Human intelligence (HUMINT) is intelligence collected from people.
HUMINT involves collecting information through a variety of conversational techniques, in a wide variety of circumstances.
HUMINT ‘operators’ are typically referred to as Intelligence Officers who use talent spotting, rapport building, and source recruitment to collect on information requirements.
In this article we dive into the world of HUMINT, and discuss;
- The role of HUMINT Operators (aka Intelligence Officers),
- The traits of successful HUMINT officers,
- The skills and tradecraft used in HUMINT,
- The training required to become a successful HUMINT collector,
- Difference between HUMINT and other Intelligence Collection Methods, &
- HUMINT resources you can use for more information and training.
Roles of HUMINT Operators
The role of a good HUMINT officer is to identify sources and groups who have access to required information (usually secret or classified information) and build relationships to extract or collect this information.
While HUMINT collectors are probably best known for their role in recruiting spies and foreign agents, they routinely collect and report information from friendly forces, civilians, refugees, and local inhabitants too.
HUMINT operators also work in liaison roles with other agencies or foreign militaries, screen various personnel, or serve as an interrogator of captured enemy personnel or suspected criminals.
HUMINT personnel may even infiltrate a group or agency.
All of these functions require different skills, some of which overlap.
HUMINT Skills and ‘Tradecraft’
The skills needed for successful HUMINT collection require extensive training depending on the situation or application.
A good HUMINT collector must be able to do all of the following (and much more):
- Profile a target, to include their core motivations, needs, wants, and even their dreams and temper triggers.
- Recognize someone as a viable target – a skill known as ‘Talent Spotting’
- Leverage the information they know about a person, to steer them into a specific course of action.
- Understand and recognize mood shifts and nuances in conversation – a skill known as Emotional Intelligence
- Understand body language, facial microexpressions, and other tiny, barely perceptible clues to a target’s mindset.
- Successfully use specific techniques to maneuver the target into the place you need them to mentally, emotionally, or psychologically be.
- Approach, motivate and maintain networks of sources and contacts.
- Sometimes “become other people,” taking on personalities or roles outside of who they normally are.
In the world of HUMINT ‘profiling’ means being able to understand someone to such a great degree that you can somewhat predict their feelings and actions.
Profiling is required to identify someone’s motivations, so ultimately they can be recruited to provide the required information.
Recruitment can occur over a prolonged period with multiple interactions (to build rapport and trust) or over a period of minutes in an interview or conversation.
Profiling involves having an intimate understanding of the following:
- A person’s strengths and weaknesses—including the ones they are in denial about or unaware of.
- Their risk factor to your operation and/or goals.
- Their credibility and reliability.
- How they’ll behave or react in a variety of situations.
- How to best leverage all of this information for a successful interaction, whether it be long-term or short-term.
That level of understanding does not come easily in most cases; it often takes a literal study of the target, along with a varying amount of time.
There are various techniques that help HUMINT professionals recognize various traits and motivations to be leveraged either in the moment or later as part of an approach.
The core of profiling is understanding what motivates a person. For some, it’s validation or acceptance; for others, it may be power or ego.
There are several different possible motivators, and each one can be leveraged to steer the target.
If done properly, the target will not know he has been steered—he will only react, perhaps not even aware of why he is compelled to say or do what he is doing.
Psycholinguistic profiling is a tactic used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal law enforcement agencies, as well as more espionage-based entities.
A person’s language gives many clues as to not only their guilt or innocence in a given situation but also exposes who they are at their core, what their priorities are, and often how they can be best exploited.
Human Terrain Mapping
The core of HUMINT is human terrain mapping.
Just as topographic maps outline mountains and valleys, offering landmarks and allowing someone to forge a path, Human Terrain Mapping outlines the “path” that a collector should take to—and even through—a human target.
In HUMINT work, professionals need to be able to find, recruit, and maintain various contacts, information sources, and even subordinates that can perform various tasks (such as moving messages or serving as a cut-out).
Assets are chosen based upon a wide variety of criteria including their personality, their level of access to a specific program or information, and their ability or willingness to be exploited or recruited.
There are different types of recruits, and HUMINT targets don’t always have to be high-profile.
For example, a factory worker on an aerospace project can be a highly valuable source of information.
Other potential sources could be the wife or significant other of your actual target.
Targeting is often a slow, calculated process, not a quick cold call.
In some cases, one may even recruit several degrees away from the main target, slowly working their way closer to the goal; a barista at a coffee shop frequented by people who hold information you want, in the hopes of gleaning information from overheard conversations, or someone who works out at a gym with the person you eventually want to approach.
Consideration – Sometimes assets recruit back, and HUMINT professionals need to be able to recognize those efforts. Defectors, walk-ins, and other individuals who seek to offer information or place themselves in a position to be recruited could be looking to fulfil a role in another, opposing operation.
HUMINT collectors can sometimes be in an incredible amount of danger while attempting to recruit a source or asset.
Building Rapport and Interpersonal Communication
One of the biggest weapons in a HUMINT professional’s arsenal is the ability to be disarming, to build that interpersonal rapport.
HUMINT operators must able to carry on conversations with strangers in a friendly, engaging way, build rapport by ‘pushing the right buttons’ .
How? Start engaging people with trivial comments about ‘the weather’, ‘the game on the weekend’ or their shoes (it doesnt matter).
Personally, I like to note the front page of the newspaper each day when I get my coffee. Then I use the headline as a conversation starter…
Keep in mind that rapport doesn’t necessarily mean that the source likes or cares about the HUMINT professional.
In fact, it’s possible to have a level of dislike from the source and yet still have a valuable informational relationship.
Common misconception: Rapport is not ‘getting your source to like you.’
Building rapport is about doing what is necessary to facilitate the transfer of information. In some cases, a source may respond better to an authoritative or even rude persona. It all goes back to the profiling and adaptability.
TIP: one of the best resources on the topic is the book ‘How to win friends and influence people‘ by Dale Carnegie (first published in 1936).
Elicitation is the act of collecting information that the target is unaware they’re giving.
This is often done in the form of a casual conversation about a seemingly unrelated subject, meant to pull information while the target thinks you’re just chatting with them.
Not every HUMINT collection effort involves a full-on recruitment, in which the person being approached knows they are expected to provide information or perform an action.
While people who have secrets or access to certain types of information are often on guard while in their official capacity or work-related situations, they may not be as vigilant in “off-duty” scenarios.
Casual conversations at these times, especially if they occur over multiple interactions and while steering clear of sensitive or problematic topics, can often net big informational rewards.
Profiling plays a heavy role, and HUMINT collectors become very adept at recognizing human needs that can be exploited at the moment.
Someone who likes to complain, for instance, can be leveraged if someone offers them a chance to be heard…
Think about that dissatisfied colleague at work who just loves to complain if given a supportive ear.
Someone who needs to feel important or has a high-functioning ego may be a bit more loosely-spoken if they are complimented or looked up to.
Certain human traits and needs lend themselves well to exploitation, and a savvy HUMINT collector understands both those traits and how to recognize and leverage them in a variety of ways—often on the fly.
First Contact or Approach
The first contact with a potential recruit or target when looking to recruit or ‘flip’ a source is a critical one.
in the first instance, introducing yourself as a HUMINT professional working for X entity who wants information from them is obviously a bad idea.
Instead, HUMINT collectors often look for an opportunity to meet the target by “chance,” or be introduced by a mutual acquaintance.
In some cases, they seek to become part of the target’s background—such as the barista or fellow gym-goer—in an effort to slide into the target’s world in a natural way and take advantages of opportunities to chat with them.
In an interrogation scenario, however, the dynamic is much different. The target is well aware that the HUMINT professional wants information and may employ a number of strategies in order to prevent that goal from being realized.
In an approach situation, regardless of whether it takes place in an interrogation room, a foreign village, or your local coffee shop, there are three things that they all have in common:
- An approach establishes and maintains a level of conversational control over not only the individual event but the overall collection effort as well.
- An approach must begin and maintain a level of increasing rapport with the source or target. If the source does not have a level of trust with the collector, they will not give information.
- Create a valid profile for the source, in which suspected motives, needs, wants, emotional stability, cultural mores, and other information is confirmed and leveraged successfully.
There are certain situations in which people also tend to be more forthcoming with information. If a target is in a very stressful or frightening position, for instance, the first person they talk to who shows them kindness and compassion is in a great position to glean information.
People also tend to open up when they think they are speaking to someone who shares their worldview.
Therefore, a non-judgmental reaction—no matter what is confessed to or talked about—is critical.
Law enforcement uses this tactic often when talking to suspects in violent or sexually-based offences.
If the suspect feels they will be judged for what they say, they may not say it at all.
A sympathetic posture is often more effective, regardless of one’s own feelings are about the subject matter being discussed.
The Successful HUMINT Professional
Human intelligence is far more than ‘just talking to people.’
In order to do all of these things, the collector must possess the following traits:
- Adaptability and flexibility
So how do you become a HUMINT Collector?
While most HUMINT collectors get their start in the military or a federal agency such as the CIA, there are other avenues to a career in HUMINT, including a select few colleges with a HUMINT program.
These programs are generally taught by former or current professionals in the field.
During these programs, would-be HUMINT collectors learn skills like elicitation, profiling, and human terrain mapping—among many, many others.
For more information see our popular post – The ULTIMATE Guide to Becoming An Intelligence Officer…(With Frequently Asked Questions)
HUMINT vs. Other Collection Sources
There are many different intelligence disciplines—and each one brings its own pros and cons to the table. Comparatively speaking, HUMINT offers a literal up close and personal view of the collection process as opposed to SIGINT or IMINT, which can do its work across the globe from its target. It requires no technical knowledge or equipment and can be done on a desolate mountaintop in Afghanistan as well as a crowded venue in New York City.
HUMINT does have a few drawbacks. It’s the most subjective of all the disciplines and arguably requires the most fluid of skills. In addition, there’s more of a margin of error; if the collector misses cues, fails to properly build rapport, or is not adept at deception detection, they could be fed false or misleading information.
HUMINT is not the “best” or “worst” type of intelligence; it’s merely different than many of its more technical counterparts.
Not everyone is cut out to be a HUMINT collector, and the training can be intense. It is, however, an extremely rewarding career if one can learn to do it well—and the skills learned can be used for an incredible amount of good.
Would this tactic work in real life?