5 Times in History When HUMINT Was Used


We’re all familiar with that common scene in movies: a person of authority interrogating a subject—seated down, hands cuffed, and isolated in a quiet, secluded room.

Although this scene is often an exaggerated depiction, it is a good example of how human intelligence, or HUMINT, is gathered.

HUMINT is the information gathered through interpersonal communication with individuals, hence the term human intelligence. Information can be obtained through face-to-face encounters, phone interviews, e-mail correspondence and video calls, for as long as the source of the information is a human being.

Looking beyond the typical scenario of HUMINT gathering, and outside police districts, military camps and other law enforcement offices—when and where else do you think HUMINT was gathered?

Obtaining human intelligence before was done almost nonchalantly, and they probably didn’t it was HUMINT in the first place.

Let’s take a look back at history to see how some famous people used HUMINT to achieve their goals that shaped many military and political strategies of today:

1. When Moses sent 12 spies to Canaan

Moses, as chronicled by the Book of Numbers 13:2, sent his men to the land of Canaan which he intended to give to the Israelites.

This is a classic example of espionage with all its ancient glory—devoid of high technology and complex methods. Espionage is one of the tools used for HUMINT gathering.

Through Moses’ 12 spies who were in a position of confidence against the enemy, they were able to gather information that aided the successful exodus of Israelites from Egypt to Canaan.

3,400 years ago when Moses ordered this, no one at his time labeled it as human intelligence. It only made sense when modern science coined the term HUMINT.

2. When Sun Tzu’s military conquests inspired him to write The Art of War

Hailed as the most influential Chinese military writer of all time, Sun Tzu promoted a new approach to warfare. He emphasized a non-conventional style of war by shifting the focus from an enemy’s strengths to concentrate on the weaknesses instead.

In his book, Sun Tzu stressed the use of alternative methods in battle such as psychological warfare, deception and strategic alliances. He underscored “foreknowledge”, which entails profound understanding of an enemy’s personality, rather than the military capability alone. To do these, intelligence must be gathered and done using the right strategy.

When Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, it became an acclaimed work that shaped both Eastern and Western military thinking.

3. When Alexander the Great interrogated Persians

Roughly 370 BC, when Greek-Persian relations were rather tense, a teenage Alexander the Great began interrogating Persian visitors to the royal court, then ruled by his father, King Philip II of Macedon.

True to his moniker, Alexander’s wisdom and strength at a young age earned him several triumphs that extended to the East. His profound understanding of climate, roads, culture and personality of his visitors and enemies made him an excellent military strategist.

Much of this information is credited to his collectors, and he would have reached his goal of “conquering the world” if not for his untimely death.

Another method of HUMINT gathering is interrogation of prisoner of wars (POWs) or detainees. Plenty of information can be gathered from POWs, which provides substantial insight about the enemy.

4. When Chanakya composed the Arthashastra

Loosely translated as “The Science of Politics”, Chanakya (also known as Kautilya) created the Arthashastra in 4th century BCE as a comprehensive guide on military, state and political strategies.

As an esteemed teacher, economist and royal advisor in India, he emphasized the practice of state control backed by a strong intelligence framework to gather pertinent information.

He also placed emphasis on the ideal qualities of a HUMINT collector, or the person trusted to gather intelligence. Courage, sharpness, intellect and integrity are a must, as well as a profound understanding of the arts. These requirements put the collector at almost-equal qualifications with the king and his royal counselors.

Chanakya further detailed the HUMINT practice as obtaining information through exploitation and judgment.

Spying is the practice of gathering confidential or top-secret information without the official permission of the owner. Agencies who employ spies aim to obtain information not otherwise given to them. This is a clandestine act, and is illegal in many cases—making it unacceptable and punishable by law.

5. When agentes in rebus of the Byzantine Empire made reports to the royal court

The Romans utilized a sophisticated form of HUMINT, employing agentes in rebus or “conductors of affairs” or “magister’s men”. They are like the ancient counterpart of today’s courier service—only that they exclusively serve the royal court and hold intelligence functions as well.

Selecting agentes in rebus was an intricate process. Men were carefully selected based on their abilities and morals, later trained intensively, then employed on a test run for five years.

Agentes in rebus is the primary arm of communications within the Byzantine Empire. They supervised roads and inns, carried letters, checked soldiers’ billeting and acted as customs officers. Most importantly, they reported relevant information obtained from their travels to the royal court.

Diplomacy is another HUMINT source, a friendly approach compared to espionage and interrogation. This is the practice of negotiating different concerns and issues between two parties, usually from state representatives entrusted by their respective heads of state. Diplomacy has evolved greatly, but even in olden times it was widely utilized.