Authors: Philip Houston,Michael Floyd,Susan Carnicero
It was equally clear that if there was one issue that required immediate resolution, it was a bad response to the “have you ever worked for the bad guys” question. As critical as the situation was, Phil’s sense was that whatever was causing Mary’s concern with the question was unlikely to be anything monumental. After all, Mary appeared to fit the mold of a reserved spinster much more readily than that of a cloak-and-dagger temptress. In his naturally low-key, easygoing, North Carolinian style, Phil began the process of getting to the root of the problem.
“Mary, this happens all the time with people we talk to, because they’ll have something in their mind that’s no big deal, but, for any number of reasons, the more they think about it, the more they’re bothered by it,” Phil assured her. “Sometimes it’s just a harmless oversight, sometimes it’s just a minor lapse in judgment that we blow out of proportion because we’re so concerned about doing the right thing.”
“I think that’s it. There was a security violation,” she said. Mary went on to explain that during her recent overseas tour, she had used government resources to do an unauthorized favor for one of the locals. After she recounted the details of the incident, Phil was relieved. No doubt, what Mary had done was a blatant violation of regulations. But Phil knew it happens far more frequently than U.S. government employees working overseas would care to admit. Still, the matter needed to be fully resolved.
“I understand,” Phil nodded consolingly. “You’re not the first one to do that.” He smiled. “Let’s talk about it so we can get it completely off your chest, okay? Was this local an acquaintance of yours?”
Yes, he was an acquaintance, Mary said. And there was more. Much more. The conversation led to a series of admissions that would leave Phil stunned. This acquaintance, whom we’ll call “Charmer,” happened to work for the local government. As the interview progressed, Mary confided to Phil that Charmer, in fact, worked for the local government as an intelligence officer. The revelations became steadily more serious as the hours passed. By the end of the second day, Mary had admitted that she and Charmer had become romantically involved.
Phil now recognized that he was sitting across from a midlevel CIA manager who had been in bed with a foreign intelligence officer. What might she have shared with Charmer during their intimate moments? Phil knew it was essential to get Mary to share anything that she might have divulged to Charmer. Mary’s embarrassment by that point was obvious, and she was crying. Phil did his best to make it as painless for her as he could.
“Mary,” Phil said gently, “let’s not lose sight of what we’re dealing with here. It’s not like you’re a spy. It’s not like you gave him everything. If there was some pillow talk, we just need to talk about it so we can clear this up.”
Suddenly, Mary stopped crying, and she looked up. “Phil, you don’t understand,” she whispered. “I
give him everything.”
Those words hit Phil squarely in the gut, instantly evoking a mix of emotions that must be close to what a first responder feels when he arrives at the scene of some tragic event. As the enormity of the task at hand presents itself, instinct takes over, emotions are pushed aside, and the safety and security of others becomes paramount. In Phil’s job, it was a matter of tapping what psychologists call
—the ability to shift one’s thinking instantaneously as the situation warrants. Phil’s fluency seemed inborn.
“Okay, well, let’s talk about that,” Phil said. He began what would be several days of debriefing, and the admissions from Mary spilled unabated into the open. She had indeed given Charmer the whole works. She had identified every station officer. She had disclosed every operation. She had taken and handed over photos of the entire station complex. And she had passed along the identities and photos of every human asset she was aware of. There was only one word for the activity she had engaged in: espionage.
In all, Phil spent eight days working with Mary. One of those days was spent on the question of what Charmer had given her in return for the information. Mary admitted to receiving “a few pieces of jewelry” from him, but would go no further. She failed the polygraph on the question of additional compensation.
The Agency’s counterintelligence team was kept fully briefed throughout the process, as was the FBI. As Phil spoke with Mary, dots were being connected in the background. Although Mary never admitted it, Charmer, it turned out, wasn’t just working for the local intelligence operation. He was an agent for the hostile intelligence service of another foreign government. And it got worse. During Mary’s assignment at that overseas location, one of the Agency’s assets there had been killed. The Agency had no doubt that the killing was intelligence-related, but no one at the time could figure out how the operation had been compromised. Mary admitted to Phil that that was one of the operations she had disclosed to Charmer.
Phil hated Mary for that. Whether those feelings were right or wrong, when Phil learned of her betrayal—not just of the Agency, but of every man, woman, and child in the country—he absolutely despised Mary. Yet as the debriefing continued, Phil’s gentleness never faltered. At the end of the eighth day, when it was all over, Mary approached Phil, and hugged him.
“Thank you, Phil,” she said. “Thank you for understanding.”
* * *
The enormity of the case was lost on no one at the FBI, least of all the Bureau’s assistant director for intelligence. The day after Mary admitted that she had given “everything” to Charmer, the assistant director was in the office of William Kotapish, the CIA’s director of security, being briefed by Phil. When Phil recounted what Mary had admitted to having passed to Charmer, the FBI assistant director was ready to take over what he saw as a clear-cut espionage case. A senior Agency counterintelligence officer, who was also in the meeting, chimed in that Phil’s debriefing of Mary was ongoing.
“For whatever reason, she likes talking to him,” the counterintelligence officer said. Phil didn’t appreciate the slight, lowly GS-8 or not. “Hey, I can hear you,” he muttered to himself. It was hardly a matter of Mary liking her conversations with Phil. It was that Phil had followed a meticulously choreographed process to get her to that point.
The counterintelligence officer proclaimed that another issue stood in the way of the Bureau taking over the case: The admissions that Phil had elicited from Mary were classified. And declassifying any of it was out of the question.
Kotapish suggested the Bureau conduct its own investigation, a suggestion the FBI assistant director readily embraced. He picked up the gray line—the secure telephone line linking government agencies—and called the Bureau’s Washington field office. He arranged for two FBI agents to interview Mary at her home that evening.
As it turned out, the FBI’s investigation was over almost before it began. The two agents who interviewed Mary got nowhere. It was probably the worst of all possible outcomes: Yes, she told the Agency all of those things, Mary said. But she had made it all up. None of it was true. She agreed to a polygraph examination by the Bureau, and, naturally, she failed it. But with no evidence against her, and with the Agency unable to declassify the information Phil had elicited from her, the Bureau had no choice but to cut Mary loose.
When Phil learned of that outcome, he was very much aware of what had gone wrong. He had worked tirelessly to keep Mary firmly in what we call “short-term thinking mode.” That is, he interacted with her in a way that kept her focused where he wanted her. He had kept the number of factors in her decision making as narrow, and as immediate, as he possibly could. When Mary spoke with the two FBI agents, those decision-making factors expanded dramatically, and were radically reprioritized. She had switched into long-term thinking mode. Now, other factors were influencing her—like the prospect of prison and the end of life as she knew it.
The way it all played out can’t be disclosed, but we can share one dimension of the outcome. One evening during that eight-day span, Phil was at home, and the phone rang. It was the Agency’s Security Duty Office.
“Phil, do you know a woman by the name of Mary Smith?” the officer asked. Phil said he did, and the officer continued.
“She called us a little while ago and claimed that she has been in a polygraph conversation with you, and that we should call you. She said she had left some valuables in the ladies’ restroom this afternoon before she left the building. She said to call you, and you would authorize us to release it to her.”
The officer went on to explain that he had gone up to retrieve the valuables, which turned out to be a large bag of jewelry. He said Mary told him that she had been keeping the bag in her safe at work because some of it was extremely valuable, and she felt it would be safer there. Phil got in touch with Bill Kotapish, the director of security, and filled him in. The two agreed that most, if not all, of the jewelry was likely the booty she had received from Charmer, and that now she wanted to hide it. In the end, there was no need. The CIA’s Office of the General Counsel determined that the Agency had no right to confiscate it. The jewelry was returned to Mary.
* * *
For Phil, Mary’s case was by no means the total debacle it might have been. Through it, he gained insights that would serve him and others in the Agency and beyond extremely well in the years that followed. Perhaps most significantly, it helped to crystallize a concept that would be a critical underpinning of our interrogation methodology: the psychology of short-term thinking.
To fully appreciate the power—and the ubiquity—of the concept, consider a contrivance that most of us probably see more frequently than we might acknowledge, or perhaps even realize: the infomercial.
Almost all of us have watched our fair share of them—earnest, often unapologetically kitschy productions, touting products we never knew we needed, from blankets with sleeves to weights you shake. Why do these pitches work? Why do so many people find themselves picking up the phone to buy a little putting green to use while sitting on the toilet? The reason is that these marketers take full advantage of the psychology of short-term thinking to influence our decision making in a way that compels us to do what they want us to do—buy a product that we wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to buy.
To accomplish that, the marketers capitalize on four factors that propel us into short-term thinking mode: our inherent vulnerability to influence; repetition; loss of independent thinking; and a lack of immediately identifiable consequences. Let’s take a look at how that works.
Inherent vulnerability to influence
When we’re watching an infomercial, we’re at a disadvantage in that there’s a one-way flow of information. We have no means of asking any questions or challenging any claims. Consequently, the marketer’s message is our sole source of data upon which to base our decision.
It’s a psychological truism that the higher the number of instances we hear something, the greater the likelihood we’ll accept it, or at least open the door to the possibility of accepting it. A fundamental characteristic of infomercials is the repetition of visual imagery that illustrates application of the product under various circumstances, or by various individuals.
Loss of independent thinking
How frequently do you make the conscious decision to turn on the TV for the purpose of watching an infomercial so you can purchase a product you’ve never even heard of? Probably not all that frequently. The very act of viewing the infomercial is one that likely wasn’t actively chosen of your own accord.
Lack of immediately identifiable consequences
There’s a reason why these marketers don’t tell you to take out your checkbook, or to get your credit card number handy. All they ask you to do is make a telephone call. What harm is there in that? In fact, if you call in the next ten minutes, they’ll double the offer! Where’s the downside?
What’s happening here is that you have any number of reasons why you wouldn’t want to buy, say, a pair of plastic sandals with built-in exfoliating brushes. But you’re introduced to multiple reasons why you
be interested in buying them. The marketers are working to make the reasons you wouldn’t want to buy them go away, or to at least reprioritize them so that the reasons you might want to buy them go up on top. Before you know it, you have a snazzy new pair of plastic exfoliating sandals sitting in your closet.
Successfully bringing those four factors to bear compels people to do whatever it is we want them to do. It involves temporarily replacing the factors they’re inclined to focus on with those we want them to focus on, or to at least reprioritize them so the ones we want them to focus on are on top. That’s the concept of short-term thinking. We tap the very same principle in any interrogation scenario we encounter, whether the aim is to get a terrorist to disclose the details of a bomb plot, a serial killer to confess to a murder, a job applicant to share his drug-related indiscretions, or a child to admit she didn’t do her homework.
SHORT-TERM THINKING: FOUR FACTORS
• Inherent vulnerability to influence
• Loss of independent thinking
• Lack of immediately identifiable consequences
They say sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. They’re probably right.
The moment Mary dropped the bombshell in that interview with Phil that she had had a romantic relationship with a man who was working as a foreign intelligence officer, everything changed. With that admission, the situation Phil confronted became a matter of urgent concern. In the position she held at that overseas location, Mary had access to information that, if disclosed to a hostile intelligence service, would cause irreparable harm to the United States’ interests there, and would put the lives of individuals loyal to the United States in imminent danger. If Mary had shared any classified information at all with Charmer, it was absolutely essential that the Agency know, so it could determine what might have been compromised. Phil instantly set out on that quest.