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HUMINT: What is Human Intelligence?

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While espionage in film may have a language and culture all its own, the same could be said for intelligence and counter intelligence communities within the United States. Even within the military, it can sometimes be tough to keep up with the language leveraged by the military intelligence community — in part, because of the unique challenges of their profession, and almost certainly because of the mysterious aura that surrounds many military intelligence operations.

HUMINT is one of those terms you may hear tossed around a lot in your battalion’s S-2 office or among prior-military pundits offering experiential analysis to cable news outlets, but if you’re not already familiar with just what it is that these folks are talking about, you may just gloss over the term like you do any number of seemingly meaningless military acronyms. The truth is, however, HUMINT is a fundamental building block of any national defense strategy, and in many ways, is the oldest and longest standing form of espionage.

Human Intelligence

Put very simply, America’s Central Intelligence Agency defines HUMINT (or Human Intelligence) as “any information that can be gathered from human sources.” That may seem all encompassing, but there’s actually a great deal of specificity in that short definition. HUMINT or Human Intelligence serves as a sibling to SIGINT, or Signals Intelligence, which is information gathered by intercepting communications.


In other words, SIGINT is intelligence we gather by listening in on other people’s conversations, while HUMINT is intelligence gathered by human assets in the field themselves.

How is HUMINT gathered?

To a certain extent, HUMINT intelligence is closer to the pop-culture idea we have about spies than SIGINT might be, but more often than not, it doesn’t come with a license to kill. Intelligence officers may gather HUMINT through direct engagement with sources, or through leveraging local assets (people) to directly gather information for them. Everything from friendly conversation to interrogation can be seen as a means to gather Human Intelligence.

The CIA defines HUMINT collection practices as:

  • Clandestine acquisition of photography, documents, and other material
  • Overt collection by people overseas
  • Debriefing of foreign nationals and U.S. citizens who travel abroad
  • Official contacts with foreign governments

(Feature image courtesy of PickPik)

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Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.

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