HUMINT (Human Intelligence)

HUMINT (Human Intelligence)

Human intelligence, or HUMINT, is the gathering of information through human contact. It is, along with signals intelligence and imagery intelligence (SIGINT and IMINT respectively), one of the three traditional means of intelligence gathering. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many observers in the United States decried previous cutbacks in HUMINT that had helped create an environment in which U.S. intelligence was largely unaware of the impending attacks.

The value of HUMINT. Whereas SIGINT, IMINT, and nontraditional measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) are high-tech enterprises, HUMINT is decidedly low-tech. It is a matter, ultimately, of personal interaction, and practitioners of HUMINT are "spies" in the purest sense of the word. The more closely an operative functions in the community, the more his or her information comes from word of mouth, and the more he or she is practicing true HUMINT.

Simple though it may seem in comparison to the sophisticated electronic systems used in the other intelligence-gathering fields, HUMINT is a difficult method that requires precision. Humans are a far more difficult source from which to coax information than are electronic listening devices or cameras. Yet, the information that can come from human sources can be the most useful and up-to-date.

A hypothetical infiltrator. Terrorist groups may train in open-air camps whose activities are visible by satellite, but their most important work takes place beyond the reach of satellite photographic equipment. The visual and electronic evidence obtained from the Afghan training camps of the al-Qaeda terror network—the widely aired videotapes of training activities and speeches by leader Osama bin Laden—offered little in the way of concrete clues as to the group's plans for the devastation of September 11, 2001. Such information would likely have come only by close contact with al-Qaeda operatives on the part of personnel in contact with U.S. authorities.

Most likely, that undercover individual would have been an Arab national. Even though al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts drew recruits from all over the world, including the United States, even an American of Arab descent would have most likely been under so much scrutiny that his job would have been impossible. Even if the United States had contact with an undercover operative in al-Qaeda circles prior to September 11, that person would probably have come from the same circles as other al-Qaeda members—a world of religious fundamentalists, terrorists, opium smugglers, and arms dealers. In other words, anyone the United States worked with in that situation was likely to be what most Americans would judge an unsavory character.

An example of such a figure is Ali Mohamed, a former Egyptian army officer who joined the U.S. Army in the 1980s, and trained U.S. Special Forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Islamic terrorism. Mohamed also served in an undercover capacity, infiltrating the al-Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, New York, where he associated with terrorists. Mohamed later switched alliances, joining Osama bin Laden. Captured and arrested by U.S. authorities, Mohamed told them about al-Qaeda's plans to bomb two U.S. embassies in Africa—but he only divulged this information in 1999, a year after the bombings occurred.

Disgust with figures such as Ali Mohamed had led the administration of President William J. Clinton to adopt rules of human intelligence that many later blamed for the breaches that made attacks such as those of September 11, 2001, possible. On the heels of revelations that agents of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Guatemala had committed human rights violations, CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith in 1995 drew up a set of guidelines intended to rid the agency of its association with disreputable characters. The rules prohibited the hiring of agents with records of human-rights violations, barred agents from posing as priests or journalists, and required local CIA recruiters to divulge the identities of recruits to agency headquarters.

Unintended consequences. Well-meaning though they may have been, these guidelines further eroded the intelligence-gathering capabilities of an agency whose roster of spies had already been badly reduced two decades earlier by the purges that followed the Church Committee hearings of the mid-1970s. The Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s had further eroded support for CIA dealings with questionable figures overseas. In subsequent years, the agency had largely sought its intelligence as much as possible through photographic or electronic means.



Fialka, John J. "Aftermath of Terror: Rules for Hiring Agents Are Criticized as Hampering Spy Agencies' Recruiting." Wall Street Journal. (September 13, 2001): A13.

Jones, Jerry W. "CI and HUMINT or HUMINT and CI or CI/HUMINT or TAC HUMINT (Confusing, Isn't It?)" Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin 28, no. 2 (April-June 2002): 28–33.

Thomas, Evan. "The Road to September 11." Newsweek. (October 1, 2001): 38–49.


Church Committee
CIA, Formation and History
Iran-Contra Affair
Measurement and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT)

NIMA (National Imagery and Mapping Agency)
September 11 Terrorist Attacks on the United States
SIGINT (Signals Intelligence)

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