CHIS: Covert Human Intelligence Sources


    Covert Human Intelligence Sources
    A representative from the U.S. State Department congratulates and offers a partial payment to an informant: Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Troy Latham

    Covert Sources Defined

    The House of Commons and House of Lords defines a covert human intelligence source (CHIS) as “anyone who establishes or maintains a relationship with another person in order to secretly obtain or access information.”

    A CHIS may be someone who can use relationships with particular people or groups in order to collect information. Information transfers to the target’s “handler” – the individual who manages them and provides security and resources – who then uses the raw intelligence to form a product.

    Earning the CHIS designation is unique. Not every informant is one. This includes an individual submitting a tip to a confidential hotline. It may also include a member of the public voluntarily transmitting information to the aforementioned authorities. This also includes individuals with an obligatory or professional duty to report relevant information. While the information that disseminated that way can produce a product, it does not meet the qualification of being an established relationship for a covert purpose and lack protection under the unique laws that apply to covert human intelligence sources.

    Human intelligence gathering (HUMINT) will probably always be a hallmark discipline aside from other related disciplines, such as signals intelligence (SIGINT), open-source intelligence (OSINT), geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), etc.

    It is like the idea of conducting warfare in a modernized age, where drones and elaborate technology have replaced tasks that traditionally required humans. Even with such technology, there will always be a need for ground elements in a conventional war. Drone strikes and precision fire support alone will not win wars. Likewise, complete reliance on modernized intelligence gathering methods will not be effective without HUMINT, and without the proper use of covert human intelligence sources.

    CHIS Authorisation  

    Authorisation to use a CHIS depends on the public authority who handles the operation. According to British Parliament, there are general rules for the areas underneath authorisation:

    • Necessity & Proportionality: the use of the CHIS must be necessary on statutory grounds, as well as proportional to the desired achievement if carried out. The levels of intrusion that a human source may have to navigate are not static and contain varying degrees of seriousness. This means that authorisation is a case-by-case basis in order to mitigate disproportionality. Perceived harm, size and scope of source activity, and privacy of others are some examples of considerations in this area.

    • Extent: the extent and limitations of the conduct allowed by the CHIS and any other involved parties needs clarity.

    • Collateral Intrusion: special considerations need to be taken to ensure the private life and family of the CHIS cannot face collateral damage by the operation.  

    • Local Considerations / Community Impact: similarly, to collateral intrusion into family members and individuals within the orbit of the CHIS, local communities are a consideration.

    Situationally Relevant Rules to Authorisation

    • Vulnerable Individuals: this includes people who possess some sort of physical or mental disability, or who cannot protect themselves against an external threat. If the potential CHIS meets any of those criteria, they must have an essential reason to be used.

    • Juvenile Sources: sources under the age of 18 are juvenile and therefore have an extra set of special considerations. No source under 16 is can take part without validation from a parent or legal caretaker. Juvenile sources have a shorter allowed operational duration.

    • Online Activity: interactions online between a handler and CHIS are subject to going through proper authorisation if the communication establishes or develops a covert relationship. This includes chat rooms, private messages, and other forms of social media.

    CHIS Operations

    They subject the raw intelligence that is collected from covert human intelligence sources to the same intelligence cycle as any other information. This hallmark cycle includes tasking, collecting, evaluation, collation, analysis, inference development, and dissemination into a final product.

    CHIS delivered information must go through a rigorous evaluation process before being sanitized for source protection and then disseminated. The “4×4 system” is a commonly used method of evaluating sources within law enforcement communities. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this system evaluates:

    • Doubt regarding authenticity, trustworthiness, integrity, competence, and history of complete reliability.

    • Frequency of reliability of source.

    • Doubt regarding source accuracy.

    • The logical nature of the information being delivered.

    • The ability for the information to be corroborated.

    • The relationship between the information delivered by the source and information only known to the handler or authority in charge of the operation the source is supporting.

    The Importance of Memory

    In the book Covert Human Intelligence Sources, John Potts presents how understanding the human memory is essential for CHIS handlers. Similarly, to falling into analytical pitfalls in the intelligence cycle, and learning structured techniques to mitigate them, investing time into memory studies is paramount. Areas of memory Potts argues for understanding are:

    • Perception: Perception includes identifying something based on previous experience. Perceiving a car is a car because you have knowledge of what a car is. Or through a more “top down” approach, meaning inference based on sensory information. There must also be an awareness that the CHIS can incorporate subjective experience into the intelligence. This can lead to inaccuracies.

    • Partisanship / Bias: A strong level of partisanship or bias can use that lens over the information delivered to the handler.

    • Social stereotypes: Pre-conceived assumptions about someone based on social class, ethnicity, cultural practice, religion, age, or other related areas.

    • Stress / Weapon Focus: Stressful events or involving a weapon can have a powerful effect when recollecting a subject’s memory.


    As mentioned in the beginning, there will always be a requirement for covert human intelligence sources. Production of a robust and as accurate as possible intelligence product requires a multitude of tools from various disciplines. Relevant information that comes from a source directly connected to subjects within an operation is hard to replicate with technology. The proper use of authorisation and special precautions, as well as the understanding of the intelligence and information evaluation process, give an ethical and law-based framework CHIS programs can operate under.

    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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