Spy agencies must regulate ethics of manipulation in HUMINT, researcher argues

HUMINTIT IS DIFFICULT TO argue against the widely shared view that clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) is replete with ethical dilemmas. These are inherent in the process of gathering intelligence via the use of human sources or covert agents. Yet it is possible —indeed desirable— for intelligence agencies to implement well-regulated ethical approaches to clandestine HUMINT, according to Dr. Stephan Lau, a junior professor of psychology and member of the Faculty of Intelligence at the Federal University of Administrative Sciences in Berlin, Germany.

In an article entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Tradecraft: HUMINT and the Ethics of Psychological Manipulation”, which was published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security, Lau argues that the concept of manipulation, which is often central in HUMINT, is nothing new. In fact, he explains, manipulation is a type of social influence that occurs naturally in human interactions, and may even have positive outcomes, depending on the case. Indeed, researchers have analyzed manipulation as a form of beneficial influence, which can help further commonly established social goals and norms. If anything, therefore, argumentative —also known as persuasive— forms of influence are normative aspects of interpersonal negotiation between humans.


There is, however, a darker side, Lau explains, which relates to coercive influence —i.e. using threats or force to modify a person’s behavior. The subject becomes even more complicated when manipulation is instrumentalized as “a piece in the toolbox of HUMINT tradecraft”. The author goes on to suggest that manipulative influence in HUMINT can be distinguished between legitimate (harmless) and illegitimate (harmful). It follows that it is possible to attach a degree of ethical responsibility to the actions of case officers, or other covert operators, who engage in clandestine HUMINT activities as part of their work.

Psychologists generally determine influence as manipulative when its purpose is intentionally concealed —wholly or to a degree— by the influencer. In such cases, the target of influence has no explicit knowledge that s/he is the subject of an influence operation. In other cases, the target of influence is harmed by having a limited understanding of the way in which s/he is being affected by the influence operation. This limitation renders the target of the operation susceptible to harm, because “it targets unconscious, intuitive, or purely emotional modes of thought, thereby thwarting rational decision-making and violating autonomy, freedom and perhaps dignity”, according to Lau. The author also points out that there tends to be an inherent asymmetry in the relationship, which favors the influencer (i.e. the case officer) and disadvantages the influenced (the asset or potential asset). This asymmetry inevitably results in “moral conflicts and dilemmas”.


What is to be done? Lau suggests that intelligence agencies should “develop pragmatic heuristics or rules to determine the ethicality of intelligence conduct” in clandestine HUMINT operations. These rules should be rooted in “the difference between illegitimate, harmful manipulative influence, and reasonable, legitimate manipulative influence”. In short, intelligence agencies that engage in HUMINT should “formulate requirements for less harmful, therefore more ethically legitimate, manipulative influence in HUMINT” operations. He adds that such formulations should be part of broader efforts by Western intelligence agencies “to gravitate toward a positive, value-based reputation instead of nursing one that is based on being brute or dangerous”.

Further on, Lau proposes five requirements for more ethical manipulation in HUMINT. These include the avoidance of “controversial means” of manipulation, such as coercion or komrpromat, and resorting to them only “if the goals, the threat level, or the potential outcomes justify it and if all available alternatives are exhausted or unfeasible”. Instead, “softer and ethical means” of influence should be preferred, such as “argumentative persuasion”. Ideally, manipulation should lead to outcomes that “both parties regard as furthering their needs or goals to some extent”. At the very minimum, HUMINT operations should, on principle, include efforts to ensure that HUMINT assets are not put in harm’s way. Furthermore, Lau recommends that recruitment efforts for operations officers should carefully screen against candidates who display a predisposition to psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Such traits are usually evidence of individuals who are “disposed to or like to manipulate others”, notes Lau.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 November 2022 | Permalink

3 Responses to Spy agencies must regulate ethics of manipulation in HUMINT, researcher argues

  1. Anonymous says:

    Well informed Germans like Dr. Lau have a deeply felt revulsion for the 1930s-40s actions of the Gestapo and SD (intelligence agency of the SS and the Nazi Party) so, for Dr. Lau, “ethical approaches to clandestine HUMINT” would be desirable.

    But in a world of shades of grey, where informants suspect they are being manipulated, but don’t want it spelled out to them, things are complicated.

    At the other extreme one imagines brute force would rarely work – not for accurate Intel and not for long.

    As for “evidence of individuals who are “disposed to or like to manipulate others”,” that might be considered a necessary trait for politicians, businessmen and Case Officers.

  2. Matt says:

    Why does this sound like it was written by someone who has never done the job, let alone in a combat zone where the asset is as likely to be setting you up or manipulating you for his own ends. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, sources commonly tried to manipulate us into hitting non AQI/Taliban/AQ targets saying they were those targets to settle old scores. Your perceived advantaged/disadvantaged position is childish at best, and will get someone doing the job in a warzone killed at worst. The other guy is playing to win and so should we. The ethics are already there, its called LOAC. Have read sometime. Anything short of that is up to how far the individual source handler is willing to go. War is hell and the ugliest of human endeavors. Play to win or don’t bother showing up. And certainly don’t armchair quarterback it decades later if you never had your own life on the line while it was happening.

  3. Yes “LOAC” (which Matt mentions above) is the Law of Armed Conflict.
    However most HUMINT is a routine activity, performed outside war zones.
    Though even within a country at peace HUMINT collection can be a dangerous activity under Machiavellian “rules”, particularly if the activity is FBI-style Counter-terrorism or Counter-organised crime.

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