Signal flair

A former FBI agent can tell what's going through your mind, just by watching you.

By By ERIC DEGGANS Times TV/Media Critic
Published May 25, 2007

He made the trip to teach some real-life truths, but former FBI interrogator Joe Navarro was the one who left with a bitter lesson learned.

Navarro, a Tampa-based expert on interrogation and nonverbal communication, was asked by the civil rights organization Human Rights First to join a group speaking with the producers of Fox's hit espionage show 24 in November, hoping to tone down the torture sequences.

He gave his usual speech, informed by 25 years' experience: that getting to know subjects works better than torture; subjects who are beaten or stressed will say whatever the interrogator wants to hear; and physical torture in the face of fanatical hate only strengthens a subject's resolve.

Then Navarro got two surprises: The producers consulted no interrogation experts before writing their torture scenes. And, according to a soldier there who had recently returned from Iraq, interrogators were passing around DVDs of 24 for tips on how to question suspects.

"I was in shock because, as an instructor, I realized this is what people do when they're not trained, " said Navarro about the exchange, first reported in the New Yorker magazine. "That's when it was evident that we'd sent people into harm's way who hadn't been trained."

Turns out, Navarro has a wealth of information on interrogating people and reading their nonverbal cues. He's already distilled his knowledge into several books, including a guide to poker "tells" with champion player Phil Hellmuth titled Read 'Em and Reap. To hear Navarro discuss poker "tells" on the Ante Up! podcast go to blogs.tampabay.com/poker and under Recent Episodes click on "FBI agent Joe Navarro."

Having met Navarro before, I knew that the best nuggets come when you just let the retired agent talk. So we got together at the Columbia Restaurant in St. Petersburg for a two-hour conversation.

Sitting in a crush of lunchtime diners that gave him plenty of chances to practice his craft, Navarro touched on everything from why our feet give away our feelings to the Ku Klux Klan's status as a premier terrorist organization.

Here's what he said, edited slightly for brevity and clarity:

- - -

I started with an easy question: Why not torture suspected terrorists?

"The more relaxed your brain is, " he said, settling in at our table, "the more memory and recall you have. The more stressed it is, the less you have. So it's like when you forget your keys 'cause you're in a hurry. The more pressure you put on somebody, the more tense they are and the less recall they have. And when I go into an interview, I want perfect recall."

A history buff who loves using the past to illuminate the present, Navarro suggested that anyone trying to understand the hatred of fundamentalist terrorists take a look at the KKK.

"I remind people that one of the greatest terrorist organizations, not great in the sense of fantastic, but great in the size, was the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK was a terrorist organization that terrorized an emancipated people and, you know, it's this passionate hatred. We still see it with these trials that are still being conducted from these guys killing young African-Americans in the 1960s, and it's 40 years later, they still have that hatred. That's what you run into with true terrorists."

For somebody with years of experience interviewing dangerous suspects, Navarro seems remarkably unimposing. Friendly and down-to-earth, he carries himself like the quintessential suburban dad.

The only time he grew irritated was when our conversation turned to those who insist that punishment is the only effective interrogation strategy.

"For people to suggest that 'Well, we'll just put 'em on the skid of a helicopter and if the first one doesn't talk, you just throw him out and then you get the next one.' Well, first of all, you just killed somebody who may have information that may be of significance and, No. 2, the next guy'll talk, but you might have killed the guy who knew more."

- - -

A Cuban immigrant who came to America at age 8, Navarro had no English skills and had to learn quickly how to communicate another way.

"As an immigrant to this country, you come here and you don't speak English. You quickly learn to read people. I realized this is something that I must learn because I can use it in whatever profession I choose. It doesn't matter whether I'm a police officer or working in a bank or working with children at a park, this is important."

Navarro ripped off a piece of Cuban bread.

"Our bodies, " he said, "tend to communicate our intentions. When we're talking to each other and a third person arrives, and we really don't want to talk to them, we'll rotate our hips to say hi, but we won't move our feet toward somebody. We maintain our feet facing each other. This is our brain very elegantly but more formally, very truthfully saying, in fact, we want to be left alone right now."

As he spoke, I realized that Navarro's unassuming manner was his secret weapon. Casually talking about everything from Barack Obama to his years in the FBI to raising his daughter, he made me forget how much he can deduce about people with a glance.

Until he started reading the folks at other tables.

"We've got two men over here, " he said, gesturing to the right, "who are getting along great. How do I know that? Because you see (their feet) face each other. And we've got four ladies over here who are okay but there are some issues. One of the women in particular they don't like. There's a lot of self-restraint behavior in one; she's not letting her feet stretch out under the table. You start to realize that this is not a group that normally gets together."

Navarro talked about the "prehistoric brain" - reactions hard-wired into our minds by centuries of evolution.

One example: when women cover the indentation at the base of their neck, known as their super-sternal notch. To demonstrate, Navarro put his hand over his own throat.

"Women will do it when they feel insecure or they're worried about something, " he said. "I've had police officers who are trained in this, come back and tell me, I've had rape victims from more than 20 years ago come back and describe what happened and the hand goes there to the throat."

Navarro cautioned others to appreciate such reactions, even in children.

"We teach our children to negate their feelings. Maybe the child doesn't want to go near Uncle Charlie. You say, 'No, no, get on his lap and give him a kiss.' It's only when they feel comfortable will their feet come close. Because the brain says in order to keep you alive as a species, for survival, I will always distance you from anybody you don't feel comfortable around. Always."

- - -

His observations can be freaky. At one point during lunch, he busted me for clasping my hands before I disagreed with him on a point.

"You see what you did?"

The gesture, he said, revealed that I was soothing myself before saying something potentially controversial.

Navarro is careful about revealing too many observations to those around him. Especially on dates where the woman knows what he does for a living.

"I'm dealing with a frozen block the whole night, " he said, laughing. "She's afraid to move. She keeps asking, 'Have you found anything wrong?' So now, I tell my friends, 'Tell them I do anything else. Tell them I used to wash dishes, but whatever you do, don't tell 'em what I really do.'"

Still, there are other times when his expertise proves particularly useful.

"About a year and a half ago, I was at a gym that has a pool and there was a young girl swimming in the pool and she was acting happy and gregarious, but when her mother arrived to pick her up, it immediately ceased and I noticed that she became very quiet. And I went to the staff there and I said, listen, you don't know who I am but do me a favor, keep an eye on her because I suspect the child is being abused.

"Children who are abused, predators orient toward movement, so children learn when they're abused to just withdraw their arms, and become very silent in the face of a predator, an abusive parent. . . . In the end, they had to report this mother (to police)."

- - -

Turns out, some of the worst people at reading nonverbal emotional cues are politicians.

"Here's one thing that politicians do and it's absolutely terrible. They give you their hand and then they cover your hand with theirs, and they feel like, well, this brings us closer together. And by every indication, every study ever done, people hate that. In academia, they call that the politician's handshake."

- - -

A single dad, Navarro also knows how tough it is to grow up the child of a parent who can read your unconscious signals.

"My daughter sometimes would put on sunglasses and walk behind a beach towel and say, 'Dad, let's talk.' I learned that as a father - just not to say anything and first give some distance, allow them to come to me."

He's putting a lot of this knowledge into another book, outlining the basics of nonverbal communication.

"I wanted to get people to observe the world around them, to enrich their lives, to be able to look at their children and say, this child needs a hug now, this child has something he wants to talk about or that one's having a tough day. That's what I want to see."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.