White House threatens polygraphs for leakers

Officials at the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies will be given expanded polygraph tests under a new Obama administration directive aimed at stamping out national-security leaks.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, on Monday announced a series of steps intended to stop the leaks after a furious backlash from Congress over news reports that revealed closely guarded secrets.

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The most significant measure is the addition of a new question to the polygraph tests that are used by intelligence agencies. Officials will be asked during the lie-detector tests whether they have disclosed classified information to members of the media, according to Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper.

President Obama’s spy chief is also ordering a review of how the intelligence agencies report contact with members of the media, and will consider changes if he finds the policies inconsistent or insufficient.

The second directive in Monday’s announcement was a request for the Intelligence Community Inspector General to lead investigations of leaks when the Department of Justice declines to do so.

Clapper’s order applies to 16 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency. He said in a statement that the new measures were the “right thing to do” and “in the interest of our national security.”

Congress is demanding investigations into a spike in security leaks, and vowing to write new laws following recent revelations about a U.S. cyberattack on Iran, a double-agent infiltrating al Qaeda in Yemen and a terrorist “kill list.”

Attorney General Eric Holder appointed two U.S. attorneys to probe the cyberattack and Yemen leaks, but Republicans have called for a special counsel, fearing the DOJ investigation might not be independent.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) alleged the leaks were a deliberate effort to aid President Obama’s reelection bid, and has introduced a non-binding Senate resolution calling for a special counsel. That measure has 28 Republican co-sponsors.

McCain and four other Republican senators plan to hold a press conference about the leaks on Tuesday. 

The outrage over the leaks has been coming from members of Obama’s own party. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the leaks were the worst she’d seen in Congress, but has rejected GOP calls for a special counsel, arguing the DOJ probe will be sufficient. Other Democrats have taken a similar position.

Feinstein is working with the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence committees on legislation aimed at cracking down on the release of classified information. She’s looking at provisions that would create more forceful leak investigations, add resources for the government to identify leakers and require the timely disclosure of authorized disclosures.

Feinstein was “very pleased” with Clapper’s announcement, according to a spokesman, though she still is planning to move forward with legislation.

House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said that Clapper’s new measures were a “good first step.”

“The parade of recent leaks requires action,” Rogers said in a statement. “We must break this culture of unauthorized disclosures.”

Steven Aftergood, a leading expert on government transparency and director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said it would be hard to gauge the impact of Clapper’s new policies without knowing the specifics.

“The wording of the polygraph question will make a lot of difference,” he said. “A relatively narrow polygraph question might be: Have you disclosed classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person? An overly broad question would be: Have you had any contacts with members of news media?”

Aftergood said that questions about media leaks might already be included in some polygraph tests, but now they will be “addressed more systematically.” Other questions that intelligence officials submit to in the lie-detector tests include queries about contact with foreign intelligence services or officials, or about sabotage, terrorism or misuse of government information systems.

Government transparency advocates have raised concerns that the recent vows from lawmakers to pass new laws to stanch leaks could have unintended consequences.

Congress has attempted to pass strict anti-leak laws before. In 2000, President Clinton vetoed a law that would have made any unauthorized disclosure of classified information a crime. He said the law was overly broad.

Amy Bennett, assistant director at OpenTheGovernment.org, said that Monday’s announcement showed that the administration already has the tools it needs to investigate leaks.

“We’re really concerned that in Congress’s zeal to crack down on leakers, it’s going to hastily pass legislation that really undercuts people’s right to know what their government is doing,” Bennett said.

Aftergood, a member of OpenTheGovernment’s steering committee, warned that congressional legislation is a “blunt instrument” compared to the internal measures that the administration could take.

“I don’t see a valid need for new legislation on leaks, and I hope that Congress will exercise some self-restraint on that front,” he said.