Polygraphs and Leaks: A Look Back at NSDD 84

07.12.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

“I’ve had it up to my keister with these leaks,” President Reagan complained in 1983 after a series of unauthorized disclosures.  “Keister is slang for buttocks,” the Associated Press helpfully explained at that time.

One of President Reagan’s responses to the flood of leaks was to direct the use of polygraph examinations in leak investigations. (The Director of National Intelligence reflexively responded in a similar way last month.)

National Security Decision Directive 84 of March 11, 1983 directed that “All departments and agencies with employees having access to classified information are directed to revise existing regulations and policies, as necessary, so that employees may be required to submit to polygraph examinations, when appropriate, in the course of investigations of unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

Amazingly, this policy was denounced by then-Secretary of State George Shultz, who threatened to resign rather than submit to a polygraph examination.  He was excused from the test.

“Management through fear and intimidation is not the way to promote honesty and protect security,” Secretary Shultz said in a January 9, 1989 valedictory speech, explaining his opposition to the polygraph.

But management through fear and intimidation seems to be a recurring theme in security policy.  And polygraph testing is part of that, judging from a remarkable story published this week by McClatchy Newspapers.

“One of the nation’s most secretive intelligence agencies is pressuring its polygraphers to obtain intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees, pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of a program that’s designed instead to catch spies and terrorists,” wrote McClatchy reporter Marisa Taylor.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with cash bonuses, a McClatchy investigation found.”  See “National Reconnaissance Office accused of illegally collecting personal data,” July 10.  (More here.)

“The US is, so far as I know, the only nation which places such extensive reliance on the polygraph,” wrote convicted spy Aldrich Ames in a November 2000 letter from prison. “It has gotten us into a lot of trouble.”