Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Gathering Information during Crisis and Survival Situation – HumInt and Interviews

In order to understand the world around us and be able to identify potential threats Intelligence Agencies and other organizations around the world engage in the collection of information through various channels. Today the vast majority of information is gathered by intercepting electronic communications like internet traffic and radio traffic but other technical tools like satellites are also being utilized. New tools like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV:s) have been introduced and allows operators to collect information without having to risk lives and some models like the Predator and the Reaper can also engage targets directly. UAV:s have initially been used by Military Forces and Intelligence Agencies but are starting to be employed by civilian actors as well.

Information gathered from Human Sources is often referred to as HumInt. The use of HumInt varies between different actors like police, military, intelligence agencies, diplomats and businesses. Sometimes human source are treated in a way that is not in the best interest of the source. This can be the case for police informers and other more extreme cases like the massive killings in the Soviet Union in the 1930:s. Torture and other cruel treatments have been used in totalitarian regimes as a way to collect information but similar methods have also been employed by more and less democratic states. In some cases sources can be used without them being aware that the information their collecting is being used by others.

During Disasters and Crisis Situations information can often be provided by groups like

·         Refugees and Displaced People – what areas do they have firsthand knowledge about and what areas do they only know indirectly?

·         Locals; Taxi Drivers, Bus Drivers, people working in the restaurant business etc

·         Tourists and Travelers

·         Journalists
Interviewing people and asking questions
Needless to say all interviews must be adapted to the situation and context where they take place; it’s one thing to interview a high level official during in the office of this person a calm day and another trying to get information from someone that has escaped after a natural disaster in the middle of the crisis. In this article I use the term “interview”, this can be a formal process but it can also be as simple as meeting someone and starting a conversation in order to get some information. 

There are many problems with collecting information from Human Sources; one of the major problems is what an individual actually knows and how well this actually represents the situation in an area. Refugees can have lived in a small local area in a country and traveled through areas that haven’t been that affected by natural disasters or conflict. If this is the case the information may not represent the entire picture so it is important to understand what time and place specific information comes from. Rumors and contradicting information often circulate so it is important to understand

·         What has the person experienced and seen firsthand

·         What has the person heard through rumors, family members, friends, the Media etc? The more people a piece of information has passed by the larger are the chance it has been altered or misunderstood. It’s also common that specific stories can be told by many people without them actually having experienced it.

This can be particularly problematic after a natural disaster or for refugees after a civil war since the people you encounter may be very random and from different areas and different social backgrounds. Another major problem with getting information from people is that questions shape the answers. This is probably the biggest challenge for interviews; asking the right questions. The more precise the question – the more precise the answer will be. In many cases it can just as important get information about an phenomena or development as it is to know that it not there. The presence of hostile troops in a certain area can be an example.
Sensitive issues are often extra problematic. One example is unpopular activities or phenomena’s. If asked is an unpopular phenomena should be allowed or not more people tend to say it shouldn’t than if the question is formulated so that it asks if an unpopular activity should be forbidden. Words and formulations affect the answers.

It can also be problematic to interview people in a group; in this case the individuals may affect each other and the answers given. If it’s possible it can be a good idea to try to interview people separately instead of doing so in groups.

Refugees can expect to get advantages if they provide the information someone wants to hear and thereby shape their answers accordingly if they can notice a theme in the questions that is being asked. This can also be a problem for interrogators; if the subject start realizing what the interrogators is looking for they can adjust their answers accordingly.
If asking a person a serious of question regarding what they have experienced or regarding the situation in a particular area it can be a good idea to also ask follow up question like if the informant have something to add that you haven’t asked about. This opens up the possibility to get vital information that falls outside your own expectations and increase the chance you will receive unexpected answers. 

In some cases information from people can be collected face-to-face but it’s also possible to collect information using cell phones, satellite phones, text messages, radio, e-mail, written letters and other tools like social networks. Many Intelligence Agencies and Crisis Management Organizations use their own platforms in order to share and distribute information; using specific groups in Social Networks can an alternative way for people without these resources to use web-based solution to share information but also provide the option of sharing pictures and video. For sensitive information encryption can be used to protect the information or it can be passed on using method like dead drops.

Making Contact
The first step of being able to interview someone for information is making contact; if you are interviewing someone I suggest that you introduce yourself and tell them how you are and why you would like to know more about what’s going on. Often it can be advantage being introduced by someone the person you would like to interview knows if this sis possible. If you’re just asking as private individual or if you’re working for an organization managing a crisis let this be known. Be friendly and polite.

The scene of the interview

One important aspect when conducting an interview is where the interview or talk takes place. It can be good if you can find some place where you can talk privately since the presence of many people can affect the answers. The nature of the situation affects how important this is; it is one thing to interview someone after a natural disaster and very different thing to interview someone in a collapsed state if the interviewed person fears for their life. Your own appearance is also important; how you are dressed and behave can affect if someone choose to give you information or not.

Problems with conducting interviews

There are many forms of problems than limit the amount of information that can be collected from human sources; one common barrier is language. This was a big problem for Intelligence Agencies after the terrorist attacks after 9/11 when many agencies had a limited or no capacity at all to handle this problem; a problem that was also enhanced by the need for secrecy and problems with recruiting new personnel. Language can also be problematic since it might require a great knowledge in order to detect the exact meaning of phrases; especially if there are differences in culture as well.

When asking questions one thing to look out for is that many people often tend to agree with statements rather than disagree. It can therefore be wise to avoid leading questions when you ask a person if they agree with a statement or not; by using more open questions this problem can be reduced.

Another common problem is how the language is used; it can be difficult to understand a question asked in your own language if question is asked in way that makes it hard to understand what the question really is about. This includes specific terms used in professions, slang and “big” words. Another problem can be is if you use vague words when the meaning of the word can be interpreted in many ways. One way to minimize this problem is to test questions on a friend or someone you know before you use them.

·        Try to keep the questions short and precise

·        Take your time and don’t stress through and interview; it’s important to you allow the person you’re talking to finish their answers. Also avoid asking about two separate issues in the same question; it makes it hard for the interviewed person to remember the question. One question at a time.

Finding and getting access to translators is a problematic process and even if you can get a translator it’s hard to know if the translation is correct and if some points are being lost in translation. Another problem is the potential loyalty of the translators; especially for military forces working in locations they are not familiar with.

After an Interview

When you have completed an interview it can be a good idea to ask for the person’s name and contact information if you would have to get in contact with them. It can be hard time to remember all the details of an interview afterwards so when you completed an interview write down the details; if you feel that you have to write down details under the interview or record the conversation I suggest that you ask for the persons permission to do so; especially when it comes to recordings. If you record an conversation with someone without their knowledge it is serious breach of trust; especially if the person you interview discover this during or after the interview.

·         When did the interview take place and where did it take place?

·         How did you interview? If you don’t know the name what other characteristics did you notice; age, hair, clothing etc.

·         What did you ask and what did you learn?

·         Personal impressions

Collapsed States and Civil Wars

In collapsed states and civil wars some of the refugees may be fleeing for political reasons, away from ethnic cleansing or from precaution; the information you collect could possibly put someone’s life at risk if it falls into the wrong hands so make sure that you do all you can in order to protect it and the source you collect it from.

In conflict zones and collapsed states information can sometimes be acquired from

·         Different types of Militias and Resistance Groups in the country

·         Non Government Organizations (NGO:s) working in the area

·         UN Officials or Peacekeeping Forces working in the area

·         Political Groups in exile

·         Maintenance and service personnel

Source Criticism         

One question that can be very hard to determine is if a Human Source is reliable? Some aspects that can be worth thinking about is

·         Loyalty – How is the source and what motivates the source to share information?

·         What type of Knowledge, Experience and Education does the source have?

·         Psychological traits

Some human sources can prove to have great worth; some of the most important sources of information are often people; especially when it comes to understanding the motivation, goals and plans of an adversary since this information can be impossible to gather by other means.  Human sources like individual located in the top of other intelligence agencies can be ultimate sources; a singular source of this nature can often be more valuable than all other sources combined. The secrecy surrounding intelligence agencies often makes the best sources the one that is hardest to get access to since information is shared on a need to know basis and low level personnel might not even know why they perform certain tasks.  
During Crisis Situations it’s important to also take the psychological reactions of individuals into consideration; during high stress situations affects perception in different way, something that can often be referred to as tunnel vision; and it can be a factor even for experienced personal within the police or military. The change of perception does not only have to be what a person focus on; it can also be other things like the sense of time meaning that an event may have passed slower or faster than an individual think it did and they might have missed details that would have been easy to detect for a neutral observer. 


For Intelligence Agencies and Military Actors one potential problem is disinformation. Disinformation can be used to gain advantages in military operations both on a tactical but also on a strategic level. Disinformation can be false information that is being planted or true information that has been altered to create confusion or make an adversary draw incorrect assumptions. The importance of disinformation and deception is nothing new; this is one of the central parts of Sun Tzu:s “The Art of War”. In the Soviet Union this was known as Maskirovka; something that was being utilized on all levels in order to cloak intentions and capability. Disinformation can often be particularly effective if used to reinforce the existing perception of an adversary.

Disinformation can be used to

·         Make an adversary draw the wrong conclusions regarding the capacity of an individual, military force or business.

·         Mask the intentions of an actor

·         Delay actions of an adversary

·         Create confusion or fear

·         Make it harder for an adversary to regain the initiative 

These factors are often more important to actors that are inferior to their counterparts since it can allow the focus their efforts on specific areas. One problem with disinformation campaigns is that the information can get a life of its own; one example of this is when KGB spread the rumor that the HIV/AIDS virus was invented as biological weapon in US. Even if proof that the disease could not have been produced by the US and that it existed before the belief spread still exists among some parts of the public around the world.

Lie Spotting

Knowing if what somebody tells us is the truth or not is not easy. Most adults can only detect a lie around 50% of the time; almost the same rate as if you are simply flipping a coin. If you’re working in a Business it can be vital for detecting fraud and for Intelligence Agencies to detect disinformation.

During Crisis and Disaster Situations its can be especially hard trying to verify information so your own assessment becomes extra important. Detecting lies simply by looking for signs in the person you’re talking to is often known as Lie Spotting. Pamela Mayer is one of those how have worked to develop this field and her research and tips can be found her book “Lie Spotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception”. You also view Mayer on TED where she had a talk about her research.


In this article I have discussed some of the aspects related to gathering information from Human Sources. There are of course much more that could be discussed regarding this field but I hope that the reader has gotten some new ideas and perspectives that can be of help.

Other Articles
Risk Assessments
The Mediain Crisis and Survival Situations


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