On Sunday, “The Hill” reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering administering lie detector tests to the entire National Security Council staff. For the past two months, Sessions has declared war on leakers and is allegedly contemplating lie detectors as a means to weed out anyone who believes Americans still have a right to know about their government’s internal and most secretive dealings.
The NSC consists of a small group of individuals who exist as a forum for discussion and advice for the president. There are statutorily arranged members like the vice president and certain cabinet members; and the council also includes other military, civilian, and regular attendees in addition to a few outsiders handpicked by the president. For each member of the NSC, there can be dozens of staff members who serve in myriad advisory and clerical positions with access to sensitive information.
Controlling leaks in Washington, D.C. is like trying to control the ocean’s flow around a sand castle on the beach. Sessions is more likely to grow to normal height than he is to trap a leaker and discover truth with his lie detectors.
Beyond the scheme of lie detectors, there is a certain irony in the head of the Justice Department trying to seek out truth in his own halls. While America prides itself as a nation reliant on “truth” as a component of justice, courtrooms are decreasingly arenas of fact and reliability and the Justice Department is merely another branch of information control and propaganda.
The United States is suffering from an epidemic of injustice, especially in the context of criminal law. One study conducted five years ago suggested that America’s courts falsely convict between 5,000 and 10,000 men, women, and children every year. False convictions happen when the truth that the attorney general is so eager to find is obscured by emotions like Sessions’ own hatred, bigotry, and revenge.
Lie detectors, or polygraph tests, are problematic in practically any courtroom setting. Like all evidence — eyewitness identification, forensic sciences, and even so-called voluntary confessions — polygraphs are subject to error. In many states, the results are still inadmissible, and in others, they are allowed only on the stipulation of both parties. In federal courts, the use and admission of results of a lie detector test are usually left to the discretion of the individual judge.
“You can’t handle the truth!”
Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) – A Few Good Men
Part of the problem with Sessions and most Americans is that each likes to believe that the system does what it is supposed to do: it protects them from the bad guys. They like to think criminal justice is error proof and that no innocent person could possibly be imprisoned in the “Land of the free and home of the brave.”
They are wrong and Sessions is wrong to think polygraphs will achieve a more American democracy. There will always be errors, false convictions, and unreliable evidence. It is why, for over 200 years, we have echoed Sir William Blackstone’s maxim: “For the law holds, that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”
While technology has advanced since 1783, the likelihood of injustice has not changed from Blackstone’s time — except in Jeff Sessions’ eagerness to prosecute and imprison everyone who speaks for democracy and true American values. The U.S. Constitution provides for protections against self-incrimination, which is one reason lie detectors are so controversial in that they may invade the thin veil between the mind and the interrogator.
Every day in America, the accused face a government army of prosecutors, expert witnesses, and law enforcement investigators. They are no longer the innocent who must be proven guilty. Instead, they are the presumed guilty, forced to mortgage their lives and futures in hopes of defeating the public allegations against them. The only truth is that mistakes and manipulations are made in the name of justice.
If Sessions has his way, the same people charged with prosecuting and imprisoning America may soon find themselves victims of their own methods and influences. When they are, some may finally discover how the other half — the innocent— live.