Intelligence Gathering 101: An Open Mind

(One of the more critical traits of anyone involved in intelligence gathering is the ability to keep an open mind. In one of my earlier posts on intelligence gathering, I stressed the importance of not letting ego impact an operative’s ability to remain objective. Maintaining an open mind is directly attributable to the necessity of keeping the ego in check as well. One does not work if the other is not firmly under control.)

Back when I was hanging around with an ex-special forces Korean War veteran named Tom, (“hanging around” is not entirely accurate – I was, for all intents and purposes, being mentored by him) we were both working at an eye care facility in the Boston area (I was the receptionist). Tom would create certain exercises that would drive home an important lesson he wanted me to understand. One such exercise started off easily enough, with Tom casually mentioning over lunch at McDonald’s that he wanted me to strike up a friendship with a guy named Farid. Farid, to my knowledge at that time, worked in the parking lot shack at the back of the building where the eye care facility was housed. He wore his hair in a tight perm that gave him a strange, somewhat greasy appearance. I’d see him every once in a while when some patient’s car needed to be moved or if someone had left their lights on. But that was it. I knew next to nothing, aside from the fact that he was about ten years older than I was.

I wasn’t crazy about the exercise; in my mind, I’d already formed a picture of Farid and could see very little point to creating a relationship. Tom questioned me about why I was reluctant and when I told him, he simply grinned and said that I should keep an open mind and not close myself off to possibilities simply because of preconceptions, stereotypes, or a media-distorted view of the world. He went on to state that good intelligence gathering is often the result of simply not hampering the organic flow of information – rather than forcing a set of parameters on to a situation. I wasn’t quite sure I knew what he meant at the time.

I also had no idea how to start a friendship with Farid. And it was really the first time in my life I’d actually had to put real thought into how I would make my approach. Tom had stressed previous to this exercise that forcing a connection was not his preferred method of establishing a relationship, unless there was no other option available or if time was an issue. He preferred a slow, methodical approach. I reflected on that earlier lesson and used that to start a casual friendship with Farid. I decided that I would start the next time he came to see me about a patient’s car, rather than me suddenly initiating something without pretext. I didn’t have long to wait; two days later, Farid came inside asking me to find a patient and let them know they had a flat tire. The patient was having his eyes dilated, which meant that whenever we released them, they would go outside wearing these insane wraparound Terminator-esque glasses so they didn’t fry their retinas in the daylight. He wasn’t going to be able to do much about a flat tire. I went outside and let Farid know the situation and then hung around while we debated the best course of action. Farid decided he would replace the tire with the spare so the patient could at least make it home. I got the patient’s car keys and together we replaced the deflated tire.

From there, the friendship grew organically. I made a point of swinging by to see how he was doing. During the summer months, the parking lot was an inferno and Farid kept a small fan going nearly all the time, even though he never complained about the heat. Gradually, the friendship grew and Farid was telling me about his family, what part of Lebanon he came from, and even began tutoring me in some very basic Arabic. And contrary to the picture I’d formed of him based on my limited interaction before striking up the friendship, Farid didn’t work at the parking lot – he and his brother owned it, along with several others in the Boston area. They were, in fact, quite wealthy and chose to work hard every day simply because that was what had been instilled in them by their father before they came to the US. Farid often spoke of his home and the olive trees that grew on his land in northern Lebanon. We spoke at length about how the civil war had devastated his country and how much he wished an end to the violence so that Lebanon could return to peace. Beirut, he told me, had once been the crown jewel of the Mediterranean and judging by the stories he told me, it must have been.

While this was going on, Tom would routinely ask about our conversations, question me about aspects of Farid’s life and friends and family. I realized that Tom’s exercise had numerous components to it, and on one level was actually producing fairly decent intelligence about a certain demographic within the Boston community. It was a fascinating lesson for me about the importance of making sure I maintained an open mind and refrained from injecting any of my subjectivity onto the situation. In Tom’s words, I was simply supposed to let Farid talk about whatever he wanted and let it go from there.

Had I not had an open mind, I would have never gotten to know Farid as well as I did. I would never have had the opportunity to see my own life enriched by his acquaintance, nor would I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the Lebanese immigrants who lived in the Boston area at that time. I also would not have had the chance to be introduced to a friend of Farid’s who would later turn out to be far more important than I knew then.

Tom’s lesson of keeping an open mind was one he swore by. In Tom’s neighborhood, he was surrounded by all manner of folks – recent immigrants from all over the world, college kids, gays and lesbians, families, corporate bankers, and more. And yet Tom knew how to blend seamlessly with each group – which always amazed me. Here was this grizzled old vet who’d seen his share of awful stuff in his lifetime and who, by most people’s standards, would have every right to be this opinionated, rigid man who clung to his stereotypes like they were a life preserver. Yet Tom was as open and welcoming as he could be. He knew how to talk to folks and, more importantly, listen. He made sure they felt entirely comfortable when he was around and as a result, they talked more and more. So much so, that Tom knew where the trouble was long before it arrived and was able to let the police and others know ahead of time. It was because of his open mind that he was so effective and keeping the peace in that neighborhood. Had he been judgmental or condescending toward one or more of the various demographics that lived there, he would never have had such a finger on the pulse of that place.

There are all too many examples of intelligence gathering gone awry – data collected to force a certain agenda or outcome or congressional action even. But truly good intelligence comes from where you sometimes least expect it and is only capable of being gathered if one has an open mind – not one closed off to the possibilities and potential that exist all around us. There’s no real sense in trying to gather information if you already have formed an opinion about someone or something; your ego and subjectivity have already compromised the data. Keeping an open mind is critical to being able to see and create opportunities where they may not have existed before. A narrow mind, on the other hand, constrained by the whims of ego is incapable of accurate and reliable intelligence gathering and only useful to those who seek to manipulate you.

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