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TURN: Washington’s Spies Spycraft Handbook – Maintaining a Cover Story

In Episode 7, Abe’s captivity in the sugar house prison and interrogation at the hands of Officer Yates continues. In order to remain a spy for General Washington, Abe must maintain his cover and stick to his story of being a spy for Hewlett, despite that cover story putting him at odds with his jailer, who suspects Abe is lying, and his fellow Patriot inmates, who suspect Abe is a Tory sympathizer.

In order to be successful, a spy must always maintain a credible and consistent cover story. A cover story must be plausible, well rehearsed, and include verifiable details whenever possible. Any fictional elements of a cover story must be carefully crafted: every lie must be remembered exactly as told, and subsequent lies told to embellish an initial lie can lead to a story unraveling and a cover being blown. In Abe’s case, his cover story works well because it’s based on what someone in a position of power believes to be true and is willing to verify: Major Hewlett believes Abe is spying for him, and has promised to vouch for him.

When a cover story is told, the spy must relate the story in a way that makes the target as open to believing it as possible. A cover story can be fashioned to appeal to a target’s personal beliefs, opinions, or prejudices; to elicit empathy from the target by alleviating a concern or fear; or to engender trust from the target by aligning with someone the target respects. In Abe’s case, the latter applies: Yates is initially willing to consider Abe’s cover story as truthful when Abe name-drops Major Hewlett.

Decisions based on trust are also key to maintaining a cover story. A spy must decide whom to trust, when to bring that person into their confidence, and how much to reveal. Abe learns an important lesson in trust when he doesn’t choose his words carefully enough while speaking with Gareth, one of his fellow inmates. Though Gareth presents himself as someone sympathetic to Abe and the Patriot cause, he is actually trying to goad Abe into saying something incriminating that will reveal Abe as a Patriot spy.

If a spy keeps their cover story credible and consistent, relates their cover story effectively, and chooses whom to trust carefully, they are likely to be successful in maintaining their cover and completing their mission.

Read TURN: Washington’s Spies Spycraft Handbook – Invisible Ink.

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