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The Ethics of Managing Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Collection

Collecting human intelligence (HUMINT) is one of the most difficult endeavors in the realm of intelligence and investigations. Developing the right sources is a matter of not only time, but also patience and trust. Throughout the years, I have worked on all manner of field assignments with all kinds of human sources, from taxi drivers to high-ranking public officials, to high-net worth businessmen; the formula consistently holds true: trust and patience are the most critical elements in the process of developing a new source.

Without trust, the relationship between the collector and the source devolves into a mere transaction. This eventually becomes highly problematic. A source who believes that he/she is part of a simple transaction will assume that the collector will forget about him/her. This dynamic will prompt the source to ask, “What is the point of investing time in cultivating a friendship or providing confidential information if I am merely a pawn in a larger game?”

Below I’ve set out some of the rules we apply at Armada Risk Consulting in order to ethically manage our HUMINT sources:

Rule # 1: A human source is, first and foremost, a friend—and not merely a “source.”

Relationships--complete with real, human warmth--are the social currency of many regions of the world, including Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, etc. Great cultural value is placed on friendship and community. At the end of the day, we are community-oriented cultures. This cultural ethos is a principle that guides our HUMINT collection activities. When we debrief a source, we treat it as a conversation of strategic value with a friend who is voluntarily providing information, not as a quid pro quo transaction.

Rule # 2: We never pay sources—strategic patience is our greatest asset.

In my experience, intelligence, in both the public and private sector, especially in Western/Anglo countries, tends to be viewed as a transactional operation. “We pay you, and you provide intelligence, that’s the ‘deal’.” This approach can work, to an extent, but there are serious issues and limitations that come along with it.

Chief among these issues is the fact that, once HUMINT collection becomes a transaction, there is no such thing as a real friendship or loyalty. Sources, especially those developed in complex operating environments, tend to want to view collectors as friends; they tend to believe that the collector will help them, no matter what happens.

Have you ever wondered why Cuban intelligence services are so remarkably effective in spite of the country’s endemic poverty and the fact that their budget is a fraction of the budget of developed countries’ agencies? No doubt, fear might play a role, but it is not the only ingredient. Rather, Cuban intelligence are adept at understanding that sources must be cultivated and developed over time by finding common ground (shared ideology, commonalities) in order to grow a friendship. In essence, they engage in a process of molding sources to become part of their metaphorical “tribe.”

The Western/Anglo-Saxon tendency to view HUMINT as a “business deal” is an extension of the legalistic/corporate culture and history in those countries. These are cultural traits that are incredibly useful in many corporate and legal contexts. For instance, when getting business transactions done in a practical fashion. However, when collectors exhibit this transactional culture in the field, the result is that HUMINT collection often becomes merely a transactional operation. Paying sources runs the risk of creating unwanted, perverse dynamics in the collector/source relationship. Sources will be loyal only as long as the price is right (and they get what they want). Sources may also be incentivized to tell the collector what they think he/she "wants to hear" in order to keep the flow of money going.

At Armada Risk, we abide by the principles of the FCPA and the UK Bribery Act. We seek to avoid even the mere appearance of impropriety when dealing with sources. But even setting those concerns aside, paying sources is impractical and strategically inefficient. Private intelligence operations don’t come with government agency-sized budgets attached. Plus, paying sources creates false loyalty, weak relationships, and possibly even perverse incentives that affect the quality of the intelligence collected.

We believe that strategic patience and a genuine interest in our sources is key to our success in the field. True, it takes longer to develop sources our way, but in the long run, as Franklin Covey says in his book, Speed of Trust, “trust is an essential ingredient,” in establishing rapport with one’s “clients, employees and constituents.”

We believe that trust is the most efficient way to collect difficult-to-obtain HUMINT.

Rule # 3: Sources are not ATM machines.

Just as it is important to bear in mind that trust is the most efficient way to collect HUMINT, it is equally important to take into account that, just because a source provides intelligence on a given occasion does not mean sources are at your “beck and call.” Building relationships with sources, the process of source cultivation; these activities require respect for one’s sources, and, consequently, for their time.

Much in the same way that crop fields must be carefully managed to yield successful harvests, relationships with sources must be carefully managed. Sources have cycles, too. A source might be happy to provide an informed opinion on a given occasion, but we must know their limits. When to ask, how to ask, how often to ask, when to push, and how much, for instance. We cannot pepper our sources with questions every day of the week or every week of every month. If we do, like any normal person, they may begin to view the relationship in transactional terms and expect payment for their informed perspectives. In practice, this means that we cannot constantly demand information from a source that has already provided us with valuable intelligence. In addition, for the sake of source relationships, if a source declines to provide certain information, we must respect their limits.


There is no manual on the ethics of managing HUMINT collection. In the private intelligence sphere, some choose the “shortcut” of paying sources for information rather than cultivating them. Over the years, I have even seen operators in the field who choose more problematic “shortcuts” and falsify source commentaries. The metaphorical “long road,” of cultivating a regional network of influential and knowledgeable sources requires patience. But that patience, with time, leads to trust, and, in this case, trust yields far better returns than money.

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