Intelligence Gathering 101: Making Contact

I’ve been out running each morning this week, and as so often happens when I’m a sweaty bag of mess, my thoughts have tended to drift on to a wide variety of topics that I write about. I haven’t written about intelligence gathering in a while, so I’ve wanted to do another blog post. And as so often happens, the perfect opportunity presented itself earlier this week and each day since.

During the morning, very few people are out and about. But each morning for this entire week, I’ve seen one guy on his bike pedaling furiously as he gets a good workout in. It prompted me to talk about how intelligence operatives sometimes cultivate an asset. But cultivation of an asset – that is, turning someone into a useful source of information or material – doesn’t happen without first making contact.

Depending on the target, there are multiple methods used. The one I’ll talk about this morning is the casual approach, sometimes called the “brush by.” The brush by is different from a “brush pass,” which is used to make an actual exchange in public. If you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show where two operatives walk toward each other – each usually has something identical like a briefcase or a newspaper – pass close by or make actual contact via a staged bump and then continue on their separate ways, then you’ve seen a brush pass in action.

The brush by, on the other hand, is used to make a target comfortable with the idea of your presence. There’s nothing aggressive about this approach; it’s organic in its execution so as not to trigger any alarm bells in the target. The easiest way to explain it is to use my runs as a good example.

Let’s suppose that I’m looking to cultivate a particular target who happens to hold some sort of position I need information from, access to, etc. From studying the target via any available information I can find about them, I know that he’s an avid bike enthusiast. Further, from conducting surveillance on the target (this will normally be done by other officers and not the one who makes contact) I know he starts his day earlier than most other people. He’s a dedicated early riser who gets his workout in, drives into the city to his job, and accomplishes a great deal. He’s also savvy and knows that his job might possibly expose him to recruitment attempts by intelligence professionals.

The brush by is employed in this case because it’s non-aggressive and non-threatening. Here’s how it works:

The officer making contact begins to show up in the target’s world. Just on the periphery of it, barely even registering on the radar. Given that the target is a big bicycle fan and gets his workout in early, the officer starts running at a time when he is certain to pass by the target. As the target bikes past, he notices the officer doing his morning jog. The first few times this happens, the target doesn’t necessarily even acknowledge the officer. But gradually, as the officer becomes part of the target’s world, a certain degree of familiarity breeds a rising comfort level. In other words, the first time the target notices the officer running, it’s a bit of an anomaly. The target might be used to doing his workout without seeing anyone. So it’s unusual and therefore uncomfortable. But the more the officer becomes part of the routine of the target’s workout, the more comfortable the target becomes with seeing him each and every morning. In fact, the target might become so comfortable that he almost begins to expect the officer to be there each day.

As the comfort level of the target grows, the officer or the target himself might initiate a quick greeting in passing. “‘Morning.” “How ya doing?” Something that simple and quick because neither of these guys has any time to stop and engage in discussion; after all, they’re both focused and dedicated men who are working out. (Don’t discount the psychological leverage at work here; that concept of a shared struggle tends to bond people whether we consciously realize it or not. It’s powerful stuff.) It’s that simple. Nothing too elaborate, nothing forced. Just an easy greeting any friendly person might make. This is the essence of the brush by; casual contact that is completely non-threatening.

As the days and weeks progress, the target and the officer are now familiar with each other. They expect to see each other every day. They exchange a greeting. For the target, this is the extent of the interaction, but the officer now takes the lead and initiates a way to change the relationship into something more substantial. After all, the goal of this is to actually cultivate the target and turn them into an asset.

So the officer might do something like this: the next time the target approaches on his bike, the officer might be stooped over breathing hard, showing how exhausted he is. At this point, the target might stop and offer him water from his bottle (unlikely, but it could happen). Or the officer might progressively act more and more tired each day, perhaps rubbing his shin splints out or otherwise seem to be in pain and finally wave the target over and ask him about the quality of workout that bike riding gives him. The target might be more willing to stop and give him useful information about bikes.

Now the relationship is moving into the next level. The officer might run a few more times and try to fit a few more words in when he sees the target. “I really need to start cycling.” Or something like that. “I don’t think my knees can take this anymore.” Any of these are effective at planting the idea in the target’s mind that the officer might be looking for more advice.

Finally, the officer might wave over the target and say something like, “I know you’re busy, but is there any way I could give you a call and ask you some questions about cycling?” Or maybe it’s meet for a beer. Maybe it’s an email. Any option is fine from this point, because it now grants the officer a higher level of access to the target and from there, the officer can start turning him into an asset.

All of that from a simple “brush by.”

This technique works and it works incredibly well. As I mentioned earlier on, I used the example of my own runs to illustrate this point. On Monday, I saw the cyclist and we passed each other by without saying a word. Tuesday, he nodded at me as he flew past. I said “‘Morning.” Yesterday, he called out the greeting first. And today, we both said it at the same time leading to a quick laugh as we went our separate ways.

Now I’m certainly not interested in cultivating this guy as an asset, but the technique is so subtle that if I was, I’d already be well on my way to doing so. This is just one of the ways officers make contact, but it’s definitely one of the more subtle and undetectable techniques. When done well, the target doesn’t even notice. Think back in your own life to times when you’ve met someone new. Did you see the precursors of eventual friendship or relationship? A lot of times we don’t, and this is just one area that makes us vulnerable to recruitment.

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