In the spy trade, elicitation is the term applied to subtle extraction of information during an apparently normal and innocent conversation. Most intelligence operatives are well trained to take advantage of professional or social opportunities to interact with persons who have access to classified or other protected information.

Conducted by a skillful intelligence collector, elicitation appears to be normal social or professional conversation and can occur anywhere – in a restaurant, at a conference, or during a visit to one’s home. But it is conversation with a purpose, to collect information about your work or to collect assessment information about you or your colleagues.

Elicitation may involve a cover story or pretext to explain why certain questions are being asked. Some elicitation efforts can be pretty aggressive, imaginative, or involve extensive planning. For example: A professor from a south Asian country was teaching a night class in business administration at a Maryland university. In one assignment, her students were assigned a term paper on the company where they worked. One student reported to the FBI that her paper was returned by the professor three times. On each occasion the professor asked for more details on the company. The student became concerned when the directed expansion of the assignment began to involve sensitive, possibly proprietary information.1

For the foreign intelligence operative in the United States, one attraction of elicitation as an intelligence-collection technique is that it is a very low risk activity. It is hard for the target to recognize as an intelligence collection technique and easy to deny any intentional wrongdoing. It is just a pleasant conversation among colleagues or friends.

Another attraction is that it often works. Through elicitation, intelligence collectors may confirm or expand their knowledge of a sensitive program or may gain clearer insight into a person’s potential susceptibility to recruitment.

bullet  As an intelligence technique, elicitation exploits several fundamental aspects of human nature:

  • Most of us want to be polite and helpful, so we answer questions even from relative strangers.
  • We want to appear well-informed about our professional specialty, so we may be tempted to say more than we should.
  • We want to be appreciated, and to feel that we are doing something important and useful. As a result, we often talk more expansively in response to praise about the value or importance of our work.
  • As open and honest people, we are often reluctant to withhold information, lie, or be suspicious of others’ motives.

Testing willingness to talk about matters of intelligence interest is one step on the road to recruitment discussed in How Do I Know When I'm Being Targeted and Assessed? If you provide useful information once, you may be considered a "developmental contact." If you do so regularly, you may be classified as a "trusted source."

You should feel free to expand your professional and personal horizons by meeting with foreign colleagues, as long as you keep in mind that not everyone you meet has the best intentions. Follow these rules when talking with foreign colleagues:

  • Never talk about your personal problems, or about the personal problems or weaknesses of an American colleague. Such information may be exactly what the other side is looking for.
  • If the conversation is moving into a sensitive area, change the subject or simply ignore any improper question. You are not obliged to tell anyone any information they are not authorized to know.
  • To discourage someone who seems to be too pushy about discussing sensitive information or arranging a private meeting with you, state that you would have to clear this with your security office. That is the last thing an intelligence operative wants to hear. It usually causes him/her to back off immediately, as no intelligence operative wants the FBI or CIA to become aware of their contact with you.

1. Rusty Capps, "The Spy Who Came to Work," Security Management, February 1997.




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