A LIFE OF SPIES AND LIES: TALES OF A CIA OPS POLYGRAPH INTERROGATOR
By Alan B. Trabue
Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99, 320 pages
Fairly or not, polygraph examiners for the Central Intelligence Agency and other institutions that require security clearances for staff are not necessarily 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 important 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!”
• Joseph Goulden passed several polygraph tests while working on the lower rungs of Army counterintelligence.