A Life of Lies and Spies: Tales of a CIA Covert Ops Polygraph Interrogator

A Life of Lies and Spies: Tales of a CIA Covert Ops Polygraph Interrogator

by Alan B. Trabue


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Alan Trabue chose a bizarre, dangerous way to make a living. In A Life of Lies and Spies, Trabue exposes the often perilous world of polygraphing foreign spies in support of CIA espionage programs. He recounts his incredible, true-life globe-trotting adventures, from his induction in the CIA in 1971 to directing the CIA's world-wide covert ops polygraph program.

A Life of Lies and Spies brings readers into the high-stakes world of covert operations and the quest to uncover deceit, featuring a high-speed car chase, blown clandestine meetings, surreptitious room searches, tear-gassing by riot police, and confrontations with machine gun-armed soldiers. Liberally sprinkled with side anecdotes-such as debriefing an agent though a torturous swarm of mosquitoes in a jungle shack-Trabue's story highlights both the humor and the intrinsic danger of conducting CIA covert activities.

Writing from a unique perspective framed by his uncommon longevity and broad experience, for which he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal, Trabue's memoir unveils the CIA's use of polygraph and interrogation to validate recruited spies' bona fides and information obtained through their acts of espionage.

The Central Intelligence Agency has not approved, endorsed or authorized this book or the use of the CIA name, seal or initials.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250065049
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/02/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

A second generation CIA officer, Alan B. Trabue traveled extensively in Central America, South America, the Far East, Southeast Asia and Europe interrogating foreign spies. For five years, he directed the CIA's world-wide covert ops polygraph program. He served as Director of the CIA Polygraph School for six years and as an adjunct instructor at the current federal polygraph school for eight years. He retired in 2011. He currently lives in Virginia.

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A Life of Lies and Spies

Tales of a CIA Covert Ops Polygraph Interrogator

By Alan B. Trabue

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Alan B. Trabue
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7155-7


Ready, Aim ...

Oh what a tangled web we weave,

When first we practice to deceive!

— Sir Walter Scott

The day was supposed to be a routine travel day between CIA offices, a simple one-hour flight from the international airport in a Southeast Asian capital city to another city up-country. It was 1976, and as a CIA covert ops polygraph examiner, I had made hundreds of similar trips in the past without incident. By midmorning, it had gone terribly wrong.

The day started off as planned. After an hour-long taxi ride to the airport, I checked in at the airline counter and made my way to the departure lounge carrying my briefcase. I didn't normally carry my briefcase, because it really wasn't a briefcase. It was a polygraph instrument built into a briefcase. A casual observer would never know what was inside. Up to that point, my day had gone as expected. I busied myself people-watching in the departure lounge while waiting for the boarding announcement. However, as I watched with disbelieving eyes, soldiers entered the lounge carrying two things that made my heart sink: submachine guns and a table. Terrifying visions of being handcuffed and carried off to jail by armed soldiers filled my mind. I knew my polygraph instrument was very incriminating evidence of espionage, and I didn't have any credentials that would protect me.

The table was set up near the exit door and an announcement followed that passengers would have to submit to a bag search before boarding the airplane. I couldn't believe my bad luck. Should I try to escape by leaving the departure lounge or would that raise their suspicions? That course of action seemed uncomfortably similar to a car approaching a roadblock and turning around to avoid the police. That never has a good outcome. Should I try to bluster my way through as a pompous, overbearing, ugly American? Should I refuse to open my briefcase? All options seemed to lead to the same disastrous conclusion. I decided to cooperate as best I could. Realizing the uproar that would surely ensue when I opened the briefcase, I thought it best to be the last one in line. I wanted as small an audience as possible. So, while other passengers rushed to form some semblance of a line, I hung back and waited. My mind raced, but I was unable to figure out how to escape the terrible predicament. I had no choice but to comply with the security check. One by one, the passengers were screened and allowed to walk out onto the tarmac to climb the steps to the airplane. When I was the last passenger in the departure lounge, I could wait no longer. Walking up to the flimsy table, I put the heavy briefcase down. It caught the immediate attention of a soldier. He motioned for me to open the case. I unsnapped the latches holding the lid closed and spread the briefcase wide open. Looking down, he gasped for air, stepped back, and tightened his grip on the submachine gun. Pointing it straight at my chest, he screamed for help. Terrified, he gripped his weapon so tightly his knuckles turned white. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and fear widened his eyes. He was one finger twitch away from cutting me in half.

* * *

A mere twenty-four hours before, I had taken every step to ensure that this very event would not take place. This was not supposed to be happening. The main office had an urgent need to have an agent polygraphed at one of its smaller offices up-country. Since there was no polygraph instrument stored at the office and insufficient time to send one through official channels, I knew I would have to take an instrument with me on the flight. In the 1970s, a rash of airplane hijackings resulted in passenger and baggage security checks at many international airports. At first, they concentrated on international flights. Few airports were performing security checks on domestic flights. Since my flight was going to be a short domestic flight, I knew that I could either hand- carry the polygraph instrument on the airplane or pack it in a larger suitcase and send it through as checked baggage. Everything depended on whether the airport had instituted security checks for domestic flights.

"What's the security check situation at the airport?" I asked the case officer.

"There is no security check on domestic flights, only on international flights," he responded with what seemed like a great deal of confidence.

Realizing that I would be in a significant amount of trouble if the polygraph instrument was opened and inspected by security personnel, I wanted to have as much confidence in his answer as he did. After all, an analog polygraph instrument with all its knobs and dials might look like a bomb to an unsophisticated security guard. On the other hand, a more sophisticated security guard might recognize it as a polygraph instrument and wonder what I was doing with spy equipment.

"Hey, I don't feel very comfortable hand-carrying the instrument on an airplane. It's not that I'm unwilling, but this could be dangerous. Can you imagine the commotion it would cause if the briefcase was opened?"

He told me not to worry, but his feeble attempt to reassure me was not very convincing.

Noticing that I still seemed worried, he said, "Alan, relax. I'll check with 'our man' at the airport. He'll have the skinny on the most up-to-date policies and procedures."

He made the call (at least, he said he made the call) and reported to me later in the day that "our man" at the airport confirmed that security checks were only performed on international flights. I thanked him for the extra effort he took to ease my concerns. With this new information, I decided it would be easiest for me to just hand-carry the polygraph instrument on the flight.

* * *

I watched another soldier approach to assist the screaming soldier who seemed ready to shoot me. The two spoke excitedly. The second soldier started poking around the contents of my opened polygraph instrument. Chains, tubing, cuffs, finger plates, and ink bottles — it was a playground for a curious mind. He flipped switches and turned knobs. What an incredibly stupid thing to do if the instrument had actually been a bomb.

In the best nonchalant manner I could muster under the circumstances, I smiled and said, "It's for a doctor. It's medical equipment."

My explanation might have fooled them if they understood English. The second soldier called for help. Both pointed their guns at my chest while they waited for help to arrive. Only a table-width away from me, one of those weapons could have cut me in two in an instant. A third soldier approached. Now, two of them poked around the strange-looking contents they had discovered. The first soldier nervously kept his gun aimed straight at me. He was the one that worried me the most.

Still barely able to take my eyes off the menacing submachine guns, in a calm, yet emphatic tone I said once again, "It's for a doctor. It's medical equipment."

It was obvious from their puzzled looks and frightened demeanor, they didn't understand me. Talking back and forth at length, their discussion seemed to turn into an argument. It appeared there was disagreement among the three soldiers about what to do. It must have been their first experience dealing with a mad, American bomber. Their discussion grew loud, high pitched, and agitated. They gestured wildly with their arms and weapons. I didn't understand a word they said, but their demeanor was very threatening. I hoped their argument was not over whether to shoot me or arrest me.

A submachine gun was pointed at me at all times. Eventually, one of them motioned for me to hand over the passport in my hand. After what seemed like an eternity, the guns were pointed away from me, my passport was returned, and they finally motioned for me to board the plane. I packed up the equipment in record time and walked across the tarmac to the waiting airplane. My encounter with the soldiers had delayed its departure. Flight personnel standing at the airplane's door stared at me as I walked up the steps. Passengers glared at me through the windows. As I boarded the airplane and walked down the aisle to my seat, all eyes were on me. I was the center of attention and the object of much whispered speculation. Beads of sweat on my forehead were not caused by the heat. The airplane door was still open. The soldiers could change their minds, rush the airplane, and drag me out. It seemed to take the flight crew forever to prepare for takeoff. They walked slowly down the aisle checking passengers' seatbelts. I kept looking out the window for soldiers running onto the tarmac. Mercifully, the door was finally closed and locked, and the plane began pulling away from the terminal.

After takeoff, most of the passengers stopped staring at me. As the plane continued to climb, I reflected on the terrifying incident. I couldn't get it out of my mind. I thought of my wife and daughter thousands of miles away. I was alone and on my own. A tall, light-skinned foreigner, I stood out like a sore thumb. And I was carrying around a briefcase with contents that looked like a bomb. I wondered how I got myself into this mess. What was it about covert ops? Was it the adrenaline rush from interrogating liars or the challenge of operating clandestinely in hostile environments? With arrest and imprisonment always just around the corner, why would I choose to be a globe-trotting polygraph interrogator for the CIA?


Welcome to My World of Lies and Spies

Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes

When I was in charge of the CIA Polygraph School in the 1980s, I used to tell a polygraph joke to new students:

Polygraph training was tough back in the old days. It was very, very tough! It wasn't like it is now. In the old days, they made us put twelve marbles in our mouths when we started training. That was done to make sure we appreciated how hard the job was. When we conducted interviews and interrogations with marbles in our mouths, it was tough. It was incredibly tough! But, when we graduated, we got to take a marble out. When we became a journeyman examiner, we got to take a marble out. When we became a team leader, we got to take a marble out. When we became a branch chief, we got to take a marble out. So, now you know why they say, "Anyone who has been in polygraph for over twenty years must have lost all his marbles!"

The joke usually got a good laugh, although I'm not above admitting that some probably gave it a courtesy chuckle out of respect for the experienced instructor telling the joke.

I watched that twenty-year mark come and go an awfully long time ago. Thirty-eight of my forty years with the CIA were spent in the polygraph program. When I started with the CIA in 1971, I had no prior training or experience in interviewing, interrogation, and polygraph. At that time, I had no grand plan to spend thirty-eight years of my life specializing in the polygraph profession.

I'm an Agency Brat. Unlike the negative connotation that sometimes goes with the moniker, Army Brat, an Agency Brat is typically proud to be so recognized. I don't think carrying on a family tradition meant quite as much to me when I first started with the CIA. I wasn't bursting with pride and didn't feel any sense of honor by walking in my father's footsteps. However, now that I have occasion to reflect back on forty years, I realize I could not be more proud. My father's career with the CIA lasted twenty-three years. They were twenty-three good years, for the most part. A support officer, he had family-accompanied tours of duty in South America, the Far East, and on Saipan, a tiny tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. I realized that filling his shoes would be no small task when I encountered people in countries all over the world who asked, "Are you related to Doug Trabue?" When they learned I was his son, they always smiled broadly and regaled me with tales of friendship and great admiration for his professionalism. Although I did not set out to follow in my father's footsteps, I have become immeasurably proud that I took the journey.

During my time in the polygraph program, I was involved in just about everything the profession had to offer. My experience ran the gamut of going through polygraph training to managing polygraph training, from conducting thousands of polygraph tests to supervising others who conducted tests, and from working in all the polygraph programs to managing all the polygraph programs.

My career conducting tests at home and abroad on applicants, contractors, employees, and foreign agents generated many bizarre experiences. I encountered examinees so fearful, they fainted during their tests and slid out of their chairs. All kinds of personalities generated different responses under the stress of a polygraph exam. 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 exited the building. 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. There were examinees who urinated onto the carpet when their examiner stepped out of the room for a few minutes. One examinee urinated into a tissue box on the examiner's bookcase.

Confessions I extracted from polygraph subjects were numerous, frequent, and varied and sometimes consisted of horrific, gut-wrenching tales that sickened the hardiest of polygraph examiners. Murder, rape, child molestation, incest, wife beating, bestiality, burglary, robbery, theft, assault, fraud, illegal drug use, prostitution, concealing contacts with foreign intelligence services, concealing foreign national contacts, unauthorized revelation of classified information, concealing significant personal history and medical information — whatever illegal activity people can do has been discussed during CIA polygraph tests. Unfortunately, there are mean-spirited people in this world who set out in life to use and abuse others. They will lie, cheat, steal, and break any law to get what they want.

Polygraph is a strange and unique profession — a most demanding and bizarre way to make a living. Many people can't handle the stress it can bring. As one would expect from such a profession, there are stories to be told. There must be a million stories about the applicant program, the reinvestigation program, and the industrial program; but the program with no equal is the covert operations program. The covert operations polygraph program supports the CIA's attempts to validate recruited foreign national agents. In the eyes of their countrymen, most of the agents I polygraphed and interrogated were traitors who sold out their governments for money. Sometimes, well-meaning, idealistic patriots commit espionage, but more often it is the scum of the earth who betray their country. However, an agent's motivation to work secretly for the CIA is seldom as important as the veracity and value of the information he provides. From my perspective, it matters not whether an agent is a patriot or a money-seeking opportunist, for it is the distinctive nature of covert ops polygraph that makes a fine breeding ground for fascinating stories. Foreign countries with unfamiliar settings, languages, and customs; threats of arrest necessitating enhanced security and clandestine meetings; and case outcomes that can impact U.S. and foreign policy — all contribute to the foreign intrigue that frames a great tale.

Conducting covert cases overseas was a stepping-stone that eventually led to my selection as manager of the CIA's worldwide covert operations polygraph program. The assignment turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. It offered, and delivered, adventure and excitement. Unfortunately, there are aspects to any adventure that are less than glorious. I remember times when I was absolutely miserable and afraid, wishing to be anywhere else and to be doing anything else at the time. An adventure is something to boast of, a story to enthrall friends with, only after it is survived.

While managing covert ops polygraph, I continued to conduct sensitive operational cases. In addition, I accompanied many experienced examiners on their first trip overseas. On these training trips, each examiner learned how to survive and operate in an overseas environment as I taught them how to safely polygraph and interrogate foreign agents. My contribution had direct and immediate impact on the quality of CIA operations overseas. The work was done using operational tradecraft to protect the agent,


Excerpted from A Life of Lies and Spies by Alan B. Trabue. Copyright © 2015 Alan B. Trabue. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

1 Ready, Aim… 1

2 Welcome to My World of Lies and Spies 8

3 Destination: Covert Ops Polygraph 15

4 On the Road 32

5 Trying Times 52

6 Covert Operations and the Polygraph Process 68

7 Thor at the Door 91

8 Poorly Chosen Test Sites 104

9 Tales of the Unexpected 124

10 The Inebriated Case Officer 135

11 Extreme Nervousness 145

12 Castro's Buddy Beats the Box 166

13 Mata Hari 175

14 A Failure to Communicate 186

15 The John Wayne Impersonator 206

16 The Perilous World of Espionage 217

17 Security Eirst 236

18 Best Laid Plans 262

19 One Interpreter Too Many 275

20 Keep a Low Profile 287

Epilogue 302

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