If the CIA can't do it...

Photo: If the CIA can't do it...

Alongside the CIA and NSA, the DIA forms the third arm of the triumvirate in the US government.

The Defence Intelligence Agency might not be as commonly showcased in movies and TV shows, but it is every bit as powerful as its counterparts. It plays a vital role in the direction of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines by gathering foundational intelligence on foreign militaries.

The Director of the DIA is one of the most powerful people in the United States, period. In 1996, a rising star was headed for the Directorship. She was a high-ranking security agent who had been showered with promotions and accolades, including receiving the coveted Certificate of Distinction in 1997, awarded personally by George Tenet, the Director of the CIA.

After 16 years of service, Ana had become the United States’ most senior Cuban Intelligence Agent, with security clearance among the highest level of US security and military.

In 2001, the bombshell dropped.

From her education at Johns Hopkins University to her first posting in the Justice Department to being recruited by the DIA and rising through the ranks, Ana had been working for Fidel Castro and Cuban Intelligence.

She pleaded guilty to espionage and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Every night while employed at the DIA, she would document military and government policy initiatives, identities and activities of US intelligence activities, including the identities of the United States undercover agents, and send them directly to Cuban Intelligence.

Throughout this period, she passed routine polygraph tests and random personal investigations (the CIA and DIA regularly investigate their agents to ensure purity in their ranks).

A lone spy fooled everyone in the world's best-funded, most advanced intelligence and security office.

Ana Montes was good. But she was far from unique.

In June of 1987, two years before the Iron Curtain fell, a man named Florentino Aspillaga walked into the United States Embassy in Vienna. He was one of Fidel Castro’s most decorated intelligence officers.

After decades of serving Castro, he had become disenchanted with the leader's dishonesty and corruption. So he defected from Cuba and smuggled himself and his girlfriend into Europe.

During his post-defection interviews with American officials, he named almost every US Secret Agent inside Cuba - all of whom, he affirmed, were double agents working for Castro, feeding curated information back to the United States government.

For decades, the United States had celebrated their ability to infiltrate Castro’s inner circle. Aspillaga’s defection and testimony proved that the Americans had been played for years.

When this bomb dropped, although Castro’s counterintelligence operation had been blown, he revelled in the media attention. He gathered all of the US double agents and paraded them down the streets of Havana in celebration, broadcasting on National TV. He produced a full-length feature film, using his endless footage of clumsy CIA agents working “undercover” in Cuba, stuffing bags of cash into fake rocks, fitting picnic baskets with cameras and walking down streets conducting “surveillance,” all blissfully unaware that they were the ones being surveilled.

The response from the US intelligence community was shock and horror. Hundreds of millions of dollars of intelligence had been a sham.

Castro was good.

But Castro was far from unique.

As much damage as the Cubans did to US intelligence, the Soviets dwarfed it.

For over 20 years, while employed as a high-level FBI agent, Robert Hanssen sold sensitive intelligence to Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin.

He outed the United States for the construction of a multi-million dollar eves-dropping tunnel being built under the Soviet Embassy. He identified KGB agents working with the US and handed them over to Russian authorities (many of whom were executed for their betrayal). He sent dozens of packages of classified material to the Soviets during the cold war.

Hanssen is known as the biggest disaster in United States security ever. He is currently serving 15 life sentences with no possibility of parole.

While Hanssen was infiltrating the FBI, Aldrich Ames did the same in the CIA. Both were Soviet agents who had reached some of the highest US security and intelligence levels.

The FBI, CIA, NSA and DIA routinely have moles within the highest ranks of their organizations. Today is no different; we will read about my generation of spies in the decades to come.

Hanssen, Aimes and Montes are only three of hundreds of convicted spies in the United States. All had to pass the most intense and rigid background checks in the world - not only upon their onboarding but consistently throughout their careers. Polygraph tests, interrogations and internal investigations are routine within these organizations.

How do liars frequently pass through the top lie-detection professionals and consistently evade detection?

Tim Levine is one of the world's leading psychologists focused on communication and deception.

At the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Levine has run many experiments on his students to determine how we detect lies or qualify truth. For example, in one landmark study that has since been shared through the same intelligence offices we discussed above, Levine had volunteer students participate in a trivia questionnaire. The volunteers were told that they would be awarded cash based on the number of answers they got correct.

During the examination, they sat in a room with an instructor and another volunteer student doing the same quiz. The secret, was that the second student was an actor working for Levine. During the exam, the instructor would stand up and say that she had to step out for ten minutes. At this point, the actor student would tell the volunteer that the instructor had left the answers sheet on her desk and then suggest that they cheat to win more cash.

Many students cheated.

After the exam, the volunteer student was interviewed and asked whether or not they had cheated. The conversation included questions like below:

When the instructor left the room, did you cheat?

Are you telling me the truth?

When I ask the other student who was in the room with you whether or not the two of you cheated, what will they say?

All of these interviews were filmed, and this is when the actual experiment began.

The interviews were shown to professionals like lawyers and teachers, government workers, military personnel, and the top security professionals in the CIA and FBI ranks.

The results were surprising.

The seasoned law enforcement agents (those with over 15 years or more of interrogation experience) were excellent at spotting the truth-tellers - as long as they acted like truth-tellers (we tend to associate truth-telling with direct, simple answers, strong eye contact and confident tonality.)

When a student volunteer was telling the truth and “acted” like they were telling it, the agents scored an impressive 100% accuracy.

However, when it came to the students who acted confident but were lying, the agents scored an abysmal 14%.

We are easier to fool than we think.

After his arrest, Aldrich Ames, the Soviet mole, was interviewed about how he misled US authorities and evaded detection for decades:

"There's no special magic. Confidence is what does it. Confidence and a friendly relationship with the examiner. Rapport, where you smile and you make him think that you like him. Making the examiner believe that the exam has no importance to you seals the deal."


Uncomfortable a truth as it may be, human beings - up to the most seasoned and trained in deception, are horrible lie detectors.

But is our lack of lie detection a feature or a bug?

Let’s think about this.

Most of the time, I am telling the truth. I may feed my kids some white lies about what will happen if they eat too much sugar or watch too much TV or about my own personal omnipotence, but generally speaking, you can take what I say at face value.

You are probably similar.

Consequently, if I am truthful, I will default to projecting that quality onto those around me.

Tim Levine calls this the Truth Default Theory. He argues that we need little to no evidence to qualify something as true, but we need abundant evidence to qualify something as deception, without which we will continually default back to truth.

This is why Ana Molten was able to pass so many scrutinizing interviews. She was suspected of working for the Cubans on two separate occasions years before her eventual arrest. In both cases, she convinced her interrogators that their claims were ridiculous, and she was put back out in the field.

Bernie Madoff should have been outed in 2000, 2001 and 2005 when a team of financial investigators led by Harry Markopolis provided quantifiable evidence to the SEC proving his fraud. Any digging would have uncovered that his firm had never placed an actual trade in the market. Instead, the SEC relied on their qualitative strengths and interviewed Madoff to achieve assurance of legitimacy. Unfortunately, he convinced the SEC that their claims were ridiculous and went back to scamming investors out of billions.

Elizabeth Holmes was stress tested by dozens of venture capital firms while she grew Theranos into a $9 billion facade. She convinced two former US Secretaries of State, the former CEO of Well Fargo and a former United States Secretary of Defence, to join her board. She conned her way into billions. No one looked into the technology. Everyone trusted their qualitative assessment.

In all cases, the participants, investors, and board members claim to have seen smoke… but didn’t have enough evidence to think there was a fire.

Ana Molten was frequently illogical during high-stakes Cuban events. Bernie Madoff’s performance was impossibly consistent through market volatility. Elizabeth Holmes was concerningly evasive about the details of her IP. But without a smoking gun, their supporters asked some questions and defaulted back to the truth.

“There's no special magic. Confidence is what does it….”

This is the truth default theory on display - we assume truth with little or no information. But when we suspect deceit, we need irrefutable, infallible evidence.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a genetic flaw - survival of the fittest should have favoured those who could spot the lie when no one else could. But here is why that doesn’t work.

If we were to lead with distrust and skepticism, entrepreneurs would not take risks; they would be paralyzed by analysis. Government bodies would be in a state of a continual purge. Relationships would suffocate under the constant strain of suspicion and insecurity.

But when we default to trust, we step into the unknown. Sometimes we get burned, but more frequently, relationships are forged, new ideas are tested, and capital is allocated. In any number of ways, the world moves forward.