To Tell The Truth . . . Lie Detector Tests Not Worth Damn

Posted: January 02, 1986

NEW YORK — In my opinion, based on my service as a criminal prosecutor for the Justice Department and later as a defense lawyer, "lie-detector" tests are not worth a damn.

To be sure, "leaks" of confidential internal discussions and decisions have become a major problem for the White House. Various Administration officials, including some at the Cabinet level, regularly pass information to their favorite reporters, and some of us have seen the president as angry as he ever permits himself to get over the unauthorized and inaccurate leaks that turn up on the TV news.

Of course, the president himself is hardly blameless: Way back at the beginning of his Administration, he allowed David A. Stockman to get away with feeding White House information to a reporter, even after Stockman confessed this indiscretion. The president's reaction was very un-Reagan-like, and it may have helped prepare the way for later leaking.

In any event, the White House has now decided the answer is to require high government officials to take lie-detector tests in order to discover if they are leaking.

How does a lie-detector test work? The person being tested is electronically connected to a machine. A questioner then asks key questions - in this case about the leak and the subject's alleged participation in it. As an answer comes forth, a needle - like the needle on a cardiogram - registers truth or falsity. That is the test proposed for everybody who is anybody in the Administration.

So what's the problem? The taking of the test does no harm to the subject and is without physical risk. It can also serve as a public example - proof that those tied up in Government possess such shining innocence that they are not afraid of being questioned. This in itself could have a salutary effect.

The trouble is that those who refuse to be tested immediately seem to other people to have assumed a "Fifth Amendment" sort of posture - implying they do indeed have something to hide and some measure of guilt. Obviously, this would be quite damning for someone like Secretary of State George P. Shultz who has stated that he would rather resign than take such a test.

Many other officials would undoubtedly like to take the same position - which might not be such a good thing. I have never sympathized with public officials who bellyache about ordinary security procedures like those required before boarding airplanes.

In my view, they have to be awfully callous and stupid to refuse such sensible and generally productive precautions. Still, Shultz is in a better position than most defiers, for the following reason.

The negative result of a lie-detector test - the irregular shaking of the needle - may not mean that the subject is guilty, but rather that he is a nervous type, shaken merely by having to take the test. This nervousness, rather than guilt, may account for a poor showing. Conversely, a subject lying through his teeth could remain undetected as long as he is supercool.

Some years ago, a prominent New York legislator was accused of election fraud by the United States District Attorney's office. His immediate reaction before he consulted counsel was unmitigated outrage, and he demanded a lie- detector test. Now, I never allow a client to take such a test without a trial run - not to be sneaky, but because of the basic unreliability of these tests.

This legislator took the test privately in our office, and failed the key questions miserably. Not surprisingly, he immediately withdrew the offer that he be tested under official auspices. The investigation continued, and he was totally and completely cleared, and all charges were dismissed. If he had been tested, the inaccuracy of the lie detector could have marred his reputation for life.

In another case, a client I considered quite guilty offered to take a lie- detector test. We gave him one, and because of his calm demeanor he passed. The fact is, he was guilty, but he happened to be the calm sort of person who is easily "cleared" by a lie-detector test.

So when Shultz declines to take such a test and persuades the President to join him, he is on sound scientific ground. The tests are just so much malarkey, and almost never admitted as evidence in a courtroom. Besides, in the case of Government officials, the lie-detector requirement can be quite damaging, because it makes people who refuse look like they are afraid to take the test.

Erosion of Government secrecy is, of course, a real and serious problem. But there are plenty of other ways for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency to investigate Government leaks, and in almost every case it is possible to determine the source without a lie- detector test.

Perhaps Calvin Coolidge, our Patron Saint, had the answer. He had a cabin in the mountains far away from civilization - so far that it makes the Reagan Ranch in California look like a blazing metropolis by comparison - and no word ever leaked out of that cabin. The big question of the day, in 1927, was whether President Coolidge would run for re-election or not. But the public simply had to wait to find out until the President himself traveled down the mountain to a railroad depot where the press was waiting. There, the President personally handed out a one sentence statement reading: "I do not choose to run."

Perhaps some of our old ways of doing things were better than flawed modern technology like lie-detector tests.

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