The lying detector RTC

February 25, 1994|By William Safire

ALDRICH Ames, the CIA official accused of being a Russian penetration agent, was "fluttered" -- polygraphed -- in 1986 and again in 1991.

If he is found guilty, that would prove the "lie detector" is unreliable. It would show how the CIA was lulled into a false sense of security by a device that law enforcement officers know a splendid tool to scare suspects into confessions, but could be easily fooled by a natural liar, a psychopath or a trained spy.

The smug reliance by CIA security on machines that can only measure the nervousness of both liars and truth-tellers is curious for this reason: The agency has a program that teaches agents going into the field how to beat the enemy's polygraph. Did Mr. Ames take the course or have access to its materials? We'll see.

The FBI, I am told, is much more selective in its internal use of polygraphs. It knows that experienced agents are less intimidated by the "sweat merchants" with their high degree of inaccuracy; federal law officers involved in the Ames investigation privately scorn the CIA for foolish reliance on polygraph machines for internal security.

In 1981 President Reagan's new intelligence chief, Bill Casey, challenged James Baker to a polygraph test about Jimmy

Carter's stolen debate papers. Suspecting that my friend Casey may have been the culprit, I asked him why he was taking the gamble; he winked and said that with some Valium and a sphincter-muscle trick he learned in the OSS, he could flatten the spikes before they appeared on any machine.

The machines -- devoutly believed in by the technology-intimidated public -- can be fooled in the other direction by nervous truth-tellers. In the 1980s, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane flunked a polygraph test looking for the leaker of a story to the New York Times; desperate, the adviser called the newspaper to establish his innocence. Editors who knew he was not the real source agreed on a one-time basis to exonerate the man whose career the polygraph would have wrecked.

Despite hard evidence that reliance on "lie detectors" was itself a security risk, and despite the danger to the civil liberty of people wrongly suspected, the Department of Defense under Caspar Weinberger borrowed its values from spookdom's nether world to launch a vast "test" of thousands of Defense employees and contractors.

Congress later put a cap on the procedure; no more than 5,000 people a year can now be intimidated by Pentagon pollys.

Not all Reaganites were caught up in polygraph fever. When a presidential directive put the CIA's supposedly secure methods into the State Department, Secretary George Shultz announced he would take the test if ordered -- and would then quit, because he would not work for a government that did not trust him. The sweat merchants were stopped before they further eroded American values and national security.

Last May, a joint security commission was set up to cut the cost of undue secrecy, estimated at $14 billion a year. Its chairman, Nunn Democrat Jeffrey Smith, tells me its report is due out next week.

As a result of the suspected Ames penetration, attention will be focused on the section on polygraphs, and at the Pentagon, "Cap's curse" should be further cut back.

Today's intelligence chief, Jim Woolsey -- long aware of the molehunt -- has so far pointedly declined to submit to a machine's judgment of his veracity.

Like his deputy and the IG, the DCI has been confirmed by the Senate; that process should not be subject to mechanical review.

I suspect Mr. Woolsey will await the Smith report and demand flutter reform before caving in for collegial reasons, thereby awakening the polygraph-benumbed security staff.

In Moscow on Wednesday, Vladimir Kryuchkov -- initiator and controller of the penetration charged to Mr. Ames and a man rewarded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988 with the top KGB job -- was pardoned by Russia's Duma for his 1991 coup-plotting on the very day his suspected mole was arrested in Washington.

Cultivating the orchids in Spook Heaven, James Jesus Angleton -- our counterspy fired and vilified for his "paranoia" in successfully protecting the Agency from deadly penetration -- must be getting a bitter chuckle out of the KGB's double triumph.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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