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HUMINT Explained

Updated on June 29, 2010

It is said that the world’s second oldest profession was intelligence. Before all this James Bondesque technology, Human Intelligence or HUMINT as it’s colloquially known, was the primary collection platform. As you may have guessed, HUMINT is any intelligence gathered from a human source. This could be interrogations, military source operations, or even recruited spies with placement and access to the desired information. In fact, the word “eavesdropping” gets its name from the early version of HUMINT in which a source would drop down from eaves and overhangs outside windows and balconies to listen in on discussions between kings and generals. Once the source had the desired information, he would then have to report it to his handler. A handler is the person that tells a source what information is needed. The handler will also have other sources that are working on other collection requirements, or even the same ones just to make sure that there’s only one version of things out there. With information coming from multiple sources, the savvy HUMINTer can do some low level analysis as well and submit a finished product to his boss.

“All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances…”

~William Shakespeare - All the world's a stage

Shakespeare compares the world to a play and it seems appropriate as politicians feed the illusion that everything is ok in the world. If “all the world’s a stage”, then let the executive level politicians and decision-makers be playwrights while the HUMINT is the director that coordinates everything, bringing their vision to life while going unnoticed by the audience. Positioned in plain sight, he is responsible for manipulating the audience and drawing from them tears of joy and sadness where the intelligence officer would draw information. The actors, stagehands and technicians are all the director’s agents. The actors functioning as go-betweens from him to the audience and vise versa, playing out the script as he has instructed them and each performing their part to perfection. The stagehands engage in more clandestine support; it is from his post behind the scenes that a stagehand will control everything that the actors are exposed to as they make “their exits and their entrances.” In glancing at the tradecraft terms, one may think that they have the common theme of Hollywood’s cloak and dagger genre. Upon closer inspection however, one may notice the theme of intelligence operatives distancing themselves from covert and clandestine operations (the stage itself) and the public eye, or the “spotlight” so to speak. A good director will sit discreetly in the back row and simply watch the show constantly analyzing everything as it happens. And though he is in plain view of the audience, he will go unnoticed because their eyes are all on the actors on stage. In the real world, rather than the stage, the public would have its eyes glued to the TV as the media bombarded them with the juicy bits of actuality. Just as the stagehands and technicians don’t usually take a bow at the end of the show, as intelligence operatives, clandestine operatives never receive any public accolades for a mission done well. The most an intelligence officer can hope for would be a “jockstrap medal” (Smith 15), and if he is lucky enough to get both a nod and a wink, he can take pride in the fact that he just received the covert equivalent of a tickertape parade. If executed properly, their role will go completely unnoticed to those who don’t know to look for us and recognize our presence.

Secondly, they take advantage of the weaknesses of their agents to achieve their objectives. For example, an egotistical “spotlight hog” may be cast for the lead role and expected to perform so well as to have the roaring with laughter, seething with anger, sobbing in anguish or sighing in relief as the plot unfolds. This agent will be supported by tree-shaking agents provocateur (Smith 6), actors themselves, planted in the audience to laugh the loudest and react strongly guiding the response of the audience (which is essentially a civilized mob) before they have time to think for themselves about what they are seeing and how they want to feel about it. This is why we have soundtracks in movies and canned laughter in sitcoms. Stagehands support the actors on stage by positioning props whereas an intelligence agent would place a dead drop. Props that aren’t where they are supposed to be on stage may be discreetly passed from one actor to another in plain sight, the thespian equivalent of a “brush pass” (Smith 34). The biggest theme that ties them together is controlling the situation. Just as the technicians discreetly have complete control of everything in the theater, intelligence officers, through the use of agents, strive to control a situation “in theater.” It is these two antecedent themes that lead to the third because handlers take advantage of assets’ weaknesses to distance themselves from the situation so that they can better manipulate it to support U.S. intelligence objectives.

Just as a ventriloquist that moves his lips is unconvincing, in order for an audience to forget that what they are seeing isn’t real, the director must ensure that the people who work behind the scenes do in fact remain behind the scenes, separating the backstage reality from the center stage illusion. In the same way, an agent’s handler will go to great lengths to compartmentalize agents and protect his sources from being compromised as shown in “Agents of Innocence.”

“If the operation was blown at any point, endangering Faud’s status in Lebanon, Rogers pledged that he would arrange his relocation and termination in the United States. With the safety net out, Rogers felt more comfortable. He didn’t like making mistakes, especially when they put his agents at risk.”

(Ignatius 55)

Comparably, in order for the public to feel that they really do have the best person in office, decision-makers must maintain deniability if they hope to be reelected. This is part of the reason that it is so imperative for intelligence operatives to separate themselves from the situations that they seek to create and control with tradecraft practices such as use of go-betweens, unwitting agents and dead drops so that everything remains untraceable.

As far as taking advantage of weaknesses, Lowenthal’s book “Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy” states, “HUMINT collection involves the manipulation of other human beings as potential sources of information” (Lowenthal 260). Some agents have innate character flaws that their controllers can play on, such as narcissism or being egotistical like the “spotlight hog” mentioned previously. Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 2-14 Counterintelligence specifically states “By appealing to the ego, self-esteem, or prominence of the subject, you may be able to guide him or her into a conversation on the area of operation.” (Rhodes 7-25) In another case from “Agents of Innocence,” where Rogers and Faud are unsure of an agent’s motives and intentions, Rogers confides in Faud, “The secret is that it doesn’t matter what Jamal thinks he’s doing so long as he plays the game.” (Ignatius 57) At other times, agents need a little extra motivation and incentive to remain loyal. According to Cherkashin, one of the most effective methods of recruiting is using a swallow (Cherkashin 49) in the honey trap (Smith 128) method to ensnare a target with blackmail. This tactic succeeds by playing on the primal weakness of lust and possibly the secondary weaknesses of the need for approval and lack of impulse control common to so many men. During the Cold War, HUMINTers would seek to create a need and then to satisfy it developing a sense of dependency of the agent upon the provider as in the case of offering illegal drugs. When the weakness is greed, it can be satisfied by money as was the case with Aldrich Ames whose financial distress started him down the path of treachery. After his financial problems were resolved, he continued to spy out of greed rather than necessity (Cherkashin 186). There was also another instance involving Mikhail Ivanov (fictional name) whose weakness was gambling, which resulted in a significant gambling debt. He was approached by American intelligence offering to pay the debt and make the problem go away in exchange for political secrets (Cherkashin 92). Once an agent has a strong enough weakness that we can use, we can control them by either bribery or blackmail. Still there are those rare occasions where an agent will do something purely for ideological reasons such as in “The Black Tulip” when Sasha gets Shadrin killed in a mine field after acquiring the book full of figurative dimes that that Shadrin been planning to drop on Klimenko (Bearden 93). Sasha double crossed Shadrin, tied up the loose ends and tipped Klimenko without the aid of external motivation or incentive beyond his personal value of loyalty.

One would find it very difficult to come across instances of the above stated themes in current events or the media as methods of intelligence operations are not publicized and the successes are even more closely guarded. In fact, if the average citizen knew what really happened in half of the covert operations, they would likely deem it unethical. However, the Marine Corps’ current doctrine regarding counterintelligence and its tactics includes forms such as a “Source Lead Development Report” that has fields specifically for “Placement and Access” to determine where an intelligence officer will be able to employ his agents while maintaining distance from the situation (Rhodes E-16). The same publication also includes entry fields for motivation, character, personality and trait exploitation (Rhodes E-17) and the final page of the report template includes a field for strengths and weaknesses that should be accounted for and/or taken advantage of (Rhodes E-18).

In seeking to control the situation, operatives control things such as the need to know and compartmentalization of information and groups to prevent leaks. Through blackmail and bribery, controllers take advantage of weakness to coax and coerce agents into doing whatever may be necessary. The handler’s success is based on the agent’s success, so it is imperative that he control the situation in such a way that the odds are stacked in America’s favor thus continuing to preserve freedom and democracy. No matter how much the average citizen may take them for granted, intelligence officers remain unnoticed making certain that the play goes as scripted.

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Bearden, Milt. 1998. The Black Tulip: A Novel of War in Afghanistan. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Cherkashin, Victor with Gregory Feifer. 2005. Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer. New York: Basic Books

Ignatius, David. 1987. Agents of Innocence . New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Rhodes, John E. 1998. MCWP 2-14 Counterintelligence . Washington, DC. Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

Smith, Thomas Jr. 2003. Encyclopedia of The Central Intelligence Agency. New York: Checkmark Books.

If you're interested in HUMINT Check these out

The Black Tulip: A Novel of War in Afghanistan
The Black Tulip: A Novel of War in Afghanistan

In reading The Black Tulip, one finds many realistic occurrences of tradecraft in action.

Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer - The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames
Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer - The True Story of the Man Who Recruited Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames

This non-fiction gives the account of Victor Cherkashin's career with Soviet Intelligence

Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency
Encyclopedia of the Central Intelligence Agency

A must-have for Intel students; The Webster's of Intelligence.

Agents of Innocence: A Novel
Agents of Innocence: A Novel

From the CIA Required Reading List



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