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The Secret Agent - Joseph Conrad

Information gathering is essential for an intelligence service during its institutional activity for the safeguard of national security.  Every mean is substantially allowed within, of course, the legal boundaries attributed to the agency by laws or government mandates.  The wider the spectrum of operative independence allowed the agency, the less red tape and controls are exerted (as a guarantee of secrecy) upon it, the more efficient its service and operative results become.


The traditional form of information gathering is called by the intelligence community "Humint", meaning "Human Intelligence", thus the acquisition of information through the use of informers (on the inside level) or spies (as they are tagged in literature) in case we are operating abroad.  Outside of the literary context they are better known as informative collaborators.

Humint used to be the predominant activity of an intelligence service, especially when there did not exist more sophisticated means of information gathering.  A traditional job old as the world itself, espionage has then encompassed more technological espects:  it became "sigint" ("signal intelligence", aka intercepting communications), "elint" ("electronic intelligence", aka intercepting electronic signals). "Imint" ("image intelligence", aka the acquisition of info through satellite photos), decryption of cyphered messages (with the massive use of computers to read the content of encrypted messages), up to the gathering and selection – through a filer – of all the news coming from the media across the world ("open sources").

But as we mentioned above, humint remains the principal activity of an intelligence agency, the oldest but also the most important of all.  One must find interesting information objectives and those individuals that could help in supplying the news.  It is after homing in on such subjects that the specific recruiting activity begins (it is this activity that is often characterized by difficulty and dangerousness).

The Humint technique

The difficulty derives from the fact that the so-called potential "source" must be approached, studied, convinced and finally recruited.  This often happens within a hostile context like that of a foreign country where counter-espionage activity is exercised in order to prevent the unveiling of that country's secrets.

The recruiter must have high communicative qualities and must be able to pinpoint and understand the weaknesses of individuals, to study psychologically his/her behavior and relations, to understand why the person is collaborating (thus the motives for his/her treason, that can vary: money, revenge, rancor, patriotism...).  Most importantly the recruiter must evaluate the cost of the collaboration (the following being an incontrovertible truth: each person has a price – not necessarily in cash).

If the recruiter does not gather all of this data he/she cannot objectively proceed with the recruiting because the perils along the path are greater than the hypothetical gain made from the collaboration.  The recruited could belong to the local intelligence, he/she could be an agent provocateur, or a braggart, a double-crosser (those that betray once could betray again even in the opposite direction).

What if the person were an alcoholic or a drug user, making his/her personality feint and talkative?  Does he/she spend money on gambling or women?  All of these questions need a punctual answer.  Thus prudence and sagaciousness are a must.

It is true that the recruiter, before proceding and approaching the subject, transfers all of the data gathered on him/her to the Central office that checks the files for known contraindications, although it is often just a routine precaution.  This is especially helpful when attempting to recruit a national.  Yet if it is a foreigner in a foreign country – as is often the case – most of the evaluation is carried out by the recruiter him/herself, the same person at risk on the field.

Once the recruiting has taken place and a congruous balance – both psychological and financial – between the motivation for treason and the relative price have been found, only then does the recruiter assume the new configuration of administrator of that source.  This role also requests psychological endowment on the part of the recruiter:  one must gain the trust of the source, establish a familial relationship with him/her, overcome worries and fears.  A form of contact, as casual as possible, must be agreed upon.  One must choose an encrypted language for communications and create a social context that can render the contact between the two individuals plausible.  At this stage every request that is made on the source must be dosed on the accessibility of the informative objective and on the dangerousness of the information gathering involved.  All of it must happen very gradually.

Yet this stage is still, on the part of the recruiter/administrator, a time for verifying.  The source is asked to provide informative details (even on known data) to verify whether the source says the truth or boasts, or even sends one on the wrong track.

If the source clears these verifications, then the common path of the recruited and of his administrator will proceed in time.  It is a matter of making the financial or psychological expectations of the source into an irreplaceable element in the collaboration.

Otherwise, if the source does not clear the verifications, one must find a method to disengage that could easily turn into a dangerous task for the Intelligence operative that recruited and administered the individual.

Yet if the source has given positive signs, if its information potential satisfies the expectations that postulated his/her recruitment, if the collaboration continues in time and no perplexities arise out of his/her behavior, at this point the source becomes part of the operative wealth of the agency that recruited the individual.  The relationship that is built in time between the source and its administrator becomes more institutional and must do without the bilateral and personal relations that were initially established.  If the administrator is moved to another office or goes back home, another administrator will relieve his/her functions.  In such case two activities - parallel as far as initiatives and converging as far as the final objectives - are created.  It is the passage from a bilateral relationship of trust to another bilateral relationship of trust:  the old administrator must convince the source, the new administrator must reassure and gain the source's trust once again.

007 License to Kill

The Intelligence services and their inclination towards Humint activities.

There is no intelligence agency that does not give adequate room to humint activity.  The problem is the incisiveness of such information gathering activity with respect to others.

In the past years the C.I.A. had given priority to other, alternative forms of information gathering born from the consideration – or perhaps the presumption – that the technological advantage of the USA could be sufficient to replace the classical info gathering activity.  Truth be told, the USA confronted themselves with a hostile stance in many operative theaters and had to make a virtue out of necessity.  The disastrous results in Iraq and Afghanistan later demonstrated that this new operative approach was wrong.  In Baghdad, during the times of the pro-consul Bremer and later of Negroponte, Langley's men could not move freely within the Iraqi capital without running high risks for moderate results because of the lack of indigenous communities (Kurds, Shiites, Sunni) that could feel a liking for the American army.  Informations were almost exclusively of the technological kind (the systematic intercepting of all telephone and radio conversations, satellite vision and an ample use of drones for surveillance) but nothing could prevent the terrorist attacks that continuously struck the international contingent.  Such an enormous amount of information and the difficulty of selecting it fast enough to use it on the field (despite the "key words" that give priority to one communication instead of another).  What they didn't have was a man on the field, a person that knows ahead of time what is going to happen and that knows men and facts.  There was no perception of the population's stance that could help the government prevent discontent or unwelcome initiatives.  There were no elements to allow the use of an efficient psychological warfare apparatus.  The continuous attacks that happen even now in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan on a daily basis demonstrate without the shadow of a doubt that humint activity is still lacking.

The English intelligence – or rather the English-speaking intelligence (thus the MI-6 and the intelligence agencies of New Zealand and Australia) – have always contributed in and made use of information technology research t with the United States.  During the war in Iraq the military and intelligence communities mentioned above had access to a separate information system where news of interest circulated and were not shared with the rest of the international contingent.

The British, French and German have developed their humint activity to a reasonable level, but their most efficient networks are concentrated mostly in their former colonies, where in most cases they have contributed in the training of the local intelligence agencies.

The Italian intelligence (and the Spanish in some respects), have a tendecy to give room to humint activity even if at times they cannot set guidelines for true recruiting of sources.  The innate latin communicability, the friendly personal approach, the fact that they represent nations that don't have distinct negative historical legacies makes it easier to approach individuals and gives easier access to interesting information (thus not through true "sources" but rather those that are commonly called "useful persons").  The Americans lack just that (as they settle in a foreign country they export their social model and isolate themselves from the local context).  The British and the French are also lacking (they sometimes tend to establish uneven interpersonal relationships that are conditioned by elitist – if not ex-colonial – approaches).  The Germans because the well-known teutonic behavioral rigidity is not always helpful in making friends.

There are, however, other intelligence agencies that have a pronounced and prevalent humint activity that makes use of ethnic or religious circumstances.

One such intelligence agency is the Mossad, that can count on the Jewish community scattered around the globe as an active element for any informational need of the Israeli state.  If this favorable circumstance is paired with the necessity of giving a strong intelligence contribution to the security of one's nation, with an ample availability of men and financial means, a modus operandi that knows no limitations to the pursuit of one's objectives (including the physical elimination of the enemy), the direct access to other important intelligence services (especially American and British).  All of these elements tend to accredit the efficiency that the collective opinion attributes to the Mossad.

There is another intelligence service, the Armenian National Security Service, that has analogous intelligence opportunities because of the Armenian diaspora around the globe (not just ethnic, but religious too).  Although less well-known, partly due to its affiliation to the Russian SVR, the Armenian intelligence is highly regarded by the world of spies.

The Vatican, with its network of priests, nuns, convents and religious communities scattered in every corner of the world, is also a very well-informed State.  It doesn't use an intelligence structure but the Secretariat for Foreign Relations, or rather the Secretariat of State (aka Foreign Ministry) has a complex network of apostolic Nuncios that represent the Holy See.  The Nuncio is the ambassador of the Vatican and as such has the need to access all of the news that are of interest to his country (which coincides with his Institution).  He doesn't need sources, the churches suffice in that respect.  The parishes, the episcopates and arch-episcopates, the religious communities, the followers...

The limits of the Italian intelligence agencies as established by the law: an anomaly

Law 801 of October 24, 1977 created the SISMI (Service for Military Information and Security), SISDE (Service for Democratic Information and Security) and CESIS (Executive Committee for the Services of Information and Security) after the suppression of the SID (Service for Defense Informations).  Article 7 of the law said: "The Intelligence Service can in no instance have among its personnel, whether it be full-time or part-time, members of the Parliament, Regional, Provincial and Municipal counsellors, Magistrates, Ministers of the Church or professional journalists".  This was a specific limitation that the law opposed to the recruiting of sources that has had exceptions (see the case of journalist Renato Farina, aka "Betulla").

The new law n.124 of August 2007 that once again re-designed that intelligence structures in Italy (this time the SISMI became AISE - Agency for External Informations and Security; the SISDE became AISI - Agency for Internal Informations and Security; and the CESIS became DIS - Department of Informations for Security) maintains and even broadens specific limitations for recruiting.  Article 21, comma 11 says: "The DIS and the Information Services can in no instance, not even on a part-time basis, employ or use as collaborators or consultants members of the the European or national Parliament, Regional, Provincial and Municipal counsellors or members of the city councils, employees of the constitutional agencies, Magistrates, Ministers of religious organizations and journalists".

This is an anomaly that occurs only in Italy, which could be partially justified by the past deviations from democracy that have taken place within the Italian intelligence agencies (this is perhaps the predominant reason because every reform of the intelligence structure aims at empowering control mechanisms, such as parliamentary verifications and at scattering functions rather than concentrating them).  Yet this anomaly finds no justification under the operative point of view.  It limits mostly the activity on the internal level rather than the espionage functions abroad.

Nevertheless, and this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of it all, the comma stems from the presumption that any co-operation between the State and representatives of the State or of the mass media or the Church is nota – as it should be – a due act but rather a circumstance to be avoided.  In other countries this does not happen and, most importantly, is not part of the legislation.

Spy vs Spy

The world of Spies

The Information Collaborator (the term "spy" implies a negative, sometimes pejorative judgment, sometimes with no foundation) is just a small pawn in a game that is played every day in every part of the world.  In this subterranean world there plays out a challenge among States and ideas that knows no rules, where one wins or loses and sometimes dies.  It is a fight between those who want to know and those who want to hide, where the distinction between good and evil is vague, opaque and crossed.

It is a hidden world and the constant object of curiosity, conjectures and diffidence.  Yet as history shows, espionage can be a dirty job – and as such should be carried out by gentlemen – but it can guarantee security.

The regular person doesn't notice because everything happens out of the spotlight and away from the mass media.  An Arab proverb says:  "The fruit of peace hangs from the tree of silence".  And espionage is a silent world that contributes in avoiding war.