Is it possible to cheat a polygraph, also known as a lie detector, test ? It’s possible, but it requires intensive training to develop the skill. I touch on this in my latest novel, The Carrington Prophecy.
Background: The South Korean Security, N.I.S, an agency patterned after the CIA, has captured a North Korean spy embedded in Samsung’s cyber-security division. He’s been pilfering bits and pieces of classified information for twenty years without detection and infiltrating the data through a covert network to his handler using cryptograms over the internet.
Kwon’s critical mistake came with trying to hack into CENTCOM and the N.I.S caught him. Now he’s awaiting trial as a traitor where a death sentence most certainly awaits him. He’s in no position to bargain, and he’s desperate.
Biff Roberts, CIA’s director of counter terrorism, has received actionable intelligence of a nefarious North Korean scheme involving a nuclear device. This imminent plot threatens South Korea, its neighbors, and the United States.
Biff needs inside confirmation and convinces N.I.S to “turn” the captured spy and train him as a double agent. Reza, a CIA operative who spent fifteen years as a double agent in the Revolutionary guards in Tehran and knows the double agent game better than anyone, is handpicked to put Kwon through intensive training so that Kwon can return to North Korea to spy for the CIA.
Reza preps the captured spy on how to withstand the anticipated intense interrogation and a polygraph once infiltrated back into North Korea, a nation obsessed with suspicion. There’s a lot riding on his success.
Below is an excerpt from The Carrington Prophecy:
Chapter 21 – REZA
The next day
“How do we know you’re our spy, not theirs?” Reza asked, scowling. “You only returned to North Korea to spy on us, didn’t you? Prove to us that you’re not a double agent, Kwon, turned by the South Koreans.”
Reza astounded Kwon with his tough questions, all this before Nam had even introduced them.
Whose side is he on? Kwon wondered. Reza was supposed to train him, not harass him. Kwon decided this Reza was as bad as Nam, another hard ass; it seemed they had an endless supply.
Reza noted Kwon’s surprise, seeing his jaw drop at the abrupt verbal attack.
Kwon stared nervously at the heavily bearded person who didn’t look like an American. The middle aged, weather-beaten man had a strange Middle Eastern accent like those in movies. Kwon had expected someone to tutor him in the fine art of deception, not this sudden onslaught of accusations.
Reza’s challenge had its desired effect, part of his design to gauge Kwon’s reaction. Reza’s accusatory style immediately put Kwon on the defensive, indicated by his expression and loss for words. His spontaneous response indicated a glaring admission of guilt to even an average experienced interrogator, a vulnerability they could not risk with this cyber spy. Obviously Kwon would be a challenging work in progress. And it would take considerable time, Reza decided on first impression, to train him to safely infiltrate into North Korea.
“If those had been the opening questions in your interrogation upon arrival in North Korea,” Reza told him, “you’d have been shot before sundown the same day. No further questions asked. They’re highly suspicious, and you immediately demonstrated your guilt by your reaction. You must do better than that, Kwon, much better. Learn how to handle contentious encounters.”
“I’ll try my best,” Kwon replied. Being chastised by an absolute stranger was rare in Asia and would take getting used to.
“My name is Reza. I’ll train you to avoid a firing squad up there and not spill the beans in the process. You have only one simple task to perform, don’t blow it,” Reza added sternly. “This is serious business.”
“I will do better. Sorry,” Kwon said, feeling intimidated.
“You can do this. You’re intelligent and pulled off a successful spy role in South Korea for twenty years before NIS apprehended you. Instead of execution, now you have a shot at redemption. NIS has been very benevolent to you and your family with the deal they offered. You must prove yourself. It’s time to prepare to meet the conditions of your end of the bargain.”
“I understand my commitment,” Kwon said, regaining his composure. “You caught me by surprise with your questions in this safe setting, my guard was down.”
“That’s precisely what the North Koreans will do. Expect the unexpected. Be aware. What I did is a basic part of interrogation technique. It’s important you grasp the principles I intend to teach you. I’ve experienced both sides of interrogations. Passing the drill involves certain skills and preparation. Foremost, anticipate their crafty moves, know the routine. They will try to trick you. Your behavior is as important as the words you choose. You must practice deception until it becomes second nature. You must be convincing in your performance or you will die, a simple equation for survival, get it?’’
“I understand,” Kwon said, worried he might not meet their expectations. Kwon studied Reza, quickly deciding he could be a ruthless taskmaster, so he’d better step it up. This large, imposing man had an unusual appearance for an American, and nothing like what he expected a CIA operative to look like. His attire didn’t fit with Kwon’s concept of a CIA operative. Reza dressed in jeans, a tattered UCLA pullover with a faded Bruin logo, and weathered Nike jogging shoes.
Then Kwon recalled Nam had mentioned Reza’s bloodline and background yesterday. Reza Tehrani had been an Iranian spy trained in Tehran, sent to be educated at UCLA. He’d been caught by the CIA, turned, and recruited as a double agent to return to Iran to spy for them. He rose to the rank of Colonel inside the Revolutionary Guard over fifteen years. That capsule summary explained a lot about the man standing before him. Kwon’s history as a cyber spy paled in comparison to this man’s dangerous experience as a double agent.
Reza had a military, no-nonsense bearing. Kwon soon discovered Reza didn’t mess around. He got down to business with no social niceties or chitchat. Reza was indeed a taskmaster.
“Let me run through the pattern of vetting you can expect to encounter,” Reza began.
Over the next five hours, Reza carefully led Kwon through various scenarios and variations involved in interrogation. He quizzed Kwon until he got it right, inculcating the methods of deception. Then Reza shifted to an overview of polygraphs.
“Okay, now let’s talk about lie detector tests. If you get this far fooling them, then there’re a few tricks you must know to pass the polygraph. It’s not an exact science, only ninety percent accurate at best, so it’s possible to game the system. I’m not sure how sophisticated they are, but I suspect they’re pretty good at recognizing physiological signs of stress, like increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, those sorts of things. You must learn how to modify those predictable responses.”
“I’m following you. How do I do that?” Kwon asked.
“I doubt they use MRIs to track brain blood flow, that’s more difficult to beat. But by playing mind games you can make interpretation difficult for them in both forms of polygraphs. For example, anticipate what they are looking for, like the challenging questions I asked you when I arrived today. Probing, invasive, insulting questions designed to set you off. Some are based on assumptions with no good answer, like ‘How long has it been since you stopped beating your wife?’” Reza noted Kwon’s astonishment at that remark.
“You never beat your wife so the question is absurd and it upsets you,” Reza said. “That reaction moves the needle on the graph and they learn something about you. It’s a standard trick, so heads up. They are out to dupe you. Don’t be hoodwinked.”
“Okay, that’s good to know,” Kwon answered, impressed by Reza’s street smarts as he launched right into explaining a complex subject.
“They hope to catch you in a lie. They ask you things like, ‘How’d you get here? Why did you come back? Where’s your family? What information did you divulge to NIS? How did NIS know the location of your handler? Did you know Hwan was tortured and they retrieved his computer and cell phone?’”
Reza continued, “Then they’ll quickly switch subjects, like, ‘How much did Nam pay you to spy on us?’ Expect those sort of questions for starters.”
Reza wondered if Kwon really did, he looked overwhelmed.
“All these questions are designed to shake you up. Don’t get rattled. We’ll make a list of every conceivable trick of the trade. We plan to have you practice lying on a polygraph until you can master the technique, barely budge the needle. I’ll change the questions around so you can’t out guess me. Anticipation is fundamental, try to develop the tactic. Practice makes perfect.”
“Sounds like a good idea, but …” Kwon was verging on information overload. Before he could express this feeling, Reza pressed on like he was sending him to North Korea tomorrow.
“Also, they’ll toss you some softball questions like ‘Who’s the President of South Korea?’ They probably will ask your wife and children’s names and birth dates. You can fake them out by thinking of something stressful and breathing faster in answering those routine questions. Try biting your lip. These are simple control questions that establish a baseline for comparison to relative, probing questions that they expect to stress you. You need to throw them off with unpredictable responses to the non-stressful questions. And fake them out in response to stressful questions, called relevant questions. Try to do just the opposite by envisioning a happy experience. Do everything you can to screw them up.”
“Also, be aware that hidden cameras and observers on the other side of the one-way mirror will be gauging your reactions and recording your answers. You’ll need to practice your poise under pressure. They will measure your anxiety by evaluating your micro expressions, and performing voice stress analysis, equating both as signs of measured anxiety with telling untruths. A lie detector test is a psychological and physiological test to determine deception. You must master the art of deception.”
“I didn’t realize this. It seems very complex to cheat the detector.”
“Not after you are properly trained. Listen up, there’s more. You also must be alert to pretest tricks by your examiner designed to instill fear of the polygraph, create apprehension, intending to cause you to fear failure. He’s just setting the stage, trying to psych you out. Ignore it.”
“How do I do that?”
“We’ll show you how, don’t worry. Here’s another situation to lookout for. Later on during the exam someone else will dramatically enter the room and announce that your early answers came back ‘NDI.’”
Kwon frowned. “What’s NDI?”
“Actually, that’s the correct response, indicating you didn’t know what NDI meant. NDI means ‘No deception indicated.’”
“If you’d answered otherwise they’d know you’d practiced passing a lie detector test. So be forewarned. Act like you have no knowledge whatsoever of the exam. Give the impression it’s your first go round.”
“Okay.” Kwon paused. “I was surprised NIS didn’t submit me to a polygraph.”
“They didn’t need to with all the incriminating evidence they had on you. You really bungled that CENTCOM hack job.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“It does. Back to how to pass a lie detector test. Stay focused. Keep your answers simply yes or no. No explaining, no elaboration. Keep information minimal, and never offer it.”
“Will you write all this down for me to memorize?”
“Certainly, and you must also memorize these caveats, I’m not through yet. Never confess anything. Don’t admit anything relevant. Don’t hesitate. Answer questions promptly. No levity, be serious. Understand?”
“Breathe normally, control your emotions.” Reza rattled on with his overview. “I suggest you breathe at a comfortable rate, not like you’re breathing now, indicating to me you’re nervous.”
“I am nervous that I won’t remember all this.”
‘’You will learn through repetition, positive reinforcement. Breathe somewhere between fifteen to thirty times a minute, your natural pace that you probably never think about. Vary your rate between their control and relevant questions to screw up their interpretation. Occasionally throw out an off-the-wall answer to a control question. For example, to ‘What year is it?’ say, ‘Year of the snake.’ That’ll throw them off and make it difficult to interpret the polygraph. We’ll practice multiple scenarios real time on a polygraph to prepare you. Just like a flight simulator teaches pilots how to fly, we’ll teach you how to lie.”
“Good, I’ll need a lot of practice.”
“Think of the lie detector test as a job interview. Be as relaxed as you can. You must convince them you are not deceitful. That you have valuable information to offer, and you’re on their side.”
“Like what information?”
“We’ll brief you on that. It’s a deal maker, your ace in the hole. Later this week, after we determine if you are up to the task, only then will we fill you in on the details. If we can’t train you adequately, we’ll abort the mission.”
“Then what happens to me and my family if we abort?”
“I don’t think you want to go there,” Reza said. “Don’t even think about failing. NIS plays hardball. We bailed you out, so you better learn how to do this job.”