Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lessons for Success from the World of Espionage: HUMINT

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

 Human 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?

 Most 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![1] 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!

 While Human 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?

 By 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 misinformation.[2]
 The 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 itself.

 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 otherwise.

 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.

 Perhaps 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.[3] Information he supplied eventually was reported by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN in the lead up to the Iraq War.
 CIA 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.

 One 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 style.
 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.

 Circular Reporting

 A 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 voices.
 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.

 Lessons Learned

 We 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.
 Rather 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.”

 And before we make decisions based on that information, we should consider all of the possible motives for that information exchange.

 It 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, therefore true.
 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 reality.

 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.
 And 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.

[1] The CIA conducts HUMINT with its “Directorate of Operations (Formerly known as the Clandestine Service).”
[2] 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).

[3] “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.