A Guide to Deception in Intelligence

Deception, the act of causing someone to believe in a false version of reality, is a common method in intelligence tradecraft and in global politics. States will often try to deceive other states, whether it be through false human intelligence, online disinformation or false flag operations. This article takes a deep-dive into the method of deception and how to spot it. It looks closely at the psychology behind deception and how methods of intelligence exploit human behaviour for the benefit of their state. This article also covers a few cases of deception, including a case of honey trapping, and an instance of a double agent and state deception through the military.

1. What is Deception?

We define deception as “the act of causing someone to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid” (source). Humans lie. There is no doubt about that. Studies have found that, on average, people lie about 10 times a day (source). However, deception is also a tactic used in intelligence tradecraft to trick the enemy into believing a falsehood that serves your interests. There are many types of lies, including omitting information or exaggerating information. Furthermore, sometimes we lie just to agree with those around us and preserve relationships (source). In the field of intelligence and espionage, however, this is not so much the case. The deception at hand here is ‘self-serving lies’. Lies which help someone get what they, or their state, want.

2. Why is Deception Important in Intelligence?

There are two types of ‘lying’ in intelligence: denial and deception. Denial is the attempt to block information which could be used by an opponent to learn some truth (source). This may involve guarding state secrets and files. Deception is a nation’s effort to cause an adversary to believe something that is not true. In other words, deception involves creating a false narrative/story in order to stop the enemy from believing in the real one. The benefit of utilising deception over denial is the enemy may believe that they have learned the truth and therefore stop searching for more information. 

Deception is an effective method to fool enemy intelligence communities into ‘satisficing’. Satisficing is a limited strategy in which an analyst will choose the first hypothesis that appears good enough rather than ensuring that the result is truly the optimum choice (source). By falling into the trap of ‘satisficing’, the enemy may just accept a falsehood and fail to uncover the truthful information.

2.1 Online Disinformation and Deception

With the current age of technology and the internet, intelligence agencies are leaning more on technological deception rather than human sources for deception. States and intelligence agencies use disinformation spreading as the most monumental tactic to create false narratives and disguise true motives.

The Snowden archive revealed how western agencies, such as the CIA and GCHQ, were manipulating online discourses through ‘false flag operations’ like those discussed previously (source). These agencies were spreading disinformation online and creating false narratives to serve their interests.

Currently, Russia is spreading disinformation as a tool to deceive their audience into believing that Crimea had “always been Russian” after its annexation in 2014 (source). They also made claims that there was a neo-Nazi infiltration in Ukraine’s government. 

Deception online is much harder to detect as the psychology is removed. We cannot read body language and anchor-point cues from a laptop or a mobile phone. Yes, the users posting the information can be interrogated for the truth but a) they are often difficult to track down and b) some of the information is spread by bots.

3. How to Spot Deception

What is important to note is the following cues alone are not an indication that someone is being deceitful. However, it is important to note what behaviours are exhibited when a stimulus is posed (i.e. when a question is asked) and whether these behaviours appear in a ‘cluster’. Clusters are two or more of the deceptive behaviours. Clusters help to eliminate what behaviours are habitual. 

Some cues that may appear in a cluster to indicate that someone is being deceptive (source):

3.1 Verbal Deceptive Cues:

  • Evasiveness: If someone fails to provide an answer. This may also exhibit as a failure to deny involvement in an operation. Someone who is telling the truth will always get their denial out. 
  • Use of exclusionary qualifiers: this may include words such as ‘fundamentally’ or ‘not really’. This can make the answer more vague and express that they are not being completely honest.
  • Aggressiveness: This is the biggest indicator of deception. When the individual starts to attack the questioner, or even a third party such as the media, then it is a key indicator that they want them to ‘back off’ and stop asking questions. This suggests that the suspect is not being honest. 
  • Inappropriate level of concern: One can demonstrate this on two sides of the spectrum. Either someone is being too serious with their answers (aggressive and worried) or someone may not be taking the situation seriously at all (laughing, making jokes etc.). These types of responses may be a verbal cue that the suspect is lying. 
  • Using convincing statements: When someone tries to explain themselves excessively, it can indicate that they are being dishonest. 
  • Referral Statements: People referring back to things they said before. They may be hyper-focussed on getting their story straight. 
  • Invoking religion: If someone mentions god, then interrogators usually back off. For example, “I swear to God” may be an indication of deception.

3.2 Non-Verbal Deceptive Cues:

  • Behavioural Pause: Taking unnecessary pauses within the sentence. Not an exclusive sign but should be noted if part of a cluster. 
  • Verbal/Non-Verbal disconnect: If physical actions are not matching but with their speech i.e. nodding yes whilst saying no. 
  • Anchor-point movement: Movement in the feet, bottom, or back. Anything that is anchoring the individual to the ground such as a chair. 
  • Grooming Gestures: Smoothing down the jacket, fixing the hair, etc.
  • Hand to the face: E.g. Scratching of the nose. When our body goes into fight-or-flight mode, our blood vessels at the edge of our extremities shrink and get itchy. This can therefore indicate that the person is facing a surge of adrenaline.

4. Tips and Tricks for Deceiving Others

When working to deceive others, there are two tactics which are the most useful and applicable to the field of intelligence tradecraft. Self-deception is a method which avoids giving away ‘cues’, and impersonation allows you to ‘play a part’ without having to generate too much new information.

4.1 Self-Deception

Self-deception essentially involves forcing your mind to believe in something that isn’t true. This is important for covert agents working with human sources. It is an independent mental state and can act as a strategy in deception to reduce the cognitive load of lying (source). Self-deception is a useful tool to minimise the possibility of your deception being uncovered (source). The ‘liars’ are less likely to give away cues and will appear more confident in their statements. 

If self-deception goes too far, however, it may turn into delusions. This is a pathological form of self-deception in which the person begins to believe in the false reality (source). Developing delusions about your lies can be an indication of psychosis.

4.2 Impersonation

Impersonation involves pretending to be someone else in order to gain access to information or resources. This involves serious practical, and psychological preparation. Firstly, the agent would need access to forged documents and credentials. Furthermore, to fully understand the victim, the way they act, their personality, and their body movements, one would need serious training.

5. Common Mistakes to Avoid When Analysing Deception

Avoid Reading Habitual Behaviours as Signs of Deception

Some people will look at certain behaviours, such as fidgeting, and accuse that person of being deceptive. However, it is important to remember that some behaviours automatically display themselves and are habitual. In other words, someone may always tap their fingers when speaking as a habit that they have formed. This is not an indication that they are lying. But if a cluster of behaviours appear together in response to a certain stimulus, then this can help us to understand more about the nature of the response. People are going to naturally move – it does not necessarily mean that they are being deceptive (source). That is a global behaviour. However, it is important to pay attention to WHEN that person fidgets. This comes back to the section on ‘How to Spot Deception’. Look for clusters of behaviours when the stimulus is presented.

6. Tools and Resources

Psychological Resources on Deception:

‘Spy the Lie’ by Don Tennant, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero

Three former CIA officers wrote ‘Spy the Lie’ and the book covers the main methods to recognising when someone is being deceptive (source). There are more than 75 years of interrogation experience between the three authors and provide an informative approach to the practicalities of interrogation, including identifying instances of deception.

‘Psychological Warfare and Deception’ by Neil Morton

Morton’s book covers how people may use their knowledge of human behaviour to manipulate and deceive others.

Tools for Spotting Deception:

Behaviour Analysis Interview (BAI)

One can judge how individuals respond using a standardised set of questions. You can use the section on ‘How to spot Deception’ to know what kind of cues to monitor when asking the questions (source).

Comparison Question Test (CQT)

A CQT involves attaching the interviewee to a polygraph machine and asking a relevant question and a comparison question. For example, the relevant question may be: “Did you provide information to the Chinese government on February 9th, 2023?” and the comparison question would be: “Before 2023, did you ever act disloyal to your government?” The theory behind CQT is that those who are innocent will react more strongly to the comparison question (the latter). Those who react more strongly to the relevant question are considered to be deceptive (source).

Woman undertakes lie detector test at Clinton Engineer Works. Credit to: Ed Westcott, commons.wikimedia.org

7. Frequently Asked Questions

What are some missions in intelligence which use deception?

There are three main means of deception in intelligence tradecraft: False flag operations, honey traps, and insider threats

Agencies carry out a political or military action as a False Flag operation with the purpose of blaming an opponent (source). Throughout history, nations have utilised deception by staging a real or simulated assault against themselves and then claiming that the enemy carried out the attack. The purpose of a false flag operation is usually to justify a nation to carry out a counterattack. 

Honey trap spies utilise sexpionage to gather information (source). In this practice, a covert agent will deceive a target into romantic or sexual relationships in order to gain intelligence (source). Honey trapping requires the intelligence operative to completely disguise their true intentions. By forming close personal relations, their behaviour has to be carefully constructed to not give away their true mission. 
An insider threat is perhaps one of the most dangerous threats to states and business ideas because in most cases, the insider is a trusted individual in the organisation and therefore has privileged access to data, equipment and secrets (source).

How can you tell if a source of human intelligence is being deceitful?

No human intelligence is completely reliable. Intelligence handlers should monitor sources closely and question them to see if their stories match up. Even then, it is vital to have other sources to corroborate the version of events being told by a human intelligence source. Furthermore, it is worth investigating whether this source has any motivation to lie. Are they in any debt? What is their career past? Do they have any links to government or intelligence? Finding out as much as you can about the person and their story can help make a judgement about how credible they are.

8. Case Studies

Fang Fang A.K.A. Christine Fang

People suspected that Christine Fang, a Chinese student who moved to the U.S. in 2011, slept with American politicians to gather information for the Chinese government (source). During her time in the U.S., Fang Fang developed romantic and sexual relations with up-and-coming Californian politicians. She is known to have had relationships with at least two US mayors. By doing so, Christine Fang was able to gather information on government officials including schedules, networks, and personal lives. This is an example of ‘honey trapping’. Fang would have had to use extensive deception tactics to ensure that the politicians believed that their relationship was real and that her motives were pure.

Aldrich Ames

Ames was an American CIA analyst who is classed as an ‘internal threat’ or ‘double agent’ (source). Whilst at the CIA, Aldrich Ames was also working for the Soviet Union, revealing the names of every U.S. agent operating in the country we now call Russia. The analyst was having frequent meetings with the KGB in order to pass on information (source). Hiding these meetings from his colleagues would have required serious deception skills – especially when you work with trained intelligence operatives. The FBI investigated Ames after many of the CIA’s agents in Russia were executed. His newfound wealth was a major piece of evidence in the case against him and authorities sentenced him to life in prison in April 1994.

State Deception: Kashmir Border

India and Pakistan often carry out false flag operations in order to provoke a military conflict and blame the other side. In 2020, Pakistan accused India of firing on a UN vehicle from the Pakistani border (source). They alleged that the aim was to make the UN think that Pakistani troops were responsible. This form of state deception is attempting to generate a false narrative in order to provoke military action.


In summary, deception is an act of causing someone to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid. It is a common human behaviour that is often used in intelligence tradecraft to trick the enemy into believing a falsehood that serves one’s interests. Methods of deception include self-deception, which is useful to reduce the cognitive load of lying, but if it goes too far, it may turn into delusions. Impersonation is also a method that involves pretending to be someone else to gain access to information or resources. Cues of deception include verbal deceptive cues such as evasiveness, the use of exclusionary qualifiers, and aggressiveness. However, these cues alone are not an indication of deception, they must appear in a cluster. Psychological indicators of deception, however, can only go so far as the new age of disinformation excludes the human aspect of lying.

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