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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

Intelligence and HUMINT

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

This is a hard topic to get started. The difficulty lies in how to explain this to people who don’t do it for a living. There is so much that goes into the collection of intelligence for the formulation of national security policy, and so much effort that goes into HUMINT, Human Intelligence, the collection of intelligence information from human sources, spies. Part of the difficulty results from the numerous misconceptions about HUMINT, many produced from movies and novels.

Despite what many believe, HUMINT, intelligence collection, espionage, whatever you want to call it, is not about killing your opponent, like James Bond, or throwing a bunch of money at anyone that comes your way. It is not that Bourne Identity operations center locked in to every camera and computer round the world that instantaneously provides all the data you need to follow and locate any individual on earth. That is all the stuff of fiction. It makes for enjoyable storytelling, it helps solve plot problems in novels and keeps us riveted to our seats in the movies, but it has little similarity to real world intelligence operation. First of all, you can’t get intelligence from people you kill.

HUMINT tends to be a slow, painstaking process, involving assessing whether an individual has the access to information of value to the policy makers you are supporting, whether that individual has motivations and vulnerabilities that would make them susceptible to being recruited as a source of intelligence, and whether that individual has the personal quality to actually conduct espionage. All of these qualities take time to discover s people generally do not reveal this level of personal information willy nilly. On top of this, you have to do this without being discovered. Remember, the average case officer or operations officer, the real world equivalent of James Bond, is operating in a foreign country. He or she is under the scrutiny of the local security service who is on the lookout for just such activities. If they discover what is being done they will either shut down the operation and throw you out of the country, thus ending the ability to collect intelligence, or control the operation and provide false or misleading information through this individual you were trying to recruit. Neither is a good outcome. Therefore, you need to be careful, you need to be secretive, and do it under the noses of the local security service.

All of this takes time. To turn on an specific HUMINT intelligence can take months if not years. Then there is the issues of validating the source, that is, making sure the source is legitimate and is not lying to you, making sure their information is reliable. Then there is the time and procedures that are required to handle the source, that is the mechanics of meeting the source and debriefing them for information. Remember, the local security service is on the lookout for this type of activity. You cannot just pickup the phone and call your source, the locals are monitoring your phones and likely following you or others conducting intelligence operations. It takes time to arrange and conduct meetings with sources. All this is called tradecraft, how to conduct espionage without getting caught, or at least limiting the chance of getting caught, because no intelligence operation is without risk.

At this point you may ask “why even conduct HUMINT operations?” Technical intelligence collection is relatively easy in that you can usually do it from the safety of an installation and the information can be collected real time instead of the time-consuming methods involved in HUMINT. Let me tell you a story I was told when I first joined the CIA a long time ago.

In 1968 the Cold War, U.S. vs USSR, was in full swing. The world was divided into two or three camps, depending upon whether you accepted that there were non-aligned nations. The USSR controlled what was the Eastern Europe, the Warsaw Pact, their equivalent of NATO. In the then Czechoslovakia, a more moderate government had taken power and was pressing for reforms. These reforms were more in line with Western governments than the Soviet Union. As the situation became more tense, world governments worried that the Soviet Union would take military action to end the reforms, known as the Prague Spring, as it had in East Germany and Hungary in the past. Significant technical collection mechanisms were focused on the Soviet military units that would likely launch an invasion of Czechoslovakia. Coverage was near total. The Soviets could not move without the West, especially the U.S., knowing about it.

The Soviets, past masters at camouflage, knew that technical collection mechanisms were focused on them. They had a small unit mimic the communications patterns of a Soviet army, the one expected to invade Czechoslovakia, so that anyone intercepting the communications would see normal activity and all the units in place. They moved the units at night and under camouflage, this was before the sophisticated sensors on modern satellites, to avoid being detected. The world woke up to find the Soviets in Czechoslovakia.

Now this is the story I was told by a senior official. It could be true or partly true, it could have been altered to make a point, but it does make a valid point. Technical means can usually identify enemy capabilities, sometimes they can identify orders and from those things intent can be deduced, but a human source in a key position with the right access can tell you plans and intentions, they can tell you whether the decision has been made to get the tanks rolling. More on this in the next post.

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