The Corner

To Stop Profligate Leaks, Expand Use of the Polygraph

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn claimed not to have discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. However, as the press reported, “Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions . . . said Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn was fired because “of an eroding level of trust.”

Those nine senior officials also broke the trust our nation bestowed upon them. They revealed highly sensitive information — the wiretapping of the Russian ambassador — after swearing to protect such secrets. Not one of the nine has had the courage to step forward publicly. No administration, Democrat or Republican, can govern if senior officials act as clandestine insurgents divulging what they choose. Whose phone conversations will these officials next record and selectively publicize?

It is the obligation of a free press to pursue information. It is also the obligation of every administration to prosecute leaks that damage sensitive sources and methods. The odds are high that in this case the FBI will eventually track down some of the leakers. However, the investigation will be politically controversial and take many months to conclude.

In addition, President Trump can issue an executive order, as did President Reagan. On the day of Reagan’s inauguration in January of 1981, Iran announced the released the 52 Americans being held hostage in Tehran. At that time, there were rumors of contacts between Iranian officials and associates of Reagan. A year later, Reagan was beset by his own flurry of leaks and in response ordered tough measures. “I do not believe the Constitution,” he wrote, “entitles Government employees, entrusted with confidential information . . . to disclose such information with impunity. Yet this is precisely the situation we have. It must not be allowed to continue.”

That same month, the Washington Post published a story based on a high-level, classified meeting about the Defense budget. Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci ordered two-dozen senior civilians and generals to take a polygraph. As an assistant secretary of defense at that time, I witnessed the shock in the senior ranks at Defense. Months later, the result of the investigation was very dubious. But Mr. Carlucci had sent a strong message.

A few years later, Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, threatened to resign if any U.S. diplomats were ordered to take a polygraph. “Those machines,” he argued, “cannot detect lies in a scientifically reliable manner.” He later agreed employees at State could voluntarily submit to a polygraph. On the other hand, President Reagan had to modify his tough regulations due to the back-blast from agencies, the press, and Congress.

The polygraph should be used sparingly and only as one investigative tool. It should not stand alone. In itself, it “proves” nothing. But for decades, the CIA and other intelligence communities have persisted in using the polygraph. In 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to CNN, wanted to increase the number “required to take the ‘Counterintelligence Polygraph’ in order to reduce leaks.”

Like President Reagan, President Trump can and should issue an executive order imposing stricter security requirements. This could include imposing non-voluntary submission to polygraphs on a random basis by those holding top security clearances. That would be going too far. But a useful precedent was set at the Pentagon by Secretary Carlucci: In a specific case where sensitive information was leaked, no senior official — regardless of rank, agency, or position — should be exempt from the polygraph.

Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College.

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