Secretary of State George P. Shultz, in an unprecedented challenge to President Reagan, said Thursday that he would resign in protest if he were ordered to take a lie detector test under the Administration's new anti-espionage program.
"The minute in this government I am told that I'm not trusted is the day that I leave," Shultz said at a news conference.
In the past, Shultz always has fallen into line behind presidential decisions, even those he personally opposed. But he said he has "grave reservations" about the use of lie detectors to screen employees.
The purpose of the executive order is to provide spot checks on the loyalty of an estimated 10,000 government employees and contractors who already have or want to get high-level security clearances. Cabinet officers were specifically included.
Shultz's stand seems to give Reagan a stark choice between picking a new secretary of state or backing down on the polygraph plan. Although details of the proposal have not been drafted, there seems to be no way it could work if Shultz--who has all available security clearances--is exempted.
A senior White House official said it is "extremely unlikely" that Shultz would ever be asked to take a test. However, it is difficult to see how the integrity of a random sample plan could be maintained if one highly visible individual never is included, an official said.
The White House official said: "He (Shultz) would be the first one to agree that we have some problem with espionage, that there is a sophisticated effort to get information from government sources."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes has said that the plan is aimed at espionage, not at leaks to the news media. He also has said that the checks would be "aperiodic"--that is, conducted without a fixed schedule.
It is unclear how Shultz's position would affect the estimated 4,000 State Department officials covered by the executive order. The plan touched off loud grumbling among many professional Foreign Service officers.
A senior State Department official said: "If the secretary won't take it, there will be massive numbers of people around here who won't. I wonder if he would resign if his people were forced to take a polygraph."
CIA Defends Tests
The CIA, in a rare public statement Thursday evening, defended the polygraph and implicitly chided Shultz for his reluctance.
"The number of leaks of sensitive classified information in recent years makes clear that a growing number of those given special trust have not lived up to their obligations," the statement said. "The reality is that the loss of classified information is severely damaging our foreign policy and our intelligence capabilities."
It continued: "The use of polygraphing in the intelligence community has proven to be the best deterrent to the misuse of sensitive information. There is an acute need to extend its selective, careful use to branches of government that receive that information."
Bush Took Polygraph
The agency pointedly added that Director William J. Casey and all of his predecessors--including Vice President George Bush--"voluntarily have been polygraphed, believing in the importance of setting an example" for other employees.
Reagan signed the order Nov. 1, but it was kept secret until The Times reported it Dec. 11. The White House confirmed the report the same day, and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said in a television interview that taking a polygraph test "wouldn't bother me a bit."
Shultz is known to have opposed the use of random lie detector tests within the Administration. A year ago, Reagan rejected a similar order, possibly as a result of Shultz's opposition. But the President decided to go ahead this time in the wake of a series of spy scandals.
Shultz declined to comment on the subject during a six-nation European tour that ended Wednesday. But he broke his silence Thursday at the end of a brief news conference called to announce appointment of an advisory committee on South Africa policy.
"From what I've seen, it (the polygraph) is hardly a scientific instrument," he said. "It tends to identify quite a few people who are innocent as guilty, and it misses at least some fraction of people who are guilty of lying.
"And it is, I think, pretty well demonstrated that a professional--that is, say, a professional spy or a professional leaker--can probably train himself or herself not to be caught by the test," he said. "So the use of it as a broad-gauged condition of employment, you might say, seems to me to be questionable."
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that lie detectors are used in the State Department "on a voluntary basis in the course of counterintelligence, criminal and special investigations."
Redman declined to provide additional information, but he said the tests were limited to specific investigations. Under the President's new proposal, tests could be used for random screening.
A few hours after Shultz made his comments, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams was asked at another news conference if he would take such a test. Carefully declining to side with either Shultz or Reagan, Abrams responded: "I don't know. I don't even like to take an EKG (electrocardiogram)."