A Guide to Human Intelligence (HUMINT)


    1. Why is HUMINT important? 

    Human intelligence (HUMINT), or Human Intelligence, refers to the collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination of information gathered from human sources, such as interviews and interrogations, to provide valuable insights into various matters of interest.

    In modernity, human civilization is facing a reckoning of sorts. As computing power increases, the need for humans to perform certain tasks and professions decreases. This is clear with the rise of OpenAI and the visible exponential growth of the learning models that compose its inner machinery.

    Some consider the rise of open-source AI to be the next evolution of our species, and a net positive for society. And, within the field of intelligence and security, the most optimistic of the bunch can see a future where artificial intelligence is in symbiosis with your run-of-the-mill analyst. Or, in tandem with “OSINT”, another force pushing HUMINT further into supposed obscurity.   

    Automation and artificial intelligence are an example of machines replacing humans. However, within the plane of reality, humans will never cease to be a necessary component of the intelligence cycle. Nor will HUMINT cease to be one of the most vital collection disciplines of them all.

    2. How do you do HUMINT?

    The tradecraft methodologies practised in HUMINT are complex. Similar to intelligence analysis, they are part science, part art. Different intelligence agencies, departments, units and firms have their own way of conducting operations within this discipline, but they all share overlap with the basic concepts that provide the scaffolding. 

    2.1 Human sources

    Human sources, or “agents” are at the crux of the HUMINT discipline. Further, identifying the type of human source needed is a need for a practitioner. 

    Michael Herman created a helpful model to show this – the “HUMINT pyramid of course sensitivity, quantity, and value.” 

    The structure of the pyramid is relatively straightforward – sources that are available in the highest quantity, least level of sensitivity, and least value are at the base. As you ascend the pyramid, quantity decreases, and sensitivity and value increase. Further, the pyramid breaks into three tiers. (source)

    2.1.1 The HUMINT Pyramid of Source Sensitivity, Quantity, and Value

    Bottom tier

    Business contacts, refugees, casual travellers, and subject matter experts, are all easily accessible and plentiful in volume. In essence, these types of sources are not usually purveyors of groundbreaking secrets from state or non-state actors, yet possess potential intelligence value. 

    Herman acknowledges that the rise of open-source information and advancement in technical collection methods – i.e. satellites, social media, general open-source information – creates a reduction in the necessity for these types of HUMINT sources. However, Herman also argues that this reduction does not nullify their utility. Even in the face of a world dominated by the Internet of Things, the controversial dominance of OSINT, and advanced collection platforms, humans still physically connect behind closed doors. And, humans still retain information outside the reach of even the most technical collection asset. 

    If you view the collection in support of an intelligence requirement as a puzzle, these types of sources are small pieces that connect larger completed chunks. They supplement all-source collection without forcing an agency or organisation to divert significant resources or assets. The risk is low, but there is an increased potential for enhanced direction and clarity in the analytical process.

    Middle tier

    Political opponents, exiles, alternative governments, occasional secret informants, and wartime-occupied populations are sources that break away from the abundant and transient nature of bottom-tier examples. They are when you venture towards the more clandestine side of HUMINT, although with varying degrees.

    Top tier

    At the very top are agents, informers, and defectors. These sources are the deepest level of espionage. The quantity is scarce and costs high. However, the potential intelligence value is also high.

    2.1.2 Source recruitment

    Recruiting intelligence sources is an art of its own. There is no simple way to condense that art into a few bullet points, but a helpful starting point is the mnemonic “MICE”. MICE (Money, Ideology, Compromise, Excitement) is a device that captures the essence of what may lead someone to become a HUMINT source.

    • Money: the allure of money is one of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour in general. For a potential intelligence agent, the right price can be enough to take bold risks and divulge sensitive information to a foreign case officer. (source)
    • Ideology: practitioners consider ideologically driven agents some of the most dangerous, especially for counterintelligence officers tasked with identifying double agents and traitors within their respective agencies. Ideology can come in many forms, including religious, political, and social affiliations. However, for a case officer, an ideologically driven source is potentially powerful. (source)
    • Compromise/coercion: in contrast to ideology, agents coerced or compromised into sharing intelligence are undesirable. An ideologically driven agent has a foundation grounded in a set of ideas that transcends the individual. An agent who is compromised or coerced (i.e., blackmailed) is likely easily influenced and prone to avoiding punishment. Because they do not willingly cooperate, they also risk carrying negative human emotions about being an agent, which can become problematic to a case officer. (source)
    • Excitement/ego: finding the way to “stroke” or manipulate the human ego and the need for excitement is a prime way for a case officer to recruit an asset. Although both these traits group together, they have some differences. Excitement is a transient feeling, whereas the ego if worked well by the case officer, can have a longer duration. (source)

    2.1.3 Interrogation

    Interrogation is an integral part of the HUMINT discipline. Practitioners with this skill set can access difficult-to-reach mental compartments within the human psyche.

    According to U.S. military doctrine, interrogation is defined as “the process of questioning a source to obtain the maximum amount of usable information.” (source) Further, interrogators use a diverse set of questioning techniques that, similar to many aspects of HUMINT, draw from studies of human psychology and behaviour. And, similar to the HUMINT pyramid, there are different interrogation sources. The interrogator must observe or learn about the individual source of the interrogation, to identify which type they are (source):

    • Cooperative and friendly: Open, easy to talk to. For maximum effectiveness, the interrogator must maintain a balance between maintaining a friendly atmosphere and keeping the interrogation focused.
    • Neutral and non-partisan: Will not volunteer information outright and may require specific lines of questioning for the interrogator to break through.
    • Hostile and antagonistic: The most difficult to interrogate. Will require patience and self-discipline on behalf of the interrogator. This source is best interrogated in a setting with fewer time constraints.
    Interrogator qualities

    There are certain human qualities that are needed to be an effective interrogator. These qualities are not all required, but a skilled practitioner will have a dynamic mix of them within their personality, or will adopt them if they are lacking (source):

    • Motivation: Motivation is detrimental for interrogators. Not only for the profession but as it is a trait that is utilised for high benefit in most areas of one’s life.
    • Alertness: The ability to be attuned to the source’s every move and shift in body or tone.
    • Patience and tact: Both qualities help the interrogator build rapport.
    • Credibility: Establishing and maintaining credibility helps gain further information from the source.
    • Objectivity: Important to maintain neutrality and not react to the emotions of sources. Failure to do so risks contaminating the extracted information.
    • Self-control: Avoiding the display of emotions or emotional behaviours.
    • Adaptability: The ability to adapt to various personalities and people.
    • Perseverance: Not giving up despite running into obstacles or difficult sources.
    • Appearance and demeanour: Anything from the tone to personal upkeep and style can influence the outcome of the interrogation.
    • Initiative: Essential to maintaining throughout all operations.

    3. HUMINT tips and tricks

    • Interpersonal relationships: It is helpful for HUMINT practitioners to have a high degree of emotional intelligence and general interpersonal skills.
    • Communication: Being able to communicate, both verbally, and written, is essential for HUMINT practitioners. Unlike other technical forms of intelligence collection, HUMINT relies on interpersonal relationships. Communication is not only a hallmark skill to establish and grow those relationships but also reports back to your parent agency or organisation.
    • Cultural training: Being proficient in another language is a good place to start, but in general, the more culturally sensitive you are, the better equipped you will be for HUMINT collection.

    4. Common mistakes in HUMINT

    • Cultural issues: HUMINT officers in the field need in-depth cultural training prior to the start of their operations. Failure to misunderstand cultural norms can cause poor communication and trust between the officer and their agents/potential agents.
    • Source issues: Improper vetting of sources and sources being compromised or caught by their home nation are two examples of potential issues that come from source management.
    • Logistical issues: Not receiving proper logistical support for operations.

    5. Tools and resources for HUMINT

    6. Frequently asked questions about HUMINT

    1. What are the benefits of HUMINT to national security?
      HUMINT is a vital component of national security because of its ability to penetrate targets and collect intelligence outside the capability of technical collection disciplines.
    2. How is HUMINT different from other forms of intelligence gathering?
      HUMINT is primarily concerned with humans, whereas technical collection methods may have a human element, but are more concerned with signals, data, images, etc.
    3. How is HUMINT used in the private sector?
      Contrary to belief, HUMINT is a valid and highly useful profession within the private sector. Many of the skills covered in this guide are transferable to a non-covert area of operations, with some alterations. For example, HUMINT practitioners can be used in the cybersecurity world to build target packages against adversaries. And, there is always a need for instructors to train clients or run seminars regarding HUMINT tradecraft.
    4. What challenges do HUMINT operators face in today’s world?
      The “age of information” and publically accessible artificial intelligence is a problem that will likely increase soon, as technology and the global population’s reliance on it increases at a seemingly exponential rate. As there will likely always be a need for HUMINT operators, that does not mean they will face challenges that make their practice more difficult. Technology is but one of those challenges.

    7. Advanced techniques

    • Psychological operations: As defined by the RAND, psychological operations (PSYOPS) are “operations to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behaviour of opposition groups.” HUMINT practitioners are well-suited to support these types of operations thanks to their diverse skill sets. (source)
    • Technical collection: Assisting other collection disciplines within the all-source field. For example, technical collection agencies can utilise a HUMINT practitioner to install sensors or beacons in the field, in support of their own operations.
    • Covert action: Covert action, from an intelligence perspective, is a definitive function of HUMINT agencies and clandestine officers. Scholars Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt define it as “the attempt by one government to pursue its foreign policy objectives by conducting some secret activity to influence the behaviour of a foreign government or political, military, economic, or societal events and circumstances in a foreign country.” (source)

    8. Case studies

    8.1 Ashraf Marwan

    Ashraf Marwan, also known as “The Angel,” was a controversial figure in espionage and Cold War history. Marwan was the son-in-law of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader from 1956 to 1970. The Mossad appointed him as an agent in 1968. His position in the Egyptian government, entering through Nasser, provided long-term access to sensitive information. Marwan provided Israel with an opportunity to react to the surprise attack during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The recently declassified documents by Israel on the Yom Kippur War include mentions of Marwan, including the telegram with the information provided by the spy to prevent the surprise. Despite his controversial business dealings, Marwan’s role as a Mossad agent is almost certainly one of the most significant espionage cases.

    8.2 Eli Cohen

    Eli Cohen was an Israeli spy who infiltrated the Syrian political and military establishment in Damascus from 1961 to 1965. Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Syrian Jewish parents, Cohen was an active member of the Zionist movement during his youth. He pursued engineering studies in Egypt. After being briefly detained by Egyptian authorities during the Israeli occupation of Sinai, he was expelled and moved to Israel in 1957.

    Cohen joined Unit 188 of the Israeli Defense Force’s Intelligence Branch, and eventually the Mossad. He was sent to Buenos Aires to prepare for his mission in Syria. In Damascus, he quickly climbed the social hierarchy, befriended prominent figures in the Syrian establishment, and gained access to valuable intelligence. However, he was eventually caught and publicly hanged in Damascus in 1965. Despite the debate surrounding the value of his contributions to Israeli intelligence, Cohen’s espionage is considered one of Mossad’s most successful operations.

    8.3 Nancy Wake

    Nancy Wake, also known as the “White Mouse,” was a remarkable woman who played a crucial role in the French Resistance during World War II. She joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1943 and became one of their most effective operatives, helping to organize and coordinate the resistance movement in France. She was known for her courage, quick thinking, and her ability to evade the Gestapo, who had placed a five million franc bounty on her head. Wake was awarded numerous medals and honors for her service during the war, including the George Medal, the Croix de Guerre, and the Medal of Freedom. Her incredible bravery and determination continue to inspire people today.

    9. Conclusion

    Despite technological advancements and an ever-changing global environment, HUMINT will always be a necessary collection discipline. It goes into the rooms satellites cannot enter, and talks to the people SIGINT cannot wiretap. The practice itself, as highlighted throughout this guide, is quite complex and full of diverse tradecraft techniques. However, despite those complexities, it is heavily concerned with human behaviour at its very core. Humans will always have motivations for the behavior, and HUMINT is a way to exploit those motivations for the sake of national security.

    Michael Ellmer
    Michael Ellmer
    Michael is the Head of Research and Editor at Grey Dynamics. He spent eight years the United States Marine Corps infantry, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in strategic intelligence analysis at Brunel University London.

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