Five HUMINT Collection Techniques

As we flesh-in our evolving doctrine for fighting local crime and corruption networks, we’ve been adapting military, intelligence and law enforcement methods to the soft end of the legal, civil and public affairs arena. Today’s backgrounder is on five Human Intelligence (HUMINT) collection techniques which work well in this application. These five HUMINT techniques of interest are:

Passive Listening
Interactive Listening

This article will describe these techniques and interactions between them; future articles in this series will then offer real-world examples, drawn from our Leech City files. Although some of this material may seem like plain common sense, it is helpful to categorize them and recognize when and by whom each of these techniques are best employed.

It is also important to record as much of this information as possible at the time it is collected. Some of your operators will be obviously recording video, while others, in one-party states, will be collecting audio. It is important to record information, where possible, not only for documenting evidence, but also to remove personal biases. As an exercise sometime, attend an hour-long meeting, record it, and a couple of days later try to write down essential elements of what you heard. Then play back the recording and score yourself on your recollection. Recording also allows you to run the wayback machine to uncover and document inconsistencies revealed much later.

For each of these activities, a briefing before an event, and a debriefing after, is always an important part of the process as some team members may have picked up on some nugget that others missed. For briefings and debriefings, we recommend the categories described in our truth winnowing post as a format for background, targets and collection.

(Update 2 Feb 2017: See also this post about intel techniques taught by a pro, applicable to a much broader scope than our civil affairs work here.)

Passive Listening

The lowest impact and most easily employed technique on our list is passive listening. The HUMINT passive listener is a sponge, soaking in all information from any voice in the room. Much useful information can be gleaned this way; most intelligence requirements and operations will spring from this source alone. Done correctly, the passive listener will fade into the background as just another face in the crowd.

You will be surprised at how much information cocky officials will blurt out to satisfy their inner need to seem powerful and informed. Officials will also casually lie, and reveal networks and associates, particularly when bragging about how well they know some prominent person or their attendance at some seedy, invitation-only event or venue.

The importance of passive listening cannot be overemphasized. In fact, for a team with more than a few members, at least one person, or better, a married couple, should be assigned this role exclusively. Married couples can be more effective than two individual listeners as they usually communicate effectively already, can work as a team to cover more of a room, and don’t arouse suspicion if they always attend events together. If your team can afford to designate passive listening specialists, keep them out of any other activist roles so that they can maintain their operational cover indefinitely. As your activism heats up, the passive listener will sweep up even more intelligence as the guilty officials begin to hunt around for sympathetic ears in the crowd, hoping to recruit supporters against your active operators. Passive listening is also a great role for more introverted people who are sick of crime and corruption but want to help without needing to be confrontational.

The exclusive passive listeners should not be seen with a video camera, however, as this can blow their cover. Leave operation of this equipment to operators further up the list. Your other operators should not obviously interact with your passive listeners, other than polite trivialities as they would any other attendee. Don’t draw attention by needlessly avoiding contact, either.

The main indicator that a passive listening operation has hit paydirt is when an inconsistency has been uncovered. As a result, your passive listeners, like all your HUMINT operators, should be well-briefed on your information base to allow them to recognize inconsistencies as they arise so that they can report them later. Passive listeners can also be more efficiently targeted at particular officials or events if they know the intelligence objectives.

Interactive Listening

Interactive listening is one step up the chain where the listener will ask questions, echo some of the information just heard, or sympathize with the subject to get the subject to go into more detail. Questions may be close ended or open ended. Close ended questions have yes-no answers, and are used to confirm details. An example is “was the car blue?” An open-ended question requires the subject to fill in the details, such as “what color was the car?” Echoing information tells the subject that you heard what they said and are interested and sympathetic, such as “it’s a good thing you voted to spend the money that way.”

Interactive listening is at no time hostile, lest the subject dry up. Empathetic and understanding is the best approach. Interactive listening is also free-form in that the conversation takes whatever direction the subject wishes it to take. This approach also allows the operator to build rapport with the subject, including about the subject’s personal likes and dislikes. Later, all this information can be used to steer other operations and operators with respect to a given subject.

Your dedicated passive listeners should only perform interactive listening to the minimum extent necessary to not seem out of place by not doing so. Where practical, other team members should intercept a subject’s attempt to intrude on passive listeners by getting involved in the conversation themselves.


Elicitation is a more advanced version of interactive listening, only now the goal is to gently steer the conversation without the subject being aware. This process is an advanced subject beyond the scope of this article and there are numerous resources on the web and in print to help guide the use of this technique. After the dust has settled on our current operations, we’ll give some real-world examples of how we have used elicitation to glean some information that would have otherwise been unavailable.


Interviewing removes the mask of elicitation in that the subject is well aware that they are being asked questions, with answers expected of them. This process is similar to what a classical reporter (the objective variety) might do to build a story. Although some of the questions might make the subject uncomfortable and evasive, the public face of an interview is to put the pieces of a story in place, although this may be a cover for confirming details gained through other sources, re-sourcing details to hide the original source, or probing for “tells” in the subject. For our HUMINT purposes, designating one person as an interviewer and keeping them in this non-hostile role would be helpful if you have the staff. Even better would be to set them up as a reporter for a local or regional website or blog, even if you have to create this yourself as part of controlling the local narrative.

Your interview operator can also perform some elicitation, but their effectiveness will be limited in this role versus “off the record” interactive listening. As a result, your interview operator is best equipped with the video camera, as this would be expected for a reporter, especially someone the public might pass off as a mere wannabe.


An interrogation is the highest-impact HUMINT activity. Unlike military, law enforcement or geopolitical intelligence, interrogation is not a light-in-the-face and truncheon kind of thing, although an official with consciousness of guilt might feel this way when subjected to a blowtorch session. As with an interview, there is no doubt in the subject’s mind that an interrogation is being conducted.

In the context of our combined civil affairs doctrine, the interrogator’s job is to conduct an interview in a calm and determined way. However, this time the content of the questions are pointed, and drill directly into guilt and inconsistencies in an unforgiving and relentless fashion. Not only is the interrogator attempting to confirm or deny facts or expose inconsistencies, the pointed nature of the questions causes most officials to reveal “tells”, or behavior which indicates when they are being evasive or untruthful. Guilty officials will often blurt out unrelated or unsought information, blame other officials, or attack the interrogator, all of which are pure HUMINT gold. Plus, the revealed tells can be used to mine previously videoed sessions for clues.

Unlike the popular conception of a military or law enforcement interrogation (the soft and more effective version of these is more similar to elicitation), a local intelligence interrogation is short and pointed. The interrogator should be prepared with three to five questions in advance, with softer confirmations up front and harder questions at the end, including a wrap-up summary and confirmation of what the subject has revealed. The entire process should take no more than three to five minutes, with ample time provided for the subject to squirm, ramble and obfuscate. By keeping it short, many people will not even notice that an interrogation has occurred, just that someone put the subject on the spot and then let it go, although to the subject trying to hide guilt it may seem like a hellish eternity.

Your interrogators may often be threatened with arrest, or in some cases, actually arrested. As a result, you want your camera to be operated by someone else, if possible, to document false arrests, as well as to document that your interrogator did nothing wrong. Having the camera in the possession of someone else will limit the possibility that the camera might be seized and the recording destroyed. In addition, in particularly hostile environments, a third person should be live-streaming the proceedings with their cell phone as yet another backup in case the primary camera is seized anyway.

On the plus side, an attempt to have your interrogator arrested might be the most powerful “tell” an official can make. In any event, the role of interrogator is best performed by someone of means who can withstand being locked up for a while or being tagged as a trouble maker. Perversely, being capable of withstanding arrest and pushing back in the courts against the conspirators makes it much less likely that your interrogator will be arrested in the first place. Such is justice in America, where the weak are most often preyed upon by misbehaving public officials who should be their champions.

Another advantage of keeping the interrogation short is that the video will reveal that your interrogator wasn’t really that hard on the subject, particularly if the interrogator is calm and polite throughout. The only emotion your interrogator should display is amused mastery if the subject, or another official attempting to intervene on his behalf, says something ridiculous. The interrogator may introduce contradictory information as part of the interrogation, but your interrogator should not argue with the subject. The interrogation is just another step in the overall civil affairs process, not an end in itself, so arguing is unnecessary and counter-productive.

Given his public reputation, the interrogator is also the best team member to generate open records requests which are most likely to reveal misconduct. The recon-by-fire requests can also be performed by the interviewer as appropriate, but these should be limited to objective popcorn backgrounders. In no case should your dedicated passive listeners issue any records requests.


In this article, we’ve described five distinct HUMINT activities, ranging from low-impact passive listening to high-impact interrogating. If you have the staff, a long-term intelligence operation should devote specialists to the passive listening, interviewer and interrogator roles, with others filling in as interactive listeners and elicitors as needed and available. In addition, if you have a sufficiently large team, your intelligence officer should be responsible for directing operations, targeting, collecting and analyzing the information received. Ideally, this coordinator role may also double in working the room at or below the elicitor stage, as well as separately meeting with the interviewers or interrogators as a cut-out to limit the opposition’s ability to map the intelligence organization.

If you don’t have the staff, as was our situation when we were attacked shortly after moving into the area, then you may have to conduct all these roles yourself, moving up the chain over time as the situation matures. As you rack up successes, other dissidents can be plugged into the lower impact roles you have vacated. In our case, other dissidents are arriving just as we’ve hit the interrogation stage of the first phase of our local operation. Once we are mopping up that phase as it reaches its inexorable conclusion, the second phase, operations against corrupt officials in a wider area, will accelerate.

Once these roles are established among your team members, try to keep them static. Once someone has conducted an interrogation, it is difficult to plug them back in as a passive listener; no one would buy it. Even so, an established interrogator can still provide value just by sitting in the room. Officials may then try to talk in “code” or gather privately after a meeting, which will alert the rest of your team that there is something else to find. The differential behavior displayed by officials when an interrogator is present and when he is absent is yet another tell. This behavior is already providing useful information as we begin to attend other meetings in the area in preparation for the next phase.

In future articles, we’ll give real-world examples of some of these processes, particularly the more public and overt interrogations which don’t reveal other operations in progress. Like an iceberg, your interrogator is only a portion of your HUMINT operation which appears above the water, and depends on an enormous amount of information to make those three minute tickles most effective in nailing down actionable intelligence. Further, your HUMINT team is only part of a larger combined civil affairs operation, as we’ve discussed previously.

We close with an artist’s conception of your interrogator, arriving at a city council meeting:


(h/t Wirecutter at the Knuckledraggin blog)

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6 Comments on "Five HUMINT Collection Techniques"

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An attorney told me that skill at lip-reading is valuable for trial lawyers. It would seem applicable to “humint” also.

Concerned American

Great stuff. Do you plan an elicitation piece?

(ed. Just some real-world examples. I defer to pros such as Culper for talking about the skill itself. Or a certain former New York assistant prosecutor we know …)

And no, I won’t use that great pic as a STM avatar.


(ed. that would be fitting. I have often worn pants, though, unlike the umbrella bunny.)


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