Psychologists know of a person’s need to believe. We may believe in family, a trusted friend, or a social system, but we must believe something to be true in order for our world to make sense. Why, after all, do we use the term religion? Religion means binding up, making whole. And something that is complete, answers our questions, and makes us at peace cannot be false. Or can it? When the wall starts to crack, can the collapse be far behind?

Can a Background Investigation Remove Deception

Cleared personnel are part of an elaborate system of background checks, trusted chains of command, need to know, and reliability. We believe someone with a clearance is cognizant of all these things. We believe them to hold our system together. Why? Because we Americans tend to trust in the efficiency of those who conduct our background investigations. We believe the person who sought out information on this person with whom I’m speaking did the job thoroughly, carefully, and with attention to detail. What’s more, we Americans worship technology. In many national security fields, we insist on a polygraph or ‘lie detector’ test. Once this is conducted and passed, then all else is even more believable.

Operation Nordpol – German Deception Operation

Operation Nordpol was the code name of a German deception operation practiced against England early in World War II. Here’s how it worked. British-trained agents were dropped into Holland from secret night flights. Each agent had a radio with which to contact London to vouch for his safe arrival and subsequent actions. Despite the fact that when reports began to come in, they did not include confirmation codes. The British never suspected that the operation was compromised. Only when one of the imprisoned British agents escaped German imprisonment and maneuvered his way back across the English Channel, was the truth revealed.

Before we marvel that the British did not catch the pre-planned absence of confirmatory codes, consider how easy it is to spot deception after the fact.

We Create a Reason to Believe

Our desire to believe something is true can cause the denial of confirmatory observations. In this case, it was often believed that the agents were too tired or too mentally drained to identify themselves properly. The allies ascribed reasons to each and every inaccurate message. The Germans gave just enough true information to offset any total reassessment by the English agents. Thus, a subtle form of disinformation was used. The English didn’t believe they could be confounded by the Germans, but they were, repeatedly. Agent after agent was sent to the Netherlands, and caught.

Subtlety is not an American strong suit. We believe things to be the way they appear, and that’s that. We are not well versed in the arts of deception. Ours is more a game of football, rather than chess, as the saying goes.
The absence of confirmatory codes was explained away by simply allowing the British to fill in the reason themselves. After all, relatively insignificant but still valid messages coming from the agents on the ground. German counterintelligence personnel knew that a deception must fool the prevailing adversarial interpretive mind. They understood that when bureaucracies vouch for something, they are virtually impervious to change thereafter. When the first captured British-trained agent’s confirmation was believed by his English handlers, the Germans concluded the others would also. The Germans knew that the most difficult path for any analyst was to try to counter received opinion, particularly in the intelligence field. If the high command said all was well, who were the analysts to argue?

Do We Look For Deception or Honesty

Do we do this today? If we find something that doesn’t seem right, are we allowed to discuss this with a higher authority in our company? If I see something amiss, where do I turn? Can I freely speak to the boss? Can I ever go over his head? Do we have other, non-chain of command persons to whom we can appeal? Kim Philby, the great Soviet spy, was not believed capable of betrayal of his homeland, Britain, because he came from the best schools, the best social class. Yet he did, because he knew he could get away with it. No one suspected a member of the British upper class could conceivably betray his country, so no one looked his way when information appeared in Soviet hands, its arrival unexplainable. We Americans are quick to say we don’t have such social systems, so we are immune to such concerns. But we do. The owner of the company wouldn’t sell us out, would he? My director can’t possibly have done that illegal act, could she? Why is this data always wrong, since it was checked by my friend? We often ask ourselves similar questions.

Create a Control System

This is why any cleared facility must have a system of double checks. From the two-person rule for shredding documents, to the official position of oversight officer, all companies must have formal, known, and used controls. Two persons, unbeholden to one another, must take actions to check and re-check that actions are proper, legal, and indeed, efficient. Your efficiency expert can also be the man who double-checks to be sure that the legal and security aspects of a project are well-run as well. Never leave a concern to ‘belief’ that all is well. Be sure. Make sure that what you believe to be true is indeed what is true. Not to have a system of double check in place is whistling by the cemetery. Check. If something doesn’t seem right, report it. All companies, no matter how small, have an open door to supporting the government counterintelligence office.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.