How Elicitation Is Used to Scour for Defense Industry Secrets


Your favorite time of the day – quitting time – is also the best time of the day for spies or those interested in your company’s secrets. That’s why every company who works with classified information needs a written, shared and used elicitation countermeasures program. Any security manager who doesn’t have such a program can get guidance from his Defense Security Service agent or the FBI.

What is elicitation? Elicitation is: “to draw or bring out or forth; educe; evoke.”

Let’s take a look at how elicitation might happen to you

Loosened up after a long day, you find yourself in a relaxed atmosphere. Cool jazz fills in the background,  and makes for easy listening and open discussions. And elicitation.

Elicitation is a term used to explain methods used by others to find out what we don’t want them to know.  There are many ways an adversary can gather your information. Consider these.

  • You’re at a restaurant. Drinks are flowing and you are the center of attention. Your opposite number from another company drops over to talk a recent program success and says, “I’ll bet you corrected from last time. So what made all the difference this time around?” What should you say? Better said, how are you authorized to respond?
  • Perhaps your colleague observes, “This test isn’t really so special, is it?”  This seems odd. Her comment leads you to respond, “But it is.” “Why?” she inquires. What can you say that is approved for release?
  • Another counterpart comments, “I doubt you accomplished as much as you claim. This is more a PR claim, right?”

Each of these techniques has a name. Your questioner might be causing you to expand your information provided by claiming your results aren’t what you claim.  He might try to get you to narrow your results by a method called ‘bracketing’. He might say, “So what can we agree are the median results we expected?” There are a host of other methods in addition to those I’ve shown here.

All told, your inquiring colleague tends to be nice, a good listener, and encouraging. This is especially true if he is a professional spy. He or she may even be from a partnering company or government agency. Of course, you’d never know that, because a professional is never someone you’d suspect. They are skilled in the art of making you believe they only want to help, to be a good colleague, to make success a win-win option.

Remember, all good, real cooperation between companies is open, formal, and clear. Don’t fall victim to revealing more than you want and more than you are authorized. Your supporting FBI and DSS offices have a lot of literature and case studies which can explain the techniques used by adversaries for elicitation. Of course, there is one method which is the best defense of all.

Let’s say your thoughtful, caring colleague has got you relaxed enough to tell some of what you aren’t sure is authorized for release. You catch yourself. All your efforts to politely divert the subject, to change the subject, or talk about other topics keep failing. He guides the conversation time and again to the area which makes you uneasy. Just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t discuss this.” A real spy will stop, because he realizes you have some security awareness and might report him. A real colleague will stop because he cares enough not to make you uneasy. The goal of an elicitation countermeasures program is to recognize it, know how to counter it, and of course, report it happened once you get back to see your security manager.Ensure your company has pre-briefings on elicitation before meeting with outside agencies, countries, or companies. Forewarned is forearmed. Such mottos don’t come from nowhere.

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.

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