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A Life of Lies and Spies: Interview with Author Alan B. Trabue on his Real-Life CIA Adventures

Alan B. Trabue worked for the CIA for over 38 years, and he has hundreds of true stories to tell about domestic and foreign agents and lies and spies. He has just published an amazing book that tells about his career as a covert operations polygraph interrogator with exciting travels all over the world. For anyone who is interested in polygraph exams or for those who are intrigued by the complexities of intelligence operations around the world, you must read this book. Here is a brief book preview and an interview with the author of 'A Life of Lies and Spies.'

America loves reading spy-thrillers and watching James Bond movies. From Tom Clancy to Daniel Silva novels and from James Bond to the Bourne film series, we can never seem to get enough action-packed adventure. But it is rare to get a glimpse of what really goes on behind the scenes at the CIA and around the world in the global intelligence community.

Alan B. Trabue provides that in-depth perspective in his fun new book entitled: A Life of Lies and Spies. Not only did I read this just-released book from cover to cover, I could not put it down. 

Here’s what has to say about the new book:

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

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

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

As a former National Security Agency (NSA) employee and contractor with clearances who underwent several polygraph exams, I have always been fascinated by the polygraph interrogation process and what goes on behind the scenes. But after reading this revealing book, I realize that I had many misperceptions about the polygraph process and techniques used.

If you have any interest in this polygraph exam topic or how to uncover lies and/or gaining a more realistic understanding of what happens behind the scenes at the CIA, I urge you to read the book.

I am honored to be able to bring you an exclusive interview with the author, along with questions I wrote for him after reading this excellent book.

Interview With A Life of Lies and Spies Author Alan B. Trabue

Dan Lohrmann: You have so many wonderful stories from CIA adventures overseas, can you pick one of your favorites and share it with us? 

Author Alan B. Trabue: One of my stories entails a high-speed car chase, jumping out of a moving car, being abandoned far outside the city by a case officer, wandering lost for hours, and facing a late-night attack, all in the same night! How could I not choose that story as my favorite?

During a trip to a Southeast Asian capital city in the late-1970s, I was asked to conduct the polygraph examination of the CIA's penetration of the local intelligence service. The test was conducted in the case officer's residence. Test results could not have been worse. They clearly showed the agent had reported his contacts with American intelligence to his own service. He was a bad recruitment who probably was working against us from the beginning. However, the examination session was not my biggest concern that night. What transpired after the test proved to be a nightmare.

An hour after the agent departed, the case officer and I left his residence in a highly conspicuous yellow sports car. He immediately spotted several vehicles following us and began racing through the streets at speeds reaching 80 miles per hour in his attempt to lose them. His driving was so reckless and fast, I feared a horrendous crash as much as I feared being nabbed by our pursuers.

Here is an excerpt from the story:

I tightened my seat belt and braced myself against the dashboard. A head-on crash seemed inevitable. I felt helpless. Thoughts raced through my mind. Questions came easily, but answers were elusive. Did the agent inform his employer, the local intelligence service, of our meeting? Did he arrange to have us followed? Are they merely following us or are they going to arrest us?
The case officer continued evading our pursuers, making perilous hair-raising turns and sharp switchbacks.

After twenty minutes of reckless driving, he shouted, “There’s still one car and one motorcycle behind us."

I was surprisingly calm and clear-headed under the circumstances. After a half-hour of zigzagging through the streets, the case officer said he thought he had finally eluded our pesky pursuers.

“I’m going to make the next right turn!” he yelled. “Get out of the car and make your way back to your hotel."

He took the turn at the next intersection too fast and almost lost control of the car as it fishtailed through the turn. As the car slowed, he screamed for me to get out. But he didn’t stop. The car was still moving!

He screamed, “Out, out, out! Now, now, now!”

Leaping from the car and racing like an Olympic track and field runner, I managed to prevent tumbling down the street head over heels. I tried to walk in a nonchalant manner down the street for a block or two and then turned down a side street. After walking for several more blocks, I was finally convinced that no one was tailing me. I stopped and gave my heart a chance to return to something that resembled a normal beat. I looked all around and saw no evidence of being followed or watched. I took stock of my situation and parsed out the events of the evening. Relieved that I was no longer being followed by the local intelligence service, I realized I now faced a formidable, new problem. I was lost! There was no traffic at all on the street. Not a single vehicle drove by. It was well after midnight and the city was miles away, but I had no idea in which direction.

Dan: Early in the book you write, “Confessions I extracted from polygraph subjects were numerous, frequent and varied, and sometimes consisted of horrific, gut-wrenching tales that sickened the hardiest of polygraph examiners.”

Do you still believe that polygraphs are the most reliable way to get to the truth today? Please explain why.

Alan: People lie when there is no fear of getting caught in the lie. They lie to family, friends, loved ones and strangers. They lie on official forms. People lie because it gets them something that telling the truth will not. The subject of a polygraph interview is often the only one who knows the truth. Therefore, speaking to friends, family, neighbors, school officials, employers or police may be pointless. I believe there is no better way to get the truth than by using the polygraph. I know of no other way to accomplish this. Obviously it would be best if people didn't lie in the first place. Also, it would be great if we could read people's minds. That being said, I believe polygraph is the best tool we have right now.

Dan: In Chapter 5, you describe trying times as a CIA agent, with low pay and having a shipment of household goods seized by the Viet Cong – with no reimbursement from the government. How did you persevere through these times and stay with the government? What motivated and enabled your integrity when so many around you were telling lies and worse?

Alan: As with anyone's career, mine certainly had its ups and downs. There were several times I gave serious consideration to moving on, however, the credit for my perseverance goes to my wife. The hard times were actually harder on her, and the life of a traveling polygraph examiner is hard on a marriage. Without her unwavering support, I would not have had a long, 38-year career in polygraph.

The polygraph profession is not for the faint of heart. There have always been individuals who leave the profession when they find the work is too stressful. It is easy to lose one's faith in the inner goodness of man when you constantly delve into the darker side of human behavior. Those who do last in the profession seem to have the ability to go home and put the day's work out of their minds. Also, they develop a clear understanding that the work they do protects classified information, the national security, and the safety of fellow employees.

Dan: You start each chapter with a great quote on lies or lying from a famous historical figure. Such as:

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive!” – Sir Walter Scott

“Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“He who cannot lie does not know what the truth is.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” – Mark Twain

“A single lie destroys a whole reputation of integrity.” – Baltasar Gracian

You also say, “Honesty, like beauty, is only skin deep. People learn quickly that honesty is not always the best policy. People lie. Liars lie. Honest people lie. Lying is a matter of degree.”

So is there an art in finding the truth? Do most people not have this skill? Even with the right tools, isn’t your profession about people, process and technology?

Alan: Yes, there is an art to finding the truth. It is quite complex and multifaceted. First, there are the personal qualities: being able to show empathy, instill trust, display confidence and exude a commanding presence. Few people have these qualities.

And then there are the skills. The polygraph profession encompasses a smorgasbord of skills involving polygraph instrument technology, test question construction, chart analysis, interviewing, elicitation, interrogation and the study of human nature. All brought together, this is called the polygraph interview and results in a very dynamic interaction between two people.

Dan: In chapter 12, you talk about one person who could “beat the box.” If certain experts can fool a polygraph, doesn’t that undermine the credibility of this approach? How rare is this?

Alan: The polygraph is not 100 percent foolproof, and I don't think anyone in the profession would claim it to be. I doubt if any test would claim to be so reliable as to leave no opportunity for error or misinterpretation. There is a large human element involved in the administration of a polygraph test and the interpretation of its results. Just because a polygraph test has been beaten on rare occasions in the past should not undermine the credibility of the process. That's like saying that since X-rays have been misinterpreted in the past, it is not a credible test.

Dan: Do you foresee new technologies replacing the polygraph examination? Will brain scans or other new techniques change your profession? How and when?

Alan: It's just a matter of time. Unfortunately I don't think the polygraph instrument will be replaced by new technology anytime soon. New technologies have been researched for decades, but none are close to replacing the polygraph. Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) and other thermal imaging devices have been looked at, but because of reliability or intrusiveness issues, are not ready. Monitoring brain waves is another area of research that has not yet proven itself.

Dan: Your book often reads like a real-life James Bond thriller. How has the world changed from the '70s until now? Are the same types of stories still unfolding today?

Alan: Spying is probably one of the world's oldest professions, perhaps second only to the most notorious oldest profession. Since the dawn of man, groups have spied on other groups, tribes have spied on other tribes, and countries have spied on other countries. The prevalence of country spying on country has certainly not diminished since the '70s. I feel confident in saying that it has actually increased, and there has been a corresponding increase in polygraph support to the CIA's Directorate of Operations' agent validation program. Polygraph examiners are still traveling the world in support of the agency's clandestine operations and accumulating their own adventurous stories of near-arrests and security plans gone awry. I can only hope that these stories also get recorded and not fade from memory.

Dan: You had an amazing career – including the honor of conducting the most polygraph examinations in history. What one or two career highlight(s) are you most proud of? Do you have any regrets?

Alan: First, let me say that my favorite assignment, unrivaled by any other, was a three-year tour as a regional polygraph examiner in the Far East. Three years of traveling to the exotic cities of the Far East and Southeast Asia provided the chance of a lifetime to experience the sights, sounds, cultures, and cuisine that I will treasure the rest of my life.

That said, my career highlight would be the contribution I made to the training and development of new polygraph examiners. Many of my former students have had astounding success as examiners and interrogators, as well as extremely successful careers. A significant portion of my career was spent in training activities. I accompanied more than a dozen examiners on their first overseas trips training them in the unique aspects of polygraphing foreign agents.

As director of the CIA Polygraph School for six years, I developed and conducted the first Operational Polygraph Training Course. As an adjunct instructor at another polygraph training institution, I instructed 24 classes.

Career regrets? None!

I’d like to thank Alan for his time and most of all for his service to our country. Once again, I urge readers to buy the book. You will not be disappointed.

The book is available now at book stores and online at Amazon or B&N.




Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.