The polygraph purgatory

William Safire

October 30, 1990|By William Safire

WASHINGTON — THE MAN responsible for subjecting scores of his fellow State Department employees to the mental torture of polygraph tests confessed at a Senate hearing last week that "I took a lie detector test and did not do well on it, and what I learned from that is that they are very unreliable devices."

Robert Lamb, as assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, had asked for a leak investigation -- complete with polygraph "fluttering" -- into the revelation to the press that Felix Bloch was suspected of being a Soviet spy: "We had to find out how this was getting out there."

What Lamb found out instead was how a career can be jeopardized by a spike on a nervousness chart. He had spoken to four reporters about the Bloch affair, and what he told the FBI about what he had said triggered a negative polygraph report. That drew him into the web of an extensive plumber's operation.

"I was told by an FBI agent that I was not a suspect in any way on this," he protested to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at an unreported hearing. He asserted, "I have dealt with some of the most sensitive matters that we have in the government."

But the needle had jumped. As a result, Lamb had been placed in limbo at the Baker State Department. Finally, he was designated to be ambassador to Cyprus, but six months passed before his nomination was sent up for confirmation.

Why the long delay, the "warehousing" at full pay of a official given nothing to do? The reason: In many leak investigations, when a subject does not satisfy the polygraph examiner, the Department of Justice puts the suspect on ice -- leaving the case open for years, in effect punishing the person with no regard to due process.

I am told by one such investigative victim that 44 officials are now being "warehoused," some working in the mailroom; State won't say. (Only our State Department would put a suspected security risk in a position to examine mail.) At Defense, where the old Weinberger polygraph virus spreads unrestrained, the number may be higher.

In Lamb's case, however, Hill pressure was brought to bear because Sen. Joseph Biden and Paul Sarbanes consider Cyprus important and want a U.S. ambassador there to argue with the Turks.

Reluctantly, Justice cleared Lamb last week -- it hates to open the FBI's lie-detector warehouse -- and Foreign Relations immediately held its hearing.

One problem remained: On the committee questionaire that asked if the nominee "had been interviewed or asked to supply information" in an investigation, Lamb -- who certainly had been interviewed, time and again -- checked "no."

Asked to explain this apparent deception, Lamb claimed that Ivan Selin, in charge of management at State, had told him he was no longer being investigated, which was how he then chose to interpret the questionnaire. Biden said drily that the FBI had told him the opposite.

Shaken, Lamb then let the warehousing cat out of the bag: "I was told . . . that investigations of this type are kept open indefinitely, and in fact the investigation probably would never // be closed. . . ."

Consider that: One assessment by an anonymous merchant of sweat that a subject hooked up to a machine made the needle move funny, and that person becomes a bureaucratic zombie -- walking, talking, collecting pay, but dead.

I hold no brief for Lamb, who (a) will go to the Middle East to represent the Kelly-Glaspie School of Warped American Values and (b) is hostage to Sarbanes, who wants us to zap the Turks at a time we need Turkey for a coordinated assault on Iraq.

But even a slippery cookie-pusher with a headful of secrets to embarrasC prosecutors has some civil rights. One is due process -- not to be denied by a machine operator whom real spies are trained to defeat.

"I am sorry for your experience," said Biden, who is strong on civil liberty, "but delighted that . . . someone like you gets caught in the web and makes our case for us."

That case is that the polygraph is dangerously unreliable. Those like Lamb who call it a "helpful tool" in interrogation mean that it scares suspects more than a rubber hose.

Joe Biden is also chairman of Senate Judiciary. He tells me, "I can't say I know, but I don't doubt there are people who get into 'polygraph purgatory.' " He is considering looking into that in the next session; if you've been warehoused by a sweat merchant, let him know.

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