Talking to Strangers
Talking to Strangers
Malcolm Gladwell, host of the podcast Revisionist History and #1 bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath, and What the Dog Saw, offers a powerful examination of our interactions with strangers—-and why they often go wrong.
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn't true?
Talking to Strangers is a classically Gladwellian intellectual adventure, a challenging and controversial excursion through history, psychology, and scandals taken straight from the news. He revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal at Penn State University, and the death of Sandra Bland—-throwing our...
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Copyright © 2019 by Malcolm Gladwell
Cover design by Matt Dorfman
Author photograph by Celeste Sloman
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Table of Contents
Introduction: “Step out of the car!”
Part One: Spies and Diplomats: Two Puzzles Chapter One: Fidel Castro’s Revenge
Chapter Two: Getting to Know der Führer
Part Two: Default to Truth Chapter Three: The Queen of Cuba
Chapter Four: The Holy Fool
Chapter Five: Case Study: The Boy in the Shower
Part Three: Transparency Chapter Six: The Friends Fallacy
Chapter Seven: A (Short) Explanation of the Amanda Knox Case
Chapter Eight: Case Study: The Fraternity Party
Part Four: Lessons Chapter Nine: KSM: What Happens When the Stranger Is a Terrorist?
Part Five: Coupling Chapter Ten: Sylvia Plath
Chapter Eleven: Case Study: The Kansas City Experiments
Chapter Twelve: Sandra Bland
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Many years ago, when my parents came down to visit me in New York City, I decided to put them up at the Mercer Hotel. It was a bit of mischief on my part. The Mercer is chic and exclusive, the kind of place where the famous and the fabulous stay. My parents—and particularly my father—were oblivious to that kind of thing. My father did not watch television, or go to the movies, or listen to popular music. He would have thought People magazine was an anthropology journal. His areas of expertise were specific: mathematics, gardening, and the Bible.
I came to pick up my parents for dinner, and asked my father how his day had been. “Wonderful!” he said. Apparently he had spent the afternoon in conversation with a man in the lobby. This was fairly typical behavior for my father. He liked to talk to strangers.
“What did you talk about?” I asked.
“Gardening!” my father said.
“What was his name?”
“Oh, I have no idea. But the whole time people were coming up to him to take pictures and have him sign little bits of paper.”
If there is a Hollywood celebrity reading this who remembers chatting with a bearded Englishman long ago in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, please contact me.
For everyone else, consider the lesson. Sometimes the best conversations between strangers allow the stranger to remain a stranger.
“Step out of the car!”
In July 2015, a young African American woman named Sandra Bland drove from her hometown of Chicago to a little town an hour west of Houston, Texas. She was interviewing for a job at Prairie View A&M University, the school she’d graduated from a few years before. She was tall and striking, with a personality to match. She belonged to the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority in college, and played in the marching band. She volunteered with a seniors group. She regularly posted short, inspirational videos on YouTube, under the handle “Sandy Speaks,” that often began, “Good morning, my beautiful Kings and Queens.”
I am up today just praising God, thanking His name. Definitely thanking Him not just because it’s my birthday, but thanking Him for growth, thanking Him for the different things that He has done in my life over this past year. Just looking back at the twenty-eight years I have been on this earth, and all that He has shown me. Even though I have made some mistakes, I have definitely messed up, He still loves me, and I want to let my Kings and Queens know out there to that He still loves you too.
Bland got the job at Prairie View. She was elated. Her plan was to get a master’s degree in political science on the side. On the afternoon of July 10 she left the university to get groceries, and as she made a right turn onto the highway that rings the Prairie View campus, she was pulled over by a police officer. His name was Brian Encinia: white, short dark hair, thirty years old. He was courteous—at least at first. He told her that she had failed to signal a lane change. He asked her questions. She answered them. Then Bland lit a cigarette, and Encinia asked her to put it out.
Their subsequent interaction was recorded by the video camera on his dashboard, and has been viewed in one form or another several million times on YouTube.
Bland: I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?
Encinia: Well, you can step on out now.
Bland: I don’t have to step out of my car.
Encinia: Step out of the car.
Bland: Why am I…
Encinia: Step out of the car!
Bland: No, you don’t have the right. No, you don’t have the right.
Encinia: Step out of the car.
Bland: You do not have the right. You do not have the right to do this.
Encinia: I do have the right, now step out or I will remove you.
Bland: I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself. [crosstalk] I am getting removed for a failure to signal?
Encinia: Step out or I will remove you. I’m giving you a lawful order. Get out of the car now or I’m going to remove you.
Bland: And I’m calling my lawyer.
Bland and Encinia continue on for an uncomfortably long time. Emotions escalate.
Encinia: I’m going to yank you out of here. [Reaches inside the car.]
Bland: OK, you’re going to yank me out of my car? OK, all right.
Encinia: [calling in backup] 2547.
Bland: Let’s do this.
Encinia: Yeah, we’re going to. [Grabs for Bland.]
Bland: Don’t touch me!
Encinia: Get out of the car!
Bland: Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me! I’m not under arrest—you don’t have the right to take me out of the car.
Encinia: You are under arrest!
Bland: I’m under arrest? For what? For what? For what?
Encinia: [To dispatch] 2547 County FM 1098. [inaudible] Send me another unit. [To Bland] Get out of the car! Get out of the car now!
Bland: Why am I being apprehended? You’re trying to give me a ticket for failure…
Encinia: I said get out of the car!
Bland: Why am I being apprehended? You just opened my—
Encinia: I’m giving you a lawful order. I’m going to drag you out of here.
Bland: So you’re threatening to drag me out of my own car?
Encinia: Get out of the car!
Bland: And then you’re going to [crosstalk] me?
Encinia: I will light you up! Get out! Now! [Draws stun gun and points it at Bland.]
Bland: Wow. Wow. [Bland exits car.]
Encinia: Get out. Now. Get out of the car!
Bland: For a failure to signal? You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?
Bland was arrested and jailed. Three days later, she committed suicide in her cell.
The Sandra Bland case came in the middle of a strange interlude in American public life. The interlude began in the late summer of 2014, when an eighteen-year-old black man named Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. He had just, allegedly, shoplifted a pack of cigars from a convenience store. The next several years saw one high-profile case after another involving police violence against black people. There were riots and protests around the country. A civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, was born. For a time, this was what Americans talked about. Perhaps you remember some of the names of those in the news. In Baltimore, a young black man named Freddie Gray was arrested for carrying a pocket knife and fell into a coma in the back of a police van. Outside Minneapolis, a young black man named Philando Castile was pulled over by a police officer and inexplicably shot seven times after handing over his proof of insurance. In New York City, a black man named Eric Garner was approached by a group of police officers on suspicion that he was illegally selling cigarettes, and was choked to death in the ensuing struggle. In North Charleston, South Carolina, a black man named Walter Scott was stopped for a nonfunctioning taillight, ran from his car, and was shot to death from behind by a white police officer. Scott was killed on April 4, 2015. Sandra Bland gave him his own episode of “Sandy Speaks.”
Good morning, my beautiful Kings and Queens.… I am not a racist. I grew up in Villa Park, Illinois. I was the only black girl on an all-white cheerleading squad.… Black people, you will not be successful in this world until you learn how to work with white people. I want the white folks to really understand out there that black people are doing as much as we can…and we can’t help but get pissed off when we see situations where it’s clear that the black life didn’t matter. For those of you who question why he was running away, well goddamn, in the news that we’ve seen of late, you can stand there and surrender to the cops and still be killed.
Three months later, she too was dead.
Talking to Strangers is an attempt to understand what really happened by the side of the highway that day in rural Texas.
Why write a book about a traffic stop gone awry? Because the debate spawned by that string of cases was deeply unsatisfying. One side made the discussion about racism—looking down at the case from ten thousand feet. The other side examined each detail of each case with a magnifying glass. What was the police officer like? What did he do, precisely? One side saw a forest, but no trees. The other side saw trees and no forest.
Each side was right, in its own way. Prejudice and incompetence go a long way toward explaining social dysfunction in the United States. But what do you do with either of those diagnoses aside from vowing, in full earnestness, to try harder next time? There are bad cops. There are biased cops. Conservatives prefer the former interpretation, liberals the latter. In the end the two sides canceled each other out. Police officers still kill people in this country, but those deaths no longer command the news. I suspect that you may have had to pause for a moment to remember who Sandra Bland was. We put aside these controversies after a decent interval and moved on to other things.
I don’t want to move on to other things.
In the sixteenth century, there were close to seventy wars involving the nations and states of Europe. The Danes fought the Swedes. The Poles fought the Teutonic Knights. The Ottomans fought the Venetians. The Spanish fought the French—and on and on. If there was a pattern to the endless conflict, it was that battles overwhelmingly involved neighbors. You fought the person directly across the border, who had always been directly across your border. Or you fought someone inside your own borders: the Ottoman War of 1509 was between two brothers. Throughout the majority of human history, encounters—hostile or otherwise—were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.
But the sixteenth century’s bloodiest conflict fit none of those patterns. When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés met the Aztec ruler Montezuma II, neither side knew anything about the other at all.
Cortés landed in Mexico in February of 1519 and slowly made his way inland, advancing on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. When Cortés and his army arrived, they were in awe. Tenochtitlán was an extraordinary sight—far larger and more impressive than any of the cities Cortés and his men would have known back in Spain. It was a city on an island, linked to the mainland with bridges and crossed by canals. It had grand boulevards, elaborate aqueducts, thriving marketplaces, temples built in brilliant white stucco, public gardens, and even a zoo. It was spotlessly clean—which, to someone raised in the filth of medieval European cities, would have seemed almost miraculous.
“When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments,” one of Cortés’s officers, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recalled. “And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream?… I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.”
The Spanish were greeted at the gates of Tenochtitlán by an assembly of Aztec chiefs, then taken to Montezuma. He was a figure of almost surreal grandeur, carried on a litter embroidered with gold and silver and festooned with flowers and precious stones. One of his courtiers advanced before the procession, sweeping the ground. Cortés dismounted from his horse. Montezuma was lowered from his litter. Cortés, like the Spaniard he was, moved to embrace the Aztec leader—only to be restrained by Montezuma’s attendants. No one embraced Montezuma. Instead, the two men bowed to each other.
“Art thou not he? Art thou Montezuma?”
Montezuma answered: “Yes, I am he.”
No European had ever set foot in Mexico. No Aztec had ever met a European. Cortés knew nothing about the Aztecs, except to be in awe of their wealth and the extraordinary city they had built. Montezuma knew nothing of Cortés, except that he had approached the Aztec kingdom with great audacity, armed with strange weapons and large, mysterious animals—horses—that the Aztecs had never seen before.
Is it any wonder why the meeting between Cortés and Montezuma has fascinated historians for so many centuries? That moment—500 years ago—when explorers began traveling across oceans and undertaking bold expeditions in previously unknown territory, an entirely new kind of encounter emerged. Cortés and Montezuma wanted to have a conversation, even though they knew nothing about the other. When Cortés asked Montezuma, “Art thou he?,” he didn’t say those words directly. Cortés spoke only Spanish. He had to bring two translators with him. One was an Indian woman named Malinche, who had been captured by the Spanish some months before. She knew the Aztec language Nahuatl and Mayan, the language of the Mexican territory where Cortés had begun his journey. Cortés also had with him a Spanish priest named Gerónimo del Aguilar, who had been shipwrecked in the Yucatán and learned Mayan during his sojourn there. So Cortés spoke to Aguilar in Spanish. Aguilar translated into Mayan for Malinche. And Malinche translated the Mayan into Nahuatl for Montezuma—and when Montezuma replied, “Yes, I am,” the long translation chain ran in reverse. The kind of easy face-to-face interaction that each had lived with his entire life had suddenly become hopelessly complicated.1
Cortés was taken to one of Montezuma’s palaces—a place that Aguilar described later as having “innumerable rooms inside, antechambers, splendid halls, mattresses of large cloaks, pillows of leather and tree fibre, good eiderdowns, and admirable white fur robes.” After dinner, Montezuma rejoined Cortés and his men and gave a speech. Immediately, the confusion began. The way the Spanish interpreted Montezuma’s remarks, the Aztec king was making an astonishing concession: he believed Cortés to be a god, the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy that said an exiled deity would one day return from the east. And he was, as a result, surrendering to Cortés. You can imagine Cortés’s reaction: this magnificent city was now effectively his.
But is that really what Montezuma meant? Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, had a reverential mode. A royal figure such as Montezuma would speak in a kind of code, according to a cultural tradition in which the powerful projected their status through an elaborate false humility. The word in Nahuatl for a noble, the historian Matthew Restall points out, is all but identical to the word for child. When a ruler such as Montezuma spoke of himself as small and weak, in other words, he was actually subtly drawing attention to the fact that he was esteemed and powerful.
“The impossibility of adequately translating such language is obvious,” Restall writes:
The speaker was often obliged to say the opposite of what was really meant. True meaning was embedded in the use of reverential language. Stripped of these nuances in translation, and distorted through the use of multiple interpreters…not only was it unlikely that a speech such as Montezuma’s would be accurately understood, but it was probable that its meaning would be turned upside down. In that case, Montezuma’s speech was not his surrender; it was his acceptance of a Spanish surrender.
You probably remember from high-school history how the encounter between Cortés and Montezuma ended. Montezuma was taken hostage by Cortés, then murdered. The two sides went to war. As many as twenty million Aztecs perished, either directly at the hands of the Spanish or indirectly from the diseases they had brought with them. Tenochtitlán was destroyed. Cortés’s foray into Mexico ushered in the era of catastrophic colonial expansion. And it also introduced a new and distinctly modern pattern of social interaction. Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own. The modern world is not two brothers feuding for control of the Ottoman Empire. It is Cortés and Montezuma struggling to understand each other through multiple layers of translators. Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.
Each of the chapters that follows is devoted to understanding a different aspect of the stranger problem. You will have heard of many of the examples—they are taken from the news. At Stanford University in northern California, a first-year student named Brock Turner meets a woman at a party, and by the end of the evening he is in police custody. At Pennsylvania State University, the former assistant coach of the school’s football team, Jerry Sandusky, is found guilty of pedophilia, and the president of the school and two of his top aides are found to be complicit in his crimes. You will read about a spy who spent years undetected at the highest levels of the Pentagon, about the man who brought down hedge-fund manager Bernie Madoff, about the false conviction of the American exchange student Amanda Knox, and about the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath.
In all of these cases, the parties involved relied on a set of strategies to translate one another’s words and intentions. And in each case, something went very wrong. In Talking to Strangers, I want to understand those strategies—analyze them, critique them, figure out where they came from, find out how to fix them. At the end of the book I will come back to Sandra Bland, because there is something about the encounter by the side of the road that ought to haunt us. Think about how hard it was. Sandra Bland was not someone Brian Encinia knew from the neighborhood or down the street. That would have been easy: Sandy! How are you? Be a little more careful next time. Instead you have Bland from Chicago and Encinia from Texas, one a man and the other a woman, one white and one black, one a police officer and one a civilian, one armed and the other unarmed. They were strangers to each other. If we were more thoughtful as a society—if we were willing to engage in some soul-searching about how we approach and make sense of strangers—she would not have ended up dead in a Texas jail cell.
But to start, I have two questions—two puzzles about strangers—beginning with a story told by a man named Florentino Aspillaga years ago in a German debriefing room.
1 The idea that Montezuma considered Cortés a god has been soundly debunked by the historian Camilla Townsend, among others. Townsend argues that it was probably just a misunderstanding, following from the fact that the Nahua used the word teotl to refer to Cortés and his men, which the Spanish translated as god. But Townsend argues that they used that word only because they “had to call the Spaniards something, and it was not at all clear what that something should be.…In the Nahua universe as it had existed up until this point, a person was always labeled as being from a particular village or city-state, or, more specifically, as one who filled a given social role (a tribute collector, prince, servant). These new people fit nowhere.”
Spies and Diplomats:
Fidel Castro’s Revenge
Florentino Aspillaga’s final posting was in Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia. It was 1987, two years before the Iron Curtain fell. Aspillaga ran a consulting company called Cuba Tecnica, which was supposed to have something to do with trade. It did not. It was a front. Aspillaga was a high-ranking officer in Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence.
Aspillaga had been named intelligence officer of the year in the Cuban spy service in 1985. He had been given a handwritten letter of commendation from Fidel Castro himself. He had served his country with distinction in Moscow, Angola, and Nicaragua. He was a star. In Bratislava, he ran Cuba’s network of agents in the region.
But at some point during his steady ascent through the Cuban intelligence service, he grew disenchanted. He watched Castro give a speech in Angola, celebrating the Communist revolution there, and had been appalled by the Cuban leader’s arrogance and narcissism. By the time of his posting to Bratislava, in 1986, those doubts had hardened.
He planned his defection for June 6, 1987. It was an elaborate inside joke. June 6 was the anniversary of the founding of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior—the all-powerful body that administered the country’s spy services. If you worked for the General Directorate of Intelligence, you would ordinarily celebrate on June 6. There would be speeches, receptions, ceremonies in honor of Cuba’s espionage apparatus. Aspillaga wanted his betrayal to sting.
He met up with his girlfriend Marta in a park in downtown Bratislava. It was Saturday afternoon. She was Cuban as well, one of thousands of Cubans who were guest workers in Czech factories. Like all Cubans in her position, her passport was held at the Cuban government offices in Prague. Aspillaga would have to smuggle her across the border. He had a government-issued Mazda. He removed the spare tire from the trunk, drilled an air hole in the floor, and told her to climb inside.
Eastern Europe, at that point, was still walled off from the rest of the continent. Travel between East and West was heavily restricted. But Bratislava was only a short drive from Vienna, and Aspillaga had made the trip before. He was well known at the border and carried a diplomatic passport. The guards waved him through.
In Vienna, he and Marta abandoned the Mazda, hailed a taxi, and presented themselves at the gates to the United States Embassy. It was Saturday evening. The senior staff was all at home. But Aspillaga did not need to do much to get the guard’s attention: “I am a case officer from Cuban Intelligence. I am an intelligence comandante.”
In the spy trade, Aspillaga’s appearance at the Vienna embassy is known as a walk-in. An official from the intelligence service of one country shows up, unexpectedly, on the doorstep of the intelligence service of another country. And Florentino “Tiny” Aspillaga was one of the great walk-ins of the Cold War. What he knew of Cuba—and its close ally, the Soviet Union—was so sensitive that twice after his defection his former employers at the Cuban spy service tracked him down and tried to assassinate him. Twice, he slipped away. Only once since has Aspillaga been spotted. It was by Brian Latell, who ran the CIA’s Latin American office for many years.
Latell got a tip from an undercover agent who was acting as Aspillaga’s go-between. He met the go-between at a restaurant in Coral Gables, just outside Miami. There he was given instructions to meet in another location, closer to where Aspillaga was living under his new identity. Latell rented a suite in a hotel, somewhere anonymous, and waited for Tiny to arrive.
“He’s younger than me. I’m seventy-five. He’s by now probably in his upper sixties,” Latell said, remembering the meeting. “But he’s had terrible health problems. I mean, being a defector, living with a new identity, it’s tough.”
Even in his diminished state, though, it was obvious what Aspillaga must have been like as a younger man, Latell says: charismatic, slender, with a certain theatricality about him—a taste for risks and grand emotional gestures. When he came into the hotel suite, Aspillaga was carrying a box. He put it down on the table and turned to Latell.
“This is a memoir that I wrote soon after I defected,” he said. “I want you to have this.”
Inside the box, in the pages of Aspillaga’s memoir, was a story that made no sense.
After his dramatic appearance at the American embassy in Vienna, Aspillaga was flown to a debriefing center at a U.S. Army base in Germany. In those years, American intelligence operated out of the United States Interests Section in Havana, under the Swiss flag. (The Cuban delegation had a similar arrangement in the United States.) Before his debriefing began, Aspillaga said, he had one request: he wanted the CIA to fly in one of the former Havana station chiefs, a man known to Cuban intelligence as “el Alpinista,” the Mountain Climber.
The Mountain Climber had served the agency all over the world. After the Berlin Wall fell, files retrieved from the KGB and the East German secret police revealed that they had taught a course on the Mountain Climber to their agents. His tradecraft was impeccable. Once, Soviet intelligence officers tried to recruit him: they literally placed bags of money in front of him. He waved them off, mocked them. The Mountain Climber was incorruptible. He spoke Spanish like a Cuban. He was Aspillaga’s role model. Aspillaga wanted to meet him face-to-face.
“I was on an assignment in another country when I got a message to rush to Frankfurt,” the Mountain Climber remembers. (Though long retired from the CIA, he still prefers to be identified only by his nickname.) “Frankfurt is where we had our defector processing center. They told me a fellow had walked into an embassy in Vienna. He had driven out of Czechoslovakia with his girlfriend in the trunk of his car, walked in, and insisted on speaking to me. I thought it was kind of crazy.”
El Alpinista went straight to the debriefing center. “I found four case officers sitting in the living room,” he remembers. “They told me Aspillaga was back in the bedroom making love with his girlfriend, as he had constantly since he arrived at the safe house. Then I went in and spoke to him. He was lanky, poorly dressed, as Eastern Europeans and Cubans tended to be back then. A little sloppy. But it was immediately evident that he was a very smart guy.”
When he walked in, the Mountain Climber didn’t tell Aspillaga who he was. He was trying to be cagey; Aspillaga was an unknown quantity. But it was only a matter of minutes before Aspillaga figured it out. There was a moment of shock, laughter. The two men hugged, Cuban style.
“We talked for five minutes before we started into the details. Whenever you are debriefing one of those guys, you need someone that proves their bona fides,” the Mountain Climber said. “So I just basically asked him what he could tell me about the [Cuban intelligence] operation.”
It was then that Aspillaga revealed his bombshell, the news that had brought him from behind the Iron Curtain to the gates of the Vienna embassy. The CIA had a network of spies inside Cuba, whose dutiful reports to their case officers helped shape America’s understanding of its adversary. Aspillaga named one of them and said, “He’s a double agent. He works for us.” The room was stunned. They had no idea. But Aspillaga kept going. He named another spy. “He’s a double too.” Then another, and another. He had names, details, chapter and verse. That guy you recruited on the ship in Antwerp. The little fat guy with the mustache? He’s a double. That other guy, with a limp, who works in the defense ministry? He’s a double. He continued on like that until he had listed dozens of names—practically the entire U.S. roster of secret agents inside Cuba. They were all working for Havana, spoon-feeding the CIA information cooked up by the Cubans themselves.
“I sat there and took notes,” the Mountain Climber said. “I tried not to betray any emotion. That’s what we’re taught. But my heart was racing.”
Aspillaga was talking about the Mountain Climber’s people, the spies he’d worked with when he had been posted to Cuba as a young and ambitious intelligence officer. When he’d first arrived in Havana, the Mountain Climber had made a point of working his sources aggressively, mining them for information. “The thing is, if you have an agent who is in the office of the president of whatever country, but you can’t communicate with him, that agent is worthless,” the Mountain Climber said. “My feeling was, let’s communicate and get some value, rather than waiting six months or a year until he puts up someplace else.” But now the whole exercise turned out to have been a sham. “I must admit that I disliked Cuba so much that I derived much pleasure from pulling the wool over their eyes,” he said, ruefully. “But it turns out that I wasn’t the one pulling the wool over their eyes. That was a bit of a blow.”
The Mountain Climber got on a military plane and flew with Aspillaga directly to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, DC, where they were met by “bigwigs” from the Latin American division. “In the Cuban section, the reaction was absolute shock and horror,” he remembers. “They simply could not believe that they had been had so badly, for so many years. It sent shock waves.”
It got worse. When Fidel Castro heard that Aspillaga had informed the CIA of their humiliation, he decided to rub salt in the wound. First he rounded up the entire cast of pretend CIA agents and paraded them across Cuba on a triumphant tour. Then he released on Cuban television an astonishing eleven-part documentary entitled La Guerra de la CIA contra Cuba—The CIA’s War against Cuba. Cuban intelligence, it turned out, had filmed and recorded everything the CIA had been doing in their country for at least ten years—as if they were creating a reality show. Survivor: Havana Edition. The video was surprisingly high quality. There were close-up shots and shots from cinematic angles. The audio was crystal clear: the Cubans must have had advance word of every secret meeting place, and sent their technicians over to wire the rooms for sound.
On the screen, identified by name, were CIA officers supposedly under deep cover. There was video of every advanced CIA gadget: transmitters hidden in picnic baskets and briefcases. There were detailed explanations of which park bench CIA officers used to communicate with their sources and how the CIA used different-colored shirts to secretly signal their contacts. A long tracking shot showed a CIA officer stuffing cash and instructions inside a large, plastic “rock”; another caught a CIA officer stashing secret documents for his agents inside a wrecked car in a junkyard in Pinar del Rio; in a third, a CIA officer looked for a package in long grass by the side of the road while his wife fumed impatiently in the car. The Mountain Climber made a brief cameo in the documentary. His successor fared far worse. “When they showed that TV series,” the Mountain Climber said, “it looked as though they had a guy with a camera over his shoulder everywhere he went.”
When the head of the FBI’s office in Miami heard about the documentary, he called up a Cuban official and asked for a copy. A set of videotapes was sent over promptly, thoughtfully dubbed in English. The most sophisticated intelligence service in the world had been played for a fool.
This is what makes no sense about Florentino Aspillaga’s story. It would be one thing if Cuba had deceived a group of elderly shut-ins, the way scam artists do. But the Cubans fooled the CIA, an organization that takes the problem of understanding strangers very seriously.
There were extensive files on every one of those double agents. The Mountain Climber says he checked them carefully. There were no obvious red flags. Like all intelligence agencies, the CIA has a division—counterintelligence—whose job it is to monitor its own operations for signs of betrayal. What had they found? Nothing.1
Looking back on the episode years later, all Latell could do was shrug and say that the Cubans must have been really good. “They did it exquisitely,” he said.
I mean, Fidel Castro selected the doubles that he dangled. He selected them with real brilliance…Some of them were trained in theatrical deception. One of them posed as a naïf, you know…He was really a very cunning, trained intelligence officer…You know, he’s so goofy. How can he be a double? Fidel orchestrated all of this. I mean, Fidel is the greatest actor of them all.
The Mountain Climber, for his part, argues that the tradecraft of the CIA’s Cuban section was just sloppy. He had previously worked in Eastern Europe, up against the East Germans, and there, he said, the CIA had been much more meticulous.
But what was the CIA’s record in East Germany? Just as bad as the CIA’s record in Cuba. After the Berlin Wall fell, East German spy chief Markus Wolf wrote in his memoirs that by the late 1980s
we were in the enviable position of knowing that not a single CIA agent had worked in East Germany without having been turned into a double agent or working for us from the start. On our orders they were all delivering carefully selected information and disinformation to the Americans.
The supposedly meticulous Eastern Europe division, in fact, suffered one of the worst breaches of the entire Cold War. Aldrich Ames, one of the agency’s most senior officers responsible for Soviet counterintelligence, turned out to be working for the Soviet Union. His betrayals led to the capture—and execution—of countless American spies in Russia. El Alpinista knew him. Everyone who was high up at the agency did. “I did not have a high opinion of him,” the Mountain Climber said, “because I knew him to be a lazy drunkard.” But he and his colleagues never suspected that Ames was a traitor. “It was unthinkable to the old hands that one of our own could ever be beguiled by the other side the way Ames was,” he said. “We were all just taken aback that one of our own could betray us that way.”
The Mountain Climber was one of the most talented people at one of the most sophisticated institutions in the world. Yet he’d been witness three times to humiliating betrayal—first by Fidel Castro, then by the East Germans, and then, at CIA headquarters itself, by a lazy drunk. And if the CIA’s best can be misled so completely, so many times, then what of the rest of us?
Puzzle Number One: Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face?
1 The CIA makes a regular practice of giving its agents lie-detector tests—to guard against just the kind of treachery that Aspillaga was describing. Whenever one of the agency’s Cuban spies left the island, the CIA would meet them secretly in a hotel room and have them sit for a polygraph. Sometimes the Cubans would pass; the head of the polygraph division personally gave a clean bill of health to six Cuban agents who ended up being doubles. Other times, the Cubans would fail. But what happened when they did? The people running the Cuban section dismissed it. One of the CIA’s former polygraphers, John Sullivan, remembers being summoned to a meeting after his group gave the thumbs-down on a few too many Cuban assets. “They ambushed us,” Sullivan said. “We were berated unmercifully.…All these case officers were saying, ‘You guys just don’t know what you’re doing,’ et cetera, et cetera. ‘Mother Teresa couldn’t pass you.’ I mean, they were really very, very nasty about it.”
But can you blame them? The case officers chose to replace one method of making sense of strangers (strapping them to a polygraph machine) with another: their own judgment. And that is perfectly logical.
Polygraphy is, to say the least, an inexact art. The case officer would have had years of experience with the agent: met them, talked to them, analyzed the quality of the reports they filed. The assessment of a trained professional, made over the course of many years, ought to be more accurate than the results of a hurried meeting in a hotel room, right? Except that it wasn’t.
“Many of our case officers think, ‘I’m such a good case officer, they can’t fool me,’” Sullivan said. “This one guy I’m thinking of in particular—and he was a very, very good case officer—they thought he was one of the best case officers in the agency.” He was clearly talking about the Mountain Climber. “They took him to the cleaners. They actually got him on film servicing a dead drop. It was crazy.”
Getting to Know der Führer
On the evening of August 28, 1938, Neville Chamberlain called his closest advisor to 10 Downing Street for a late-night strategy session. Chamberlain had been the British prime minister a little over a year. He was a former businessman, a practical and plainspoken man, whose interests and experience lay with domestic affairs. But now he faced his first foreign-policy crisis. It involved Adolf Hitler, who had been making increasingly bellicose statements about invading the Sudetenland, the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia.
If Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, it would almost certainly mean a world war, which Chamberlain wanted desperately to avoid. But Hitler had been particularly reclusive in recent months, and Germany’s intentions were so opaque that the rest of Europe was growing nervous. Chamberlain was determined to resolve the impasse. He dubbed his idea, which he put to his advisors that night, Plan Z. It was top secret. Chamberlain would later write that the idea was “so unconventional and daring that it rather took [Foreign Secretary Lord] Halifax’s breath away.” Chamberlain wanted to fly to Germany and demand to meet Hitler face-to-face.
One of the odd things about the desperate hours of the late 1930s, as Hitler dragged the world toward war, was how few of the world’s leaders really knew the German leader.1 Hitler was a mystery. Franklin Roosevelt, the American president throughout Hitler’s rise, never met him. Nor did Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader. Winston Churchill, Chamberlain’s successor, came close while researching a book in Munich in 1932. He and Hitler twice made plans to meet for tea, but on both occasions Hitler stood him up.
The only people in England who spent any real amount of time with Hitler before the war were British aristocrats friendly to the Nazi cause, who would sometimes cross the Channel to pay their respects or join the Führer at parties. (“In certain moods he could be very funny,” the fascist socialite Diana Mitford wrote in her memoirs. She dined with him frequently in Munich. “He did imitations of marvelous drollery.”) But those were social calls. Chamberlain was trying to avert world war, and it seemed to him that he would benefit from taking the measure of Hitler for himself. Was Hitler someone who could be reasoned with? Trusted? Chamberlain wanted to find out.
On the morning of September 14, the British ambassador to Germany sent a telegram to Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Would Hitler like to meet? Von Ribbentrop replied the same day: yes. Chamberlain was a masterly politician with a gift for showmanship, and he artfully let the news slip. He was going to Germany to see if he could avert war. Across Britain, there was a shout of celebration. Polls showed that 70 percent of the country thought his trip was a “good thing for peace.” The newspapers backed him. In Berlin, one foreign correspondent reported that he had been eating in a restaurant when the news broke, and the room had risen, as one, to toast Chamberlain’s health.
Chamberlain left London on the morning of September 15. He’d never flown before, but he remained calm even as the plane flew into heavy weather near Munich. Thousands had gathered at the airport to greet him. He was driven to the train station in a cavalcade of fourteen Mercedes, then had lunch in Hitler’s own dining car as the train made its way into the mountains, toward Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. He arrived at five in the evening. Hitler came and shook his hand. Chamberlain would later report every detail of his first impressions in a letter to his sister Ida:
Halfway down the steps stood the Führer bareheaded and dressed in a khaki-coloured coat of broadcloth with a red armlet and a swastika on it and the military cross on his breast. He wore black trousers such as we wear in the evening and black patent leather lace-up shoes. His hair is brown, not black, his eyes blue, his expression rather disagreeable, especially in repose and altogether he looks entirely undistinguished. You would never notice him in a crowd and would take him for the house painter he was.
Hitler ushered Chamberlain upstairs to his study, with just an interpreter in tow. They talked, sometimes heatedly. “I am ready to face a world war!” Hitler exclaimed to Chamberlain at one point. Hitler made it plain that he was going to seize the Sudetenland, regardless of what the world thought. Chamberlain wanted to know whether that was all Hitler wanted. Hitler said it was. Chamberlain looked at Hitler long and hard and decided he believed him. In the same letter to his sister, Chamberlain wrote that he had heard back from people close to Hitler that the German leader felt he had had a conversation “with a man.” Chamberlain went on:
“In short I had established a certain confidence which was my aim, and on my side in spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”
Chamberlain flew back to England the next morning. At Heston Airport, he gave a quick speech on the tarmac. “Yesterday afternoon I had a long talk with Herr Hitler,” he said. “I feel satisfied now that each of us fully understands what is in the mind of the other.” The two of them would meet again, he promised, only this time closer to England. “That is to spare an old man such another long journey,” Chamberlain said, to what those present remembered as “laughter and cheers.”
Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler are widely regarded as one of the great follies of the Second World War. Chamberlain fell under Hitler’s spell. He was outmaneuvered at the bargaining table. He misread Hitler’s intentions, and failed to warn Hitler that if he reneged on his promises there would be serious consequences. History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain.
But underneath those criticisms is a puzzle. Chamberlain flew back to Germany two more times. He sat with Hitler for hours. The two men talked, argued, ate together, walked around together. Chamberlain was the only Allied leader of that period to spend any significant time with Hitler. He made careful note of the man’s behavior. “Hitler’s appearance and manner when I saw him appeared to show that the storm signals were up,” Chamberlain told his sister Hilda after another of his visits to Germany. But then “he gave me the double handshake that he reserves for specially friendly demonstrations.” Back in London, he told his cabinet that he had seen in the Führer “no signs of insanity but many of excitement.” Hitler wasn’t crazy. He was rational, determined: “He had thought out what he wanted and he meant to get it and he would not brook opposition beyond a certain point.”
Chamberlain was acting on the same assumption that we all follow in our efforts to make sense of strangers. We believe that the information gathered from a personal interaction is uniquely valuable. You would never hire a babysitter for your children without meeting that person first. Companies don’t hire employees blind. They call them in and interview them closely, sometimes for hours at a stretch, on more than one occasion. They do what Chamberlain did: they look people in the eye, observe their demeanor and behavior, and draw conclusions. He gave me the double handshake. Yet all that extra information Chamberlain gathered from his personal interactions with Hitler didn’t help him see Hitler more clearly. It did the opposite.
Is this because Chamberlain was naive? Perhaps. His experience in foreign affairs was minimal. One of his critics would later compare him to a priest entering a pub for the first time, blind to the difference “between a social gathering and a rough house.”
But this pattern isn’t confined to Chamberlain. It also afflicted Lord Halifax, who would go on to become Chamberlain’s foreign secretary. Halifax was an aristocrat, a superb student at Eton and Oxford. He served as Viceroy of India between the wars, where he negotiated brilliantly with Mahatma Gandhi. He was everything Chamberlain was not: worldly, seasoned, deeply charming, an intellectual—a man of such resolute religiosity that Churchill dubbed him the “Holy Fox.”
Halifax went to Berlin in the fall of 1937 and met with the German leader at Berchtesgaden: he was the only other member of England’s ruling circle to have spent time with the Führer. Their meeting wasn’t some meaningless diplomatic reception. It began with Halifax mistaking Hitler for a footman and almost handing him his coat. And then Hitler was Hitler for five hours: sulking, shouting, digressing, denouncing. He talked about how much he hated the press. He talked about the evils of communism. Halifax listened to the performance with what another British diplomat at the time called a “mixture of astonishment, repugnance, and compassion.”
Halifax spent five days in Germany. He met with two of Hitler’s top ministers—Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels. He attended a dinner at the British Embassy, where he met a host of senior German politicians and businessmen. When he returned home, Halifax said that it was “all to the good making contact” with the German leadership, which is hard to dispute. That’s what a diplomat is supposed to do. He had gained valuable insights from their face-to-face encounter about Hitler’s bullying and volatility. But what was Halifax’s ultimate conclusion? That Hitler didn’t want to go to war, and was open to negotiating a peace. No one ever thought Halifax was naive, yet he was as deluded after meeting with Hitler as Chamberlain was.
The British diplomat who spent the most time with Hitler was the ambassador to Germany, Nevile Henderson. He met Hitler repeatedly, went to his rallies. Hitler even had a nickname for Henderson, “The man with the carnation,” because of the flower the dapper Henderson always wore in his lapel. After attending the infamous Nuremberg Rally in early September 1938, Henderson wrote in his dispatch to London that Hitler seemed so abnormal that “he may have crossed the borderline into insanity.” Henderson wasn’t in Hitler’s thrall. But did he think Hitler had dishonorable intentions toward Czechoslovakia? No. Hitler, he believed, “hates war as much as anyone.” Henderson, too, read Hitler all wrong.2
The blindness of Chamberlain and Halifax and Henderson is not at all like Puzzle Number One, from the previous chapter. That was about the inability of otherwise intelligent and dedicated people to understand when they are being deceived. This is a situation where some people were deceived by Hitler and others were not. And the puzzle is that the group who were deceived are the ones you’d expect not to be, while those who saw the truth are the ones you’d think would be deceived.
Winston Churchill, for example, never believed for a moment that Hitler was anything more than a duplicitous thug. Churchill called Chamberlain’s visit “the stupidest thing that has ever been done.” But Hitler was someone he’d only ever read about. Duff Cooper, one of Chamberlain’s cabinet ministers, was equally clear-eyed. He listened with horror to Chamberlain’s account of his meeting with Hitler. Later, he would resign from Chamberlain’s government in protest. Did Cooper know Hitler? No. Only one person in the upper reaches of the British diplomatic service—Anthony Eden, who preceded Halifax as foreign secretary—had both met Hitler and saw the truth of him. But for everyone else? The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew the least about him personally. The people who were wrong about Hitler were the ones who had talked with him for hours.
This could all be a coincidence, of course. Perhaps Chamberlain and his cohort, for whatever private reason, were determined to see the Hitler they wanted to see, regardless of the evidence of their eyes and ears. Except that the same puzzling pattern crops up everywhere.
The judge was middle-aged, tall, white-haired, with an accent that put his roots squarely in the borough of Brooklyn. Let’s call him Solomon. He had served on the bench in New York State for over a decade. He wasn’t imperious or intimidating. He was thoughtful, with a surprisingly gentle manner.
This was a Thursday, which in his courtroom was typically a busy day for arraignments. The defendants were all people who had been arrested in the past twenty-four hours on suspicion of some kind of crime. They’d just spent a sleepless night in a holding cell and now they were being brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, one by one. They sat on a low bench behind a partition, just to Solomon’s left. When each case was called, the clerk would hand Solomon a file containing the defendant’s rap sheet, and he would start flipping through, bringing himself up to speed. The defendant would stand directly in front of Solomon, with his lawyer on one side and the district attorney on the other. The two lawyers would talk. Solomon would listen. Then he would decide if the defendant would be required to post bail, and if so, how much the bail should be. Does this perfect stranger deserve his freedom?
The hardest cases, he said later, involved kids. A sixteen-year-old would come in charged with some horrible crime. And he would know that if he set bail high enough, the child would end up in a “cage” in the city’s notorious Rikers Island facility, where—he put it as delicately as he could—there’s basically “a riot waiting to happen at every turn.”3 Those cases got even harder when he looked up into the courtroom and saw the kid’s mom sitting in the gallery. “I have a case like this every day,” he said. He had taken up meditation. He found that made things easier.
Solomon was faced day in, day out with a version of the same problem that had faced Neville Chamberlain and the British diplomatic service in the fall of 1938: he was asked to assess the character of a stranger. And the criminal justice system assumes, as Chamberlain did, that those kinds of difficult decisions are better made when the judge and the judged meet each other first.
Later that afternoon, for example, Solomon was confronted with an older man with thinning, close-cropped hair. He was wearing blue jeans and a guayabera shirt and spoke only Spanish. He’d been arrested because of an “incident” involving the six-year-old grandson of his girlfriend. The boy told his father right away. The district attorney asked for $100,000 bail. There was no way the man had the resources to raise that amount. If Solomon agreed with the DA, the man in the guayabera would go straight to jail.
On the other hand, the man denied everything. He had two previous criminal offenses—but they were misdemeanors, from many years ago. He had a job as a mechanic, which he would lose if he went to jail, and he had an ex-wife and a fifteen-year-old son whom he was supporting with that income. So Solomon had to think about that fifteen-year-old, relying on his father’s paycheck. He also surely knew that six-year-olds are not the most reliable of witnesses. So there was no way for Solomon to be sure whether this would all turn out to be a massive misunderstanding or part of some sinister pattern. In other words, the decision about whether to let the man in the guayabera go free—or to hold him in jail until trial—was impossibly difficult. And to help him make the right call, Solomon did what all of us would do in that situation: he looked the man right in the eyes and tried to get a sense of who he really was. So did that help? Or are judges subject to the same puzzle as Neville Chamberlain?
The best answer we have to that question comes from a study conducted by a Harvard economist, three elite computer scientists, and a bail expert from the University of Chicago. The group—and for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to it by the economist’s name, Sendhil Mullainathan—decided to use New York City as their testing ground. They gathered up the records of 554,689 defendants brought before arraignment hearings in New York from 2008 to 2013—554,689 defendants in all. Of those, they found that the human judges of New York released just over 400,000.
Mullainathan then built an artificial intelligence system, fed it the same information the prosecutors had given judges in those arraignment cases (the defendant’s age and criminal record), and told the computer to go through those 554,689 cases and make its own list of 400,000 people to release. It was a bake-off: man versus machine. Who made the best decisions? Whose list committed the fewest crimes while out on bail and was most likely to show up for their trial date? The results weren’t even close. The people on the computer’s list were 25 percent less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial than the 400,000 people released by the judges of New York City. 25 percent! In the bake-off, machine destroyed man.4
To give you just one sense of the mastery of Mullainathan’s machine, it flagged 1 percent of all the defendants as “high risk.” These are the people the computer thought should never be released prior to trial. According to the machine’s calculations, well over half of the people in that high-risk group would commit another crime if let out on bail. When the human judges looked at that same group of bad apples, though, they didn’t identify them as dangerous at all. They released 48.5 percent of them! “Many of the defendants flagged by the algorithm as high risk are treated by the judge as if they were low risk,” Team Mullainathan concluded in a particularly devastating passage. “Performing this exercise suggests that judges are not simply setting a high threshold for detention but are mis-ranking defendants.…The marginal defendants they select to detain are drawn from throughout the entire predicted risk distribution.” Translation: the bail decisions of judges are all over the place.
I think you’ll agree that this is baffling. When judges make their bail decisions, they have access to three sources of information. They have the defendant’s record—his age, previous offenses, what happened the last time he was granted bail, where he lives, where he works. They have the testimony of the district attorney and the defendant’s lawyer: whatever information is communicated in the courtroom. And they have the evidence of their own eyes. What is my feeling about this man before me?
Mullainathan’s computer, on the other hand, couldn’t see the defendant and it couldn’t hear anything that was said in the courtroom. All it had was the defendant’s age and rap sheet. It had a fraction of the information available to the judge—and it did a much better job at making bail decisions.
In my second book, Blink, I told the story of how orchestras made much smarter recruiting decisions once they had prospective hires audition behind a screen. Taking information away from the hiring committee made for better judgments. But that was because the information gleaned from watching someone play is largely irrelevant. If you’re judging whether someone is a good violin player, knowing whether that person is big or small, handsome or homely, white or black isn’t going to help. In fact, it will probably only introduce biases that will make your job even harder.
But when it comes to a bail decision, the extra information the judge has sounds like it should be really useful. In an earlier case in Solomon’s courtroom, a young man in basketball shorts and a gray T-shirt was charged with getting into a fight with someone, then buying a car with the man’s stolen credit card. In asking for bail, the district attorney pointed out that he had failed to appear for his court date after two previous arrests. That’s a serious red flag. But not all “FTAs” are identical. What if the defendant was given the wrong date? What if he would lose his job if he took off work that day, and decided it wasn’t worth it? What if his child was in the hospital? That’s what the defendant’s lawyer told the judge: Her client had a good excuse. The computer didn’t know that, but the judge did. How could that not help?
In a similar vein, Solomon said the thing he’s most alert to in bail cases is “mental illness with an allegation of violence.” Those kinds of cases are a judge’s worst nightmare. They let someone out on bail, then that person stops taking their medication and goes on to commit some horrible crime. “It’s shoot a cop,” Solomon said.
It’s drive a car into a minivan, killing a pregnant woman and her husband. It’s hurt a child. [It’s] shoving somebody in front of a subway train and killing them. It’s an awful situation at every possible angle.…No judge would ever want to be the one having made the release decision on that case.
Some of the clues to that kind of situation are in the defendant’s file: medical records, previous hospitalizations, some mention of the defendant’s being found not competent. But other clues are found only in the moment.
“You also will hear terms thrown around in the courtroom of ‘EDP’—emotionally disturbed person,” Solomon said.
That will come from either the police department who’s brought them in and handed you an envelope that’s from a doctor at a hospital where he’s been screened at a psychiatric ER prior to arraignment.…Other times, that information will get into the DA’s folder and the DA will ask questions.…That’s a fact for me to think about.
He’ll look at the defendant, in those cases—closely, carefully, searching for, as he put it,
sort of a glassy-eyed look, not being able to make eye contact. And not the adolescent unable to make eye contact because the frontal lobe hasn’t developed. I’m talking about the adult off their meds.…
Mullainathan’s machine can’t overhear the prosecutor talking about an EDP, and it can’t see that telltale glassy-eyed look. That fact should translate into a big advantage for Solomon and his fellow judges. But for some reason it doesn’t.
Puzzle Number Two: How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?
Neville Chamberlain made his third and final visit to Germany at the end of September 1938, two weeks after his first visit. The meeting was in Munich at the Nazi Party’s offices—the Führerbau. Italian leader Benito Mussolini and French prime minister Édouard Daladier were also invited. The four of them met, with their aides, in Hitler’s private study. On the morning of the second day, Chamberlain asked Hitler if the two of them could meet alone. By this point, Chamberlain felt he had the measure of his adversary.
When Hitler had said his ambitions were limited to Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain believed that “Herr Hitler was telling the truth.” It was now just a matter of getting that commitment in writing.
Hitler took him to his apartment on Prinzregentenplatz. Chamberlain pulled out a piece of paper on which he had written a simple agreement and asked Hitler whether he would sign it. As the interpreter translated the words into German, “Hitler frequently ejaculated, ‘Ja! Ja!’ And at the end he said, ‘Yes I will certainly sign it,’” Chamberlain later wrote to one of his sisters. “‘When shall we do it?’ I said, ‘now,’ & we went at once to the writing table & put our signatures to the two copies which I had brought with me.”
That afternoon, Chamberlain flew home to a hero’s welcome. A crowd of journalists surged toward him. He took the letter from his breast pocket and waved it to the crowd. “This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor Herr Hitler, and here is a paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.”
Then it was back to the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street.
“My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
The crowd cheered.
“Now I recommend you go home, and sleep quietly in your beds.”
In March 1939, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. It had taken him less than six months to break his agreement with Chamberlain. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and the world was at war.
We have, in other words, CIA officers who cannot make sense of their spies, judges who cannot make sense of their defendants, and prime ministers who cannot make sense of their adversaries. We have people struggling with their first impressions of a stranger. We have people struggling when they have months to understand a stranger. We have people struggling when they meet with someone only once, and people struggling when they return to the stranger again and again. They struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty. They struggle with a stranger’s character. They struggle with a stranger’s intent.
It’s a mess.
One last thing:
Take a look at the following word, and fill in the two blank letters. Do it quickly, without thinking.
G L _ _
This is called a word-completion task. Psychologists commonly use it to test things such as memory.
I completed G L _ _ as GLUM. Remember that. The next word is:
I completed that as HATER. Remember that too. Here are the rest of the words:
P_ _ N
ATT_ _ _
FL_ _ T
STR_ _ _
SL_ _ _
SC _ _ _
_ _ NNER
B_ _ T
PO _ _ _
_ _ _EAT
I started out with GLUM and HATER and ended up with SCARE, ATTACK, BORE, FLOUT, SLIT, CHEAT, TRAP, and DEFEAT. That’s a pretty morbid and melancholy list. But I don’t think that says anything about the darkness of my soul. I’m not melancholy. I’m an optimist. I think that the first word, GLUM, popped into my head, and then I just continued in that vein.
A few years ago, a team of psychologists led by Emily Pronin gave a group of people that same exercise. Pronin had them fill in the blank spaces. Then she asked them the same question: What do you think your choices say about you? For instance, if you completed TOU_ _ as TOUCH, does that suggest that you are a different kind of person than if you completed it as TOUGH? The respondents took the same position I did. They’re just words.
“I don’t agree with these word-stem completions as a measure of my personality,” one of Pronin’s subjects wrote. And the others in the group agreed:
“These word completions don’t seem to reveal much about me at all.…Random completions.”
“Some of the words I wrote seem to be the antithesis of how I view the world. For instance, I hope that I am not always concerned about being STRONG, the BEST, or a WINNER.”
“I don’t really think that my word completions reveal that much about me.… Occurred as a result of happenstance.”
“Not a whole lot.… They reveal vocabulary.”
“I really don’t think there was any relationship.… The words are just random.”
“The words PAIN, ATTACK, and THREAT seem similar, but I don’t know that they say anything about me.”
But then things got interesting. Pronin gave the group other people’s words. These were perfect strangers. She asked the same question. What do you think this stranger’s choices reveal? And this time Pronin’s panel completely changed their minds.
“He doesn’t seem to read too much, since the natural (to me) completion of B_ _K would be BOOK. BEAK seems rather random, and might indicate deliberate unfocus of mind.”
“I get the feeling that whoever did this is pretty vain, but basically a nice guy.”
Keep in mind that these are the exact same people who just moments before had denied that the exercise had any meaning at all.
“The person seems goal-oriented and thinks about competitive settings.”
“I have a feeling that the individual in question may be tired very often in his or her life. In addition, I think that he or she might be interested in having close personal interactions with someone of the opposite sex. The person may also enjoy playing games.”
The same person who said, “These word completions don’t seem to reveal much about me at all” turned around and said, of a perfect stranger:
“I think this girl is on her period.…I also think that she either feels she or someone else is in a dishonest sexual relationship, according to the words WHORE, SLOT (similar to slut), CHEAT.”
The answers go on and on like this. And no one seemed even remotely aware that they had been trapped in a contradiction.
“I guess there is some relationship.…He talks a lot about money and the BANK. A lot more correlation here.”
“He seems to focus on competition and winning. This person could be an athlete or someone who is very competitive.”
“It seems this individual has a generally positive outlook toward the things he endeavors. Most words, such as WINNER, SCORE, GOAL, indicate some sort of competitiveness, which combined with the jargon, indicate that he has some athletic competitive nature.”
If the panel had seen my GLUM, HATER, SCARE, ATTACK, BORE, FLOUT, SLIT, CHEAT, TRAP, and DEFEAT, they would have worried for my soul.
Pronin calls this phenomenon the “illusion of asymmetric insight.” She writes:
The conviction that we know others better than they know us—and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa)—leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.
This is the problem at the heart of those first two puzzles. The officers on the Cuba desk of the CIA were sure they could evaluate the loyalty of their spies. Judges don’t throw up their hands at the prospect of assessing the character of defendants. They give themselves a minute or two, then authoritatively pass judgment. Neville Chamberlain never questioned the wisdom of his bold plan to avert war. If Hitler’s intentions were unclear, it was his job, as prime minister, to go to Germany and figure them out.
We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.
If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.
1 The one exception was Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. He met Hitler in 1937. He loved him. He compared him to Joan of Arc.
2 The Nazi official Henderson knew even better was Göring, Hitler’s deputy. Henderson would go stag hunting with Göring. They had long conversations. Henderson was convinced that Göring wanted peace as well, and that underneath his Nazi bluster was a decent man. In a memoir of his time in Berlin, written just as war broke out, Henderson said that Göring “loved animals and children; and, before ever he had one of his own, the top floor at Karinhall contained a vast playroom fitted up with every mechanical toy dear to the heart of a modern child. Nothing used to give him greater pleasure than to go and play there with them. The toys might, it is true, include models of airplanes dropping heavy bombs which exploded on defenseless towns or villages; but, as he observed when I reproached him on the subject, it was not part of the Nazi conception of life to be excessively civilized or to teach squeamishness to the young.” (In case you were wondering, that’s what Nazism was really about: tough-minded child-rearing.)
3 The law has since been changed. A defendant must be eighteen years old or above to be sent to Rikers.
4 Two technical points about the dueling lists of 400,000 defendants: When Mullainathan says that the computer’s list committed 25 percent fewer crimes than the judge’s list, he’s counting failure to appear for a trial date as a crime. Second, I’m sure you are wondering how Mullainathan could calculate, with such certainty, who would or wouldn’t end up committing a crime while out on pretrial release. It’s not because he has a crystal ball. It’s an estimate made on the basis of a highly sophisticated statistical analysis. Here’s the short version. Judges in New York City take turns doing bail hearings. Defendants are, essentially, randomly assigned to them for consideration. Judges in New York (as in all jurisdictions) vary dramatically in how likely they are to release someone, or how prohibitively high they set bail. Some judges are very permissive. Others are strict. So imagine that one set of strict judges sees 1,000 defendants and releases 25 percent of them. Another set of permissive judges sees 1,000 defendants, who are in every way equivalent to the other 1,000, and releases 75 percent of them. By comparing the crime rates of the released defendants in each group, you can get a sense of how many harmless people the strict judges jailed, and how many dangerous people the permissive judges set free. That estimate, in turn, can be applied to the machine’s predictions. When it passes judgment on its own 1,000 defendants, how much better is it than the strict judges on the one hand, and the permissive judges on the other? This sounds highly complicated, and it is. But it’s a well-established methodology. For a more complete explanation, I encourage you to read Mullainathan’s paper.
Default to Truth
The Queen of Cuba
Let’s take a look at another Cuban spy story.
In the early 1990s, thousands of Cubans began to flee the regime of Fidel Castro. They cobbled together crude boats—made of inner tubes and metal drums and wooden doors and any number of other stray parts—and set out on a desperate voyage across the ninety miles of the Florida Straits to the United States. By one estimate, as many as 24,000 people died attempting the journey. It was a human-rights disaster. In response, a group of Cuban emigrés in Miami founded Hermanos al Rescate—Brothers to the Rescue. They put together a makeshift air force of single-engine Cessna Skymasters and took to the skies over the Florida Straits, searching for refugees from the air and radioing their coordinates to the Coast Guard. Hermanos al Rescate saved thousands of lives. They became heroes.
As time passed, the emigrés grew more ambitious. They began flying into Cuban airspace, dropping leaflets on Havana urging the Cuban people to rise up against Castro’s regime. The Cuban government, already embarrassed by the flight of refugees, was outraged. Tensions rose, coming to a head on February 24, 1996. That afternoon three Hermanos al Rescate planes took off for the Florida Straits. As they neared the Cuban coastline, two Cuban Air Force MiG fighter jets shot two of the planes out of the sky, killing all four people aboard.
The response to the attack was immediate. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution denouncing the Cuban government. A grave President Clinton held a press conference. The Cuban emigré population in Miami was furious. The two planes had been shot down in international airspace, making the incident tantamount to an act of war. The radio chatter among the Cuban pilots was released to the press:
“We hit him, cojones, we hit him.”
“We retired them, cojones.”
“We hit them.”
“Mark the place where we retired them.”
“This one won’t fuck with us anymore.”
And then, after one of the MiGs zeroed in on the second Cessna:
“Homeland or death, you bastards.”
But in the midst of the controversy, the story suddenly shifted. A retired U.S. rear admiral named Eugene Carroll gave an interview to CNN. Carroll was an influential figure inside Washington. He had formerly served as the director of all U.S. armed forces in Europe, with 7,000 weapons at his disposal. Just before the Hermanos al Rescate shoot-down, Carroll said, he and a small group of military analysts had met with top Cuban officials.
CNN: Admiral, can you tell me what happened on your trip to Cuba, who you spoke with and what you were told?
Carroll: We were hosted by the Ministry of Defense. General Rosales del Toro.… We traveled around, inspected Cuban bases, Cuban schools, their partially completed nuclear power plant, and so on. In long discussions with General Rosales del Toro and his staff the question came up about these overflights from U.S. aircraft—not government aircraft, but private airplanes operating out of Miami. They asked us, “What would happen if we shot one of these down? We can, you know.”
Carroll interpreted that question from his Cuban hosts as a thinly veiled warning. The interview continued:
CNN: So when you returned, who did you relay this information to?
Carroll: As soon as we could make appointments, we discussed the situation…with members of the State Department and members of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The Defense Intelligence Agency—the DIA—is the third arm of the foreign intelligence triumvirate in the U.S. government, along with the CIA and the National Security Agency. If Carroll had met with the State Department and the DIA, he had delivered the Cuban warning about as high up in the American government as you could go. And did the State Department and DIA take those warnings to heart? Did they step in and stop Hermanos al Rescate from continuing their reckless forays into Cuban airspace? Obviously not.1
Carroll’s comments ricocheted around Washington, DC, policy circles. This was an embarrassing revelation. The Cuban shoot-down happened on February 24. Carroll’s warnings to the State Department and DIA were delivered on February 23. A prominent Washington insider met with U.S. officials the day before the crisis, explicitly warned them that the Cubans had lost patience with Hermanos al Rescate, and his warning was ignored. What began as a Cuban atrocity was now transformed into a story about American diplomatic incompetence.
CNN: But what about the position that these were unarmed civilian planes?
Carroll repeated what he had been told in Havana.
Carroll: That is a very sensitive question. Where were they? What were they doing? I’ll give you an analogy. Suppose we had the planes flying over San Diego from Mexico, dropping leaflets and inciting against [California] Governor Wilson. How long would we tolerate these overflights after we had warned them against it?
Fidel Castro wasn’t being invited onto CNN to defend himself. But he didn’t need to be. He had a rear admiral making his case.
The next three chapters of Talking to Strangers are devoted to the ideas of a psychologist named Tim Levine, who has thought as much about the problem of why we are deceived by strangers as anyone in social science. The second chapter looks at Levine’s theories through the story of Bernie Madoff, the investor who ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history. The third examines the strange case of Jerry Sandusky, the Pennsylvania State University football coach convicted of sexual abuse. And this, the first, is about the fallout from that moment of crisis between the United States and Cuba in 1996.
Does anything about Admiral Carroll and the Cuban shoot-downs strike you as odd? There are an awful lot of coincidences here.
The Cubans plan a deliberate murderous attack on U.S. citizens flying in international airspace.
It just so happens that the day before the attack, a prominent military insider delivers a stern warning to U.S. officials about the possibility of exactly that action.
And, fortuitously, that warning puts that same official, the day after the attack, in a position to make the Cuban case on one of the world’s most respected news networks.
The timing of those three events is a little too perfect, isn’t it? If you were a public relations firm, trying to mute the fallout from a very controversial action, that’s exactly how you’d script it. Have a seemingly neutral expert available—right away—to say, “I warned them!”
This is what a military counterintelligence analyst named Reg Brown thought in the days after the incident. Brown worked on the Latin American desk of the Defense Intelligence Agency. His job was to understand the ways in which the Cuban intelligence services were trying to influence American military operations. His business, in other words, was to be alert to the kinds of nuances, subtleties, and unexplained coincidences that the rest of us ignore, and Brown couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow the Cubans had orchestrated the whole crisis.
It turned out, for example, that the Cubans had a source inside Hermanos al Rescate—a pilot named Juan Pablo Roque. On the day before the attack, he had disappeared and resurfaced at Castro’s side in Havana. Clearly Roque told his bosses back home that Hermanos al Rescate had something planned for the 24th. That made it difficult for Brown to imagine that the date of the Carroll briefing had been chosen by chance. For maximum public relations impact, the Cubans would want their warning delivered the day before, wouldn’t they? That way the State Department and the DIA couldn’t wiggle out of the problem by saying that the warning was vague, or long ago. Carroll’s words were right in front of them on the day the pilots took off from Miami.
So who arranged that meeting? Brown wondered. Who picked February 23? He did some digging, and the name he came up with startled him. It was a colleague of his at the DIA, a Cuban expert named Ana Belen Montes. Ana Montes was a star. She had been selected, repeatedly, for promotions and special career opportunities, showered with accolades and bonuses. Her reviews were glowing. She had come to the DIA from the Department of Justice, and in his recommendation, one of her former supervisors described her as the best employee he had ever had. She once got a medal from George Tenet, the director of the CIA. Her nickname inside the intelligence community was the “Queen of Cuba.”
Weeks passed. Brown agonized. To accuse a colleague of treachery on the basis of such semi-paranoid speculation was an awfully big step, especially when the colleague was someone of Montes’s stature. Finally Brown made up his mind, taking his suspicions to a DIA counterintelligence officer named Scott Carmichael.
“He came over and we walked in the neighborhood for a while during lunch hour,” Carmichael remembers of his first meeting with Reg Brown. “And he hardly even got to Montes. I mean most of it was listening to him saying, ‘Oh God.’ He was wringing his hands, saying, ‘I don’t want to do the wrong thing.’”
Slowly, Carmichael drew him out. Everyone who worked on Cuba remembered the bombshell dropped by Florentino Aspillaga. The Cubans were good. And Brown had evidence of his own. He’d written a report in the late 1980s detailing the involvement of senior Cuban officials in international drug smuggling. “He identified specific senior Cuban officers who were directly involved,” Carmichael said, “and then provided the specifics. I mean, flights, the dates, times, the places, who did what to whom, the whole enchilada.” Then a few days before Brown’s report was released, the Cubans rounded up everyone he’d mentioned in his investigation, executed a number of them, and issued a public denial. “And Reg went, ‘What the fuck?’ There was a leak.”
It made Brown paranoid. In 1994, two Cuban intelligence officers had defected and told a similar story: The Cubans had someone high inside American intelligence. So what was he to think? Brown said to Carmichael. Didn’t he have reason to be suspicious?
Then he told Carmichael the other thing that had happened during the Hermanos al Rescate crisis. Montes worked at the DIA’s office on Bolling Air Force Base, in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC. When the planes were shot down, she was called in to the Pentagon: if you were one of the government’s leading Cuba experts, you were needed at the scene. The shoot-down happened on a Saturday. The following evening Brown happened to telephone, asking for Montes.
“He said some woman answered the phone and told him that Ana had left,” Carmichael says. Earlier in the day, Montes had gotten a phone call—and afterward she’d been agitated. Then she’d told everyone in the situation room that she was tired, that there was nothing going on, that she was going home.
Reg was just absolutely incredulous. This was just so counter to our culture that he couldn’t even believe it. Everybody understands that when a crisis occurs, you’re called in because you have some expertise that can add to the decision-making processes. And at the Pentagon, you were available until you were dismissed. It’s just understood. If somebody at that level calls you in, because all of a sudden those North Koreans have launched a missile at San Francisco, you don’t just decide to leave when you get tired and hungry. Everybody understands that. And yet she did that. And Reg was just, “What the hell?”
In Brown’s thinking, if she really worked for the Cubans, they would have been desperate to hear from her: they would want to know what was happening in the situation room. Did she have a meeting that night with her handler? It was all a bit far-fetched, which is why Brown was so conflicted. But there were Cuban spies. He knew that. And here was this woman, taking a personal phone call and heading out the door in the middle of what was—for a Cuban specialist—just about the biggest crisis in a generation. And on top of that, she’s the one who had arranged the awfully convenient Admiral Carroll briefing?
Brown told Carmichael that the Cubans had wanted to shoot down one of the Hermanos al Rescate planes for years. But they hadn’t, because they knew what a provocation that would be. It might serve as the excuse the United States needed to depose Fidel Castro or launch an invasion. To the Cubans it wasn’t worth it—unless, that is, they could figure out some way to turn public opinion in their favor.
And so he finds out that Ana was not just one of the people in the room with Admiral Carroll, but she’s the one who organized it. He looked at that and went, “Holy shit, I’m looking at a Cuban counterintelligence influence operation to spin a story, and Ana is the one who led the effort to meet with Admiral Carroll. What the hell is that all about?”
Months passed. Brown persisted. Finally, Carmichael pulled Montes’s file. She had passed her most recent polygraph with flying colors. She didn’t have a secret drinking problem, or unexplained sums in her bank account. She had no red flags. “After I had reviewed the security files and the personnel files on her, I thought, Reg is way off base here,” Carmichael said. “This woman is gonna be the next Director of Intelligence for DIA. She’s just fabulous.” He knew that in order to justify an investigation on the basis of speculation, he had to be meticulous. Reg Brown, he said, was “coming apart.” He had to satisfy Brown’s suspicions, one way or another—as he put it, to “document the living shit out of everything” because if word got out that Montes was under suspicion, “I knew I was gonna be facing a shit storm.”
Carmichael called Montes in. They met in a conference room at Bolling. She was attractive, intelligent, slender, with short hair and sharp, almost severe features. Carmichael thought to himself, This woman is impressive. “When she sat down, she was sitting almost next to me, about that far away”—he held his hands three feet apart—“same side of the table. She crossed her legs. I don’t think that she did it on purpose, I think she was just getting comfortable. I happen to be a leg man—she couldn’t have known that, but I like legs and I know that I glanced down.”
He asked her about the Admiral Carroll meeting. She had an answer. It wasn’t her idea at all. The son of someone she knew at DIA had accompanied Carroll to Cuba, and she’d gotten a call afterward.
She said, “I know his dad, his dad called me, and he said, ‘Hey, if you want the latest scoop on Cuba, you should go see Admiral Carroll,’ and so I just called up Admiral Carroll and we looked at our schedules and decided the 23rd of February was the most convenient date that works for both of us, and that was it.”
As it turned out, Carmichael knew the DIA employee she was talking about. He told her that he was going to call him up and corroborate her story. And she said, “Please do.”
So what happened with the phone call in the situation room, he asked her? She said she didn’t remember getting a phone call, and to Carmichael it seemed as though she was being honest. It had been a crazy, hectic day, nine months before. What about leaving early?
She said, “Well, yeah, I did leave.” Right away, she’s admitting to that. She’s not denying stuff, which might be a little suspicious. She said, “Yeah, I did leave early that day.” She says, “You know, it was on a Sunday, the cafeterias were closed. I’m a very picky eater, I have allergies, so I don’t eat stuff out of vending machines. I got there around six o’clock in the morning, it was about…eight o’clock at night. I’m starving to death, nothing was going on, they didn’t really need me, so I just decided I was going to get out of there. Go home and eat something.”2 That rang true to me. It did.
After the interview, Carmichael set out to double-check her answers. The date of the briefing really did seem like a coincidence. Her friend’s son had gone to Cuba with Carroll.
I learned that yeah, she does have allergies, she doesn’t eat out of vending machines, she’s very particular about what she eats. I thought, she’s there in the Pentagon on a Sunday. I’ve been there, the cafeteria’s not open. She went all day long without eating, she went home. I said, “Well, it kind of made sense.”
What’d I have? I didn’t have anything. Oh well.
Carmichael told Reg Brown not to worry. He turned his attention to other matters. Ana Montes went back to her office. All was forgotten and forgiven until one day in 2001, five years later, when it was discovered that every night Montes had gone home, typed up from memory all of the facts and insights she had learned that day at work, and sent it to her handlers in Havana.
From the day she’d joined the DIA, Montes had been a Cuban spy.
In the classic spy novel, the secret agent is slippery and devious. We’re hoodwinked by the brilliance of the enemy. That was the way many CIA insiders explained away Florentino Aspillaga’s revelations: Castro is a genius. The agents were brilliant actors. In truth, however, the most dangerous spies are rarely diabolical. Aldrich Ames, maybe the most damaging traitor in American history, had mediocre performance reviews, a drinking problem, and didn’t even try to hide all the money he was getting from the Soviet Union for his spying.
Ana Montes was scarcely any better. Right before she was arrested, the DIA found the codes she used to send her dispatches to Havana…in her purse. And in her apartment, she had a shortwave radio in a shoebox in her closet.
Brian Latell, the CIA Cuba specialist who witnessed the Aspillaga disaster, knew Montes well.
“She used to sit across the table from me at meetings that I convened, when I was [National Intelligence Officer],” Latell remembers. She wasn’t polished or smooth. He knew that she had a big reputation within the DIA, but to him, she always seemed a bit odd.
I would try to engage her, and she would always give me these strange reactions.…When I would try to pin her down at some of these meetings that I convened, on—“What do you think Fidel’s motives are about this?”—she would fumble, in retrospect, the deer with the headlights in his eyes. She balked. Even physically she would show some kind of reaction that caused me to think, “Oh, she’s nervous because she’s just such a terrible analyst. She doesn’t know what to say.”
One year, he says, Montes was accepted into the CIA’s Distinguished Analyst Program, a research sabbatical available to intelligence officers from across the government. Where did she ask to go? Cuba, of course.
“She went to Cuba funded by this program. Can you imagine?” Latell said. If you were a Cuban spy, trying to conceal your intentions, would you request a paid sabbatical in Havana? Latell was speaking almost twenty years after it had happened, but the brazenness of her behavior still astounded him.
She went to Cuba as a CIA distinguished intelligence analyst. Of course, they were delighted to have her, especially on our nickel, and I’m sure that they gave her all kinds of clandestine tradecraft training while she was there. I suspect—I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure—she met with Fidel. Fidel loved to meet with his principal agents, to encourage them, to congratulate them, to revel in the success they were having together against the CIA.
When Montes came back to the Pentagon, she wrote a paper in which she didn’t even bother to hide her biases.
There should have been all kinds of red flags raised and guns that went off when her paper was read by her supervisors, because she said things about the Cuban military that make absolutely no sense, except from [the Cubans’] point of view.
But did anyone raise those red flags? Latell says he never once suspected she was a spy. “There were CIA officers of my rank, or close to my rank, who thought she was the best Cuban analyst there was,” he said. So he rationalized away his uneasiness. “I never trusted her, but for the wrong reasons, and that’s one of my great regrets. I was convinced that she was a terrible analyst on Cuba. Well, she was. Because she wasn’t working for us. She was working for Fidel. But I never connected the dots.”
Nor did anyone else. Montes had a younger brother named Tito, who was an FBI agent. He had no idea. Her sister was also an FBI agent, who in fact played a key role in exposing a ring of Cuban spies in Miami. She had no idea. Montes’s boyfriend worked for the Pentagon as well. His specialty, believe it or not, was Latin American intelligence. His job was to go up against spies like his girlfriend. He had no idea. When Montes was finally arrested, the chief of her section called her coworkers together and told them the news. People started crying in disbelief. The DIA had psychologists lined up to provide on-site counseling services. Her supervisor was devastated. None of them had any idea. In her cubicle, she had a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry V taped to her wall at eye level—for all the world to see.
The king hath note
of all that they intend,
Which they dream not of.
Or, to put it a bit more plainly: The Queen of Cuba takes note of all that the U.S. intends, by means that all around her do not dream of.
The issue with spies is not that there is something brilliant about them. It is that there is something wrong with us.
Over the course of his career, the psychologist Tim Levine has conducted hundreds of versions of the same simple experiment. He invites students to his laboratory and gives them a trivia test. What is the highest mountain in Asia? That kind of thing. If they answer the questions correctly, they win a cash prize.
To help them out, they are given a partner. Someone they’ve never met before, who is, unknown to them, working for Levine. There’s an instructor in the room named Rachel. Midway through the test, Rachel suddenly gets called away. She leaves and goes upstairs. Then the carefully scripted performance begins. The partner says, “I don’t know about you, but I could use the money. I think the answers were left right there.” He points to an envelope lying in plain sight on the desk. “It’s up to them whether they cheat or not,” Levine explains. In about 30 percent of cases, they do. “Then,” Levine goes on, “we interview them, asking, ‘Did you cheat?’”
The number of scholars around the world who study human deception is vast. There are more theories about why we lie, and how to detect those lies, than there are about the Kennedy assassination. In that crowded field, Levine stands out. He has carefully constructed a unified theory about deception.3 And at the core of that theory are the insights he gained from that first trivia-quiz study.
I watched videotapes of a dozen or so of those post-experiment interviews with Levine in his office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Here’s a typical one, featuring a slightly spaced-out young man. Let’s call him Philip.
Interviewer: All right, so…have you played Trivial Pursuit games…before?
Philip: Not very much, but I think I have.
Interviewer: In the current game did you find the questions difficult?
Philip: Yes, some were. I was like, “Well, what is that?”
Interviewer: If you would scale them one to ten, if one was easy and ten was difficult, where do you think you would put them?
Philip: I would put them [at] an eight.
Interviewer: An eight. Yeah, they’re pretty tricky.
Philip is then told that he and his partner did very well on the test. The interviewer asks him why.
Interviewer: OK, all right. Now, I called Rachel out of the room briefly. When she was gone, did you cheat?
Philip: I guess. No.
Philip slightly mumbles his answer. Then looks away.
Interviewer: Are you telling the truth?
Interviewer: Okay. When I interview your partner and I ask her, what is she going to say?
At this point in the tape, there’s an uncomfortable silence, as if the student is trying to get his story straight. “He’s obviously thinking very hard,” Levine said.
Interviewer: OK, all right. Well, that’s all I need from you.
Is Philip telling the truth? Levine has shown the Philip videotape to hundreds of people and nearly every viewer correctly pegs Philip as a cheater. As the “partner” confirmed to Levine, Philip looked inside the answer-filled envelope the minute Rachel left the room. In his exit interview, he lied. And it’s obvious. “He has no conviction,” Levine said.
I felt the same thing. In fact, when Philip is asked, “Did you cheat?” and answers, “I guess. No,” I couldn’t contain myself, and I cried out, “Oh, he’s terrible.” Philip was looking away. He was nervous. He couldn’t keep a straight face. When the interviewer followed up with, “Are you telling the truth?” Philip actually paused, as if he had to think about it first.
He was easy. But the more tapes we looked at, the harder it got. Here is a second case. Let’s call him Lucas. He was handsome, articulate, confident.
Interviewer: I have to ask, when Rachel left the room, did any cheating occur?
Interviewer: No? You telling me the truth?
Lucas: Yes, I am.
Interviewer: When I interview your partner and I ask her the same question, what do you think she’s going to say?
Lucas: Same thing.
“Everybody believes him,” Levine said. I believed him. Lucas was lying.
Levine and I spent the better part of a morning watching his trivia-quiz videotapes. By the end, I was ready to throw up my hands. I had no idea what to make of anyone.
The point of Levine’s research was to try to answer one of the biggest puzzles in human psychology: why are we so bad at detecting lies? You’d think we’d be good at it. Logic says that it would be very useful for human beings to know when they are being deceived. Evolution, over many millions of years, should have favored people with the ability to pick up the subtle signs of deception. But it hasn’t.
In one iteration of his experiment, Levine divided his tapes in half: twenty-two liars and twenty-two truth-tellers. On average, the people he had watch all forty-four videos correctly identified the liars 56 percent of the time. Other psychologists have tried similar versions of the same experiment. The average for all of them? 54 percent. Just about everyone is terrible: police officers, judges, therapists—even CIA officers running big spy networks overseas. Everyone. Why?4
Tim Levine’s answer is called the “Truth-Default Theory,” or TDT.
Levine’s argument started with an insight that came from one of his graduate students, Hee Sun Park. It was right at the beginning of Levine’s research, when he was as baffled as the rest of his profession about why we are all so bad at something that, by rights, we should be good at.
“Her big insight, the first one, was that the 54-percent deception-accuracy figure was averaging across truths and lies,” Levine said. “You come to a very different understanding if you break out…how much people are right on truths, and how much people are right on lies.”
What he meant was this. If I tell you that your accuracy rate on Levine’s videos is right around 50 percent, the natural assumption is to think that you are just randomly guessing—that you have no idea what you are doing. But Park’s observation was that that’s not true. We’re much better than chance at correctly identifying the students who are telling the truth. But we’re much worse than chance at correctly identifying the students who are lying. We go through all those videos, and we guess—“true, true, true”—which means we get most of the truthful interviews right, and most of the liars wrong. We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.
Levine says his own experiment is an almost perfect illustration of this phenomenon. He invites people to play a trivia game for money. Suddenly the instructor is called out of the room. And she just happens to leave the answers to the test in plain view on her desk? Levine says that, logically, the subjects should roll their eyes at this point. These are college students. They’re not stupid. They’ve signed up for a psychological experiment. They’re given a “partner,” whom they’ve never met, who is egging them on to cheat. You would think that they might be even a little suspicious that things are not as they seem. But no!
“Sometimes, they catch that the instructor leaving the room might be a setup,” Levine says. “The thing they almost never catch is that their partners are fake.…So they think that there might be hidden agendas. They think it might be a setup because experiments are setups, right? But this nice person they are talking and chatting to? Oh no.” They never question it.
To snap out of truth-default mode requires what Levine calls a “trigger.” A trigger is not the same as a suspicion, or the first sliver of doubt. We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.
This proposition sounds at first like the kind of hairsplitting that social scientists love to engage in. It is not. It’s a profound point that explains a lot of otherwise puzzling behavior.
Consider, for example, one of the most famous findings in all of psychology: Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment. In 1961, Milgram recruited volunteers from New Haven to take part in what he said was a memory experiment. Each was met by a somber, imposing young man named John Williams, who explained that they were going to play the role of “teacher” in the experiment. Williams introduced them to another volunteer, a pleasant, middle-aged man named Mr. Wallace. Mr. Wallace, they were told, was to be the “learner.” He would sit in an adjoining room, wired to a complicated apparatus capable of delivering electrical shocks up to 450 volts. (If you’re curious about what 450 volts feels like, it’s just shy of the amount of electrical shock that leaves tissue damage.)
The teacher-volunteer was instructed to give the learner a series of memory tasks, and each time the learner failed, the volunteer was to punish him with an ever-greater electrical shock, in order to see whether the threat of punish