Sources and Reliability, Part I

This is the first post in a two part series on Sources and Reliability.  Part II will be published next Friday.

Watch an average spy movie and you’re likely to see sources and agents.  Hollywierd cooks up graphic scenes of sex, betrayal, torture, and last minute heroics.  It’s rarely that exciting in real life (but there are some documented cases) so, for our purposes, let me dispel any daydreams up front.

Today we’re discussing sources and their reliability.  Who are we looking for?  Where do we find them?    How do we know that our source is being truthful; or what he’s saying is true?  In any future conflict, the ability to recruit, task, and collect from sources is going to be a critical part of the overall targeting and security strategy.

The great thing about Human Intelligence (HUMINT) is that it’s taskable; we can ask questions.  That’s a benefit that Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) doesn’t provide us – we get what we get.

We’re going to concern ourselves with HUMINT geared towards our own security and the defense of our community as part of the broader Community Defense Framework, but first a few words on collection for a pre-emptive security strategy.


Current intelligence collection doctrine utilizes HUMINT as one method of gaining information of intelligence value on a high value target (HVT).  An HVT is simply someone who plays a critical role, and is therefore of a high value, in a network that we want removed.  For instance, we could say that Willy Williams is a facilitator who procures weapons for the Leroy Jenkins Gang.  (In the IPB series, we established that Leroy Jenkins and his gang were the primary threat to our community.)  If we remove Willy Williams from the battlespace, then the flow of weapons is stemmed until Willy is replaced or Leroy Jenkins can get someone else lined up.  That could take hours, days, weeks, or months… but months if we’re lucky (that’s referred to as network disruption).  If we can’t get to Leroy, we need to get to Willy; and we get to Willy by talking to the people he knows.  Maybe Willy has an enemy – I would start with that guy.  I would want him to be my source.


HUMINT for security purposes is typically referred to as Counterintelligence (CI).  CI collectors are working against the adversary’s intelligence collection assets.  Maybe the Leroy Jenkins Gang has sent someone to live in your community to collect information about its vulnerabilities.  He maps out your community and includes information that a map or Google Earth can’t provide – the qualitative aspects.

The ideal source.

If I had to describe the “ideal” source, he or she would be or have three things: be responsive to tasking, be motivated to provide accurate information, and have placement and access to satisfy the information requirement.

By “tasking”, I mean that we utilize the individual; therefore, if someone is responsive to tasking, then he or she is willing to be tasked (literally, given a task).  Sources should be motivated to provide you the information you’re looking for.  That motivation can be monetary or ideological; you can pay them or they can provide you information because they are working toward the same goals as you.  Finally, the source should have placement and access.  If I want information about what the Leroy Jenkins Gang is doing now or what they’re planning next, then I need a source who has inside information.  Think about insider trading: those people are usually receiving information from the top tiers of companies on good or bad news.  They have placement within the company and access to the information that will satisfy the requirement.

The likelihood that we can recruit one of Leroy Jenkins’ lieutenants is abysmally low so we need to consider the peripheral.

What’s the first thing that law enforcement does (on teevee) when they’re looking for a suspect?  They go to his parent’s house and speak with his mom.  “Ma’am, Johnny’s going to be in a lot of trouble and he’s going to get locked up for a long time unless we can find him and talk to him.  Please let us know if you hear anything.”  They’re not going to tell his mother that they’re trying to arrest him; no, we just want to talk to him.

And what does his mom do?  “Oh, well, I haven’t seen Johnny in two or three days but he lives here; or he spends a lot of time with this person.”

That’s collection from someone who is responsive (because she’s a good person); someone who is motivated (because she doesn’t want her son to be in trouble); and she has placement and access (she’s in Johnny’s immediate family and he will presumably see or talk to her in the near future).

Source selection.

Now if Johnny’s mom isn’t responsive to tasking, maybe because she’s afraid or distrustful of the police, does that necessarily make her a bad source?  Of course not.  She could still be motivated to collect, because we’ve taken her son’s situation and exploited it for our gain – she wants to keep him out of trouble.  She still has two of the three things we’re really looking for and that’s good enough for government work.  Now if his mother refused to talk to us, then I would approach the situation a little differently.  (We can cover approaches in a future post.  Hey, I need something to write about next month.)

Just like expanding your tribe, expanding your potential pool of sources is going to be highly dependent upon your current network.  If appropriate, I would lean heavily on local law enforcement, but maybe someone in your community knows a current or former gang member.  Perhaps you know a citizen of a local town where the Leroy Jenkins Gang also operates.  Maybe a gang member is shot and wounded during an attack, he gets detained, and now we get to talk to him (yay!).  Maybe a waitress sees his Cadillac pull into her restaurant every week.  Maybe another person saw his Cadillac pull into a driveway one night.  If we don’t already have established networks then we have to establish them; and we do that by talking to people.  We just have to get out there and ask around.  I don’t believe in too many sources as long as they’re manageable.  Focus on your top and most accurate producers.

Additionally, you’ll want to assign nomenclature to each source.  Maybe it’s a code name, maybe it’s a number or a letter; but you need a way to differentiate them in reports.  The last thing you want is for your sources to get burned – discovered – because you were using their real names and someone who really didn’t need to know found out.

In our scenario, recruiting peripheral sources is going to be easy because nearly everyone is going to be ideologically motivated to provide information.  It’s just like a manhunt in a small town.  If a citizen sees a man running down the street in an orange jumpsuit, you’d better believe he’s going to talk about it.  He’s willing and ideologically motivated to provide that information because his safety depends on it.

Recruiting sources with better or flat out good placement and access is going to be more difficult.  Ask peripheral sources if they know someone with better access.  If we get information from a source with primary access to the information, then he or she is a direct source.  If a source received secondhand information from a cousin, friend, or co-worker, then he or she is an indirect source.  These can play into source reliability which we’ll cover later.

Let’s take source recruitment from a different and less serious angle.  Let’s say that you’re a huge fan of a major college football program.  It’s two weeks before the first game of the season and the head coach hasn’t named a starting quarterback.  How would you go about finding out that information?  You’d speak to people involved in the program: players, assistant coaches, water boys, athletic trainers, etc.  You might approach the football practice videographer about who’s getting more reps in practice.  You might inquire with an athletic trainer if any of the quarterbacks have been bruised, bumped, or otherwise injured.  You might find someone who knows the quarterback’s girlfriend and task him or her to collect secondhand information.  If you don’t know people with direct access, then find others who have indirect access.  The further you’re removed from the target information, the longer a process this takes; but the more you’re willing to pay, the closer you might get.  It might take you months to recruit several indirect sources to this information (well past the latest time of intelligence value); and much longer to develop direct sources.

In short, find the people with placement and access to the information and motivate them to collect.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below!

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