Blue Line

Direct questioning and its role in counterintelligence investigations

While driven by logic, direct questioning is an art-form that requires creative thought and methodical application

May 20, 2019  By Philip A. Mullenix

Counterintelligence agents and counterpart law enforcement investigators who debrief informants or other sources on national security issues and organized criminal enterprises may use a variety of approaches in order to accurately detect deception and obtain actionable information during a questioning session. First among those choices is the Direct Approach.

Most “source operations” begin with the direct approach, which involves direct questions that address issues of fact and/or evidence. Source credibility and the value of the intelligence derived are then assessed based upon a thorough analysis of the information revealed by a source relative to evidence developed through other means.

What can an agent do to improve results from the direct approach? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Identify critical components


Questions should be addressed toward the source’s critical components of perception, memory and sincerity.

Perception relates to the origin of the source’s information. First-hand sensory perceptions are the most useful, i.e., what the source actually saw, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. The agent should always have an answer from the source to the following question: “How do you know what you think you know?”

Memory relates to the accuracy of a source’s recollections. The agent should cautiously assess a source’s information for selectivity of memory through timeline integrity, consistency of details and use of memory qualifiers (i.e., “As far as I know…” or, “To the best of my recollection…”). Repetition works against a deceptive source who faces the challenge of “keeping their story straight.”

Sincerity relates to a source’s intentions. Something as basic as the desire to unjustly “throw a rival under the bus” may prompt an informant to offer false information about another’s activities or allegiance. The agent should probe whether the source bears any bias or dislike against one whom the source implicates or harbours prejudice against any group or organization. Most important to the agent’s assessment of a source’s sincerity is the prospect of a monetary or other corollary interest, such as revenge, ideology, a bruised ego, or having been compromised.

2. Question formulation

The most fundamental guideline is to seek a narrative or descriptive response from the source rather than a simple “yes” or “no.” The broad form “Walk me through the events of the day” will stimulate a narrative reply that may include a timeline. This is turn could allow an interviewer to identify selective memory characterized by lack of uniformity in details, as well as the presence or absence of appropriate emotions.

Agents should resist the temptation to interrupt a source during a narrative response, even if the source contradicts evidence already known to the agent. Instead the agent should note any discrepancies and return to them for clarification. While a source should be allowed to correct honest mistakes, persistent inconsistencies are signs of deception.

As the line of inquiry narrows, the agent’s follow-up questions should be brief and to the point as the agent drills into the first-hand origin of a source’s information. Examples include:

  • “Why do you say that?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Where exactly were you when you saw that?”

Time and place should be established for observations made and conversations heard, including identification of others present and details about the environment where the action occurred in order to probe the plausibility of a source’s perceptions and memory.

A source’s background might reveal potential precipitators for the disclosure of disinformation. With that insight, an agent is armed to challenge a source’s intentions. Interview questions that might draw out potential precipitators include, “Why do you think someone planted explosives on that bus?” or, “Is there any circumstance in your mind that might justify someone to provide false information about a safe house?

Deceptive sources often spontaneously disclose their own motives to the hypothetical inquiry. Investigators should not overlook the obvious but, instead, should ask whether the information being provided is true: “are you 100 per cent confident that what you’ve said is accurate?” or, “Is any part of what you just told me not correct?

3. Response assessment

Under the direct approach, an agent may reliably interpret the content of a source’s response.

Unresponsive answers indicate deception. Examples include changing the subject, answering a question with a question, or rephrasing a question. Credible sources respond definitively and do not hesitate to use descriptive terminology within discussions of “treason, bribes, kickbacks, stealing or killing.”

A nuanced, unresponsive answer occurs when a source interjects a reason in support of his or her credibility instead of a definitive statement.

For example, when asked, “Did you disclose the informants’ identities?” a credible source would bluntly respond using broad denials and harsh terminology, such as, “No, I’ve never committed treason.

Conversely, a disingenuous source might instead use non-descriptive terms while merely explaining innocence, such as, “Why would I do something like that, I love my country,” or, “I wouldn’t have done that; it could have cost them their lives.”

Another subtle form of unresponsive answer is “deception by referral,” whereby a disingenuous source prefers to refer back to a prior statement that the source may have given on the issue rather than once again spontaneously answering the question. Having to repeat an answer is problematic for those whose perceptions, memory and sincerity are in doubt, because they struggle to maintain consistency to their story. An example is: “Do I have to tell you what happened all over again? I already told your colleague last week all about it, and I have nothing new to add.”

Qualifiers are a sign of uncertainty at best, deception at worst. While everyone has periodic memory lapses, over-reliance upon qualifiers raises doubt about credibility. Examples include:

  • As best as I recall
  • I think”
  • I believe
  • Apparently
  • Not really

Omission qualifiers include “Nothing in particular,” when asked “What did you do last night?” or, “Nobody in particular” when asked, “Who were you with last night?”

“Generalized qualifiers” include “Usually I get home around 6 p.m.,” in response to the specific question, such as “What time did you get home last night?”

4. Challenges

Disparities may become evident between what a source says and what the evidence shows.

Success in challenging those disparities depends upon the rapport that an interviewer establishes with a source throughout the interview process. Objectivity and a non-judgmental attitude by the agent will lead to mutuality of respect with a source; and the agent’s own self-confidence will assure a source that he or she is in capable hands.

It’s fundamentally sound to point out weaknesses in a source’s perception, memory or sincerity when supported by evidence which challenges their credibility. (Caution should be exercised by the agent not to reveal evidence, which is necessary for corroboration in the event a source subsequently admits deception.)

Crafting evidence-based challenges that draw out the truth from a disingenuous source regarding both their conduct and their mental state requires an understanding of the source’s motives.

For example, consider the following case study. A mathematically gifted 24-year-old foreign national has unrestricted access to algorithms, which are the core trade secrets of his North American corporate employer. Unauthorized access to those algorithms has been detected through internal IT surveillance. While the origin of the breach cannot be confirmed, suspicion is cast upon the young prodigy whose initial debriefing is characterized by disingenuous responses in his perceptions, memory and sincerity.

Prior to the interview, a review of the source’s background reveals not only an extraordinary intellectual and educational history but also that his parents and siblings reside in his dictatorial homeland. A potential precipitator in this instance is reasonably inferred to be compromise of the source by a hostile nation willing to leverage risk of harm to the source’s family members in order to compel disclosure of the sought-after technology.

During questioning the source is asked whether, in his mind, there’s any circumstance that might justify a person in revealing such highly sensitive information. The source suggests one might be pressured into it to protect his family.

Given the alignment between the source’s hypothetical precipitator and his family’s actual circumstances, the source is immediately presented evidence from the investigative file of his family’s dangerous overseas residence and is allowed to study it. Upon looking up, the source is bluntly, yet non-judgmentally, asked: “You gave up the algorithms to protect your family, didn’t you?” The source replies, “Yes.”

That singular response acknowledges the source’s wrongful conduct as well as his premeditation. A sequence of brief, non-leading, specific questions are quickly posed to confirm critical details that validate the reliability of the intelligence revealed. In this instance, the source discloses the identities of his adverse handlers, the specific media he used to download the data, his means of electronically transferring the data to his handlers, and the location of the discarded external drives which were then recovered, still fully loaded with the formerly secret information.

The Direct Approach is far more complex than a simple “Q&A” concerning basic occurrence facts, i.e., the “who, what, when, where, how, and why” of an event under scrutiny. While driven by logic, direct questioning is an art-form that requires creative thought and methodical application. Since its reward is increased efficiency in the derivation of actionable intelligence, every opportunity should be taken to exhaust the direct approach before shifting to incentive-based or emotional approaches during a questioning session. 


Philip Mullenix has provided instruction in the Reid Technique of interviewing and interrogation since 1978 to counterintelligence agents, military intelligence agents, special forces, HUMINT collectors, as well as federal, state and local law enforcement personnel. He’s a licensed attorney and has practiced law in the United States since 1983.

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