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The 3 Golden Rules of Lying and Deception
You’ve been granted a tour of the original Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building outside Washington, DC.
Pass the statue of Nathan Hale as you walk through the big glass doors of the front entrance. Try not to gawk.
Once inside, the Great Seal stretches across the floor in varied shades of gray granite. A quote from the Bible is chiseled on the wall to your left. To the right, you see the Wall of Honor. Each star on the wall represents an Agency officer who died in the line of duty.
Walk straight ahead to the bronze bust of William Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, the forerunner of the CIA. Proceed past walls lined with portraits of US presidents and former Directors of National Intelligence. Pause by Leon Panetta’s portrait. His dog Bravo, who often came to the office, is in the picture with him.
Through a bank of tall windows, you’ll glimpse a big courtyard. Keep going.
You’re almost at the most highly anticipated stop on your tour.
Imagine the Disney Store if it was full of items bearing the CIA seal. Everything from cuff links to glassware, cigarette lighters to tee shirts. Even a cookbook written by intelligence officers called Spies, Black Ties and Mango Pies. Hidden in the back are necessary items for busy office workers: aspirin, mouthwash, extra ties and pantyhose.
Wade into the clothing section. Ignore the ubiquitous hoodies and polos. You’re looking for treasure.
There it is.
One tee to rule them all
The tee shirt bears 3 simple sentences, the unofficial ethos of those engaged in clandestine activities. These 3 simple sentences are key to understanding how lying and deception gain traction.
- Admit nothing.
- Deny everything.
- Make counter accusations.
Whether bold-faced lies or subtle marketing falsehoods, successful lies are grounded in at least one of these concepts.
The easiest thing to do when confronted by a lie is to not admit it. Politicians and their spokespeople do it all the time. “No comment.”
A lie of omission is when you admit nothing AND create a believably false narrative. For example, by not reporting a hot news item that might damage a political or economic ally, a media outlet implies that the story is just not that important. Not worth wasting time on it.
The best thing about lies of omission is that they’re just so durn hard to prove.
Denial is most effective with creative, slippery and/or vague language. “There’s no there, there.”
Do you recall President Bill Clinton’s 1998 denial in regard to his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky? “I did not have sex with that woman.”
Given the accusations, the word “sex” became a distracting sideshow. What does the word REALLY mean? And can we talk about it out loud?
Result? Denial AND a shiny object for detractors to chase.
Make Counter Accusations
Send the blame elsewhere. So-and-so did it, not me.
Go a step further and accuse So-and-so of having a nefarious reason for doing the bad thing. Claim to know their innermost thoughts.
Bonus points 1: make the counter accusation before the original accusation gets out there. Get ahead of the problem.
Bonus points 2: make the counter accusation into a shiny object for the audience to chase. Look! It’s Elvis!
Pushback? Repeats steps 1 and 2, above.
How I know this stuff
I spent 30 years with the CIA as an intelligence officer. Including a stint studying China’s media practices, the job gave me a world-class education in the mechanics of deception.
Now as a mystery and thriller author, that education helps me create crime fiction loaded with danger and deception.
Related: The Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series
As the Information Age picks up speed, we encounter more and more instances of creative falsehoods and hidden information.
We are fooled by clever lies of omission, slippery denials, and fingers that point in the wrong direction. And then there’s marketing . . . Basically we are living in a stew of deception.
In short, I find the mechanics of lying and deception quite fascinating and will be discussing it in the months ahead.
Tour over. Grab your tee shirt and that engraved CIA beer stein. We’ve got work to do.