Follow the Wording
By Jeff Leen and Lorraine Adams
Why is and not was? And what exactly did Clinton mean in saying there was no improper relationship?
Our water-cooler musings, about what the president said and how he said it, have a basis in a field of inquiry that has spread throughout law enforcement in the past two decades. Developed in the early 1980s and known variously as "content analysis," "statement analysis" or "linguistic forensic analysis," the technique is widely used to ferret out signs of truth or deception in patterns of words.
Content analysts look for subtle patterns in changes in tenses, pronouns and words used to describe key people, events or objects. They also focus on vagueness, hesitancy, stuttering, extraneous information and qualifying words such as "I believe" or "I think" that suggest a lack of conviction.
Of course, not everybody who stutters or qualifies their words is being deceptive. A content analyst studying a deposition, or any statement, must first find places where a person is clearly telling the truth. The rest of the statement is then scrutinized for breaks with that truthful pattern.
For content analysts, the sworn deposition of President Clinton in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit is a kind of Rosetta stone: a rare opportunity to scrutinize the words of a president for clues to his behavior and vulnerabilities. Those words still matter; the Jones case may be history for now, but Clinton's deposition could still figure significantly in whatever report Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr eventually makes to Congress.
When Gerald Brown, a content analyst in Beaverton, Ore., watched Clinton on television after the Lewinsky story became public, he immediately saw red flags in the president's words. When Brown read the 150-page portion of the president's deposition that has been released, he found more things that gave him pause. At times, Clinton gave direct, specific answers. But on certain questions, he stuttered. He used lots of those "I think," "I believe" qualifiers. At a key point, he made a lengthy digression full of extraneous and self-justifying information.
Much of what content analysts do appears to be common sense: Liars typically give themselves away by tripping over their words or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But content analysts caution that great care has to be used in analyzing answers and drawing inferences. Their method is subjective, and content analysts can disagree on small matters of interpretation. One analyst deemed problematic Clinton's "absolutely not" response to a question of whether he caused money to be paid to Lewinsky; the analyst said the answer appeared to overcompensate and broke a pattern of "no, sir" answers. But a second analyst believed both answers to be truthful.
And of course, content analysis has its limits. It can detect whether someone is using cautious, hedged language or words that imply a greater intimacy with another than the speaker is willing to admit, but it cannot determine the precise intent behind such language. It can only point out promising lines of inquiry for investigators.
"Statement analysis is an aid that can be used to obtain a confession; it is not an end in itself," special agent Susan H. Adams, who teaches the technique at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., wrote in the October 1996 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Like lie detector test results, the findings of content analysis are not admissible in court.
With these caveats, the method is used by the FBI, a variety of law enforcement and intelligence agencies and Fortune 500 companies trying to catch spies, child molesters, thieving employees, even murderers. For example, investigators were immediately suspicious of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman eventually convicted of drowning her two young sons, because she kept using the wrong tense in her interviews with police. Smith said her boys had been kidnapped, but she spoke of them in the past tense, as if she already knew they were dead. Her husband, who was innocent, used the present tense.
Content analysts also take note when the opposite occurs and people use present tense rather than the past. In the famous farewell note that O.J. Simpson wrote after he headed off in his Bronco following the murders of his wife and Ronald Goldman, Simpson began: "First, everyone understand I have nothing to do with Nicole's murder." His use of "have" rather than "had" caught the attention of the content analyzers.
Generally, according to content analysis theory, people who are truthfully describing past events will use the first-person, past tense. "The shift to present tense is significant, because events recalled from memory should be stated by using the past tense," Adams wrote. "The change to present tense could indicate deception."
Brown and other analysts noted that Clinton often lapsed into the present tense when answering critical questions during his deposition. Asked whether Lewinsky told him about her subpoena from Jones's lawyers, Clinton replied: "I don't know if she had been," rather than the past tense "I didn't know if she had been," or, simply, "No, she did not."
In analyzing Clinton's responses, Brown found areas in which he felt Clinton was obviously being truthful. One concerned questions about whether Kathleen Willey had given him permission to kiss her and initiate sexual contact. "No, she didn't," Clinton responded. Asked if he had sexual relations with her, Clinton's response was equally terse and committed: "No, I didn't." The second area where Brown felt Clinton was obviously truthful was when he was asked if he had paid money to Lewinsky. "No, sir," Clinton said.
Clinton's short, committed answers gave way to long, carefully hedged responses in other parts of the deposition. Asked whether he prompted the conversations between his friend Vernon Jordan and his personal assistant Betty Currie to help Lewinsky, Clinton answered with 22 qualifiers -- "think," "believe," "if," "seemed," "may," "not sure." In many of his answers on important points -- such as Lewinsky's contacts with Jordan and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson -- Clinton piled on the qualifiers.
Generally, when such qualifiers appear, "the person giving the statement is avoiding commitment, and warning bells should ring in the investigator's ears," Adams noted in her 1996 article.
There may be an explanation for Clinton's overuse of qualifiers that makes his deposition harder to analyze: his careful, tentative language may simply have been the defensive posture of a politician who was trained as a lawyer. "When he says, 'my memory is,' or 'my recollection is,' or 'not to my knowledge,' that's lawyer talk," said Brown, who was an investigator for 21 years with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the Defense Investigative Service before starting his own firm 10 years ago. "That way, if you're corrected later on by the facts, it's not perjury." Brown noted that throughout the deposition, Clinton appeared to make a strenuous effort to tell as much of the truth as he could, walking a narrow line between the criminal trap of perjury and the political trap of damaging admissions. "The things we see here are consistent with people who do that," Brown said. "They can't tell the truth and they can't lie, either."
There is a long section in Clinton's deposition where the president talked without qualifiers or careful language. It came when he was asked: "Do you recall ever walking with Monica Lewinsky down the hallway from the Oval Office to your private kitchen there in the White House?"
Clinton began his response not with a direct answer but with digressions. He mentioned many specific facts. He described the kitchen, who works there, who has access. He mentioned that there are no curtains in the Oval Office or his private office, and no curtains or blinds in the private dining room.
Those facts were related smoothly without stuttering or qualification, leading the analysts to say they appear to be truthful.
When the president finally returned to the specific question about Lewinsky's presence in the hallway, the vagueness and qualification reappeared in his sentences. He cited his "recollection" four times. He said he did not "believe" she was in the kitchen alone. He said he "thinks" Currie was also there.
Clinton's response to the question about Lewinsky in the hallway attracted the analysts' attention for another reason: At 331 words, it was his longest answer in the deposition. The answer was, essentially, "yes." So why did he need so many words?
Brown said Clinton's long answer here indicates that this was the most important matter in the deposition for him. "He's going overboard, if you will, to discuss that situation," Brown said. "It's like the old saying: He doth protest too much."
Analysts consider simple answers to be the most truthful. "People involved in crimes may feel the need to justify their actions," agent Adams noted. "They may also include more information than is necessary."
Brown and other analysts who looked at Clinton's deposition found many indications of possible deception. But Brown cautions that the parsing of words can only go so far. "What I love about my job is that I don't have to go out and prove that anyone's lying," he said. "That's for the investigators to do."
For Bill Clinton, the ultimate content analysis remains in the hands of Ken Starr and Congress.
Jeff Leen and Lorraine Adams are reporters on the investigative staff of The Washington Post.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company