The Foreign Service Journal, February 2011

14 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 1 L ike many FSOs, I used to be a lawyer. As many other former attorneys can attest, practicing law involves far more paperwork and far less romance than “AllyMcBeal.” It did, however, teach me skills that have proven unexpectedly useful in my con- sular tour. Much entry-level consular work in- volves interviewing strangers, people who you know only from a few sheets of paper. Crudely put, we try to get a better understanding of who these strangers are by asking a few questions. It’s very similar to what lawyers do when taking depositions. For those fortunate enough never to have seen a deposition, the process in- volves picking a potential witness, read- ing background documentation about him or her, and then interviewing that person to ascertain what he or she knows in preparation for trial. The transcript can also be used later at the trial itself to impeach a witness whose testimony on the stand differs from what he or she said at the deposition. Like consular interviews, deposi- tions are both fact-gathering and fraud- prevention tools. It may come as no surprise, then, that some deposition techniques are also useful at the con- sular window. My favorites among these are: • Using preliminary questions to set the tone of the questioning and avoid confusion on the part of the applicant; • “Funneling” the interview to drill down to the important facts; and • Repeating important questions inorder to elicit definitive answers and prevent backpedaling by a dishonest in- terviewee. This article explains each technique in turn, using excerpts from a fiancée visa interview I conducted as an exam- ple. (To protect the applicants’ privacy, I have changed dates and other identi- fying details from these interviews, and paraphrased answers.) Technique 1: Preliminary Questions The use of preliminary questions begins with having the applicant prom- ise to speak up if he or she does not un- derstand a question. For example, the fiancée visa interview I am using as an example began like this: Consul: I’ll be conducting this in- terview in Portuguese. Can you under- stand me when I speak in Portuguese? Applicant: Yes. Consul: If during the interview you don’t understand a question I ask, please tell me. I don’t want you to an- swer a question you don’t understand. Will you please tell me if you don’t un- derstand something I say? Applicant: Yes. There are two reasons for this line of questioning, which apply with equal force in the context of depositions and consular interviews. First, it gives con- fused applicants more courage to speak up and interrupt the consular officer if they do not understand a question. In my experience, some applicants — es- pecially the less sophisticated and less educated—are intimidated enough by the formal interview process to feel compelled to answer every question posed immediately, even if they did not understand it fully. Second, these preliminary questions are a bulwark against untruths. Law- yers use them in depositions to prevent a witness from giving one answer in a deposition, changing it on the witness stand, and then attributing the incon- sistency to a misunderstanding of the attorney’s question during the deposi- tion. Likewise, in consular interviews they discourage applicants from blam- ing subsequent false statements on the grounds that they misunderstood my Portuguese, or that they were some- how confused by the wording of a question. For Better Fraud Interviews, Think Like a Lawyer B Y J EFFREY E. Z INSMEISTER FS K NOW -H OW The goal is to avoid confusion and prevent applicants from later pleading ambiguity as an excuse for a false answer.