Frontline Intelligence: Leveraging HUMINT Sources


I continue to pick my way through Frontline Intelligence (1946), guide for new intelligence officers. One of the key responsibilities of an S2 during World War II was to gather information from friendly units. Your job as the Neighborhood S2 is no different.

“Every soldier, not just those designated as reconnaissance or Intelligence personnel, should provide the maximum information [possible]… [They should] know what you want, [should] keep their eyes and ears open, and when they find out anything [should] immediately report it.”


As the Neighborhood S2, it’s important that the members of your preparedness group, community security team, or neighborhood watch know what our requirements are. They have to know what has intelligence value and what they should be reporting about crime, violence, suspicious activity, etc. Additionally, they should understand how to report this information to you: phone call, email, face to face, etc.

In the Army, we used to say, “Every soldier is a sensor.” Well, every person in your group should also be a sensor and understand that they’re a sensor.

The authors continue with this advice: talk to as many soldiers as possible, explain what information you want, why you need to know it, and how it will be used to benefit the troops. “Only in this way will you ever overcome the two main stumbling blocks to troop collection of information, namely: inertia and preoccupation.”

One of the problems we encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan is what we called “the stovepipe of excellence” (because everything in the Army is “of excellence.”) Like smoke through a stovepipe, intelligence information would be pushed up from subordinate units to higher commands, but often the finished intelligence would never make it back down to the lowest levels. That in turn kept a lot of soldiers in the dark, and they often didn’t understand why it was necessary for them to report up information. They thought their efforts were useless and they were less interested in continuing to report.

The authors solved this intelligence problem as early as 1946, but it’s a lesson forgotten by many today. Don’t forget this important lesson as a Neighborhood S2.

Engage the members of your preparedness group, community security team, or neighborhood watch. Get them to understand what has intelligence value (i.e., what are your intelligence gaps?), and why reporting that information is critical. Don’t hide your conclusions from those who contributed to them. Finish that loop, so to speak. The more they understand what’s going on, the more likely it is that they’ll know where they fit in the process, and the more engagement and cooperation you’ll get from them.

The authors also point to training as a part of the solution. “The average soldier is apathetic toward all extra chores and particularly so to any which do not appear to him to be immediately and vitally essential… In battle men do most things by reflex. The things they are properly trained to do they will do automatically. It should be automatic for all seasoned troops to look for the right enemy information, and to tell the right people about it promptly.”

This means we have to invest our time and effort into our sensors, whether they’re frontline troops, our neighbors, or community members. You must develop in them a mindset geared towards recognizing information of intelligence value at all times, and then passing that on to you.

One of the largest challenges you’re going to face in organizing a local intelligence network is developing this mindset in other people. And maybe this applies to you, too. Most people are just not accustomed to being ‘turned on’ to the nuances of their environment.

For instance, there’s the “invisible gorilla” study where subjects are asked to watch a video and count how many times a basketball is passed around by certain members of a group. During the experiment, a gorilla walks through the group of people and most study subjects don’t even notice. They’re totally oblivious to the “invisible gorilla” due to their selective attention. We have to change that in ourselves, as well as in our sensors.

Last year, my wife and I started house searching in different neighborhoods. One thing I asked her to do was pay attention to things that she saw — not the houses themselves, which is what we were looking for, but everything that surrounded the houses. What types of stores or buildings sat at the edges of a neighborhood, the quality of the vehicles parked in the driveways, the bumper stickers on those vehicles, the condition of front yards, political signs in those yards, American flags hanging on front porches, and other things. What I tried to instill in her is that you can tell a lot about a neighborhood, or any area, in a very short period of time. During one journey, we drove past a check cashing store with several vehicles parked in front, and I asked her what might that indicate about the area. Although we were house searching, I tried to turn off our selective attention by looking at details which were minor compared to the curb appeal of a house.

We have to do the same with our sensors.

My challenge for you, the Neighborhood S2, this week is to recruit at least one like-minded neighbor or community member to your intelligence network. Once we identify a gap in our intelligence, we have to go out and collect information that satisfies that requirement. Let that individual, or those people, know how they’ll fit into this process. Then start tasking them to collect specific information. This crowdsourced approach to intelligence gathering is an intelligence network, and we have to establish this effort so we can all stay better informed about changes, threats, and risks to our community.

Until next time, be well.


Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper

Samuel Culper is a former Intelligence NCO and contractor. Iraq(x1)/Afghanistan(x2). He now studies intelligence and warfare.

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