The 3 Golden Rules of Lying and Deception

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.

Carmen Amato at Wall of Honor CIA HQ

At CIA Headquarters, Nov 2016, the same day I was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.

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.

The store

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.

Admit Nothing

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.

Deny Everything

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.

A pivotal bone-chopping moment of awareness

A pivotal bone-chopping moment of awareness

On his radio show National Security This Week, thriller author and former US military intel officer Jon Olson asked me why I’d specialized in Western Hemisphere issues as an intelligence officer.

Related: National Security this Week broadcast

Build things and Fix things

As I told one senior manager during a career development talk, I like to build things and I like to fix things. That was sort of the theme of my career, especially in the last half.

The Western Hemisphere appealed.  I grew up Italian and Catholic and easily embraced local traditions of family, church, and holidays in Mexico and Central America.

So the Western Hemisphere gave me the opportunity to combine problem solving with a cultural fit.

Related: Inside my CIA Career: The Point of it All

Related: More about Carmen

The precise moment of awareness

I can tell you the exact minute my fate was sealed.

I was sitting at my desk in the office eating lunch and surfing around online. Came across a video posted by the Blog del Narco website.(I tried to link but my anti-virus software advised against it.)

For those who aren’t familiar, this uncensored site posts graphic content of narco activities in Mexico, much of which is created by the cartels and gangs themselves. It’s a “look what we’re up against” kind of site that has ebbed and flowed over the years. As you can imagine, staff is continually targeted by cartels.

So this particular video shows a clearing in the woods. There’s a dead man in the foreground, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. The video is kind of grainy, but he’s definitely dead.

There’s another guy, fully dressed, and he’s got an axe and he’s trying to chop off the dead guy’s arm at the bicep.

But either the axe is dull or the dead guy has bones like concrete because our woodsman is chopping and chopping and getting nowhere.

Meanwhile, off camera, male voices are hooting and hollering at the guy with the axe, yelling advice, questioning his strength and technique.

My bite of sandwich literally fell out of my mouth. It was such a visceral lesson in what was happening in Mexico.

You know, I remember that video in black and white. But I am not sure that it wasn’t in color.

The moment lasted

The Agency is a fairly flexible organization that wants well-rounded officers. If you have transferable skills, an understanding of how the intelligence community works, and how the different intelligence mission areas support each other, you can move across the organization.

CIA challenge coins


Related: Inside my CIA Career: Variety and the Spice of Life

It’s not common. Most folks, stay in a single mission area for their entire career. I was very lucky to have been able to work across all 3 major mission area: analysis, operations, and S&T, largely because I had transferable skills that could be applied to a variety of positions that focused on or were in the Western Hemisphere.

Remember, I wanted to fix things . . .


Featured image by Jason Abdilla via Unsplash

Inside my CIA Career: Parting Words

Inside my CIA Career: Parting Words

I had a retirement photo opportunity with then-CIA Director John Brennan. He greeted me with a CIA keepsake coin and a firm handshake. We posed for the photographer and chatted for a minute about favorite assignments over my 30 year career.

CIA Director keepsake coin

Front and back of Director Brennan’s keepsake challenge coin


He asked me what I was going to do in retirement. I told him that I would be a full-time mystery and thriller author.

It wasn’t a long meeting and I knew he was very busy. As the secretary ushered me out, Director Brennan stopped me. I turned around.

After a long pause he said, “Be kind to us.”

It was an awkward moment. I murmured something brilliant like “Of course,” and left.

Those were his parting words. At the time, I assumed he meant the CIA.

But now that he’s a talking head on MSNBC, I’m not so sure.

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CIA career


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


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