Reddit recently asked an interesting question, and I decided to expand on it here, at SOFREP.
You’re in the CIA and you suspect a fellow agent to be a spy.
They’re 25-35 and speak perfect English. What question do you ask to determine whether they grew up in the U.S.?
Isaac Asimov once answered this questions in a rather cunning way. In the short story, No Refuge Could Save, the central character had to determine if a government employee was a spy or not. He goes on to explain that spies are trained on all stuff Americans should know, so asking them who won the World Series a few years ago wouldn’t work. The trick was to ask them a question a real American wouldn’t know, but an overprepared spy would.
The central character, Griswold, explains that during World War II, he was involved in US intelligence. While questioning a suspected German spy, he performed a word association test on him. When Griswold said “terror of flight,” the suspect replied, “gloom of the grave.” This was evidence that he was a spy who had been trained up in Americanisms, since the two phrases allude to a line in the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and no native-born American could possibly be familiar with the third verse of the national anthem (“except for me, and I know everything,” added Griswold). Most Americans only know the first verse because it is the only one of the anthem’s four verses that is normally sung.
This is a tongue-in-cheek parody of stories where an enemy agent is caught by his lack of knowledge. However, Griswold does make the serious point that the third verse of the US national anthem is particularly war-mongering, and so was especially forgotten in the “great peace-loving years of 1941 to 1945.” In truth, the third verse was often omitted during those times by the few who knew it because of the alliance with Great Britain, which was the enemy in theWar of 1812 and thus the object of scorn in the third verse.
Another trick would be to ask them to write the date on a mock form in a 6 digit format to determine their background and nationality.
In the U.S., the military academic, scientific, computing, industrial, or governmental community format tends to be 06MAY16 or 06 MAY 2016. Civilian vernacular is more fluid: mm/dd/yy or mm/dd/yyyy; other formats, including dd mmm(m) yyyy and yyyy-mm-dd, are less common.
The United Kingdom follows the DMY convention by recommending d mmmm yyyy or dd/mm/yyyy formats. However, some newspapers use the traditional MDY -mmmm d, yyyy. Also, YMD is used increasingly especially in computer application. The U.K., like Europe and the U.S.is all over the place when it comes to writing down the date.
Russia uses a simple format, dd.mm.(yy)yy). Example, 03.12.2008: третье декабря две тысячи восьмого года. Or, on Friday 1.04.1962: в пятницу первого апреля тысяча девятьсот шестьдесят второго года
China’s format is, yyyy-mm-dd or yyyy年m月d日, with no leading zeroes.
Essentially, you’re going to need to get creative while not loosing yourself to paranoia. Use cultural context clues that are unique to what you know, and what the alleged spy claims to know. How little, or in some cases how much someone knows may be their undoing.
Also, don’t get caught up in universal commonalities. For instance, mentioning that your mother-in-law is visiting to incite dread and sympathy. This is a universal, and “My mother-in-law is Satan,” is a popular joke in Russia.
Yet something simple to spot an American, ask them to name all 50 Presidents in order. That’s a trick question, there have only been 43 U.S. Presidents, but I challenge you to find an American who can name them all – in order, and without Google.
You just need to put all of that useless information in your head to use. Comic, Baron Vaughn presents this excellent and funny look at a few examples to use, especially for the demographic in question, from the beginning of this article.
FYI: Here is the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner:
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming, Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there; O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep, Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence responses What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep, As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses? Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, In full glory reflected now shines in the stream: ‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion, A home and a country, should leave us no more? Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation. Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’ And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!