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Separating Fact from Fiction: Perceptions of HUMINT

This is a joint blog post in which, given our different investigative backgrounds, we seek to address one of the most important questions our clients ask:

“What’s the difference between investigation and intelligence? One is evidence and the other is rumors.”

Pedro Armada:

I’ve heard some variation of this sentiment from more than one colleague or client in the investigative industry many times over the course of my career. The implication of this perspective is that investigation has value while intelligence does not. It’s an unfortunate indication of an industry tendency to view things from an ingrained vantage point that incorporates existing misconceptions about the nature of investigations and intelligence.

Part of this tendency, as I’ve mentioned previously, is due to what I term “legal myopia” and the tendency to view things in strictly evidentiary terms. But creating a stark dichotomy between investigations and intelligence (especially if dismissing the latter as mere “rumor-mongering”) ignores vitally important points about (i.) the limitations of private investigations and intelligence activities; (ii.) the challenges of investigations and intelligence activities within the operating environment of Latin America; and, (iii.) the complementary nature of investigations and intelligence.

In fact, the operating environment in Latin America makes for an entirely different playing field both with respect to open source investigations and human intelligence.

Firstly, the focus of an intelligence exercise is not necessarily (or even primarily) to produce admissible evidence. There is an understandable tendency on the part of attorneys and investigators to ascribe more value to documentary evidence, but, in Latin America, open sources/documentary evidence can be lacking, manipulated, and otherwise of dubious value. In other words, just because it’s in a document does not mean it’s factual; in Latin America, not all “facts” are created equal. Given these limitations in Latin America, good intelligence can serve as the perfect complement to “traditional” investigative activities like open source research. Understanding this point requires us to define what “good intelligence” is.

Above all, good intelligence should be: well-sourced, actionable, of strategic value, and properly analyzed.

  • Well-sourced: your HUMINT is only as good as your sources. There is an art and science to HUMINT collection/analysis that involves, inter alia, development of source relationship, assessment of source biases/constraints, collection of source intelligence (the art of debriefing sources) corroboration of source information (via open sources where possible), and strategic analysis of source intelligence.

  • Actionable/of Strategic Value: Human intelligence is not collected for sport. It is collected because clients will need to inform some course of action with the intelligence. That is, HUMINT must have strategic value for the client.

  • Properly Analyzed: However, the strategic value of intelligence is ultimately hobbled without forward-looking analysis. It is only when we place intelligence in context (strategic, geopolitical, regional, etc.) using analysis that we draw out its strategic value for the client. It is only with analysis that clients can understand how intelligence fits into the “big picture.”

Intelligence may not be the same as admissible evidence, but in a complex operating environment faced with the limitations of being in the private sector, intelligence can point out where to find such evidence. More importantly, coupled with a good analysis, solid intelligence can be of critical strategic value. This is a key point because, ultimately, many activities viewed primarily as investigative in nature have a strategic aspect that should not be ignored.

Clients request investigative services precisely because they need that information in order to inform their planning to achieve a strategically important objective. That may be the negotiation of an acquisition/joint venture, it may be an asset recovery strategy, it may be a litigation strategy, or it may be a market entry strategy. For instance, an investigation of alleged FCPA violations by a client company will ultimately need to inform the client’s legal strategy.

We do a disservice to clients if we do not provide them with as much context as possible so they can answer critical questions of strategic interest, such as,

  • What should the client do with the information gathered?

  • How should it be used or presented? To whom?

  • What are the strategic constraints and obligations of the key players that can impact the client’s interests?

  • Especially relevant in the context of litigation, are there any key parties that the client should approach/interact with and how are those parties likely to react?

Taking things one step further, only through intelligence that is well-sourced, strategically valuable, actionable, and properly analyzed can we help turn client strategies and the investigative services that inform them, from reactive to proactive. This proactive approach goes well beyond the traditional approach to delivering investigative services. It is part of our vision to marry the tactical and the strategic.

To litigators I’ve met who might look askance at strategic intelligence services and deride them as “rumor-mongering,” I would ask: “What if you could, for instance, monitor what strategically important actors are saying/planning with respect to your client through HUMINT? What if such intelligence could help you take a proactive approach to your client’s interests rather than simply reacting and being on the defensive after your client is in hot water? Wouldn't that provide better value for your client?”

Lastly, it would be remiss if I did not point out that, private investigators do not have subpoena power, they cannot engage in wiretapping or any number of illegal activities. In fact, doing so can result in immense reputational damage to both the investigator and the client as well as the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence and serious legal issues for clients.

To some extent, there is an element of intelligence to everything investigators do as we cannot simply demand evidence from subjects and access to open source documentation can be limited, especially in Latin America. As such, intelligence should not be dismissed as mere “rumors;” it is more like a leg of a tripod vital to our industry: intelligence, investigations, and strategic analysis.

Diego Solis

From both a strategic management and geopolitical risk perspective, strategic intelligence, by its very nature, is proactive. It seeks to understand the big picture of a particular situation; it seeks to prevent crises instead of managing them; and, more often than not, it drives the logic of a plan. Because of its nature, strategic intelligence is not necessarily limited to answering questions of what happened in the past. Instead, it seeks to answer,

  • Why does X matter?

  • What does X mean for the future

  • If X situation heads Y path then how will X and Y affect Z?

  • What impact will X situation have for our clients? What are the implications of that impact?

Essentially, intelligence is forward-looking. Tactically, this means that Armada Risk Consulting we do not seek to limit ourselves to do micro-focused perspectives. Put simply, we cannot forget about the big picture. When it comes to Latin America, every tactical case is driven by a wider geopolitical trend. As the head of Strategic Intelligence, it is my responsibility to make sense of this, and, in order to do so, I need to go beyond OSINT. I cannot be limited to a desk. Making sense of how wider geopolitical trends impact our engagements requires me to go mine the field-based intelligence in the field with our local operators.

Collecting such intelligence in the field requires proper, ethical management of our HUMINT collection activities. As such, I have a moral obligation not to exert undue pressure on trusted sources. Improper HUMINT collection can result in losing a network of trusted sources in a difficult operating environment or even a leak by an unhappy source. I am responsible for protecting the identity of my sources and maintaining a network of sources that provides access to world-class geopolitical and tactical intelligence. In addition, in certain jurisdictions there may be additional concerns about the safety of both sources and investigators.

Finally, we must comply with ethical and anti-corruption regulations and have no legal authority to force or pressure sources to provide hard evidence. Now, if a source voluntarily provides hard evidence, I can be comfortable that I have maintained my ethical and professional integrity.

Culturally, in Latin America, trustworthiness and patience is valued. In my experience, Africa, MENA and Southeast Asia are not that different either. I want to maintain our sources’ continuous trust as the best way to mitigate negative perceptions that we only care about our sources only when a case arises. If a source gave me a very important piece of unverified information,this way I would also know that both the source and I have done this in good faith.

In a nutshell: because of the nature of strategic intelligence, even if a source does not provide hard evidence of a particular claim he or she is making, my biggest aim is to determine the validity of the intelligence (via triangulation with an array of sources from all walks of life as well as open sources), how will it manifest itself within the next coming months, and what are the potential consequences for our client. This is because, if the intelligence turns out to be verifiable or is otherwise corroborated, then I will need to ask myself: How can we use the collected intelligence to prevent a reputational crisis, or help with anticipated litigation? More precisely, the intelligence at the end of the day will point out the “where” and “what” to look for.

Both intelligence analysts and investigators deal with numerous “gaps” that we have to fill while trying to piece together parts of the puzzle. Intelligence is not exactly a science and there are times when an unverified allegation is better than nothing while further or complementary work is done. In the end, both investigators and intelligence analysts work with incomplete information with various gradations of “trustworthiness.”

Regardless of the intelligence naysayers, strategic intelligence will continue to drive the logic of our work--and because of it, we will continue to prevent crises as we have effectively done so over the course of the years.

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