Phil Houston is CEO of QVerity, a training and consulting company specializing in detecting deception by employing a model he developed while at the Central Intelligence Agency. He has conducted thousands of interviews and interrogations for the CIA and other federal agencies. His colleague Don Tennant contributed to this report.
When U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch made her appearance this week on Fox News Sunday, she was asked about the government’s decision to put Orlando nightclub killer Omar Mateen on a terrorist watch list in 2013, only to remove him from the list the following year. The deceptive behavior exhibited in her response has led us to conclude that despite her assurances to the contrary, Lynch sees this matter as one that needs to be held as close to the vest as possible.
Host Chris Wallace prefaced his question about the matter by saying, “I know that you are going to Orlando yourself on Tuesday, and that tomorrow the government will release transcripts of all contacts between the FBI and Mateen when he was on the terror watch list.” Then he got to the point, asking, “[Is there] any sense at this point that the government made a mistake when it first put him on, and then took him off, the terror watch list?”
Lynch initially responded by parroting Wallace’s preface, restating his comment that she was going to Orlando on Tuesday, as a likely means of buying time to formulate a response.
“I’ll be meeting with the team on the ground,” she said, “as well as the victims and first responders, and meeting with this brave community, this LGBT community, the Latino community that was targeted in this terrible act of hate and terror.”
This response was striking for its evasiveness—rather than respond to the question, Lynch engaged in persuasion behavior by lauding the bravery of the community, likely as a means of currying favor with the public and staving off criticism.
Lynch continued her evasive strategy by failing to address Wallace’s reference to releasing transcripts of all contact between the FBI and Mateen when he was on the watch list. Rather than respond to that issue, she redirected the focus to transcripts of phone contact between Mateen and law enforcement authorities on the night of the massacre.
“What we are releasing tomorrow are actual transcripts of the phone contact between the killer and the Orlando negotiators the night of the attacks,” she said. “So it will be a partial transcript of those calls.”
Beyond the fact that these transcripts were not the ones that Wallace had referred to, Lynch acknowledged that only a partial transcript would be released. In doing so, she held fast to her evasive strategy by failing to identify what was being omitted.
“We’re trying to get information out,” Lynch continued. “It’s our goal to be as transparent as possible in this investigation.”
The highly-qualified nature of this statement—that they’re trying to get information out and to be as transparent as possible, reveals the unintended message that she either knows or believes there is information that cannot, or will not, be disclosed.
Finally, Lynch addressed the question Wallace actually asked.
“With respect to the prior contact that we had with him, we’re going back and looking at that as well,” she said. “We’re going to go back and look at everything we did in connection with him, and be as transparent as possible about how it evolved, what developed, and what changes we could have made.”
Again, Lynch qualified her response by saying they’re going to be as transparent as possible, suggesting there is information that will not be disclosed. This time, however, there’s an acknowledgement of what is likely to be omitted. The phrase “what changes we could have made” implies the presumption that there are differences between how the matter was handled, and how it should have been handled.
In fairness, it’s clear that in any investigation, there is information that cannot be disclosed while the investigation is ongoing. The fact remains, however, that Lynch’s behavior strongly suggests that she is aware of information that, if released, would reflect negatively on law enforcement authorities.
That said, the real story here has nothing to do with how concerned Lynch might or should be about any mistakes that have been made. The real story is the massive threat that looms larger every day, and the overwhelming challenge that law enforcement authorities confront in forecasting, identifying, and monitoring terrorist activity. It is an unenviable task, requiring a balance between civil rights and national security that invariably leaves people on both sides of the issue fuming with discontent.
While we strongly believe that a behavioral analysis such as the one we’ve presented here is essential in providing a fuller understanding of the commentary of our public officials, we are the first to acknowledge the ease of being a Monday morning quarterback after a Sunday morning talk show. The exponentially more difficult task is the one faced by law enforcement authorities who are charged with spotting the next Mateen before he carries out an equally heinous act. It’s worth remembering that successes in that regard, as seemingly impossible as they may be, have far outweighed any failures.