Applying Cognitive Models of Deception to National Security Investigations: Considerations of Psychological Research, Law, and Ethical Practice

Article excerpt

The current threat of global terrorism has sparked a renewed interest in the development of more effective methods for the detection of deception. In the United States, the American Psychological Association (APA)-spurred by torture allegations involving terrorist suspects-established guidelines for professional practice regarding investigative methods that could be conceptualized as coercive. As affirmed by APA, psychological research can play an active and ethical role in the development of standardized methods for the detection of deception. Instead of focusing on external sources of terrorism, this conceptual paper argues for programmatic research on insider threats, specifically risks to national security posed by government and other employees. In briefly reviewing deception research, recent investigations of cognitive loads and deceptions hold particular promise, especially studies that systematically manipulate levels of cognitive load. These methods can be extended to collateral sources, farther minimizing ethical concerns while broadening the scope of deception investigation.

KEY WORDS: Deception, cognitive load, impression management, background investigations, national security.

In the post 9/11 world, the critical balance in the United States between national security interests and constitutional protections for federal and civilian employees is increasingly challenging to maintain. Regarding national security, the profound implications of even a few "missed" espionage cases cannot be overestimated. According to the Department of Defense (DoD) Personnel Security Research Center (Herbig, 2008), only 37 known spies initiated espionage activities in the United States since 1990; however, this small number tells only part of the story, since approximately 25% of recently apprehended spies had conducted lengthy espionage careers spanning two decades or more before their eventual apprehensions (see Herbig, 2008, Appendix A), Moreover, these numbers constitute a significant underestimate "based largely on open sources" (p. 1); the true number - including classified cases, cases under investigation, and undiscovered cases - cannot be known. Such cases inflict astronomical costs upon national security, compromising top-secret technology at a loss of what has been estimated as "billions of dollars" (Lang, 2005, p. 33), Moreover, other insider threats (e.g., sabotage and other maliciously counterproductive activities) share similar patterns with espionage and also critically endanger national security (Band et al., 2006). Beyond strictly financial implications, the National Threat Center of the U. S. Secret Service (Kowalski et al., 2008) has further concluded that sabotage activities can potentially destabilize core American infrastructures, such as telecommunications and the energy grid.

From a legal perspective, procedural fairness for federal and civilian employees is enshrined in the United States Constitutional right to due process. The Sixth Amendment protects each person from being "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," and this protection is extended to individual states by the 14th Amendment. In Mathews v, Eldridge (1976), the Supreme Court of the United States held that "procedural" due process in noncriminal matters "requires analysis of the governmental and private interests that are affected" (p. 335) to determine whether sufficiently vital reasons can justify the government's actions. Of relevance to background investigations, Mathews and its appellate progeny afford employees procedural justice via "the same due process values developed within the court system" pertaining to "administrative agency proceedings or judicial settings outside of trial" (Kuckes, 2006, p. 10), In addition, "substantive" due process must also be afforded: Irrespective of whether codified rules were followed appropriately, the Government may not interfere with rights "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty" (U. …


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