Since time began we’ve known of spies who use personal charm to steal secrets. Ancient history, you say, in this age of computer hackers, data mining and spear phishing. When today’s security clearance holders consider risk, they think of the silent hacker more than the actual spy. While the computer threats are real, that doesn’t mean physical threats have disappeared. John le Carre, famous British author of spy novels including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy observed only last month that espionage is returning to its roots. The human spy, because other, technical avenues are so high-profile, has returned with a vengeance. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the same electronics that swoop up your data can make a hacker easier to identify, or feed him false information. In ways you’d never, ever expect, espionage has taken a stroll back in time to become even more effective.

An old British poster shows bemedalled officers smiling around a pert, sweet-young-thing sheathed in a fine dress sitting among them at the Officer’s Club. They are merrily chatting away while she stares disinterestedly into the middle distance, at you. The poster’s motto was fitting, “Keep mum, she’s not so dumb!”  Race ahead to modern times. A reporter for the New York Times recalls how she gathered seas of information for a story on Latin American government thug-ocracy. She donned a bikini, and sat in the club pool. She then did nothing more sinister than listen to the officials crowded around the water. She reported their wives were equally as well-informed, and revealed all manner of nefarious activities to a friendly listener in the water. More distressing to their own secrecy, and better for the eavesdropper, the women spoke quite frankly, especially when she wasn’t in the conversation, but sunning nearby. For, you see, the wives listened intently at home. They heard everything.

I tried this test out once. I asked a crowd of American officials overseas if they ever spoke about work in front of foreigners in the country they lived in. Only one tentative hand went up. I then asked how many had  foreign servants. All hands went up. Scary. All my listeners first looked at each other, then sheepishly looked at me. They realized their lives were an open book to someone not of their country.

Even more sinister was another exchange. An American colleague was invited to a barbecue near the D.C. area. Unexpectedly present was a foreign businessman, one he knew to be a coordinator of a mutual joint project. The businessman arranged with our American colleague to meet again downtown, away from the hustle and bustle of the office during the coming work week. The meeting never took place. Here’s why.

Any work discussion with a foreign representative has to be formally established. You must clear what you want to say, and your authority to say it, with your company’s foreign disclosure officer. You must meet foreign representatives in a formal setting. Each subsequent meeting must also be similarly coordinated ahead of time. Exchanges of any information must be cleared beforehand before you meet your counterpart. Chance encounters with foreign businessmen are not. Relaxed meetings, spontaneously arranged and uncoordinated ahead of time, away from the office, should cause a fire bell to ring your ears off. Each of these methods has been used, over and over, to collect information from unwitting Americans.

The Spy Who Searched Me

A favorite trick is to get you talking about something “I saw on the web.”  The same rule applies. Never assume anything found on the internet has been formally released for disclosure. If not, you can’t discuss it. Things appear on the web in ways which would astound and amaze magic fans. You don’t know who put the information on there. It can nevertheless be used to cause you to confirm or deny something the spy wants to know. Don’t comment on something online.

Your Meeting’s Uninvited Guest

You are at a meeting, and you are surprised to find someone present who was not originally listed. He’s foreign. Does your briefing contain NOFORN material? Could you excise it before your briefing, and still retain the meaning? Is your material even releasable to foreign representatives, specifically the one sitting there?  Did you check to know what to do in this case?  Of course, the best avenue is to cancel the briefing. This is why meetings with foreign representatives are so orchestrated beforehand. Know who is coming, why, and what can be discussed. We don’t want to give them information they’re not authorized to receive. (A phrase, by the way, used in the charge sheet of many ‘misuse of classified material’ cases these days.)

The Kabuki Dance of Classification

Turn the story around. Let’s say your project has become of interest to a foreign ally for a possible joint effort. Has your material been reviewed for proper classification? Have your technical specialists, counterintelligence officials and information security professionals been consulted before going forward?  These actions are like a kabuki dance, orchestrated, formal, and yet exceedingly necessary. After all, the kindly official from another land sitting across from you has been well briefed by his own counterintelligence officials. But you knew that, didn’t you?

If you ever have an assignment to work as a coordinator on a joint project, meet first with your U.S. government foreign disclosure officer, your company counterintelligence/security officer, and even the government representative of CI (such as the Defense Security Service). Ask how the system works. Get a briefing on what is known of the espionage capabilities of the people you are dealing with. Don’t forget, report any unplanned foreign contacts – even one at a barbecue.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.