palace intrigue stories have made their way into the press.

Each time, aides all the way up to the chief of staff level have been able to persuade him not to launch such a drastic step, arguing it would be counterproductive. But since those early months, multiple former officials said, he has continued to regularly ask whether his underlings should be polygraphed.

Accounts differ as to just how literally, and seriously, those requests were taken.

“It was something that was discussed and people were trying to placate the president, and trying to show that they were taking it as personally and just as seriously as he was,” said one of the former White House officials. “Taking that line of, ‘Oh yeah, we have to polygraph people’ was a way to ingratiate themselves with him, but it wasn’t an idea that ever went anywhere because it was absurd.”

But it’s not just the president: Seven former Trump administration officials said that there have been discussions among some White House staffers about using polygraphs as a way to find out who was leaking certain material. One of the sources, a former Trump NSC official, said the idea floated around after the “Great Leaks of 2017,” when the transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia leaked out.

Early on in Trump’s presidency, Stefan Passantino, who was deputy White House counsel for compliance and ethics, took the lead on examining whether polygraphing employees was something that could legally be carried out or was advisable to carry out. Passantino said in a text message that the counsel’s office “quickly concluded it was not a thing to do.”

The possibility was viewed as “more of a scare tactic” to force people “to sort of fess up to see if they can ferret out leakers or to try to prevent others from leaking any further,” said a former White House official.

Asked for comment, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said: “I think the president and anyone in his administration have the right to be frustrated and even angry about leaks. Leaking information, which is often times classified, only hurts this country. I have been with the president since July 2015 and can say unequivocally that I have never heard suggesting polygraphs as a way to stop leaks.”

In the last few weeks, Trump has repeatedly demanded to know the identity of the whistleblower who filed a complaint about his call with the Ukrainian president where he urged him to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, while also accusing the anonymous official of being a Democratic partisan.

Under federal law and policy to encourage filing complaints, whistleblowers have numerous protections, including the right to be anonymous and not face retaliation, although the protections likely wouldn’t apply if the president ordered the termination of the whistleblower himself if he discovered his identity. But there are not necessarily such safeguards for White House officials who might have provided information to the whistleblower.

Former aides cite Trump’s on-again, off-again polygraph obsession as a prime example of how he runs the White House — he talks frequently about the need to do something, they said, while not always issuing explicit instructions.

“The way he does business a lot of times is just keep saying things over and over and over again and hopes that somebody does it, but that gives him deniability if he said, ‘Well I never said specifically to do it,’” the former White House official said.

Polygraph exams, known colloquially as “lie detector tests,” have been around for almost a hundred years. Typically, they are administered by trained professionals using devices that measure a battery of physiological indicators such as a person’s pulse, breathing, blood pressure, and skin conductivity while the person answers questions.

But there have long been questions about the accuracy of the technique. A 400-page National Academy of Sciences report found in 2003 that polygraphs were “intrinsically susceptible to producing erroneous results,” such as a high rate of false positives, and recommended against relying upon them.

Inside the federal government, there are a number of protocols regarding whether, when, how and in what context the government can require a polygraph exam. To get and keep one’s top secret clearance, a polygraph is a standard feature in the evaluation process for individuals who work in the intelligence community. Part of the employment agreement for CIA officers, for instance, is that you can be ordered to take a polygraph immediately anytime you’re suspected of anything improper, according to a former senior CIA official.

“Your choice is to take the polygraph or resign,” said the person.

One common leak-hunting technique inside the Trump White House, however, requires very little technology at all.

“Typically when leak hunts were done before, it was just like, you were pulled in to the office and were yelled at, basically,” said a former White House official.

Even though polygraphing has never been carried out, even the fact that it could be used against employees hurt staff morale, according to the former official.

“It’s a pretty big invasion of privacy,” said the former official, who added that his colleagues at the time were “shocked and appalled” that polygraphs were even being considered. “If anyone actually did get polygraphed, and it leaked out to the media, I think the media storm that it caused would be harmful and much more trouble than it’s worth.”

Hints of the president’s interest in polygraph exams have come out on occasion, however.

After the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by a senior administration official in September of 2018, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said that Trump should force administration officials to take polygraphs and the New York Times reported that some advisers discussed the idea. The president said at the time that “people have suggested” lie-detector tests and added that “eventually the name of this sick person will come out.”

The president and his top aides were especially leery of career government officials detailed from other agencies to the National Security Council, suspecting them of leaking damaging information to the press.

“The initial leaks of the president’s phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia really rattled a lot of folks,” said a former White House official. “A lot of the suspicion regarding that was geared at the NSC and potential Obama holdovers causing trouble.”

After those foreign leader call transcripts were leaked, Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, once brought up the idea of polygraph exams with other administration officials in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as the West Wing was undergoing renovations, according to a former White House official. Axios first reported Sessions’ interest in polygraphing NSC staffers.

“It wasn’t immediately dismissed but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh we should do that, how do we go about doing that?’” said one of the people to whom Sessions mentioned it. “There’s got to be some kind of fear of being caught.”

Polygraphing certain federal employees is not an original idea to Trump. President Obama’s director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, ordered in 2012 that intelligence employees be asked on polygraphs about whether they had shared classified information with the media after several closely-held national security secrets leaked out.

Ronald Reagan also contemplated policies that could have required more than 180,000 federal employees to get tested. Then-Secretary of State George Shultz fought the idea by arguing that the tests were often inaccurate and trained spies could beat them. He said at the time he would resign if he was ordered to take one.

But some in the government still swear by them. Polygraphs are “part of leak investigation 101 and should absolutely be used when necessary to protect against the unlawful release of national security information, especially when dealing with those entrusted to safeguard against it,” said a current national security official who previously served in the NSC.

Trump staffers musing about whether polygraphs were a good idea go back even as far back as the campaign, said a former senior White House official.

“No one’s dumb enough to [leak using] a government computer so the idea is, ‘Let’s just take it a step further,’” said the person, describing the thinking of polygraph advocates in the White House.

Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.

Published at Tue, 08 Oct 2019 09:00:17 +0000

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