Clearance holders who go to conferences these days receive warnings. These briefings by security personnel are about ‘elicitation’. This is where some clever spy will try to wrinkle information from you without your being aware of it. One example from history sticks with me because it was astoundingly clever.

At a 1941 dinner reception at the Bulgarian Embassy in Berlin, a German bureaucrat spoke to a Bulgarian host. At issue was the massing of German troops. Secretly, the German plan was to misinform the world by suggesting that this massive reserve mobilization was for the invasion of England after the Battle of Britain. The Bulgarian casually asked the bureaucrat what his career plans were. Oh, he responded, I’m moving up once Herr Rosenberg becomes a Minister. This tremendous promotion to Cabinet level for a man, Alfred Rosenberg, whose only job was dealing with the Soviet Union alarmed the Bulgarian. The Bulgar put out a wire that very evening,”The Germans plan to invade the Soviet Union!” Deduction, based on factual evidence, elicited from an unwitting source, produced a proper conclusion about the real German plans.

Yes, you’ve heard these warnings before conferences. Clear everything you are going to reveal, discuss, or bring up. Leave nothing to chance, and know how to say “I can’t discuss that.” But what about all those other contacts you have with foreigners or adversaries outside of conferences? Oh, you say you have none? Think about this. How many times have you seen something about your program online?  Who really released this information? Was it properly released through your company’s release of public information channels?  Who authorized it?

You go on the Internet and find something about your protected program which seems inappropriate. You comment on it. Or someone comments on your program online…and you jump in to say, “No, it isn’t like that at all!”  You have just made a public release of information about your program, without authorization. You may have confirmed something for an adversary. That approach, by the way, is classic. A spy says something he knows you will defend, and does so. You confirm what he didn’t know.

I’m reminded of a photograph posted on a display at one armaments conference I attended. It seemed to draw a lot of attention compared to other generic pictures on the exhibit’s wall. Closer inspection revealed it was not the photo of the ship, as I recall, but a device on shore in the background which drew the attention. Dare I say what had been released should not have? I could picture some overworked, disaffected young engineer ‘clearing’ pictures for release. He gave release approval not realizing that someone looking for information might deduce or infer something quite different from components of that same picture, the picture the reviewer never ‘saw’.

Always remember to err on the side of caution. If you interact with someone whose identity you don’t know, report it. If you find yourself wondering, always report.

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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.