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James Bond on a Shoestring Budget: Private Sector Human Intelligence Training

Western El Salvador

HUMINT is more art than science. Nowhere is this truer than in the private sector. Compared to the public sector, private sector-based HUMINT operations can be considerably more challenging.

For starters, private HUMINT operatives have no diplomatic protection and/or immunity; there is no protection for our physical integrity via embassy premises and/or safe houses; we are regulated by the FCPA (Foreign Corruption Protection Act), client expectations, and/or ethical principles such that paying would-be sources can result in a legal nightmare, and is entirely out of the question. Unlike a government case officer, we cannot pressure, manipulate or offer monetary incentives to sources. We cannot negotiate for or obtain political asylum on behalf of a source; and we do not have the unlimited time and budget that certain government intelligence agencies have.

Despite the above limitations, both government agencies and private sector clients have increasingly sought to outsource their high-risk HUMINT collection tasks, thus shrewdly transferring their risks. Further complicating the picture, private sector clients--perhaps fueled by misperceptions of HUMINT collection--sometimes have unrealistic expectations of private sector HUMINT field intelligence operations, especially in an operating environment like that of Latin America.

We’d like to obtain intelligence on the corrupt practices of government X in country Y, which suffers from endemic violence. You may need to gather information on violent non-state actors and local oligarchs who operate through mafia-like power structures. Also, we have a limited budget and need the work done in two weeks.

The above is an example of the sort of requests we oftentimes receive. Welcome to the world of private sector intelligence where clients often expect James Bond on a shoestring budget.

Naturally, this dynamic is fueled, to some extent, by ignorance of both the operating environment of the customer’s jurisdiction of interest and what our HUMINT field operations require. Just as we would lack knowledge of the local nuances of Bangladesh--as compared with an experienced local investigator--we similarly don’t expect outsiders from Western countries to understand the ins and outs of our work in Latin America--whether this is obtaining public records of a subject of interest from a far-flung state in Brazil or the difficulties on collecting HUMINT regarding corrupt public officials of an anti-American government in the region.

But the above points leave us with some pending questions:

  • To what extent does the work of government HUMINT field operatives overlap with similar work conducted by private sector investigators?

  • Could we expect both field investigators to collect similar intelligence?

  • If yes, would you prefer to be protected by your government or would you risk it in the private sector, even if this means more lucrative opportunities?

These are some of the questions we try to answer through our HUMINT Training service for the private sector.

Private sector human intelligence services require both managing customer expectations and cultural barriers. For instance, we must learn to cultivate relationships based on good faith and mutual trust with our sources; we must navigate and structure such relationships without monetary exchange. In spite of these obstacles, given the customers’ expectations, and above all in good faith, we still have to make our best effort to obtain well-sourced and often very sensitive HUMINT. Given our combined years of experience, both my partner and I have mastered the art of obtaining HUMINT from a private sector point of view.

So, in synthesis, what are some of the subjects we can teach for a two or three-day HUMINT training workshop?


1. Principles of Human Intelligence

2. Cultural Anthropology, Human Geography and how they relate to HUMINT


3. HUMINT’s Role in Strategic Analysis


4. Private and Public Sector HUMINT—benefits and constraints

5. HUMINT Collection Process

6. Analyst-Collector Relationship

7. Private Sector-Driven Source Development Methods

8. HUMINT Collector Attributes

9. The Art of Elicitation

10. Source and Information Credibility

11. Source Follow-up Techniques


1. Collecting HUMINT Within the Global South

These training services can be combined with other training on open source intelligence gathering (OSINT) in Latin America as well as cultural/legal factors important for investigations management in Latin America. To learn more about our training services, please get in touch with us through our home page.

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