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.
As the debate rages over whether the payment of $400 million to Iran was a ransom to secure the release of four Americans being held prisoner by Iranian authorities, our analysis of the behavior exhibited by President Barack Obama in explaining the payment suggests that it was almost certainly a precondition for the prisoners’ release.
In an Aug. 4 press conference held at the Pentagon, President Obama made a concerted effort to disassociate the payment from the release of the prisoners. He argued that the payment, which had been announced in January, constituted an agreement to release Iranian assets that had been frozen by the U.S., following a legal review that concluded that not returning the assets could cost the U.S. billions of dollars in litigation fees. The timing of the payment, President Obama insisted, was simply a consequence of having diplomatic negotiations with Iran for the first time in several decades. “So the issue is not so much that it was a coincidence, as it is that we were able to have a direct discussion,” the President said. “John Kerry could meet with the Foreign Minister, which meant that our ability to clear accounts on a number of different issues at the same time, converged.”
What was never directly addressed was the key question as to whether the $400 million payment was a precondition for the release of the Americans. The high level of deceptive behaviors exhibited by President Obama during the press conference has left little doubt in our minds that it was.
First and foremost was the evasion behavior exhibited by the President, in the form of denial problems associated with the ransom question. We never heard the President explicitly state, “We did not pay ransom to secure the release of these four Americans.” Instead, the President relied on the non-specific denial, “We do not pay ransom for hostages.” At one point the President did say, “We do not pay ransom, we didn’t here, and we don’t, we won’t in the future.” But the denial issue here is its isolated delivery, buried in the long narrative of his argument. These denial problems are classic deceptive indicators.
Also of particular concern was the President’s aggression behavior, which took the form of an attack on the press and others who raised the ransom question.
“It’s been interesting to watch this story surface,” the president said with a noticeable smile. “Some of you may recall, we announced these payments in January—many months ago. There wasn’t a secret—we announced them to all of you. Josh did a briefing on them,” he said. Then, breaking into a chuckle, he said, “This wasn’t some nefarious deal.”
The attack statements were amplified by the smiling and chuckling, another form of aggression behavior we often see when people are being deceptive in a matter that’s extremely serious. The enormity of the ransom-for-hostages issue cannot be overstated, so when we see this inappropriate smiling or laughing, we attribute it to aggression in the form of dismissing an opposing position, and those who voice it, out of hand.
President Obama persisted in this aggression behavior when he chided those who jumped on the payment-to-Iran story while ignoring what he claimed was the successful outcome of the deal with Iran.
“What I’m interested in is, if there’s some news to be made, why not have some of these folks who were predicting disaster say, ‘You know what? This thing actually worked!’ Now, that would be a shock,” he said. Breaking into a chuckle again, the President continued. “That would be impressive, if some of these folks who said the sky is falling suddenly said, ‘You know what? We were wrong, and we are glad that Iran no longer has the capacity to break out in the short term and develop a nuclear weapon.’ But of course, that wasn’t going to happen.” Chuckling once again, he added, “Instead, what we have is the manufacturing of outrage in a story that we disclosed in January.”
At this point, the dismissiveness was approaching derision—an attack seemingly aimed at silencing anyone who questioned the nature and timing of the payment.
And then there’s the intense persuasion behavior in the form of convincing statements aimed at influencing our perception. Such statements, which were woven in throughout President Obama’s remarks, are often relied upon by a person when the facts are not his ally. For example, the President invoked the “heartbreaking” presidential task of meeting with the families of other hostages.
“We’ve got a number of Americans being held all around the world, and I meet with their families, and it is heartbreaking,” he said. “And we have stood up an entire section of interagency experts who devote all their time to working with these families to get these Americans out.”
A few minutes later, in addressing the question of why the payment was made in cash, President Obama sought to turn our attention to what he argued has been the successful outcome of the deal with Iran.
“The reason cash was exchanged is because we don’t have a banking relationship with Iran, which is precisely part of the pressure that we are able to apply to them so that they would ship a whole bunch of nuclear material out, and close down a bunch of facilities that, as I remember, two years ago, three years ago, five years ago, was people’s top fear and priority—that we make sure Iran doesn’t have break-out nuclear capacity,” he said. “They don’t. This worked.”
Despite his best efforts to manage everyone’s perception, the President appears to be relying on a technicality to disguise the payment as something other than a precondition of release of the four Americans, or what most of us would call a ransom.
All of this deceptive behavior notwithstanding, we remain incredibly thankful that four of our citizens are now home with their families. At the same time, while it can certainly be argued that using this longstanding arrangement as leverage to secure the release of these Americans was an ingenious move on the part of the Obama Administration, there was always a danger inherent in this ingenuity.
We are convinced that the President’s deceptive behavior is not indicative of any sort of change in the Administration’s policy against paying ransom for hostages. Hopefully, no enemy of the U.S. will be foolhardy enough to believe that it does. But the fact remains that the Administration should certainly have understood that regardless of whether or not it was ransom, Iran was bound to exploit it as such. Presenting the Iranians with a golden opportunity to do so, and to thereby encourage other terrorist regimes and interests to step up their hostage-taking activities, could well have the exact same result as paying the ransom outright. It’s a lesson that the next Administration would be very well-advised to consider.