A glance at recent headlines on the arrests of U.S. and foreign officials spying for foreign powers remind us that regardless of where technology takes us, a part of intelligence collection that remains critical is “Human Intelligence” or HUMINT. HUMINT remains the most problematic part of the intelligence game — simply because in many ways, it remains an art, not a science.
HUMINT, unlike ELINT or SIGINT, is not limited to intelligence services with large national budgets. Traditionally, it is the most inexpensive of the various “INTs” in the Intelligence process. Virtually anyone can do it — how many readers have elicited from a coworker who will be on the boss’ next promotion list? That is HUMINT of a sort. Rather than resources like money/manpower, HUMINT takes time… time to spot, assess and develop appropriate sources who are both 1) willing to engage in espionage and 2) have the access to make it worthwhile. Such classic espionage is in fact the world’s “second oldest” profession — and exactly what we saw in the case of both former DIA Officer Ron Rockwell Hansen, arrested for allegedly spying for China.
And Gonen Segev, a former Israeli official charged with spying for Iran.
Unfortunately, although HUMINT is difficult, the “take” from such an operation can be invaluable beyond measure. A good human spy, you see, can provide not just information on a new technology, but also perhaps the intention of leadership of a multinational corporation, a military organization — or a national leadership. This is why the Israeli government is deeply concerned over the Segev arrest.
Because HUMINT involves the elusive “human factor,” sources cannot be recruited on short notice or on a timetable. This is where Intel management comes in. Planning operations against future intelligence needs must be taken very seriously, so that agents are in place when required… if they ever are.
And therein lies the problem, and the reason, that the Russian and other nations intel services often outperformed Western intel services in HUMINT.
The U.S., as well as most of our NATO allies, are more “short sighted” when it comes to recruiting assets — they don’t like dormant ones, they want the payoff now. While this is more economical, in a sudden crisis, the intel service may come up short. If suddenly we witnessed a coup in, say, Macedonia, CIA wants to immediately know what is happening (so does the White House!) — but CIA would be unlikely to have a stable of assets already in place. Officers in country would be able to obtain information from ad hoc reporting sources, but barring a sudden “gold plated” walk-in (which does happen!), the intel would likely be thin.
In contrast, services like those of Russia and China are more willing to recruit a low-level official in hopes of his/her eventual advancement to higher levels. China in fact recruited an American college student and directed him to apply to the CIA in hopes that they would have an eventual penetration!
Russia’s use of “Illegals” — spies operating under entirely false identities and cover legends (much like in the TV program “The Americans”) springs from the same premise. Mission: land in America, slowly integrate into the society, establish contacts in the military or political spheres, and (eventually) report to Moscow.
Such “long view” operations are often the hallmark of authoritarian regimes, which by necessity invest huge resources into regime survival, repression, and information gathering — and thus do not blink in the face of such resource investment. In the real world, such HUMINT ops rarely work as planned, but as Stalin would say, “Quantity has a quality all its own…”
Meaning, if such “seeding” ops are launched on a massive scale, like those employed by the 1920s Russian Comintern — or by China at U.S. universities at present — chances are one or two will succeed — with titanic results.
Bad Guys: Advantage.
In the struggle between free and authoritarian societies, the West has usually been a net importer of defectors or “walk-ins” — people seeking to escape or avenge themselves against their repression. Many of these can provide enormously significant information or at least wake up national leadership to a threat never assumed.
Good Guys: Advantage.
Part 2 of this article looks at the motivations of some recently caught spies, and prospects for the future.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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