In a previous article, we presented five HUMINT collection techniques useful in a civil affairs program. One important technique from this list is interrogation, as taught by our mentor, Umbrella Bunny. An interrogation is the most visible HUMINT activity, but relies on the preparation supplied by the other intelligence activities, HUMINT and otherwise. This example, an interrogation of Manassas city councilman Michael Godbee about his 2016 Mexican vacation, is a great illustration of the preparation for and conduct of a civil affairs interrogation. As usual, the local consumption version of this interrogation is over at Leech City; our Starving the Monkeys article here provides additional background information as an After Action Report (AAR), including items noted as room for improvement, to help you implement your own civil affairs operations and learn from our experiences.
Before we break down the process in detail, including the preparation and objectives driving this example, take a few minutes and watch the interrogation itself. Note that in the YouTube description of this video, and over at the local site Leech City, it is called an interview to avoid the hostile connotations that the word interrogation might imply to the uninformed.
Each interrogation, this example included, fits into the framework of an overall civil affairs intelligence operation as follows:
• Information set before the interrogation
• Objectives of the interrogation (in support of the overall civil affairs mission)
• Preparation for the interrogation
• Conduct of the interrogation
• Information set after the interrogation
Let’s discuss each of these in detail, using this interrogation as an example, then we’ll discuss room for improvement as an AAR, including an analysis provided by one of our advisors. We will have to gloss over or ignore some of aspects of this specific interrogation because of ongoing and planned operations, as well as court filings being processed by our attorney as this is written. We’ll drill into these additional aspects later once they cannot interfere with our objectives.
Information set before the interrogation
Here is a partial list of our information set prior to the interrogation, classified as given in our Winnowing of Truth post, with the additional category of Unknown. Those readers who have conducted military JAG investigations will recognize an adaptation of some of those principles here as well.
Presumed True: that Councilman Michael Godbee claimed to have taken a 2016 Mexican vacation.
Presumed True: that Councilman Michael Godbee claimed that this vacation was at the invitation of country music star Cole Swindell.
Possibly True: that Councilman Michael Godbee has bragged about other vacations he has taken.
Presumed True: that local lore indicates that Cole Swindell and former city attorney B. Jay Swindell are half-brothers.
Presumed True: that Councilman Godbee claims a childhood friendship with the Swindell half-brothers.
Provably True: that Swindell Construction Company, Inc., of Glennville, Georgia, has been awarded at least one contract by the City of Manassas (source: city documents).
Provably True: that the signatory for the Swindell Construction Company for a contractor affidavit in December, 2015, was Albert Ty Swindell, Vice President (source: city documents).
Presumed True: that Councilman Godbee denies a relationship between Ty Swindell and the Swindell half-brothers Cole and Jay.
Presumed True: that Roy Godbee is a former mayor of Manassas, and a veteran councilman before that.
Presumed True: that Katie Godbee is a former councilwoman of Manassas, and a veteran city clerk (prior to clerk Wanda Rogers) before that.
Presumed True: that Roy and Katie Godbee are Michael Godbee’s parents.
Presumed True: that all three Godbees were on the city council and/or mayor at the time of the most recent major city water system overhaul.
Presumed True: that the original water system overhaul proposal was for a traditional tank-and-post design.
Presumed True: that the water system design was subsequently changed to a less-expensive vertical surface tank design.
Presumed True: that former Mayor Godbee justified this design change due to increased steel prices.
Provably True: that Manassas received a $334,599 facility grant in September, 2011 (source: the Georgia Department of Community Affairs).
Presumed True: that the above grant was intended for the water system upgrade.
Provably True: that during late 2011, steel futures were more or less flat or declining, and steadily declining throughout 2012 (source: Trading Economics historical steel price database (choose 10Y option)).
Presumed True: that contractor Ty Swindell, directly or indirectly, previously participated in that major city water system overhaul project.
Provably True: that the 2016 sidewalk project was awarded to contractor Ty Swindell, directly or indirectly, and then changed in scope after the award (source: city documents).
Provably True: that the city has a history of changing the scope of contracted projects after funding and award without rebidding the project (source: city minutes from January, 2016, and other documentation).
Provably True: that at least one witness claims to have seen engineering drawings in possession of the city which do not match the observed piping in the ground (source: witness statement).
Provably True: that during a 2015 pre-dig water line location request, the city was unable to locate some piping based on the aforementioned engineering drawings and had to hire an exploratory service to find their water pipes (source: video).
Possibly True: that at least one witness claims to have seen exposed piping in the ground during repairs which appears older than the dates of known grant projects.
Provably True: that the city has declined to provide definitive written historical grant information in response to a recent records request, but has instead offered to allow inspection of selected papers in a box (source: GORA response, status upgraded post hoc).
Provably True: that the city has declined to provide definitive written historical financial account information in response to a recent records request, but has instead offered to allow inspection of selected papers in a box (source: GORA response, status upgraded post hoc).
Provably True: that a Ty Albert Swindell is listed as the CFO of a Swindell Construction Company, Inc., in Glennville, Georgia (source: Georgia Secretary of State).
Provably True: that a recent Dun and Bradstreet listing for Swindell Construction Company, Inc, in Glennville, Georgia, describes that company as providing single family housing construction services (source: dandb.com).
Provably True: that Councilman Michael Godbee’s personal residence was appraised in 2015 by the county tax assessor’s office at $173,000 (source: qpublic.net).
Provably True: that councilman Michael Godbee’s personal residence was previously appraised in 2014 by the county tax assessor’s office at $183,000 (source: qpublic.net).
Provably True: that while the county appraisal for councilman Michael Godbee’s residence was declining, the appraisals for other properties in Manassas were increasing (source: qpublic.net).
Presumed True: that county appraisals are usually a fraction of market value, typically 60% to 70%.
Presumed True: that the residence of councilman Michael Godbee is arguably the nicest home in the city.
Presumed True: that the former residence of former mayor Roy Godbee and former councilwoman Katie Godbee is in competition for second place.
Provably True: that the former mayor’s residence was recently sold for $149,000 by an intermediate owner (source: qpublic.net).
Presumed True: that Councilman Michael Godbee is employed as a UPS driver.
Unknown: the employment, if any, of Councilman Michael Godbee’s wife.
Presumed True: that former mayor Roy Godbee and former councilwoman Katie Godbee retired to Florida in 2015.
Presumed True: that prior to their 2015 retirement, former mayor Roy Godbee and former councilwoman Katie Godbee operated a small engine repair and/or retail shop in Glennville, Georgia.
Presumed True: that during the recent earning decades, small businesses such as hometown engine repair and/or retail shops were under extreme overseas economic pressure by big box chain stores selling inexpensive replacement engines and lawn equipment.
Presumed True: that during this period, especially the years following the 2008 economic collapse, many such businesses, rather than thriving, went defunct.
Recall that in our classification of truths or falsehoods, items which are provably true are substantiated by documentation or recordings in-hand. Information, even that commonly believed to be true, is held in the presumed true category until substantiating evidence is in hand and that we are currently willing to reveal that evidence or its existence. Possibly true information is a raw information lead, which may or may not be reliable.
For example, just because someone shows up for city council meetings in a UPS uniform or talks about his job at UPS does not create a provably true classification for his employment. That person’s claim that he is employed by UPS, if recorded on video, however, would be provably true, although the employment status itself would remain presumed true. It could very well be that a deranged individual enjoys impersonating a UPS driver; after all, it is presumed true that women love a man with a package.
An alert reader will note several interesting correlations in the previous information. However interesting and salacious that this information may be, given all the other more juicy leads we are following, it did not rise to the level of prompting immediate inquiry until we received the following item:
Possibly True: that contractor Ty Swindell is thought by some locals to be related to the half-brothers.
The above information was received in passing mid-December by a person with reliable knowledge of the local population, although this information itself is not yet deemed reliable. Just a voice on the wind, more or less, but enough to prompt an interrogation given the potentially explosive revelation it might have on the relationship of the above facts. Any relevant contradiction is an indication to bump the question up a priority level or two.
Objectives of the interrogation
As with any activity, the interrogation itself is not a stand-alone event; it must support the mission of the overall civil affairs effort, and certainly not jeopardize that mission. Although our civil affairs effort has many mutually supporting objectives, a good overall summary is that we wish to identify, expose, and/or bring to justice, as appropriate, public officials who conduct, condone or facilitate criminal behavior. Notably missing from our mission is pursue private (civilian) criminals, other than those involved in our 2015 burglary or subsequent attempts at terror missions aimed against us. As I have stated elsewhere, without a backdrop of public corruption and misconduct, local private criminal behavior would dry up of its own accord. Plus, I am inclined to believe that the set of our own personal burglars and subsequent terrorists will have a strong overlap with, or close connections to, misbehaving local officials yet to be identified, and possibly a very small set of relatives of theirs at higher levels. We are also willing to follow leads on any public misbehavior, even if that path leads away from our own personal criminal subjects, if for no other reason than to be able to flesh in this evolving doctrine.
Because of this, if a contractor is involved in public misconduct, I am less interested in him than in the public officials who approved the misconduct. And, I am less interested in the criminals who attacked us, thus attracting our attention, than I am in local officials who may have looked the other way, or even green-lit the attacks.
Our interrogations follow this vision. Accordingly, our objectives for this particular interrogation focuses, not on the contractor, other than as a potential source of evidence, but on the public official himself, in this case Councilman Godbee, and any contradictory statements he may have made or may currently make.
These objectives are:
• Confirm or deny Councilman Godbee’s previous claims about the relationships between Cole, Jay and Ty Swindell.
• Confirm or deny Councilman Godbee’s previous claims about the funding for his 2016 Mexican vacation.
• Confirm or deny Councilman Godbee’s previous claims about other vacations or outings.
• Probe for and document evasion.
• Probe for and document contradictory claims.
• Probe for and document intervention by other officials.
• Probe for and document deception “tells” for analysis of past and future footage of said officials.
Note that we are not trying to definitively put the final nail in the coffin on any issue, merely document official statements and behavior. For example, with the first objective, we are not addressing the relationships themselves, or even Godbee’s actual knowledge of the relationships, but merely documenting Godbee’s claims about these relationships.
A good interrogation will have three to five objectives; the list above has seven. However, only the first three objectives are unique to this interrogation. The last four will be common gravy in most interrogations and produce useful benefit regardless of the particular topic. As a result, a sufficiently large and robust civil affairs operation may wish to recon-by-fire periodically just to see who cracks under interrogation and how.
We are also interested in objectives which can be attained. Pie-in-the-sky questions like “did you shoot JFK?” are clearly off the table. Your interrogator avoids the appearance of a public nuisance while being a staunch defender of the public’s right to know.
Interrogations are also a limited resource, so we don’t want to waste this resource to obtain information readily available from other sources. For example, a deposition of a contractor in a civil case is more likely to reveal certain facts than by questioning the public official; the behavior of the official during an interrogation on a related question will then guide your depositions. This interrogation also leaves out Godbee’s lifestyle-versus-means questions which are purely subjective at this level given the limited number of questions that can be asked, and the reasonableness by which an answer can be expected.
We also don’t waste this interrogation on grant-related questions, which can be better and more definitively answered by other means. We’ll address this aspect in a separate article as a follow-up to our previous open records example.
Preparation for the interrogation
After the objectives have been established, a script is prepared with three to five key questions. Softball questions are loaded at the front, with more difficult questions at the end. The idea is to condition the subject to answering easy questions first. This also makes it more difficult for a subject to justify a refusal to answer the easy questions.
It is important that your questions be written down, with possible alternative paths. Compare the questions to the objectives, and to the civil affairs mission, and adjust the questions or objectives as needed. Finally, this question set should be rehearsed until it can be recited from memory. Bring the written questions with you, along with a pen, so that you can make notes during the interrogation, or changes beforehand if the meeting is unfolding in an unexpected way.
The following is the actual script in-hand before this interrogation was conducted:
Q1. Several times you have assured me that city contractor Ty Swindell and former city attorney Jay Swindell, to the best of your knowledge, are not related. Is this correct?
If he re-affirms that they are not related, and that he relied upon information from others, then ask for a clarification of where that information came from. If he admits that they are related, thank him and say that we will discuss this again later.
Q2. Last January or February, you took a vacation to Mexico, is this correct?
Q3. Who paid for that vacation?
Q4. While you have been a city council member, have you had other vacations where any of the expenses of those vacations have been paid by anyone other than yourself?
If any of the answers seem evasive or indicative of having improperly accepted free vacation perks, state: Given your answers, I think it would be in the public interest for you to immediately resign your city council seat.
You should also prepare for questions or outright attacks from your subject or other intervening officials. Unlike a military or law enforcement interrogation, the blunt “I’m asking the questions here” is counter-productive and spoils the interrogator’s image as a firm but reasonably curious citizen. Instead, you will want to turn their questions into teachable moments for the viewer, where possible.
To prepare for these questions, you must first place yourself into the mind of a deceptive and guilty yet self-righteous public official. To do this, imagine the most manipulative, lying, entitled, scheming bitch of a girlfriend or ex-wife that you have ever had or heard about, and how such a creature squirms away from accountability for anything, even while doing it as you watch (“how DARE you accuse me of slapping the baby!” as she slaps the baby to punctuate the important words). Then assume that this is the most reasonable end of the spectrum of responses you may get from a evasive public official. Go from there, and still you will be surprised at how imaginative a public official can be when responding to an interrogation. Unlike the crazy ex, these responses aren’t gender-specific; male and female public officials will behave similarly when faced with the consequences of their actions.
The preparation phase continues into your entrance into the venue, and a read of the room. In this case, since this meeting was attended by a regional reporter, the new city attorney, the new sheriff and his training officer, I decided to tighten the focus of the interrogation by striking the first conditional paragraph in the script. This allowed these new people to come up to speed quickly on the situation, including over-reactions by these officials to reasonable questions, without needless distraction.
Conduct of the interrogation
The main rule during the interrogation is to remain calm and collected, almost to a fault. In our “Welcome to Leith” video assignment post, we discussed the fact that government officials are efficient at handling unruly citizens; they merely have them arrested. It was, of course, this knee-jerk response which contributed to the previous unsuccessful attempt to have me arrested, even without the corresponding unruly behavior. Deprived of this default response to opposition, misbehaving officials are like fish out of water. You can practically see their gills gasping for breath, wondering what to do when your interrogator calmly picks them apart.
The next rule is to take your time. There is an urge to get to the “good stuff”, but better results are obtained by drawing it out. This is where a list helps. By taking the time to read the questions before speaking, or by taking notes of what is said, your interrogator exudes an air of objective detachment, unaffected by the violent emotional storms of his subjects.
It is important to take advantage of what are known as “pregnant pauses”, where your subject feels the urge to fill gaps with explanations. Often these outbursts will contain useful information. Take the time to wait, absorb the outbursts, and then continue. And when a subject gets on a rant, let them run with it.
As mentioned in the previous HUMINT article, the interrogation is not a forum to argue with the subject. Even if the subject makes blatantly contradictory statements, or waffling statements, as did Councilman Godbee in this interrogation, more ground may be gained by moving on to additional questions. The video, and a subsequent public posting on your controlled narrative website, can nail the subject on these evasions more effectively than an argument in the moment.
Although you don’t want to argue with the subject, feel free to take some limited rational paths when unexpected information arises. But, don’t feel compelled to do so. You are in this for the long haul, and as part of a larger civil affairs operation. There is plenty of time to circle back to new information later.
Rather than arguing, your interrogator’s job is to handle unexpected deflections, or even outright attacks on the interrogator, as one might when handling an unruly child. In this case, the most obvious deflection was “who pays for your vacations?” I almost laughed when Councilman Godbee used exactly those words. Fortunately, I had prepared ahead of time for that one with the “I’m not a government official” response and teachable moment tail.
Very often an official will come up with an unexpected deflection that makes no rational sense whatsoever. In these cases, just as you would with a psychotic girlfriend, your best move is to explain things in calm and simple terms as you might to a (non-mentally defective) child. Try not to laugh at them, although I struggle with this myself. During this investigation, I had to choke down laughter, calming myself before asking the mayor whether she really needed me to explain the principle of conflict of interest to her. I think my voice stayed reasonably steady, like one does when a psychotic girlfriend hops the rocket sled to Crazy Town, despite the hilarious things she says in the moment. Try to keep it at amused mastery rather than rolling around on the floor.
Remember that in these cases where you divert into teachable moments, you are not talking to the official themselves, you are providing background and context for the viewer of the video, which may ultimately be a jury.
Again, if any emotion is ever displayed, it is that of amused mastery when any official makes a blatantly absurd statement. Always control the interview, and your conduct during the interview, even if you have to leave nuggets on the table for later. Since documented “tells” are an important product of an interrogation, a nugget left on the table can be identified as first horror, and then relief by other subjects in attendance when it appears the nugget passed by unnoticed.
Information set after the interrogation
After the interrogation, update your information set with new discoveries, or with upgrades to previous classifications. In this case, these are:
Provably True: that Councilman Michael Godbee claims to have taken a 2016 Mexican vacation.
Provably True: that Councilman Michael Godbee claims that this vacation was paid for by Cole Swindell’s record label.
Presumed True: that Cole Swindell’s record label is Warner Brothers, Nashville (Wikipedia).
Provably True: that Councilman Michael Godbee denies that other vacations he has taken were paid for by others, subject to a deflective waffling.
Provably True: that Councilman Michael Godbee claims that Cole Swindell and former city attorney B. Jay Swindell are half-brothers.
Provably True: that Councilman Michael Godbee claims a childhood friendship with the Swindell half-brothers.
Provably True: that Councilman Michael Godbee denies knowledge of a relationship between Ty Swindell and the Swindell half-brothers Cole and Jay.
Provably True: that during an interrogation Councilman Michael Godbee was at first evasive, then deflective, then admitted to the above, all within a three-minute period.
Presumed True: that Councilman Michael Godbee is incapable of resisting more harsh interrogation, such as that performed by law enforcement or during depositions.
Possibly True: that Councilman Michael Godbee can be counted on to reveal all he knows under law enforcement interrogation or during depositions.
Provably True: that Mayor Rogers has demonstrated a willingness to intervene to protect council members during questioning.
Provably True (outside this interrogation): Mayor Rogers has attended the state mandated elected officials training, including topics on ethics and accountability.
Provably True: that Mayor Rogers claims to not understand the principle of conflict of interest in the context of perks and gratuities provided to public officials by outside parties.
In addition to these factoids, three other subjective issues were highlighted by this interrogation. The first subjective issue is the consistent use of an “appeal to authority” when cornered, a behavior revealed by many interactions. For Mayor Rogers, the authority appears to consistently be whether someone is an attorney or not. For Councilwoman Edwards, it is the Georgia Municipal Association. Now, for Mr. Godbee, the authority figure is revealed to be a record label. While no one would rationally believe that a record label would have the slightest interest in how Manassas, Georgia, spends its money, the fact that he would easily go there is an important data point, possibly indicating that the Swindell family’s actual interest is what he was initially trying to conceal. Invoking an unrelated authority out of the blue is certainly a curious event.
I suspect that public officials everywhere will count on some authority talisman, be it a higher official, an attorney, a star or a big company. I think this plays into their own desire to achieve a sort of divinity by being an authority themselves, and their indignation at interested citizens for questioning their divinity. I propose that when an official makes an unexpected appeal to authority, that is a signal there is a fire under the smoke. Look under the smoke each time and see whether this holds true for your favorite public officials.
The second subjective issue is the role Godbee plays on the city council. Going into this interrogation, as noted above as the second optional narrative, I had thought that it would be advantageous if Mr. Godbee were to resign from the city council, just as B. Jay Swindell had resigned as city attorney about six months prior.
However, given Mr. Godbee’s behavior during the interrogation, it occurred to me in the moment that he may be the weakest sister on the council (as the newest council member, Callaway may be assumed to be the most easily manipulated by her clan, but she hasn’t had time to get suckered too much). Not only does Godbee, a former crown prince and unaccustomed to challenges, seem to crumble easily, shockingly so, he is also now the odd man out. Politically speaking, if the Rogers clan (mayor and clerk) and the Edwards clan (Councilwomen Edwards and Callaway, and Councilman Shaun Edwards) needed a scapegoat, he would be a logical choice for them to ally against. Having previously enjoyed the controlling block of himself, his father (the former mayor) and his mother (a former councilwoman), this is a vulnerability to which he is not accustomed.
Similarly, if the Edwards clan needed to scapegoat either of the Rogers women, particularly the mayor, elevating Shaun Edwards to mayor via his capacity as Mayor Pro Tem, the Edwards clan could team with Mr. Godbee for that option in exchange for any number of promises, and then easily renege later with no consequences to them. So, leaving him in place as a weak link is actually best in a Machiavellian sort of way. Knowing that the Edwards clan can steamroll the Rogers clan, with or without him, he has no bargaining chips to bring either party, and thus must accept whatever deal either side may give him without being able to demand that either side give him anything or even the hope of playing them against each other. Basically, Godbee is little more than a pawn that either clan gets to push around the board on a whim, with no control of his own destiny whatsoever. Someone in such an unwinnable position would be a federal RICO investigator’s fantasy interview subject, whether actually guilty of anything or not.
Of all of them, as the chief executive, Mayor Rogers is currently in the hot seat of our own investigation (after her departure, Shaun Edwards will have his turn). Given that Godbee serves little practical value to the weaker Rogers clan, other than perhaps a member of a rapidly dwindling former political alliance, but was an intimate member of the former Godbee administration, his continued presence could be an important resource for our own discovery in our short-term civil actions. Whether Godbee resigns or stays, it is a win for us either way, so no point in bringing it up during the interrogation. As a result, I struck the final narrative from the list in the moment. You can see me briefly working through this newly discovered possibility near the end of the video before yielding the floor.
The learning point for your own local civil affairs efforts is that, no matter how monolithic misbehaving officials may at first seem, there are always cracks and fissures which your efforts can detect. As your operation begins to yield fruit, the mounting pressure for self-preservation will cause officials to reveal their conflicting agendas and priorities. The Prisoner’s Dilemma will kick into action, splintering the officials into factions, where the early defectors are more likely to escape, with the remainder left holding responsibility for everything. Identifying weak sisters in the mix is an important intelligence objective to help accelerate this process of defection. This will further help you identify win-win fissures for your own team; even better if these fissures are simultaneously lose-lose for misbehaving officials.
The final subjective issue, related to the above, is highlighted by the mayor’s intervention to deflect attention from Godbee. I didn’t notice this until reviewing the video, and admittedly my subjectivity on the matter is influenced by interacting with these people over a period of years. What does show on the video is the mayor’s grapefruit expression as a tell when soliciting support from other members. We’ve added a rotating image gallery to the title bar of Leech City, refresh enough and you’ll eventually see the expression. Immediately before this video, the previous interview regarding another matter produced a temporary reaction from Councilwoman Edwards. You can read about this interview on Leech City here, including her weak intervention which was fairly quickly withdrawn. What struck me as important here is that this is the first time we’ve noticed that Councilwoman Edwards failed to rally to the mayor’s support, effectively leaving the mayor twisting in the wind on a lonely crusade as the entire Edwards clan stood down. The only other person at the table to intervene was her daughter, the clerk, and that to calm the mayor down (around 1:26 in the video). Perhaps the dividing lines have already been drawn, and merely manifested publicly during this interrogation.
This last issue highlights the need for recording video, and maintaining a library of video interactions to help identify evolving relationships and agendas.
Room for Improvement (AAR)
Clearly, I could have done some things better here. The most important mistake on my part was issuing multi-part questions. Better would be to issue a question, let it mature, and then ask the next question.
Another oversight was missing the waffling answers in the moment, including such terms as “probably”. A more formal interrogation might pluck at that string to see what it might unravel.
I also jumped in a time or two when I could have waited out the pregnant pause better, or while a subject was talking. I admit to a certain amount of “blood in the water” desire to move on to the better questions when the early ones are yielding fruit in the desired direction. I continue self-improvement in this skill.
All in all, this interrogation, despite its limitations, highlights the value which can be obtained from a public meeting interrogation, conducted calmly within the context of a larger civil affairs mission, including open records requests. Stay tuned for a follow-up article on some of our previous real-world requests for which we have now received responses.
Note: we have been sitting on material in this article for a while, wondering whether we should publish it as it contains information about methods we were keeping hidden. We were also giving the officials concerned an opportunity to answer questions before publication. But, at the city council meeting on 13 Feb 17, the mayor has now prohibited questions not submitted to the city in advance. In the short term, given their history of evasiveness on many issues, which we will document shortly, this prohibition limits our ability to give certain officials any benefit of doubt. Because of this new prohibition, publishing this now as a real-life example can no longer harm current or future operations. More on this sort of prohibition later, and how your combined civil affairs operation can use such a development to your benefit. One such benefit is legitimizing escalation by your team, while maintaining a calm and methodical approach. We did manage to keep from laughing while the mayor was issuing her edict, and afterward. Mostly. One day we’ll release a blooper reel.