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Intelligence agencies weigh new polygraph question to prevent leaks

June 20, 2012|By Ken Dilanian
  • James R. Clapper, Director of the National Intelligence Agency, talks with guests during a luncheon hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
James R. Clapper, Director of the National Intelligence Agency, talks… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON – As part of his effort to plug leaks, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is considering a proposal to force intelligence agency employees to answer a direct question in their polygraph examinations about whether they have disclosed information to reporters, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Government officials who seek top-secret clearances are subject to an initial polygraph test and periodic renewals, in many cases every five years. Currently, they are asked whether they have ever disclosed classified information to someone not authorized to receive it.  But they are not specifically asked about contacts with the news media.

Most intelligence agencies require employees to voluntarily disclose to their bosses any contacts with journalists, but that rule is enforced on an honor system.

“The DNI is currently considering a number of proposals aimed at identifying and preventing disclosures of classified information to members of the press,” said an intelligence official who was not authorized to be quoted discussing the matter.  “One of the proposals under consideration involves changes to the counterintelligence polygraph policy. However, no final decisions have been made.”

Clapper has been meeting with leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees about other legislative changes designed to curb the disclosure of national security secrets to the media, but those proposals have not been made public.

Two recent articles in particular have infuriated intelligence officials: the disclosure by The New York Times that the Stuxnet worm was part of a cyber operation by the United States and Israel designed to delay Iran’s nuclear program; and the revelation by the Associated Press of a thwarted bomb plot in Yemen. In the wake of the AP report, the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations reported that the bomb plot was part of an operation by a Saudi agent who posed as an Al Qaeda militant. 

Justice Department prosecutors are now investigating how those secrets emerged.

Other recent reports have unearthed new details about the use of drones to kill militants in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

U.S. officials have said the Yemen story interrupted the operation and endangered the operative and his family. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the Stuxnet revelations “hurt our country.”

Polygraph examinations have long been criticized as junk science.  Their results are inadmissible in U.S. criminal courts.  However, they are widely used as an interrogation tool by law enforcement agencies, and they are heavily relied upon by intelligence agencies to screen employees.

CIA officer Aldrich Ames, one of the most notorious turncoats in the agency’s history, passed polygraph exams even as he was selling information to the Soviet Union that led to the deaths of CIA informants.

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

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