Of all the takes on Wednesday's anonymous missive from an alleged Resistance cell member inside the White House, it's hard to pick the most popcorn-worthy. Was the New York Times op-ed treason? A venture into "unprecedented territory?" Evidence of a "cowardly coup"? This is fun stuff if your main interest is (as it should be) in seeing the various factions of the political class devour one another.
Not so fun, though, is the suggestion that the president should ferret out the mole through the junk-sciency technique of mass lie detector tests.
"Sen. Rand Paul says Trump would be justified in using lie-detector tests to find author of anonymous critical New York Times op-ed," tweeted The Hill's Alex Bolton. Paul's office confirmed to me by email that the report was true.
Paul's proposed polygraph—the device usually referred to by the term "lie detector"—dragnet is more than a bit disappointing coming from one of the few elected officials in the U.S. federal government who can credibly claim to be a civil libertarian. He opposed Gina Haspel's nomination to head the CIA because of her complicity in torture. He led the charge against warrantless surveillance under both this administration and its predecessor. Yet when it comes to hooking government staffers up to wires and divining their loyalty to the administration, Paul suddenly thinks it's a swell idea.
"Our Founders gave us the Fourth Amendment to prevent a tyrannical government from invading our privacy, and we are fools to relinquish that hard-won right because of fear," Sen. Paul argued earlier this year in a piece published by Reason. "Some argue that 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,' but this is a slap in the face to our constitutional standard of 'innocent until proven guilty.'"
Great sentiments. Why abandon them now?
But trawling through the administration, strapping then to chairs, hooking them to electrodes, and forcing the bunch to answer questions under duress is unlikely to reveal much of use. It might be good theater (though I doubt that even in this Reality TV-mad age we'd be allowed to observe), but there's little chance that the testing will result in much more than appointed public officials, guilty or innocent, marinating in puddles of their own sweat. That sounds like a hoot, but it's not productive.
"In a typical criminal investigation, the polygraph, if used at all, is used only after prior investigation has been completed," Congress's old Office of Technology Assessment reported back in 1983 after a comprehensive review of the available research. It continued:
For so-called 'dragnet' screening where a large number of people would be given polygraph tests in the investigation of unauthorized disclosures, relevant research evidence does not establish polygraph testing validity. There has been no direct scientific research on this application.
And a dragnet screening is exactly what Sen. Paul seems to have in mind when he suggests using lie detector tests to find the anonymous columnist in the Trump administration.
Of course, 1983 was an awful long time ago, back before people deliberately wore pajamas in public. It was even before Twitter. There's been a lot of research on lie detectors since then. But that research doesn't move the assumption of reliability in favor of polygraph testing.
"The federal government should not rely on polygraph examinations for screening prospective or current employees to identify spies or other national-security risks because the test results are too inaccurate when used this way," the National Academies of Science concluded in 2002.
"Most psychologists agree that there is little evidence that polygraph tests can accurately detect lies," the American Psychological Association (APA) currently insists. "There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious. Also, there are few good studies that validate the ability of polygraph procedures to detect deception."
The APA goes on to point out that "evidence indicates that strategies used to 'beat' polygraph examinations, so-called countermeasures, may be effective."
The federal government seems to agree that people can beat polygraph tests, since they keep prosecuting people for teaching others how to do it.
Which is to say that the lie detectors that Paul proposes using against White House staffers can be gamed by commonly known and taught techniques. And if lie detectors are of little use against dishonest people who don't get anxious when telling lies, of what use are they against the bits of organic matter that float to the top of the cesspool that is government?
Paul should drop the idea of strapping administration officials into chairs in an effort to determine their loyalty with a magic junk science box. He comes off a lot better when he sticks to his civil libertarianism and opposes precisely such intrusions.
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