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…