A Life of Lies and Spies

Title:                      A Life of Lies and Spies

Author:                 Alan B. Trabue

Trabue, Alan B. (2015). A Life of Lies and Spies: Tales of a CIA Ops Polygraph Interrogator, New York: Thomas Dunne Books

LCCN:    2015012438

JK468.I6 T66 2015

Subjects

Date Updated:  August 31, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden.[2]

Fairly or not, polygraph examiners for the Central Intelligence Agency and other institutions that require security clearances for staff are not the most popular guys in the coffee shop. And for good reason: much of their professional lives are devoted to ferreting out secrets their subjects would prefer to leave untold.

Alan B. Trabue, a polygraph specialist for 38 of his 40 years with the CIA, aptly terms the process a “mental colonoscopy,” and he became accustomed to seeing subjects become so nervous that they “fainted during their tests and slid out of their chair.”

He continues, “There were the fearful ones, the angry ones and the dangerous ones. There were examinees so stressed, they spewed vomit across the examination room. Terrified examinees fled the examination room, while others were so angry they refused to leave. Angry subjects waited in the parking lot after their polygraph interviews to confront their examiners as they left the building.”

Some of these persons, to be sure, had reasons to be nervous about the box. Understandably, Mr. Trabue gives no details of specific encounters. But his summaries of some of these interviews are eye-opening:

“Some subjects provided admissions so egregious that they were considered to be a threat to national security and the FBI was called in before they were released. Some subjects admitted to physically abusing and sexually molesting others. When the admissions involved impending harm to others, law enforcement officers were sometimes waiting for the examinees when they returned home. Some have actually stalked their examiners.”

Mr. Trabue grew up as an “agency brat” whose father had a 23-year career with CIA. Hence, as a kid he had exposure to South America; the Far East and even the tiny tropical Pacific island of Saipan. And he found himself in frequent “travel mode” during his career as a polygraph examiner.

Many of his overseas subjects were individuals who had been recruited as agents by case operators working from stations abroad. Understandably, the game of espionage often acts as a magnet for con men and liars who falsely profess to have access to import-ant information, hoping to earn an illicit income.

So-called “paper mills”—and the people who peddle their products—have been an ongoing problem for CIA and other agencies for decades. Indeed, an article in the CIA in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, once estimated that more than half the documents passed to its officers during the early 1950s were falsified.

Hence, a major responsibility of Mr. Trabue and polygraph colleagues was to ferret out the fakers. Here a bit of danger came into play. Often as not, polygraph operators go into foreign countries “undeclared” —that is, in an unofficial capacity. For obvious reasons, CIA does not want one of its officers to be seen with a local person who is covertly supplying classified information.

Much of Mr. Trabue’s thoroughly engaging book is devoted to how to find a suitable “safe house” where he can conduct an examination. Surveillance by local intelligence services is a constant problem. As he writes, “A suspected intelligence officer may be followed to find out where he goes, what he does, and whom he sees.”

But another type of surveillance is “equally annoying,” both to Mr. Trabue and to officers openly assigned to a CIA station. “It is surveillance designed to worry or harass the target. Those performing the surveillance don’t care whether they are discovered by the target. In fact, they may wish to be discovered because their aim is to pester and harass to the point of preventing the target from doing anything clandestine.”

Other problems of—shall we say, a more interesting nature—can arise. Mr. Trabue was once called upon to administer a test to an American woman (a student) living in a foreign city who had been recruited by the local station to work in a “support role,” supplying her apartment as a safe house.

She was a social contact of the case officer, and when she showed up at Mr. Trabue’s hotel room she turned out to be a drop-dead beauty: She professed great interest in him and his work, and she said seductively, “I could listen to you all night long.” She repeated, “All night long.” Mr. Trabue made an abrupt departure.

But the work is usually far more serious. Mr. Trabue ticks off almost a full page of the revelations he has heard during examinations: “horrific, gut-wrenching tales that sickened the hardiest of polygraph operators. Murder, rape, child molestation, incest, wife-beating, bestiality, burglary, robbery, theft, illegal drug use, prostitution, concealing foreign national contacts, unauthorized revelation of classified information.”

Several retired officers who knew Mr. Trabue, and who saw him at work, termed him “a professional’s professional.” And one added, with a grin, “If there’s a secret you REALLY want to keep, stay clear of Alan!”

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[3]

For CIA officers, the polygraph is initially a rite of passage and later becomes a routine part of their careers. Some find it an unpleasant experience, others a necessary inconvenience. But how many have wondered about the examiner on the other side of the “box.” He or she may know all about you—but what kind of a career does he or she have in the intelligence business? A Life of Lies and Spies is one answer to that question.

An agency brat, Alan Trabue attributes his lifelong love of travel to growing up in faraway places due to his father’s many overseas assignments. At the suggestion of his brother (who had also served in the agency), Alan decided he would give the CIA a try after college. He was accepted and after his orientation training became a polygraph examiner. He describes his own introduction to the polygraph and, though some of his classmates fell victim to what they called they termed the “mental colonoscopy,” (p. 23) he survived. Then travel the world he did for the next 38 years while he rose through the ranks to direct the worldwide covert operations polygraph program.

A Life of Lies and Spies begins with a description of the polygraph process that includes typical behavior and also examples of the less-frequent, even bizarre effects—physical distress, fear, anger, threats of violence—it produced in those examined. (pp. 10-11) Then he turns his attention to the covert operations section that conducted polygraph examinations and interrogations overseas. With the exception of some years teaching and managing training, he spent the remainder of his career in this area.

Now the fun begins! Trabue devotes most of the book to “war stories”—or, more properly, case summaries—that illustrate a covert operations polygrapher’s life in the field. He avoids geographic specifics and most names, but conveys general procedures, the functions of key players, and the essence of certain tradecraft issues. He pays particular attention to his time-tested techniques for handling examinees, especially foreign agents.

His case summaries include the Castro agent that heat polygraph examinations administered by Trabue and two others; the peculiar circumstances presented by some female agents; poorly chosen test sites; problems that arise between the examiner and the station case officers; dealing with nervous examinees; and the use of interpreters. He even includes some examples of interoffice practical joking among examiners.

A Life of Lies and Spies provides an interesting look at how and why the CIA employs the polygraph. A valuable contribution.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C., “The Latest Intelligence Books,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 107-108). Joseph C, Goulden’s 1982 book, Goulden, Joseph C. (1982). Korea: The Untold Story of The War. New York: Times Books. [LCCN: 81021262], was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews above appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted here by permission of the author. Joe Goulden’s most recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

[3] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 120-121). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

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