The image to the left is the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. The particular type of Intelligence gathering they conduct is known as HUMAN INTELLIGENCE (HUMINT). A knowledge of how it is done and the special considerations that go into interpreting what they produce there can help people in other fields maximize their success and productivity as well.
Definition of HUMINT
Intelligence is intelligence gathered by people interacting with other
people. Now, that interaction is not always a mutual sharing. For
instance, if a spy somewhere manages to be sitting at a restaurant in
the booth next to an intelligence target, and she overhears the target
say something important, that is intelligence gathered by a person from a
person. It’s Human Intelligence. But, generally speaking, HUMINT
involves someone sharing information directly with another person. And
the person sharing the secret is generally doing so with a motive.
Frequently the motive is money.
Who Conducts HUMINT?
HUMINT in the United States Intelligence Community is conducted by the
CIA. The fact that they have clandestine agents all over the world is
hardly a secret, since you can apply to be a clandestine agent right on
their website! And the job of such clandestine
agents is to obtain information of intelligence value from other
people. Theoretically it does not matter who the people are from which
they glean their information. The only thing that matters is whether it
has intelligence value. In other words, a diplomat from country A
stationed in country B obviously knows things policy makers in the
United States would like to learn. But if that diplomat talks too openly
about state secrets when he’s had a few too many to drink, his butler
might be the source of valuable intelligence as well!
Intelligence is conducted primarily and formally by the CIA, there are
other government agencies that do Human Intelligence in an unofficial
capacity all the time. If a US diplomat, an employee of the State
Department, is at a dinner in the country of his or her posting, and
they learn something that may be of intelligence value, they are
obligated to report such information.
What are the most important issues in HUMINT?
definition, HUMINT is information one person wants another person to
have. The problem is, there are multiple motivations one could have for
sharing information. One of them may indeed be a desire to mislead! In
fact, there have been cases in the history of espionage in which a spy
has told another spy true information merely to establish credibility
for a long term plan to do substantial damage at a later date with
point is, whenever a spy learns information from an asset, all we
really know is that the asset wants the spy to have that info. We
technically know nothing about the credibility of the information
We all go through our day under what is known as the
“Truth Bias.” In other words, virtually everything people say to you all
day long is true. And, for that reason, we receive information and
incorporate it into our daily plans assuming it is true unless we learn
I mean, imagine if you tried to function under the
complete opposite of the truth bias. If everything you heard from
everyone in your life was assumed to be a lie unless you learned
otherwise, you would lose your mind in the exhaustion of chasing down
confirmation of the information around you.
The problem for
HUMINT is that we sometimes take in this information without subjecting
it to appropriate scrutiny. In the category of HUMINT, we should be much
more discriminating about the potential for misinformation than in our
day-to-day lives. And yet, in the history of espionage, credence has
sometimes been given to information despite obvious red flags.
the most famous recent example of an Intelligence failure connected to
the “Truth Bias” is the misplaced credence that was given to the
Intelligence source known as “Curveball.” This man, Rafid Ahmed Alwan,
had made claims to German Intelligence regarding the Chemical Weapons
capabilities of the Saddam Hussein regime in order to gain asylum and
permanent residency there. Information he supplied eventually was reported by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN in the lead up to the Iraq War.
reports contain an automatic caveat at the end, to the effect that
whatever information this report contains may have been provided with
the intention to “deceive or mislead.” Hopefully the presence of this
caveat leads policy makers to take the information provided for exactly
what it might be worth—which could be, in some cases, a grain of salt.
final anecdotal comment. As of the time I left the NSA, CIA reports
that I saw WERE BEING RELEASED IN ALL CAPS! Now, maybe they were only in
all caps in the systems I had access to. Maybe, like NSA reports, they
were actually released to policy makers in a nice professional office
But if all readers of these reports were seeing them in
all caps like I was, that is a potential problem. Anything written in
all caps seems to scream at you. I hope that the effect of all caps did
not result in a bias wherein the font itself seemed to imply urgency.
final point analysts have to remember when weighing the veracity of
HUMINT, and in fact this applies to other disciplines within the
Intelligence Community as well, is the possibility of what is known as
circular reporting. This is also known as False Confirmation. Multiple
sources all stating the same information are not necessarily independent
For instance, if you told all your friends a story, and
they all went and told the story to their spouses, the fact that the
story was related by a number of different people does not make it more
reliable. It came from a single source.
Circular Reporting is
precisely what makes false rumors seem credible. Once the rumor really
takes off, you are hearing it from multiple, seemingly unconnected,
sources. You think to yourself, that’s the third person I’ve heard that
news from today. It must be true. But that false rumor could have
started with one source, who intentionally fed misinformation to
someone, knowing it would take off like wildfire.
all go through our lives keeping our sanity with the Truth Bias. But in
both our personal and professional lives, the lessons learned from the
practice and failures of HUMINT in the world of espionage should give us
pause to consider the veracity of the information around us.
than react to all the information we receive as if it is necessarily
true, we should receive it through the following filter:
“Someone has just told me something because they wanted me to hear it.”
before we make decisions based on that information, we should consider
all of the possible motives for that information exchange.
remains probable that people who tell you things are telling you what
they think is the truth. But the lesson of HUMINT is that we should be
open to other possibilities. We should break out of the Truth Bias,
reacting to all information we hear as if it is, by the hearing,
For instance, I’ve learned in life to just smile
and nod whenever anyone tells me about their marriage. Whether they are
telling me it’s perfect or horrible, all they are telling me is what
they want me to hear. It does not necessarily have anything to do with
It is equally important to keep in mind that someone may
tell you something, legitimately believing the information to be true,
when it’s not. The take away from HUMINT is that information we receive
from another person is just that—information. The best way to make
decisions for our personal and professional lives is to collect as much
information as possible, even and especially information that
contradicts other sources, so that we can weigh all the facts.
when collecting and weighing information for important decisions in
your life, always consider the possibility that an abundance of evidence
for one position may have actually come from a single source.
 The CIA conducts HUMINT with its “Directorate of Operations (Formerly known as the Clandestine Service).”
A notorious example of this is the so-called “Double Cross System” run
by British Intelligence during WWII. Captured German agents who agreed
to collaborate were fed legitimate information to report back so that
eventual misinformation would be more readily believed. This plan is
credited with the success of the D-Day Landing. See, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben Macintyre (New York: 2012).
 “Iraq war source’s name revealed.” BBC News, November 2, 2007.
This post is an excerpt from my latest book, Top Secrets: Lessons for Success from the World of Espionage. It is available on Kindle and paperback.