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INTelligence: Human Intelligence

The president and policymakers rely on insights from Central Intelligence Agency products to help form their foreign policy decisions. CIA officers use a variety of sources in formulating their assessments. The following article is the fourth in a series that will explore different sources and collection disciplines, which are the building blocks of what we call “finished intelligence.” This article focuses on human intelligence.

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Throughout history, information derived from human sources has helped shape foreign policy decisions. If Oleg Penkovsky had not been providing the CIA with detailed information regarding the Soviet’s missile capabilities, the Cuban Missile Crisis might have had a completely different outcome.


Human Intelligence

Human intelligence (HUMINT) is defined as any information that can be gathered from human sources.

The National Clandestine Service (NCS) is the branch of the CIA responsible for the collection of HUMINT. The NCS is charged with strengthening national security and foreign policy objectives through the clandestine collection of HUMINT.


HUMINT Collection

HUMINT is collected through:

  • Clandestine acquisition of photography, documents, and other material
  • Overt collection by people overseas
  • Debriefing of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens who travel abroad
  • Official contacts with foreign governments

The NCS officers responsible for collecting HUMINT are called Operations Officers. They focus on acquiring information from individuals with access to vital foreign intelligence on the full range of national security issues.

To be successful, NCS officers must understand one of the most complex aspects of running assets — human nature. Emotions, intentions and motivations differ from person-to-person and change overtime. Understanding people, with all of their complexities, is crucial to the business of running assets to collect HUMINT.

Collection methods can take place in a variety of ways, including in-person meetings. Some HUMINT operations are short in duration, while others take years. Through it all, NCS officers must understand and assess the intentions and motivations of their assets, as well as the authenticity of the intelligence they provide. The most successful HUMINT sources provide volumes of intelligence responsive to Intelligence Community requirements.

NCS officers, particularly Collection Management officers, work to ensure that CIA information addresses the gaps in the U.S. government’s knowledge base. When the gaps are most appropriately addressed with HUMINT resources, NCS officers draft intelligence requirements for the asset base. When CIA collection addresses an intelligence requirement, the HUMINT information is disseminated as raw intelligence. In order for CIA assets to remain safe, NCS officers take careful measure to protect the identity of clandestine assets.

The success of NCS operations relies on officers working as a team. All NCS officers—from Targeters identifying future assets, to Staff Operations Officers supporting operations — are crucial to the success of the NCS in meeting the HUMINT needs of the Intelligence Community.


Analysis Drawing on HUMINT

Raw HUMINT is disseminated to the Intelligence Community, including analysts in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence and U.S. Military officers in the field. HUMINT can be used in its raw form to make decisions on the battlefield, or more often, HUMINT, along with other types of intelligence (SIGINT, IMINT, etc.), is analyzed to produce finished intelligence products for U.S. policymakers.


Importance of HUMINT

Human intelligence plays a critical role in developing and implementing U.S. foreign and national security policy and in protecting U.S. interests.

HUMINT resources in the NCS are tapped when only a well-placed human asset would have access to the intelligence needed by the President, U.S. Policymakers, the U.S. Military, and other key members of the Intelligence Community. If the intelligence can be collected through other collection methods, then HUMINT resources — with inherent risks to human lives — can be preserved for intelligence requirements for which no other collection method exists. The system of CIA being the collector of last resort is in place because assets and NCS officers have lost their lives collecting HUMINT.

For more information about a career with the NCS, please visit CIA Careers.


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Posted: Oct 21, 2010 11:30 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:41 PM