The Difficulty We Have in Calling Someone a Liar
People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.
It appeared that Phil had drawn the long straw that day. The foreign asset he was scheduled to meet at a downtown hotel in a country that can’t be identified due to the sensitive nature of the CIA’s work there had served the Agency well for twenty years, and his loyalty was thought to have been proven. The asset, whom we’ll call “Omar,” had been questioned by CIA personnel on numerable occasions over the years in debriefings and routine security interviews, and his credibility was reinforced with every encounter. Omar had earned his stripes as a trusted partner who was prepared to carry out the mission whenever he was called upon.
Phil and an Office of Security colleague had been dispatched from their home base at Langley a couple of weeks earlier to conduct routine interviews with key assets in several countries in the region. Just like the CIA employees themselves, these assets had to be regularly interviewed to ensure that they continued to meet the Agency’s stringent security requirements. The work was interesting—it was always a welcome change to get out into the field—but grueling. These interviews could be extraordinarily intense and could go on for hours if an asset showed any sign of deception under questioning.
A stickler for doing his homework, Phil reviewed Omar’s file like he was preparing to coach his beloved East Carolina University Pirates in a game against Virginia Tech. He studied accounts of Omar’s past activities as if he were watching game film, trying to pick up any obscure detail or nuance that would help ensure a win. When he finally closed the file, he basked in his good fortune. This one was going to be easy. Omar was obviously squeaky clean.
Phil’s colleague caught him at the door as he was leaving their secured location to conduct the interview with Omar.
“Hey, I guess you’re not gonna be around to get some dinner later, huh?”
“Oh yeah, I will—this one’s a piece of cake,” Phil assured him. “I’ll be there in two hours.”
His colleague was clearly skeptical. “No way,” he said.
“Look, I finally got lucky,” Phil insisted. “I know I’ve had a ton of tough ones lately, but this one’s different. This guy’s been looked at by so many of our guys that there really just isn’t anything to worry about. Two hours.”
Phil headed for the prearranged site of the meeting, a guest room in a high-rise hotel in the middle of town. Just getting Omar to the hotel was a clandestine operation in itself, a carefully choreographed plan that had been carried out with exacting precision to protect Omar from discovery by hostile intelligence services. When Phil and Omar were securely settled in the designated room—a suite with a comfortable sitting area on one of the higher floors—the two engaged in cordial conversation, and then Phil got down to business.
Phil sat on the sofa, and invited Omar to have a seat in the adjacent easy chair. With hundreds of similar interviews under his belt, Phil had the drill thoroughly rehearsed. He was relaxed, but businesslike, as he began to go through the prepared list of standard questions. Not surprisingly, Omar responded to them directly and comfortably—Phil could see that after twenty years Omar, too, knew the drill.
“You’ve worked for us for years,” Phil acknowledged. “Have you ever worked for anybody else?”
It was an easygoing way of confronting this longtime, trusted asset with the question that had to be asked: Had he ever worked for the bad guys? What happened next stunned Phil.
Omar shifted in his seat, paused, and with visible discomfort responded with a question: “Can I pray?”
Phil felt like a quarterback who’d gotten creamed from behind as he scrambled out of the pocket. Whoa. Where did THAT come from? He had absolutely no expectation of seeing that behavior from Omar. And yet there it was.
“Sure, no problem,” Phil said, still recovering from the wallop. He expected Omar to bow his head for a few moments, and then proceed with his response. So what came next was even more puzzling.
Omar got up from the chair and went into the bathroom, and returned with a towel. Whatever this guy was doing, Phil was thinking, it wasn’t good. And it simply didn’t make any sense. Omar’s unblemished record and Phil’s certainty that he hadn’t been lying in the interview to that point meant there had to be a reasonable explanation for Omar’s actions.
Omar approached the window as Phil scrambled to make sense of what was happening. What is this guy doing? Is he going to try to signal somebody with the towel? How bad is this going to get? And then it dawned on him. Omar is Muslim. He was at the window to get his bearings so he could pray in the direction of Mecca. Muslims pray at set times throughout the day, and maybe this was one of those times.
Sure enough, Omar carefully spread the towel on the floor to use it as a prayer rug, and prostrated himself on it. As Omar prayed, Phil’s mind was whirling, and he began to second-guess himself. Had he said anything to offend Omar? Had he been disrespectful of Omar’s faith? He couldn’t help but hope that it was his handling of the interview, not Omar’s actions, that were problematic. After all, Omar was a key asset of the local CIA operation. If Phil were to go back with the claim that a source who had been trusted for so many years and cleared by so many previous interviewers was bad, the head of the local operation was likely to want Phil’s scalp, not Omar’s. Beyond all that, Phil was getting hungry, and the dinner appointment he promised he would keep was approaching. No one wanted to believe that Omar was clean more than Phil did.
After praying for about ten minutes, Omar arose, folded the towel, and returned to his seat. As Phil gathered his thoughts to resume the interview, he recognized that he was being swayed by his own bias in wanting to believe Omar, rather than sticking to an objective assessment of Omar’s behavior. There was only one thing to do: hit him with the question again.
The response was hardly what Phil was hoping for. Omar paused and shifted his feet uneasily. “Why are you asking me this?” he protested. “Is there a concern?”
If there wasn’t before, there was now. Omar’s verbal and nonverbal behavior in response to the question told Phil it was time to shift into elicitation mode. Calling upon his well-honed skills in nonconfrontational interrogation, Phil became something of a human GPS, navigating to a predetermined destination: a confession.
Phil reached his destination sooner than even he expected. In less than an hour, Omar admitted that he had been working for an enemy intelligence service for the full twenty years that he had served as a CIA asset.
Still, Phil’s job wasn’t over. Instead, it took an essential twist. Now he had to be assured that Omar was telling the truth when he claimed to have been working for the bad guys all those years. Remaining squarely in interrogation mode, Phil began asking questions to elicit information that would corroborate Omar’s confession. With the truth he managed to conceal for two decades finally exposed, Omar recounted how for years he had to pretend to be a novice when he underwent CIA training—more often than not, he had already received the same training from the bad guys. He began to go into explicit detail about some of his successes against the Americans. One of his accomplishments was particularly chilling.
The individuals who hold the keys to the secrets of any CIA operation anywhere in the world are the communications officers. They are the ones who handle all the message traffic between their post, Langley, and other CIA posts worldwide. They have access to the CIA’s ultrasensitive communications network and every classified document that’s transmitted to or from their post. If hostile intelligence services see the personnel at a CIA post as a potential gold mine of information, the comms officers are the mother lode.
Omar, it turned out, had gotten disturbingly close to the communications personnel at the nearby CIA post. The location had two comms officers who shared a house and employed a servant from the local population. Omar had scored a major win by gaining eyes and ears inside the comms officers’ residence: He recruited the servant.
That revelation came as another body blow to Phil, who was well aware of the damage that such a compromise could inflict. This time, the impact was swiftly moderated. Omar went on to confide in Phil that after only a couple of months, the servant abruptly and unexpectedly quit his job at the comms officers’ home. When Omar went to his handler to deliver the bad news, the handler, a former competitive weight lifter, was so incensed that he picked up a chair and broke it with his bare hands. Omar told Phil he had no idea of the value the bad guys placed on having an asset within the comms officers’ living quarters, and he began to fear for his own safety when the handler got in his face and began screaming uncontrollably at him.
Phil nodded attentively and compassionately as Omar unloaded it all. Inside, he was exhilarated. He had missed plenty of dinner appointments with far less consolation.
It was dawn when Phil wrapped up the interview. Omar went on his way, no doubt well aware that measures were firmly in place to ensure that the necessary follow-up on his case could proceed. Phil went back to the CIA facility and immediately cabled Langley. The revelation of Omar’s duplicity was received with near disbelief. How could this have happened? How was Omar able to keep the masquerade intact all those years?
Phil was beginning to grasp the answers. Deception, he well knew, could be unyieldingly difficult to detect. He knew he had come perilously close to blowing it himself in that hotel suite with Omar. He recognized how much he wanted to believe this guy—he found himself looking for reasons to believe him, blaming himself for his insensitivity to Omar’s religious beliefs and practices. It was only when he disciplined himself to adhere to a systematic, objective approach to the interview that he prevailed.
That systematic approach was crystallizing in Phil’s mind. It was a work in progress, an amalgamation of the training he had received and the attention he gave to the behaviors he had observed in the course of conducting hundreds of interviews. He seemed to have a knack for assessing human behavior, and it was becoming more acute all the time. There was a gut feeling at work, yet it was more than that. There was a cognitive analysis going on, an almost imperceptible, subconscious cataloging of verbal and nonverbal behaviors exhibited in response to the questions Phil would ask. And those behaviors were beginning to coalesce into an approach to detecting deception that was proving to be extraordinarily effective. Phil was transforming his knack into a quantifiable, replicable set of skills. He had no way of knowing at the time that that transformation would ultimately lead to a methodology for distinguishing truth from deception that officers throughout intelligence and law enforcement communities, and ultimately people from all walks of life in the private sector, would be trained to use.
Copyright © 2012 by Phil Houston, Mark Floyd, Susan Carnicero, and Don Tennant