Gathering Full and Faithful Human Intelligence

Human intelligence is a vital aspect of tackling serious organised crime. CREST Doctoral researcher Jordan Nunan is investigating memory encoding and retrieval techniques for covert policing and intelligence gathering.

In recent years there has been a renewed focus on proactive policing, intelligence gathering and its related capabilities. Intelligence gathering is one way of strengthening preventative capabilities against terrorism, as well as other criminal activities.

There are a variety of methods that agencies can use to collect intelligence. Human Intelligence (HUMINT), one of the methods, comprises of legitimate covert practices, such as the use of Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS). CHIS are defined within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and play a significant role within HUMINT. The use of covert means can potentially disrupt, dismantle or prevent serious crime and its related organised crime networks. Therefore, it is a particularly important element of security.

As research funded by the High Value-Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) demonstrates, there are gains to be made from utilising evidence-based practices in this area. The first phase of my research comprises of semi-structured interviews with practitioners who have worked within HUMINT. This provides an empirical exploration of the current successes and challenges in gathering intelligence, covering key topics such as training, rapport, intelligence gathering approaches, memory, and communication.

Covert sources report to their handlers about past and future events, which may provide reliable intelligence to prevent serious and organised crime. Therefore, techniques that can assist a sources’ memory whilst maintaining reliability are vital to ensuring effective intelligence gathering strategies. However, memory research has mainly focused on recall, whereby the event has taken place and a reactive technique is tested for its impact on the recalling of that event. Instead, I am questioning how elements of the cognitive interview, which are primarily used after the to-be-remembered (TBR) event, could in fact help before the event has taken place. The cognitive interview is a collection of techniques devised in the 1980’s to aid memory retrieval and has been adopted all over the world.

I am questioning how elements of the cognitive interview, which are primarily used after the to-be-remembered (TBR) event, could in fact help before the event has taken place

The impact of the environmental context on human memory has been frequently discussed in the academic literature. In particular, the Mental Reinstatement of Context Instruction (MRCI) has an abundance of empirical evidence supporting its positive impact on recall. This links with the potential task a covert source is working towards. The MRCI is based on mentally placing the individual back at the event in question. I am seeking to find out if memory recall can be enhanced by giving a source a set of instructions to help them proactively encode the details of the event, and matching these with the instructions given within a MCRI.

The second phase of my research investigates the impact of proactive instructions that could be used before the deployment of gathering HUMINT. Unlike witnesses to a crime, who are not anticipating an important event that requires attention and remembering, a covert source may be aware hours, if not days before an event that they will need to recall its details. This provides us with an opportunity to provide techniques prior to witnessing an event which may later enhance recall–a priming effect.

Gathering Full and Faithful Human Intelligence by Nunan

The task asked of a covert source is to gather a specific piece of information that their handler is lacking. For example, it is not enough to know that a terrorist group wants to attack London, one must also discover when, where, how and by whom. Yet, there is limited research on the impact of cognitive load and cognitive biases when tasking an individual to encode a specific piece of intelligence. This raises the question of whether tasking a source to encode a specific piece of intelligence positively or negatively impacts upon what is later recalled. With that in mind, phase three of my research examines this very question, with a focus on whether additional key intelligence is recalled when an individual is tasked to collect a specific item.

Research on HUMINT, specifically covert sources, together with a proactive focus on memory recall is limited. This is rather surprising given the numerous potential benefits these approaches could provide. My research aims to develop our understanding of HUMINT gathering practices in the UK, and provide a set of research-based techniques. A proactive understanding of memory may help the upcoming recall of sources, thereby gathering a more full and faithful intelligence package to prevent future serious organised crime.


Jordan Nunan is a PhD Student at the University of Portsmouth. This blog is one of a number written by Early Career Researchers, read more about their work here.
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