You’ve seen human intelligence (HUMINT) operators ply their trade in countless spy movies; they’re the ones meeting in quiet alleys and taking photos with tie clip cameras. Simply put, they’re the people who recruit sources that steal secrets.
But the movies don’t always get it right; we never see James Bond filling out expense reports.
In order to get a more realistic glance into the world of human intelligence, we spoke with Bradford Karony, Director of National Security Operations for LMI Government Consulting.
While Karony told ClearanceJobs that pop culture can exaggerate HUMINT, he himself has a more creative back story than Jack Ryan. Karony retired after serving 18 years in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, both at home and abroad. Prior to that, he was a Marine Corps officer. He speaks three languages and has a master’s degree in German Literature from Brigham Young University. He grew up in Germany during the Cold War. And as a young man, he interned with a secretive organization known worldwide for its rigorous standards of excellence: The Walt Disney Company.
What is Human Intelligence?
It is more than recruiting spies and stealing secrets. As a Directorate of Operations (DO) officer for the CIA, we were responsible for collecting HUMINT, specifically through clandestine means. That’s what it meant for me, but HUMINT is much broader. It’s any information that is gathered from human sources: things like overt collection and open-source, if you’re talking about interviewing people overseas, debriefing foreign nationals, or U.S. citizens when they travel overseas, official contact with foreign governments – all of that is human intelligence, too.
My particular area of expertise is in clandestine collection. One colleague described it to me like this: “We recruit spies. We steal secrets to help U.S. policy makers make better informed decisions.”
In addition to HUMINT, of course there is signals intelligence (SIGINT), which has become even more important as the world has gone digital. How has this changed the collection or perception of HUMINT?
It depends. I’ve always enjoyed a great partnership with my SIGINT colleagues, but post-9/11, the relationship has become much closer because of technology, proliferation of the cyber domain, all those things. What I’ve noticed is that we’ve become force multipliers for each other. It’s not so much that HUMINT has been relegated or that SIGINT is more important, they’re just two sides of the same coin. You’re looking at recruiting spies and stealing secrets, well, some of those “spies” are going to be electronic. Working together, we’re able to be more effective.
I think we will continue to need people in intelligence collection, because people provide additional context to what is collected by any other means. Even the best machines still carry the human bias of the people that created and programmed them. It’s similar in any technology – it’s going to have inherently programmed biases. And you really want – need – that human being to provide context to the intelligence gathered with machines.
What are ideal traits or experiences for a potential HUMINT operator to have?
I get this question a lot and I always say three things: life experience, writing, and being a good listener.
First, you need life experience in whatever career field you bring to the mission. There is no one single way to become a HUMINT operator. I have a humanities background and one of the most formative experiences of my early career was as an internship at Walt Disney World! Any experience where someone is living life, having success, having failure, overcoming failure and moving on with their life plan, can be valuable. Some have legal backgrounds, others have educator backgrounds, some come from Wall Street–there’s no single “right way.” What we have in common is that we never give up, we are persistent, and failure is just another step on our way to success.
Second, you need to be a good writer. Grammar and syntax are important. Because if you can’t communicate what you are doing for policy-makers, the impact ends before it began. You have to be able to convey information effectively for your activities to contribute to the bigger picture—supporting intelligence operations, informing policy makers, impacting foreign policy or national security policy.
Third, be a good listener. That has to do with connecting with people and paying attention to what’s going on so you hear what is really being said. And you have to build a rapport with people to understand the right questions to ask. You cannot underestimate the power of showing someone genuine empathy or sympathy to get to the core of an issue.
So many NatSec jobs today reflect the emphasis on STEM fields. How do you feel your humanities background helped prepare you for human intelligence?
I learned how to do research and I learned how to write. Foreign languages, obviously, are incredibly helpful. Any background that teaches you how to write, develop critical thinking skills, and exposes you to another culture – even within the U.S. – can provide sound preparation. If you’re from the East Coast and you spend time on the West Coast, or you grew up in the country and you spend time in the city—anything that gets you out of your comfort zone can help you perfect how to connect with people who aren’t the same as you. That’s part of the art of human intelligence.
What challenges come with this kind of work? What can those considering this field expect?
For me, if you want to go out and be an operations officer, it’s long hours, weekends, evenings, and lots of time away from the family. Unfortunately, the divorce rate is very high; that’s just the reality. I feel blessed my marriage did not go that route, but it takes a lot of effort and work, from both sides.
It’s very much based on the individual. What are your reasons for wanting to become a HUMINT operator? That’s a really good question to ask yourself when you’re going into this field. It’s not like James Bond at all. If you gird yourself for the reality, and come in eyes wide open and committed to the mission, your perspective will shift when challenges arise and need to be overcome.
In your experience, are some of those reasons better than others? What kind of motivation helps set someone up for success?
The most successful people in this business, regardless of career field, are the ones who have a moral compass and live by it. Whatever that means for you, whether it’s religion, ethics, philosophy – whatever you want it to be, but the ones who have a moral compass that makes them a decent, kind human being, they tend to have an easier time of it.
What is the biggest misconception about this line of work?
As I’ve said, it’s not James Bond. The job can still be sexy and fun and have a real impact on history. All of that is true. However, I’ve never seen James Bond write intelligence reports. He doesn’t do financial accounting, which is something you have to do. There’s no mentoring going on, which is so important to this field. As you move up through the ranks, it’s a trade. You learn your trade and you pass things on to the next generation because you can’t just read a book on HUMINT and say, “I’m now a HUMINT operator.” You have to do it to understand it, and how to conduct yourself—professionally, ethically, morally.
As I mentioned, a strong moral compass is so important. We are a nation of laws and with that comes an obligation to the Congress and American people to be accountable. There are a lot of administrative and bureaucratic responsibilities that come with being a HUMINT operator that you will never see make it on the big screen. But they are absolutely vital to the job, because they are what allow our government, and our citizens, to be confident we are doing what they asked us to do to benefit our nation.
At this point in your career, what did you want to accomplish at LMI that you couldn’t have done elsewhere?
I was attracted to LMI originally because it’s a not-for-profit and I felt that the environment was the best fit for my personality. I wanted to continue to serve my country and LMI’s commitment to public service was a driving factor. The culture factor here was huge for me.
Learn more about HUMINT Jobs at LMI.