The Matching PrincipleHow to Fail at Recruiting Spies
If Jim Lawler was being honest with himself, he had to admit that he was terrible at recruiting spies. So bad, in fact, that he spent most nights worrying about getting fired from the only job he had ever loved, a job he had landed two years earlier as a case officer for the Central Intelligence Agency.
It was 1982 and Lawler was thirty years old. He had joined the CIA after attending law school at the University of Texas, where he had gotten mediocre grades, and then cycling through a series of dull jobs. One day, unsure what to do with his life, he telephoned a CIA headhunter he had once met on campus. A job interview followed, then a polygraph test, then a dozen more interviews in various cities, and then a series of exams that seemed designed to ferret out everything Lawler didn’t know. (Who, he wondered, memorizes rugby world champions from the 1960s?)
Eventually, he made it to the final interview. Things weren’t looking good. His exam performances had been poor to middling. He had no overseas experience, no knowledge of foreign languages, no military service or special skills. Yet, the interviewer noted, Lawler had flown himself to Washington, D.C., for this interview on his own dime; had persisted through each test, even when it was clear he didn’t have the first clue how to answer most questions; had responded to every setback with what seemed like admirable, if misplaced, optimism. Why, the man asked, did he want to join the CIA so badly?
“I’ve wanted to do something important my entire life,” Lawler replied. He wanted to serve his country and “bring democracy to nations yearning for freedom.” Even as the words came out, he realized how ridiculous they sounded. Who says yearning in an interview? So he stopped, took a breath, and said the most honest thing he could think of: “My life feels empty,” he told the interviewer. “I want to be part of something meaningful.”
A week later the agency called to offer him a job. He accepted immediately and reported to Camp Peary—the Farm, as the agency’s training facility in Virginia is known—to be tutored in lock picking, dead drops, and covert surveillance.
The most surprising aspect of the Farm’s curriculum, however, was the agency’s devotion to the art of conversation. In his time there, Lawler learned that working for the CIA was essentially a communications job. A field officer’s mandate wasn’t slinking in shadows or whispering in parking lots; it was talking to people at parties, making friends in embassies, bonding with foreign officials in the hope that, someday, you might have a quiet chat about some critical piece of intelligence. Communication is so important that a summary of CIA training methods puts it right up front: “Find ways to connect,” it says. “A case officer’s goal should be to have a prospective agent come to believe, hopefully with good reason, that the case officer is one of the few people, perhaps the ONLY person, who truly understands him.”
Lawler finished spy school with high marks and was shipped off to Europe. His assignment was to establish rapport with foreign bureaucrats, cultivate friendships with embassy attachés, and develop other sources who might be willing to have candid conversations—and thereby, his bosses hoped, open channels for the kinds of discussions that make the world’s affairs a bit more manageable.
Lawler’s first few months abroad were miserable. He tried his best to blend in. He attended black-tie soirees and had drinks at bars near embassies. Nothing worked. There was a clerk from the Chinese delegation he met après-ski and repeatedly invited to lunch and cocktails. Eventually Lawler worked up the courage to inquire if his new friend, perhaps, wanted to earn some extra cash passing along gossip he heard inside his embassy? The man replied that his family was quite wealthy, thank you, and his bosses tended to execute people for things like that. He would pass.
Then there was a receptionist from the Soviet consulate who seemed promising until one of Lawler’s superiors took him aside and explained that she, in fact, worked for the KGB and was trying to recruit him.
Eventually, a career-saving opportunity appeared: A CIA colleague mentioned that a young woman from the Middle East, who worked in her country’s foreign ministry, was visiting the region. Yasmin was on vacation, the colleague explained, staying with a brother who had moved to Europe. A few days later, Lawler managed to “bump into” her at a restaurant. He introduced himself as an oil speculator. As they began talking, Yasmin mentioned that her brother was always busy, never available for sightseeing. She seemed lonely.
Lawler invited her to lunch the next day and asked about her life. Did she like her job? Was it hard living in a country that had recently undergone a conservative revolution? Yasmin confided that she hated the religious radicals who had come to power. She longed to move away, to live in Paris or New York, but for that she needed money, and it had taken months of saving just to afford this brief trip.
Lawler, sensing an opening, mentioned that his oil company was looking for a consultant. It was part-time work, he said, assignments she could do alongside her job at the foreign ministry. But he could offer her a signing bonus. “We ordered champagne and I thought she was going to start crying, she was so happy,” he told me.
After lunch, Lawler rushed back to the office to find his boss. Finally, he had recruited his first spy! “And he tells me, ‘Congratulations. Headquarters is gonna be overjoyed. Now you need to tell her you’re CIA and you’ll want information about her government.’ ” Lawler thought that was a terrible idea. If he was honest with Yasmin, she’d never speak to him again.
But his boss explained that it was unfair to ask someone to work for the CIA without being forthright. If Yasmin’s government ever found out, she would be jailed, possibly killed. She had to understand the risks.
So, Lawler continued meeting with Yasmin, and tried to find the right moment to reveal his true employer. She became increasingly candid as they spent more time together. She was ashamed that her government was shutting down newspapers and prohibiting free speech, she told him, and despised the bureaucrats who had made it illegal for women to study certain topics in college and had forced them to wear hijabs in public. When she first sought out a job with the government, she said, she had never imagined things would get this bad.
Lawler took this as a sign. One night, over dinner, he explained that he was not an oil speculator, but, rather, an American intelligence officer. He told her that the United States wanted the same things she did: To undermine her country’s theocracy, to weaken its leaders, to stop the repression of women. He apologized for lying about who he was, but the job offer was real. Would she consider working for the Central Intelligence Agency?
“As I talked, I watched her eyes get bigger and bigger, and she started gripping the tablecloth, and then shaking her head, no-no-no, and, when I finally stopped, she started crying, and I knew I was screwed,” Lawler told me. “She said they murdered people for that, and there was no way she could help.” There was nothing he could say to convince her to consider the idea. “All she wanted was to get away from me.”
Lawler went back to his boss with the bad news. “And he says, ‘I’ve already told everyone you recruited her! I told the division chief, and the chief of station, and they told D.C. Now you want me to tell them you can’t close the deal?’ ”
Lawler had no idea what to do next. “No amount of money or promises would have convinced her to take a suicidal risk,” he told me. The only possible way forward was convincing Yasmin that she could trust him, that he understood her and would protect her. But how do you do that? “They taught me, at the Farm, that to recruit someone, you have to convince them that you care about them, which means you have to actually care about them, which means you have to connect in some way. And I had no idea how to make that happen.”
How do we create a genuine connection with another person? How do we nudge someone, through a conversation, to take a risk, embrace an adventure, accept a job, or go on a date?
Let’s lower the stakes. What if you’re trying to bond with your boss, or get to know a new friend: How do you convince them to let down their guard? What should you say to show you’re listening?
Over the past few decades, as new methods for studying our behaviors and brains have emerged, these kinds of questions have driven researchers to examine nearly every aspect of communication. Scientists have scrutinized how our minds absorb information, and have found that connecting with others through speech is both more powerful, and more complicated, than we ever realized. How we communicate—the unconscious decisions we make as we speak and listen, the questions we ask and the vulnerabilities we expose, even our tone of voice—can influence who we trust, are persuaded by, and seek out as friends.
Copyright © 2024 by Charles Duhigg. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.