10/03/2012 08:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Cheat in a Presidential Debate


During MSNBC's January 24, 2008 Republican presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida, 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 seems to cue Romney to use the word support. After reviewing the tapes, MSNBC surmised that a microphone had picked up the whispers of a member of the audience. In an e-mail to Florida's Sun-Sentinel, then Romney spokesperson Kristy Campbell deferred to the network by way of comment. Speculation persisted that the audience member was a helper or handler using a covert ultrasound-based communicator. Which, technically, could work.

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.

As Commission on Presidential Debates executive director Janet Brown told me, "You have to assume that a code of honor is being followed."

That's the extent of the Commission on Presidential Debate's rules with regard to cheating.

Infrared light beam communicators would also do the trick in the presidential debates, as I reported four years ago. At the time I investigated applicable systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the "Voice of God," which transmitted messages to terrorists so it seemed they were hearing from Allah himself. Today there's an infrared communicator that debaters can get on Amazon for $34.95, not including shipping.

Finally, no list of debate-cheating techniques would be complete without the old Get-a-Look-at-the-Test-Ahead-of-Time method. The moderators' questions aren't exactly kept under armed guard. According to a staffer at the PBS office of Jim Lehrer, moderator of tonight's presidential debate in Denver, no countermeasures were put in place beyond the premises' standard security.

Fortunately, deviation from the code of honor on the part of candidates for political office remains only a hypothetical.