How Candidates Can Use Spy Tech To Cheat During Presidential Debates

Remember this? During the January 2008 Republican presidential debate in Boca Raton, MSNBC moderator Tim Russert asked Mitt Romney, "Will you do for Social Security what Ronald Reagan did in 1983?"

A disembodied whisper of, "He raised taxes," followed.

Romney appeared to take note before answering Russert, "I'm not going to raise taxes."

Here's the video:

In another segment of the same debate, the voice seemed to cue Romney to use the word support. After reviewing the video, MSNBC surmised that a microphone had simply picked up the whispers of an audience member. Which fueled speculation that the audience member was a Romney helper speaking into a covert ultrasound-based communicator.

Holosonics of Watertown, Massachusetts, manufactures a system called the Audio Spotlight that converts ultrasound to audible sound via a narrow targeted beam heard only by its recipient, who doesn't need to wear a receiver. The transmitter can be as small as a cell phone. The catch is the helper needs the recipient in his line of sight. If the narrow beam of ultrasound grazes a microphone en route to a debater, the helper's whispers would be amplified for the world to hear.

To guard against such helpers, the Commission on Presidential Debates employs an individual known as Frequency Coordinator armed with a spectrum analyzer to detect radio communication. The spectrum analyzer wouldn't detect an Audio Spotlight. According to Joseph Pompei, founder and president of Holosonics, "The Audio Spotlight system uses only ultrasound, which is just a special kind of sound wave, so there is no specific radio frequency signature for a spectrum analyzer to see."

Another means of debate subterfuge is covert wireless radio. In the 1970s, the CIA created such a communications device, the SRR-100, for its operations officers in Moscow. The receiver was strapped under the officer's arm or onto his back, sprouting a wire that looped around his neck and was hidden by his collar. A second wire was encased in a Q-Tip-head-size earpiece placed in his actual ear, which in turn was entirely concealed by a silicone cast of the ear. Today spread-spectrum encrypted technology has been added to the audio -- against it, the spectrum analyzer is essentially defenseless. And the receiver and earpiece have been miniaturized into a single earpiece so small that an inspector would need an otoscope to detect its presence in a debater's ear. Otoscopes are not used at the debates. Nor are the debaters inspected. Both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton have been accused of wearing such systems, although without conclusive evidence.

The campaigns sign off on a Commission on Presidential Debates' memorandum that constitutes a set of rules. The 2012 rules included: "No props, notes, charts, diagrams or other writings or other tangible things may be brought into the debate by any candidate, including portable electronic devices, and prior to the beginning of the debate, the Commission will verify as appropriate that the candidates have complied..." Other than using the spectrum analyzer, how did the Commission enforce the rules in 2012? As Commission on Presidential Debates executive director Janet Brown put it, "You have to assume that a code of honor is being followed."

Were a candidate to, hypothetically, deviate from the code of honor, infrared light beam communicators would also do the trick. Prior to the 2008 vice-presidential debates, there were unfounded rumors that Sarah Palin would employ the "Voice of God," a system costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that transmitted messages to terrorists so it seemed they were hearing from Allah himself. Today there's an infrared communicator that debaters can get online for $28.99, not including shipping.

Finally, no look at debate-cheating tech would be complete without the old Get-a-Look-at-the-Test-Ahead-of-Time method. Moderators' questions aren't exactly kept under armed guard. In fact, there are almost no countermeasures beyond the networks' standard security--email passwords, night watchmen and so forth.

Thank goodness for the code of the honor.