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President Donald Trump walks off of the stage after speaking at a fundraiser in Fargo, N.D., Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Anonymous op-ed, leak investigations, lie-detectors: Shades of Nixon?


WASHINGTON (Circa) — Plagued by leaks, President Donald Trump will be asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation into the author of the anonymous opinion piece published Wednesday by the New York Times.

Citing national security concerns, Trump said Friday that Sessions "should be investigating who the author of that piece was." He anticipated "it will be very hard" for the author "if they get caught." Trump earlier implied the author may be guilty of treason.

Treason? Probably not, but senators concerned by NYT op-ed

"It's a disgrace that somebody can do that," Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. The president was concerned that the Times' source may have provided the paper with classified information and likely still has access to that information from their position in the administration.

"Supposing I have a high-level national security, and he has got a clearance, we talked about clearances a lot recently, and he goes into a high-level meeting concerning China or Russia or North Korea or something," Trump noted. "I don’t want him in those meetings."

Numerous top White House and Cabinet officials denied penning the editorial to the Times. Trump said Friday that he was satisfied with the statements and ruled out those officials as suspects, telling reporters the leaker "doesn't seem to be anybody very high." The administration has reportedly narrowed down a list of a dozen suspects, according to the New York Times.

Trump did not rule out legal action against the Times. He recently tweeted that the Times "must, for National Security purposes" turn over their source to federal authorities.

Trump also did not rule out the possibility of subjecting White House officials to a polygraph test to determine whether they are improperly leaking information to the press. Sen Rand Paul, R-Ky., told reporters Thursday that it would be "acceptable to use a lie-detector" on officials with security clearances. "This could be very dangerous if the person who is talking to the media is actually revealing national security secrets," Paul warned.


According to former intelligence officials, the idea of dragnet polygraphing will not only be ineffective but will likely backfire, creating more suspicions and further hurt morale.

"If the person or persons who authored this opinion piece wanted to increase tension and distrust in the Trump administration, initiating widespread polygraphing is going to further that goal," said Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent and whistleblower. "It will sow more chaos and more dissension within the ranks."

Lie-detectors also tend to produce a large number of false positives and false negatives. By some estimates they are only 90 percent accurate at best, which is partly why they are inadmissible in court.

"Unless they're done right, polygraphs are notoriously unreliable," explained Robert Deitz, a former counsel with the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency. He noted that Sen. Paul's suggestion is not likely to yield positive results comparing it to someone who "wants to play James Bond."

Sen. Rand Paul says White House officials should be polygraphed

Polygraphs can be powerful tools for persuasion, Deitz acknowledged. "They are intimidating as hell. Of course, the problem with that is it doesn't necessarily help you get a more accurate accounting."

President Richard Nixon appreciated this fact. As part of his desperate, and ultimately illegal, attempt to stem the leaks about the Vietnam War, Nixon contemplated lie-detector tests for tens of thousands of federal employees. In a taped White House discussion in 1971 he told advisers, "I don't know anything about polygraphs, and I don't know how accurate they are, but I know they'll scare the hell out of people."

Nixon dropped the plan and only polygraphed about a thousand individuals at the Pentagon and State Department.

The Trump administration's response to the New York Times editorial is not the first time it has considered dragnet polygraphing. There were almost daily leaks to the press during the first months of the administration. Much of the material purported to show Trump colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election and included the now infamous Trump-Russia dossier by former spy Christopher Steele.

Sessions announced a crackdown on the "explosion" of unauthorized leaks in Aug. 2017. He initiated a number of investigations and announced possible new procedures for the Justice Department to subpoena a journalists' records. Shortly after, it was reported that Sessions had also considered administering polygraph tests to the entire staff of Trump's National Security Council.


The op-ed author, identified as a "senior official in the Trump administration" claimed to be one of many working from the inside "to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations." The source acknowledged the creation of a "two-track presidency" with individuals working to insulate their own operations from an "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective" president.

"It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t," the author wrote.

Despite the denials from the vice president, the defense secretary, attorney general, chief of staff and a host of other high-level officials, pundits have been carefully scouring the language in the editorial and guessing at who the author could be.

The Washington Post compared the guessing-game to Watergate-era when everyone wanted to know the identity of "Deep Throat," the source that provided Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with a stream of information that led to Nixon's resignation.

"Deep Throat Mark Felt also denied it for more than 30 years," Eli Rosenberg <u>wrote Friday</u>, referring to the former No. 2 at the FBI. Against the backdrop of fervent denials from top Trump officials, "Felt’s false assertions that he was not Deep Throat, which were issued regularly and repeatedly for more than 30 years, are a reminder of how official denials may not be all that they seem," he noted.

While some see parallels between Mark Felt and the anonymous author presumably still operating inside the administration, he has hardly gotten the mythological status of "Deep Throat."

"This is not a whistleblower," asserted Rowley, whose whistleblowing helped shed light on systemic intelligence lapses before September 11, 2001. "I believe in dissent and I certainly believe government employees should be raising their hands if they spot an issue critical to life and safety, but I don't see the author as a whistleblower motivated by the right reasons. I think they were more motivated by selfish reasons."

The revelation of officials engaged in a dual-track presidency is not equivalent to a lower-level government employee calling out fraud, abuse, Crowley stressed. "I think it's dangerous to the country when you have power-infighting among the most powerful. And that's what's going on," she warned.

Former FBI counterintelligence agent Ray Batvinis also questioned the anonymous author's motives which could range from hubris to a false sense of loyalty to the country. "There are serious national security implications to what this individual is doing," he said, noting the individual might be providing additional, potentially classified information to the press. "The president has no choice but to investigate this."


Trump has been at war with his Justice Department over irregularities in the Russia investigation, possible surveillance abuse and a host of other concerns. He has also consistently attacked Attorney General Sessions. Now, the president is in the awkward position of relying on the Justice Department to lead the leak investigation.

"Trump has painted himself into a corner on this," Batvinis said. "He can't have his own people do it. He can't have a private team in the White House investigate because that is going to smack of Nixon also, with the White House Plumbers. He has to has to do this and he has to do it legally, whether he liked Sessions or the Department of Justice."

Nixon's Plumbers were the domestic surveillance unit set up from the White House under the pretext of stopping national security leaks. The team targeted government officials, journalists and Nixon's other enemies, and included the men who carried out the 1972 Watergate burglary.

Conducting the investigation will be difficult. Investigators will have to comb through phone and email records for correspondences with journalists or take the extraordinary measure of subpoenaing journalists' communications records. The Justice Department has indicated a willingness to review its policies on targeted journalists in criminal investigations related to unauthorized disclosures.

Even that search may not turn up any evidence, as sources tend to rely on third-party intermediaries to maintain anonymity.

Leak investigations have at least tripled during Trump's time in office, according to the Department of Justice. In the first six months of the Trump administration, the Justice Department received more than two dozen criminal referrals related to unauthorized disclosures to the press. President Barack Obama previously set a record prosecuting nine leak cases and threatened to prosecute a journalist under the Espionage Act.

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