Book Review: A Life of Lies and Spies by Alan B. Trabue

a-life-of-spies-and-liesAlan B. Trabue retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2011 after a 40-year career, 38 years of which he spent in the polygraph division. AntiPolygraph.org has received a review copy of his memoir, A Life of Lies and Spies: Tales of a CIA Ops Polygraph Interrogator (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015). The book comprises numerous entertaining anecdotes about polygraph examinations the author conducted on agents recruited by CIA case officers, with a special focus on operational security matters. As Trabue notes in his epilogue, it is his hope that his story not only entertains, “but also helps keep others in the world of espionage and covert activities safe from harm.” While Trabue provides relatively little detail about polygraph procedure, or about the history of the CIA polygraph division, this review will focus on such details; more general reviews of the book are available here and here.

Trabue notes that when he first interviewed with the CIA polygraph section in 1972, it was known as the “Interrogation Research Section.” The cryptic name is understandable when one realizes that polygraph “testing” is all about interrogation. Trabue refers to himself as a “polygraph interrogator” (p. 7), noting (at pp. 29-30):

During my training, it was constantly stressed that the CIA considered the polygraph process to be an aid to interrogation. My training officer stressed that my mission was to obtain any reportable information regarding the issues under investigation and report the information to the adjudicators. Interrogation and the reporting of information obtained during polygraph examinations were stressed much more than the technical results of actual polygraph testing….

But despite this acknowledgement, Trabue seems not to understand that polygraphy lacks any scientific basis and to actually believe that polygraph charts are a reliable indicator of deception, noting at p. 79, that “[a]fter a deceptive response has been clearly identified on the polygraph charts, an interrogator will confront the examinee with that fact.” He writes that [m]any [polygraph examiners] had cases with polygraph charts clearly indicating that an agent was a double agent…” (p. 83) and speaks of “unmistakable deceptive reactions” (p. 177).

Alan B. Trabue
Alan B. Trabue

Of course, there is no such thing as a “deceptive response” that can be “clearly identified” on polygraph charts. The entire procedure is pseudoscience–the brainchild of interrogators who had little grasp of the scientific method. The author’s failure to understand this after nearly four decades as a polygraph examiner bears out Upton Sinclair’s observation that “[i]t is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Trabue notes that when conducting polygraph examinations of agents recruited from within foreign intelligence services, he “tried to make posttest decisions based solely on analysis of the polygraph charts and avoided any posttest interrogation” (p. 92). No doubt he was following CIA polygraph protocols, but any reliance on polygraph chart readings is misplaced: the procedure is inherently biased against the truthful and yet easily defeated by liars using simple countermeasures that polygraph operators cannot detect.1

Trabue actually provides an example of the unreliability of polygraph chart readings in Chapter 12 (“Castro’s Buddy Beats the Box”). This chapter tells the story of Trabue’s experience conducting “a very thorough polygraph interview and examination” of a Cuban agent recruited by the CIA. Trabue notes that “the results [were]…clearly and unmistakably nondeceptive” and that he “was confident in [his] analysis and with the final call of No Deception Indicated.” But Trabue adds:

Cuban Interior Ministry Officer Nicolas Sirgado (1935-2013)
Cuban Interior Ministry Officer Nicolas Sirgado (1935-2013)

There is an unexpected and bitter ending to this story. In a most unfortunate turn of events, about two years later I was advised that Fidel Castro had been seen on Cuban television with his arm around the shoulders of the agent I tested. Castro revealed to the world that my examinee had been a double agent against American intelligence for many years….

Trabue does not name the Cuban double agent who beat him, but his account closely matches reporting on the late Cuban intelligence officer Nicolás Sirgado, who beat the CIA polygraph three times.

In a letter penned in 2000, convicted spy Aldrich Hazen Ames, who twice passed CIA polygraph screening examinations while spying for the Russians, offered insight into why the CIA continues to rely on polygraphy despite ample evidence of its unreliablity: bureaucratic CYA:

Deciding whether to trust or credit a person is always an uncertain task, and in a variety of situations a bad, lazy or just unlucky decision about a person can result not only in serious problems for the organization and its purposes, but in career-damaging blame for the unfortunate decision-maker. Here, the polygraph is a scientific godsend: the bureaucrat accounting for a bad decision, or sometimes for a missed opportunity (the latter is much less often questioned in a bureaucracy) can point to what is considered an unassailably objective, though occasionally and unavoidably fallible, polygraph judgment. All that was at fault was some practical application of a “scientific” technique, like those frozen O-rings, or the sandstorms between the Gulf and Desert One in 1980.

An anecdote recounted by Trabue (at pp. 197-98) speaks to this sort of reliance on polygraphy as a means of skirting responsibility for one’s decisions:

There was one other occasion when I was pressured, again from the chief of an office. I was within minutes of leaving the office to test an agent who was going to be involved in a diplomatically sensitive and expensive operation.

As I prepared for the case in a vacant office, the chief entered ans slowly approached. Putting his knuckles on the desk, he leaned over me, made sure he had my eye, and said, “I expect DI or NDI results.”

His words were delivered with all the menace, threat, and intimidation he could muster.

He paused and then added, “I don’t want to hear any of that Inconclusive crap.”

At first, I thought he was joking. His menacing words were delivered in an overbearing, intimidating manner and brought an instant smile to my face, but I quickly saw from the expression on his face that he was dead serious.

As my smile faded, I said, “Sir, I’ll do my best to get clear test results, but unfortunately the outcome of some polygraph tests is an Inconclusive call. Sometimes there are health reasons, and sometimes there are just inconsistent and erratic responses for unknown reasons. Inconclusive means you don’t know one way or the other. I’m not about to flip a coin jsut to make it DI or NDI.”

“I want DI or NDI,” he said, glaring down at me. “That Inconclusive call won’t do me any good. We’ve got an expensive operation about to start, and I’ve got to know one way or the other.”

I repeated, “I’ll do my best, but an Inconclusive call is a possibility.”

Still hovering over me, he slowly and emphatically repeated, “I want a DI or NDI call.” He raised himself to full height again, turned his back to me, and walked out of the office.

CIA polygraph trivia mentioned includes the fact that for decades the CIA used the Stoelting three-channel Executive Model polygraph with a communal inkwell that held red ink. The instrument was built into a briefcase  and weighed about 25 pounds (pp. 129-30, 239). Trabue notes that “[t]here was a standing joke in Polygraph Section that foreign intelligence services could easily identify CIA polygraph examiners because their right arm was longer than their left arm” (pp. 118-19).

Trabue also unwittingly offers a counterinterrogation tip for polygraph examinees (p. 229):

All interrogation officers are familiar with the concept called “throwing a bone,” wherein an examinee offers an interrogator information to throw him off track. It is a stalling tactic, usually an act of desperation, used in the hope that the interrogator will take that bone and run with it for a while and perhaps even believe that the bone is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. A “bone” may be information fabricated by the agent, it may be a partial truth, and it may be an entirely true piece of information, but it most certainly is not the information that the examinee was really concealing during interrogation. After a lengthy interrogation, a confession will many times be treated by an interrogator as a bone thrown by the examinee. The interrogator will say something like, “John, thanks for telling me that, but that could not possibly explain the massive reactions I saw on your polygraph charts. Something much more serious caused you to react. John, what else is there?” The interrogator will continue with the interrogation as if there had been no confession. If what the examinee said was truly the reason for his reactions, he will continue to offer his story over and over again, because he has nothing else to add. (emphasis added)

As one of only three published memoirs by a retired CIA polygraph examiner,2 Trabue’s My Life of Lies and Spies will be of interest to all concerned with polygraphy, interrogation, or intelligence operations.

  1. For an overview of such countermeasures, see Chapter 4 of AntiPolygraph.org’s free book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector. []
  2. The other two being Of Spies and Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam and  Gatekeeper: Memoirs of a CIA Polygraph Examiner, both by John F. Sullivan. []

Federal Polygraph School Gave Countermeasure Information to Polygraph Company

Coming on the heels of an accusation that a senior official at the National Center for Credibility Assessment (NCCA) facilitated the transfer of classified information to the government of Singapore via the Lafayette Instrument Company, AntiPolygraph.org has received information that NCCA has provided polygraph countermeasure documentation to a representative of Stoelting Co., another polygraph-manufacturing company. In 2004, Stoelting’s then CEO Lavern Miller pleaded guilty to attempting to export polygraph instruments to China without a license.

The documention provided by NCCA to the Stoelting representative forms the basis of a slide presentation, a copy of which was made available to AntiPolygraph.org. The presentation includes a caution to keep the information provided in the presentation confidential (slide 2):stoelting-countermeasures (p.2)Of particular note, the presentation includes previously unpublished color screen shots from a pre-employment polygraph examination conducted by the CIA in 1997. This polygraph examination formed the basis for a 1999 American Polygraph Association (APA) journal article co-authored by the CIA polygrapher who conducted it and Donald J. Krapohl, the NCCA official recently accused of an Espionage Act violation.1

Screen shots in the slide presentation include details not shown in the 1999 article, such as the various questions asked, the precise date of the polygraph session, and the fact that it was a CIA polygraph examination. (In the 1999 article published in the APA quarterly, Polygraph, the CIA is not named as the agency involved.) This polygraph screen shot (slide 12) shows the date that the examination was conducted, 30 April 1997, and reveals one of the probable-lie “control” questions used:

stoelting-countermeasures (p.12)

Slide 24 shows that the PolyScore polygraph chart-scoring software developed by the U.S. government gave the examinee a passing score. It also reveals the specific relevant questions that were asked in this polygraph examination:stoelting-countermeasures (p.24)

As we see, the relevant questions were:

  1. Have you been offered any money to work for a foreign intelligence service?
  2. Have you secretly provided the [redacted] technology to any foreign government?
  3. Have you been directed to penetrate the CIA by any foreign intelligence service?

Combine this with the probable-lie “control” questions cited in earlier slides:

  1. Other than what we discussed, have you ever misrepresented you [sic] academic abilities to make yourself look important?
  2. Before joining the military, did you ever lie about anythig [sic] that you don’t want the CIA to find out about?

and you have the key information required to successfully defeat such a polygraph examination.

Polygraph examinations are not difficult to defeat, and it would be hard to credibly argue that public release of the information contained in the presentation will harm U.S. national security interests in any way. But this is the kind of information that NCCA’s parent agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, would probably withhold from a member of the public who requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. Yet such things seemingly circulate among NCCA’s favored friends.

It’s worth noting that the examinee in the above case study had purchased Doug Williams’ manual, “How to Sting the Polygraph.” The CIA polygraph examiner suspected countermeasures because of the large size of a reaction, but was only able to confirm that countermeasures were employed because the examinee admitted such when asked. An in-depth discussion of this case may be found on the AntiPolygraph.org message board.

The presentation (6.6 mb PDF | 6.8 mb PPTX) runs on for a total of 134 slides, but like other polygraph community documentation on countermeasures previously published by AntiPolygraph.org, it offers no coherent strategy for detecting the kinds of countermeasures described in AntiPolygraph.org’s free book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector (1 mb PDF), or in former police polygraphist Doug Williams’ manual, “How to Sting the Polygraph.”

Update: With respect to why a polygraph manufacturer might want NCCA training slides on countermeasures, note that as McClatchy reporter Marisa Taylor mentioned last year in her article, “Polygraph world’s close ties spark accusations of favoritism,” Stoelting Co. has purchased a polygraph school. While Stoelting refused comment to Taylor on this, it appears that the polygraph school Stoelting purchased is the Academy of Polygraph Science in Fort Myers, Florida.

  1. The CIA polygrapher wrote under a pseudonym, Peter S. London. The article citation is, London, Peter S. and Donald J. Krapohl, “A Case Study in PDD Countermeasures,” Polygraph, Vol. 28, No. 2 (1999), pp. 143-148. []

U.S. Government Circulates Watch List of Buyers of Information on How to Pass a Polygraph Test

cbp-ia-emblemMcClatchy investigative reporter Marisa Taylor reports that a list of 4,904 individuals whose names were derived from the customer records of Doug Williams and Chad Dixon, both of whom were targeted in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection-led criminal investigation called Operation Lie Busters, has been circulated to nearly 30 federal agencies including the CIA, NSA, DIA, DOE, IRS, and FDA. Exerpt:

WASHINGTON — U.S. agencies collected and shared the personal information of thousands of Americans in an attempt to root out untrustworthy federal workers that ended up scrutinizing people who had no direct ties to the U.S. government and simply had purchased certain books.

Federal officials gathered the information from the customer records of two men who were under criminal investigation for purportedly teaching people how to pass lie detector tests. The officials then distributed a list of 4,904 people – along with many of their Social Security numbers, addresses and professions – to nearly 30 federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

Although the polygraph-beating techniques are unproven, authorities hoped to find government employees or applicants who might have tried to use them to lie during the tests required for security clearances. Officials with multiple agencies confirmed that they’d checked the names in their databases and planned to retain the list in case any of those named take polygraphs for federal jobs or criminal investigations.

It turned out, however, that many people on the list worked outside the federal government and lived across the country. Among the people whose personal details were collected were nurses, firefighters, police officers and private attorneys, McClatchy learned. Also included: a psychologist, a cancer researcher and employees of Rite Aid, Paramount Pictures, the American Red Cross and Georgetown University.

Moreover, many of them had only bought books or DVDs from one of the men being investigated and didn’t receive the one-on-one training that investigators had suspected. In one case, a Washington lawyer was listed even though he’d never contacted the instructors. Dozens of others had wanted to pass a polygraph not for a job, but for a personal reason: The test was demanded by spouses who suspected infidelity.

The unprecedented creation of such a list and decision to disseminate it widely demonstrate the ease with which the federal government can collect and share Americans’ personal information, even when there’s no clear reason for doing so.

It’s well worth reading the rest of the story. In addition, a DoD response to a McClatchy Newspapers inquiry indicates that Operation Lie Busters remains an ongoing investigation. In declining to answer whether it had checked names on the list against its records, DoD wrote:
The Department of Defense (DoD) has an active criminal investigation, working with US Customs and Border Protection, into the potential training of DoD civilian polygraph examinees in the use of countermeasures and making false statements. Because this is an active criminal investigation, we cannot provide any further information at this time.
Taylor also reveals that NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden “underwent two polygraphs for his NSA job” and that “he wasn’t found to have used polygraph-beating techniques to pass them.” Of course, that’s hardly surprising. No polygraph operator has ever demonstrated any ability to detect polygraph countermeasures. A collection of polygraph community countermeasure training materials published by AntiPolygraph.org earlier this year documents that the polygraph community has no coherent methodology for detecting the kind of countermeasures explained in Doug Williams’ manual, How to Sting the Polygraph, or in AntiPolygraph.org’s free book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector (PDF). Indeed, the very existence of Operation Lie Busters speaks to the federal government’s frustration in this regard. Taylor’s article does not mention whether Snowden’s polygraphs came before or after he began collecting the documents that he ultimately provided to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

CIA Director Brennan Allegedly Threatened CIA Employees With Polygraphs on Benghazi

Greta van Susteren with Sen. Lindsey Graham, 6 May 2013
Greta van Susteren with Sen. Lindsey Graham, 6 May 2013

On 6 May 2013, Greta van Susteren told U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that Fox News has information that CIA Director John Brennan has threatened Agency employees who might provide information to Congress regarding the 11 September 2012 raid on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya with polygraphs. Sen. Graham said he had heard the same thing:

Van Susteren: We have information that people from the CIA want to come out and testify, but they’ve been told by the CIA director, Brennan, specifically they will be polygraphed if they are tied to this. Do you have any information to corroborate that?

Graham: I’ve heard that same story. I know there’s some CIA agents reaching out. They feel frustrated….

The exchange occurs about two minutes into the segment, which may be viewed on-line here. It should be noted that polygraph “testing” has no scientific basis, and polygraph operators can manipulate outcomes to satisfy the wishes of management.

Also with regard to Benghazi and polygraphs, on 3 April 2013, former CIA and State Department employee Larry C. Johnson reported on his No Quarter blog in a post titled The CIA Playing Hardball on Benghazi:

When I first heard of this from a friend who had first hand knowledge, I was still skeptical. What did I hear? The CIA is conducting weekly polygraphs of officers who work in paramilitary activities (I knew it as Special Activities Division back in my day) and were involved in supporting the operations at Benghazi, Libya last September. So, I asked another friend to run his traps. He reported the same plus that the Intelligence Officers are being pressured to sign an additional Non-Disclosure form.

AntiPolygraph.org welcomes any information readers may be able to provide regarding the use or threat of polygraphs to deter whistleblowing.

Cuban Spy Nicolás Sirgado Passed CIA Polygraph Three Times

Cuban Interior Ministry Officer Nicolas Sirgado (1935-2013)
Cuban Interior Ministry Officer Nicolas Sirgado (1935-2013)

On 17 April 2013, Cuban intelligence officer Nicolás Alberto Sirgado Ros1 died at the age of 77 years according to a short notice published on 19 April by Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party. Cuban website CubaDebate published a lengthier profile of Sirgado, noting that he worked as a double agent for Cuba against the CIA for ten years beginning in 1966. Miami-based website CafeFuerte also profiles Sirgado, adding that “on three occasions, he was subjected to lie detector testing, without his real mission being discovered.”

Sirgado discussed his experience working against the CIA in an interview transcribed in a document titled “CIA: Cuba Accuses” that was published in English in Cuba in 1978. When asked “Did they ever use a lie detector on you?” Sirgado replied:

Yes, they used a lot of security measures. They used the lie detector three times. Sometimes there were lie detector sessions that were more than two and a half hours long.

Clearly, the CIA’s aim in using this method is not so much to find out whether or not you’re lying as to break you down, humiliate you, impose machine over mind.  Whether or not it’s effective, the method really seeks to humiliate and denigrate.  It’s a reflection of this espionage organization, built upon mistrust and of the lack of moral values to support its activities.

Sirgado is not the only Cuban double agent to fool the polygraph. DIA officer Ana Belen Montes passed the polygraph at least once while spying for Cuba. And former CIA officer Robert David Steele writes, “Two of my classmates got wrapped up in Cuba (and appeared on international television) because the Cuban double-agents all managed to pass the polygraph.”

Make-believe science yields make-believe security.

  1. The Granma article provides “Ross” as his maternal family name, but this appears to be a clerical error. []

McClatchy Investigative Series on Polygraph Screening

McClatchy Newspapers investigative reporter Marisa Taylor has published a new series of well-researched articles on federal polygraph screening programs:

Apart from numerous interviews, Taylor’s reporting is also based in part on federal records sought and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by University of Virginia researcher Katelyn Sack. These documents may be downloaded from National Security Counselors (scroll down to the section, “Polygraphy and Polygraph Examiners”).

Taylor’s reporting also features a letter from Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who has a Ph.D. in physics, to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, asking for a briefing “on the research and development efforts underway in the [intelligence community] to move us beyond the use of such an unreliable instrument as the polygraph.” Making reference to Marisa Taylor’s earlier reporting on abuse by polygraph operators at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Holt also wrote to Inspector General of the United States Intelligence Community J. Charles McCullough III asking “1) whether there is any truth in these reports of polygraph abuse at NRO, 2) whether any other IC elements are using such tactics, 3) whether any polygraphers have engaged in actions in violation of any applicable laws and regulations, 4) whether the use of such tactics was ordered by any IC manager, 5) and whether polygraphers were receiving rewards, accelerated promotions or other incentives to force non-counterintelligence related information from polygraph subjects.”

The abuses documented in Taylor’s reporting highlight the need to terminate America’s misplaced reliance on the pseudoscience of polygraphy. Make-believe science yields make-believe security.

Representative Darrell Issa Proposes Polygraph Screening for Congress

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA)
Rep. Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has proposed polygraph screening for members of Congress who receive CIA briefings. Susan Crabtree reports for The Hill:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wants fellow lawmakers who receive classified CIA briefings to submit to polygraph tests.

“We should have a very high standard for those who are briefed by CIA — to make sure the information isn’t compromised and [lawmakers] who are briefed are telling the truth about what they’ve been told,” he said. “Fact-finding and oversight is only as good as the group of people able to do it.”


Issa said he first believed all members of Congress with oversight over the CIA should submit to polygraph tests during former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) bribery scandal that ultimately landed him in jail. Issa, the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, won a seat on the Intelligence panel after Cunningham resigned his seat in Congress and pleaded guilty to taking $2 million in bribes in a criminal conspiracy involving at least three defense contractors.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking member on Intelligence, quickly shot down the idea of forcing members to submit to polygraph tests, arguing that constitutional separation-of-powers protections would prevent the FBI or the CIA from administering the test to federal lawmakers. Hoesktra, an outspoken defender of the agency, had spent weeks hammering Pelosi over her charges that the CIA lied in its congressional briefings.

“We’re not talking about leaks — that’s a very different issue,” he said. “[The idea of polygraphs] open[s] a whole series of separation-of-powers questions. The FBI cannot be evaluating the people who manage them.”

Issa said he believed that Congress could develop and administer its own polygraphs.

Rep. Issa’s assumption that polygraph screening increases security is deeply flawed. As the National Academy of Sciences has confirmed, polygraphy has no scientific basis. It’s inherently biased against the truthful, yet easily fooled through the use of simple, readily available countermeasures.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence panel, was even more blunt.

“Cut me some slack,” he said when asked whether he believed members on the Intelligence panel should submit to polygraph tests. “We take an oath to uphold the Constitution when we’re elected.”

But military, intelligence, and law enforcement officers subject to polygraph screening also take an oath to uphold the Constitution when they are hired. That doesn’t immunize them from having their honesty and integrity assessed through the pseudoscience of polygraphy.

If members of Congress are unwilling to subject themselves to polygraph screening, then they should close the giant loophole in the 1988 Employee Polygraph Protection Act that allows federal, state, and local government agencies to use this voodoo science on applicants and employees.

CIA Polygraph Operators Need to Have Their Heads Examined

In a commentary addressing the case of retired CIA polygrapher John F. Sullivan, who is suing the CIA after failing a polygraph test for post-retirement contract employment, Congressional Quarterly National Security editor Jeff Stein, himself a veteran Army Intelligence case officer, proposes that CIA polygraphers — who “claim to be able to read the inner thoughts” of others — should themselves “undergo regular psychiatric tests.” Perhaps he’s onto something.

For more on John Sullivan’s plight, see CIA’s Most Experienced Polygrapher Failed CIA Polygraph After Writing Unwelcome Book on CIA Polygraph Division! on the AntiPolygraph.org message board.