You, dear readers, know my advice about talking to the FBI: don't. If the FBI — or any law enforcement agency — asks to talk to you, say "No, I want to talk to my lawyer, I don't want to talk to you," and repeat as necessary. Do not talk to them "just to see what they want." Do not try to "set the facts straight." Do not try to outwit them. Do not explain that you have "nothing to hide."
Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.
This advice is on my mind of late what with two former Trump folks — George Popadopouluos and Michael Flynn — pleading guilty to the federal crime of lying to the FBI.
Plenty of people agree with me. Sometimes, though, I hear different advice. Sometimes I hear this:
No. Or more accurately: no, unless you have first prepared exhaustively with an attorney.
This is not a casual conversation about who took a bite out of the roll of cookie dough in the fridge. This is serious complicated stuff, and your whole life hangs in the balance. Platitudes aside, going into a law enforcement interview armed only with the attitude "I'll just tell the truth" is poor strategy.
No offense, but you may be a sociopath. If the FBI wants to interview you, it's possible you're some kind of Big Deal — a politician or a general or a mover and shaker of some description. If you're kind of a big deal, there's a significant possibility you're a sociopath. You really don't know how to tell the truth, except by coincidence. You understand what people mean when they say "tell the truth" but to you it's like someone saying you should smile during the interview. Really? Well, I'll try, I guess, if I remember. You've gotten to be a big deal by doing whatever is necessary and rather routinely lying. It may be difficult for you to focus and remember when you are lying because lying feels the same as telling the truth. If someone shoved me onto a stage and said to me, "look, just hit the high C cleanly during the solo," I could take a real sincere shot at it, but I wouldn't really know what I was doing. If you think you can go into an FBI interview and "just tell the truth," when it's not something you're used to doing, you're deluding yourself. You're not going to learn how in the next five minutes.
You're almost certainly human. There's a commandment about not bearing false witness. But rules don't become commandments because they're really easy to follow. They become commandments because we — we bunch of broken hooting apes — are prone to break them. Everybody lies. Humans lie more under pressure. FBI agents are trained in two dozen ways to ratchet up the pressure on you without getting out of their chair — verbal, nonverbal, tone, expression, pacing, subject changing, every trick that any cop ever used in the box. You're only human. Unprepared, you will likely lie. Smart people, dumb people, ditchdiggers and neurosurgeons, lawyers and accountants, the good and the bad, they all lie. Usually they lie about really stupid things that are easily disproved. I'm not making a normative judgment here; surely it would be nice if we didn't lie. I'm making a descriptive statement: humans lie. Saying "I'll just go in and tell the truth" is like saying "I'll just start being a good person." Well, good luck. Look, you admit to being fallible in other respects, right? You admit sometimes you're unkind when you're tired, or sometimes you drink or eat more than you know you should, or sometimes you procrastinate, or sometimes you have lust in your heart? What makes you think you're infallible about telling the truth?
Dumbass, you don't even know if you're lying or not. When an FBI agent is interviewing you, assume that that agent is exquisitely prepared. They probably already have proof about the answer of half the questions they're going to ask you. They have the receipts. They've listened to the tapes. They've read the emails. Recently. You, on the other hand, haven't thought about Oh Yeah That Thing for months or years, and you routinely forget birthdays and names and whether you had a doctor's appointment today and so forth. So, if you go in with "I'll just tell the truth," you're going to start answering questions based on your cold-memory unrefreshed holistic general concept of the subject, like an impressionistic painting by a dim third-grader. Will you say "I really don't remember" or "I would have to look at the emails" or "I'm not sure"? That would be smart. But we've established you're not smart, because you've set out to tell the truth to the FBI. You're dumb. So you're going to answer questions incorrectly, through bad memory. Sometimes you're going to go off on long detours and frolics based on entirely incorrect memories. You're going to be incorrect about things you wouldn't lie about if you remembered them. If you realize you got something wrong or that you may not be remembering right, you're going to get flustered, because it's the FBI, and remember even worse. But the FBI would never prosecute you for a false statement that was the result of a failed memory, right? Oh, my sweet country mouse. If you had talked to a lawyer first, that lawyer would have grilled you mercilessly for hours, helped you search for every potentially relevant document, reviewed every communication, inquired into every scenario, and dragged reliable memory kicking and screaming out the quicksand of your psyche.
You have no idea what you're telling the truth about. Look, you think that you can prepare to tell the truth. But at best you can prepare to tell the truth about something you know about and expect and understand. So let's say I know I'm going to be asked about whether I'm an ass on Twitter. I'm ready to come clean. I am definitely an ass on Twitter. But I get in there and the agent is all, "Mr. White, isn't it true that in October 1989 you accidentally hit on a major news anchor when you saw her from behind at the copy machine and thought she was another intern at CBS and so you sidled up for a full-on 'how YOU doin" and then she turned around and you saw who it was and you stammered something and spent several hours in the stairwell?" See, I was not mentally and emotionally prepared to tell the truth1 about that. So we're off to the races. I went in with the best of intentions, I got sandbagged with something completely unexpected, I panicked like the grubby little human that I am, and I lied.
You can't even talk properly. If you're an attorney and you need to prepare someone for testimony, you know: we're a bunch of vague, meandering, imprecise assholes. We talk like a water balloon fight, sort of splashing the general vicinity of the answer. We don't correct questions with inaccurate premises that don't matter, we generalize and oversimplify and summarize and excerpt and use shorthand that only exists in our heads, and we do this all day every day in casual conversation. A huge amount of conversation goes on between the words and by implication. If I'm walking past your office and ask "did you eat?" I don't need to vocalize that I mean did you eat lunch and if not would you like to go to lunch. You can respond "I have a meeting" and I will understand that you mean you understand and acknowledge that I'm asking you to lunch but you are unable to go. Huge parts of our conversations are like that. Usually it doesn't matter. But if you can get charged with a federal crime if something you say is, taken literally, not true, it matters like crazy. It takes training and an act of will to testify — to listen to the question, to ask ourselves if we know what the question means, to ask ourselves if we know the answer to that question and not some other question it makes us think of, and to give a precise answer that directly answers the question. So not only do you have to go into that FBI interview and tell the truth — you have to be prepared for a level of precision and focus that you almost never use in your day-to-day communications.
You don't know if you're in trouble. You say "I'll just go and tell the truth." Well, if you mean "I'll just go confess to anything I've done wrong and take the consequences," that's one thing. But if you mean "I'll just tell the truth because I've done nothing wrong and I have nothing to hide," you're full of shit. You don't know if you've done something wrong yet. Do you know every federal criminal law? Have you applied every federal criminal law to every communication and meeting and enterprise you've engaged in for the last five years? "But . . . but . . . the FBI said they just wanted to talk about that meeting and there was nothing wrong with that meeting." Dumbass, you've got incomplete information. Not only do you not know if there was anything wrong about that meeting, you don't know if that's what they'll ask about. If you're saying "I'll talk to them because I have nothing to hide," you are not making an informed choice.
Everybody lies. Especially the FBI. Look, mate: the FBI gets to lie to you in interviews. They can lie to you about what other people said about you. The can lie to you about what they've seen in your emails. They can lie to you about what they can prove. They can lie to you about what they know. Authority figures barking lies at you can be confusing and upsetting and stressful. Our brain says "I didn't do that thing but they say they have emails so maybe did I do that thing or sort of that thing?" Many people react by blurting out more or less random shit or by panicking and lying. Do you have what it takes not to do that? Better be sure.
Remember: the FBI wins nearly any way. Confess to a crime? They got your confession. Lie? They almost certainly know you lied, and already have proof that your statement is a lie, and now they've used the investigation to create the crime.
The answer is to shut up and lawyer up. A qualified lawyer will grill you mercilessly and help you make an informed rational choice about whether to talk. Then, if you decide to talk, the lawyer will prepare you exhaustively for the interview so you can spot the pressure tactics and interrogation-room tricks, and so you will have refreshed your memory about what the truth is.
Your best intentions to tell the truth are a thin shield.
Copyright 2017 by the named Popehat author.