In September 2018, the New York Times published an incendiary op-ed by an anonymous senior Trump administration official. The White House panicked and started hunting for its author. This led the administration to consider requiring entire offices, departments and agencies to perform a polygraph screening to root out the “mole.” Aside from it being an illegal action, it would bring on a host of problems for the administration.
Before even getting into the issue of unintended consequences, consider the administration has categorically stated that everything in the article is false, a lie. So they want to find out who wrote a fictional story and will break the law to do so.
A little background will help understand the ramifications. The use of a lie detector is touted by a number of companies as a way of determining if someone is lying; unfortunately, it doesn’t. All a lie detector does is indicate changes in pulse and breathing rate and sweat. While it might be an indication of deception, it could just as likely be a result of anxiety, medicine, ethnic background or medical issues. There are other types of devices also hyped as lie detectors; they’re the same, just stress indicators.
Consider the following theoretical test. Hook up two subjects, a suspect of a crime and someone at a party: both males, same ethnicity, education and age. As the examiner starts questioning the suspect, all his rates increase and he starts sweating. For the one at the party, a beautiful sexy girl walks into the room. All his rates increase and he starts sweating.
The polygraph machine did what it was designed to do, recognize physiological changes in reaction to a question or situation. For the suspect, it indicated that the questioned area should be explored further. For the party guy, what can we say!
Since both of these instruments are not lie detectors, courts have refused to allow their use. However, the federal government does allow them for security clearance-screening and allegations of misconduct, both with legal limitations. Unfortunately, there are circumstances where the use of these instruments can have some significant unintended consequences.
Back to the after-effects of using a lie detector to ferret out Anonymous. Expert lie detector examiners would not make their first question, “Did you write the article.” There would be lots of spikes from scared and anxious people, like “What else will they find out about me?” The examiner might start off with some open-ended questions: Have you ever discussed anything about the administration with news reporters or writers? Is there any reason I might hear you’ve been seen in the vicinity of the New York Times offices? Are there any issues that I haven’t asked you that might be of concern related to this issue?
Depending on what else the person might be involved in, some of these questions could appear to be a Catch-22 of unrelated issues. Unfortunately, that can open up a myriad of new doors with lots of follow-up possibilities required by the administration. There might be some people who won’t submit to the tests on legal or privacy grounds. Others might even bring lawsuits if forced. And now we have gotten into the area of unintended consequences!