I took multiple polygraph tests during my 30-year career as an intelligence officer with the CIA. The theory behind the poly is that basic bodily functions (breathing, heart rate, etc) react if you lie.
Every test followed the same procedure. I sat in a comfortable chair, got hooked up to the machine, and answered all the examiner’s questions with a simple yes or no.
The test makes you dig into your subconscious to determine why you react to certain questions. You never know if you are really reacting or if the examiner is trying to psyche you out for reasons you don’t know.
Here’s a protip: Never drink coffee before taking a polygraph test. You don’t want to feel any more jittery than you already do or make your heart race for no other reason than a morning latte. No bathroom break, either.
Without so much as a molecule of caffeine, I blearily stumbled into my first polygraph test, the one that would determine if I was honest enough to be offered a job at CIA.
The chair was a giant cushy recliner. The polygraph instrument was a cross between a suitcase and an electrocardiogram machine.
After the first round of questions, the examiner left the room (normal procedure) leaving me hooked up and unable to get out of the recliner. There was a two-way mirror so somebody was watching me.
Meh. I closed my eyes.
The examiner woke me up about 20 minutes later.
Years later, I yawned during a test. The examiner barked, “Why did you do that?”
“I’m tired,” I said truthfully. “I haven’t had any coffee today.”
After I passed, he told me that yawning is a technique to defeat the machine.
On to Aldrich Ames
Arrested in February 1994, Aldrich “Rick” Ames was a career CIA officer who spied for Moscow, selling out a raft of important agents helping the US understand the threat from a nuclear-powered Soviet Union. No ideological saint here; Ames sold secrets to support his drinking habit, lavish lifestyle and newish Colombian wife.
Aldrich Ames mugshot, Feb 1994. Source: FBI.gov
He was a “mole,” a spy within his own intelligence service. Currently serving a lifetime sentence for treason and fraud, he is responsible for the deaths of good people. Read the FBI report on him:
I am not impartial. I hope Ames is lonely and dejected and his prison food is noxious.
The years-long hunt for a traitor inside CIA was documented in CIRCLE OF TREASON by CIA officers Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille. I highly recommend it.
The point which I am taking too long to make is that Aldrich Ames was polygraphed as a possible suspect during the hunt. He passed. Twice.
When asked about his inexplicable wealth, he claimed that his money came from his wealthy in-laws, who were giving him a “free ride.” His claim was fact-checked, and yes, his in-laws were rich.
When asked about foreign contacts, “Rick explained that he had been introduced to numerous people in Colombia when he and his wife visited her family. He added that he had no idea whether any of them were employed by Colombian security services, and suggested to the polygrapher that this might explain his reaction to the question. The polygrapher accepted this explanation.”
He never defeated the polygraph machine, he defeated the examiners.
Interestingly, Ames was dumbfounded when he was finally arrested. He was sure he had outsmarted the mole hunters.
AI as lie detector
Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems to be able to do everything from coding a website to drive a car and write a novel. (I’m investing as soon as it can do laundry and clean toilets)
It can spot deception, too.
Lemonade Insurance depends on its “AI Jim” claims bot to spot fraud. The company’s blog tells how AI Jim flagged a fraudster who submitted multiple claims using fake accounts and even disguises. “AI Jim caught him red handed” and information was turned over to law enforcement. https://www.lemonade.com/blog/the-sixth-sense/
According to researchers in Israel, a new technology that measures “the movement of facial muscles is 73% accurate at detecting when a person is telling a lie.” https://neurosciencenews.com/lie-detection-neurotech-19679/
The technology assesses the tiny involuntary twitches that LIESPOTTING author and expert Pamela Meyer calls “emotional leakage.” She writes “The problem (for liars, anyway) is that much of the time we can’t anticipate our feelings—our emotions catch us by surprise.”
What about voices assessed by AI? Changes in tone, inflection, speed of speech, etc. All these minute vocal changes can be giveaways, too.
If the counterintelligence team hunting for a mole inside CIA had had AI lie detection tools back then, they almost certainly would have identified Ames as the mole long before his arrest in 1994. Ames wouldn’t be able to control his “emotional leakage.” That would be enough to intensify interest in him and reassess his polygraph tests.
Moreover, the team could have narrowed the scope of the hunt sooner, too, as other suspects were crossed off the list more swiftly.
In the future, will AI lie detection be so reliable that it has the final say, instead of a human as was the case when Ames passed his polygraphs?
That could be a slippery slope.
As AI deception detection tools go mainstream, I hope we treat them just as that—tools. We can’t become wholly dependent on them. Let’s not surrender the human critical thinking skills that ultimately caught traitor and spy Aldrich Ames.
As fallout over the firing of Fox New anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon continues to percolate, I recall the Cold War techniques to decode the news used by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA was never solely about spies meeting in dark alleys. Consider the technical side—from spy planes to listening devices—where I spent the majority of my 30-year career.
But to learn how to decode the news, you have to look at OSINT. That’s shorthand for intelligence gleaned from openly available sources.
First, some background
Open source intelligence collection and analysis got its start in 1941 before Pearl Harbor when the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service was created to monitor Axis short-wave radio transmissions and analyze implications.
The new organization, known unofficially as “the Screwball Division,” recruited top linguists, engineers and social scientists. An early headquarters was TEMPO Y, one of the war-time temporary buildings erected on the Mall in Washington DC.
After the war, the renamed Foreign Broadcast Information Service–later the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS)–was folded into the newly-formed CIA in 1947.
During the Cold War, FBIS primarily focused on state-controlled media in the Soviet Union, East Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba, and other “closed” countries. Its flagship product was the Daily Report, a daily collection of critical translations for each country or region. A news magazine called Trends, came out weekly.
A media analyst for FBIS
Early in my CIA career, I got the chance to write for Trends about messages hidden in state-controlled Chinese media.
During the Cold War, critical messages were hidden in plain sight in the news coming out of communist countries. News for the domestic audience could be different (remember, there was little other information getting to folks inside the country) than what was broadcast to the foreign audience.
If you dug into the content, and knew who mattered in their media organizations—the state-controlled media equivalents of Don and Tucker–you could essentially decode the message.
If certain buzzwords appeared in an official briefing or news outlet known to be a leadership mouthpiece, it carried certain significance. On the other hand, it they were published in something further from the seat of power, say in a Chinese-owned Hong Kong newspaper prior to the takeover, it was more likely to be testing the waters.
Some of those buzzwords are still around. If a Chinese media outlet refers to “sovereignty,” they’re talking about Taiwan with an implicit warning that no one declare it independent or try to defend it.
Talking OSINT at a DoD event in the late 1980s, a time also known as the Era of Big Glasses.
Beijing’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, recently told US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns that US-China relations needed to “stabilize” after a series of Washington’s “erroneous words and deeds.”
“The agenda of dialogue and cooperation agreed by the two sides has been disrupted, and the relationship between the two countries has once again encountered cold ice.” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/china-imperative-stabilize-us-relations-meeting-ambassador-rcna83293
If I was an FBIS media analyst now, I’d be frantically combing the archives to find the last time a senior Chinese official referred to “cold ice.” What actions did the Chinese take in the wake of those words? An economic move? Military?
US policymakers should anticipate a similar action now.
Related: My CIA “Coup Kit”
Cold War remake
OSINT methodology is more than code words, but also about intentional or selective media behavior.
In the past few years, Western media outlets have adopted characteristics of closed media that we studied so rigorously. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Breitbart, the New York Times, Epoch Times etc, etc, cater to certain agendas, repeat specific terminology, self-define “newsworthy” to refrain from reporting certain stories, and so on.
Look for these indicators
- Media reports are slanted or shaded a certain way,
- Context or pivotal details are left out (how much and for how long),
- Headlines are vaguely misleading (i.e. clickbait),
- Facts that do not align with the article’s intended slant are buried at the bottom or in long and dull paragraphs,
- Phrasing of the intended message is lively, impactful and emotional; rival concepts are portrayed as dull, dangerous or otherwise unappealing,
- Minor news stories are piled on to obscure/deflect attention from potentially troublesome reporting,
- Multiple news outlets use the same exact terminology to report/downplay/heighten an event.
- Absence of reporting—if certain media outlets completely fail to report on a story or offer only a partial report.
- Imagery is selected to shape opinions—for example, certain politicians are consistently shown as grim by one news outlet and smiling by another.
Your decoder ring
You can effectively “decode” the news by using 5 critical thinking techniques:
- Go beyond information silos.
Search for a breadth of perspectives on a single topic. Read across party and political lines. Seek out sources you normally would not.
Hunt for contradictions. Compare past and present. Look for repetition of specific words and phrases. Probably not coincidental.
Is important real news hidden behind distracting entertainment? Released at midnight on Friday after the weekly news cycle is over? Buried at the bottom?
- Question vague language & statistics.
Don’t be suckered by vague claims like 35% better! Better than what? How was that number achieved?
- Recognize Problem, Agitate, Solve.
This blog/marketing formula is everywhere. As media slides into infotainment and is ad revenue-dependent, look for news reports to use this formula, too.
No Cold War methodology can beat the best technique of all.
Slow down. Be open-minded. Ask hard questions.
Is this true? How do I absolutely know that? What if I’m wrong? Whose agenda benefits from this piece of information and the way it is presented?
The first day that I walked into CIA Headquarters, I was greeted by a quote etched into the lobby wall: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Still relevant today.
Note: Yes, that’s my old FBIS mug sitting on my desk.
Elon Musk hardly needs an introduction these days, but here goes. He’s the richest man in the world, has a droll sense of humor, is a naturalized US citizen (born in South Africa) and has 7 children.
Founder of blazing-into-the-future companies Tesla and SpaceX, on 30 May Musk tweeted he felt as if he was being watched, and cleverly implied that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible.
Musk’s plans to buy Twitter have sparked a huge online controversy. To quote CNN, Musk believes Twitter should be a “digital town square that abides by free-speech principles. Musk’s main critique about Twitter today is that it is too restrictive. Under his ownership, Musk has suggested, Twitter would treat content more permissively, pivoting away from content removals and account bans. He has also proposed opening up Twitter’s algorithm to public review so that, in theory, users could understand how it makes decisions . . . a kind of referendum on the future of online speech.” https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/26/tech/importance-of-musk-buying-twitter/index.html
The possible purchase has become highly politicized, fueled in part by the Biden administration’s announcement of a Disinformation Governance Board mere days after Musk’s bid to buy Twitter. Hardly a coincidence and gasoline on the already raging online fire, the Board was shuttered after only 3 weeks amid discussion of its legality. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jillgoldenziel/2022/05/18/the-disinformation-governance-board-is-dead-heres-the-right-way-to-fight-disinformation/
FYI: Personally I think Twitter has become a toxic stew. I maintain an account but am rarely on the platform.
The CIA angle
As a 30-year veteran of the CIA, and occasional talking head about the Agency, I’m concerned about the notion of the CIA “watching” a US citizen, especially if this has anything to do with the current presidential administration’s obvious opposition to Musk’s Twitter purchase.
The Agency’s legal mandate expressly forbids it from participation in US policy or targeting Americans. The latter responsibility belongs to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Codified in the National Security Act of 1947, the Agency’s mission is no secret.
“To stop threats before they happen and further U.S. national security objectives, we:
- Collect foreign intelligence;
- Produce objective analysis; and
- Conduct covert action, as directed by the president.
We do not make policy or policy recommendations. Instead, our Agency serves as an independent source of information for people who do. We are not a law enforcement organization.”
Related: My CIA Career: Glutinous but not Unflavorful
When I joined the CIA as an all-source foreign intelligence analyst during the second Reagan administration, it was drummed into our heads that analysis was independent of policy. Over and over, we were warned about “clientelitis:” massaging intelligence analysis conclusions to align with the views of the client, i.e. the policymaker it was intended for. Just like the CIA website says: an independent source of information for people who do.
Related: Inside my CIA Career: The Analytic Puzzle
With my Career Intelligence Medal on the Great Seal, shortly before Christmas 2016
Later, as an intelligence collector, the legal structure ensuing that collection stayed true to the CIA’s foreign intelligence mission was inviolable. Specifically targeting an American citizen was unthinkable and there were multiple layers of oversight to ensure it did not happen. Were there lapses? Not on my watch, not in offices I managed.
If either of these two guiding rules at the CIA are no longer enforced, there is trouble ahead.
Carmen Amato is the author of the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco and the upcoming Galliano Club historical thrillers. A 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, her personal experiences occasionally make their way into her fiction.
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