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Human intelligence (HUMINT) is

[a] category of intelligence derived from information collected and provided by human sources.[1]
espionage (i.e., spying), which consists largely of sending agents to foreign countries, where they attempt to recruit foreign nationals to spy.[2]
the collection of information — either orally or via documentation — that is provided directly by a human source. It is the only type of intelligence for which collectors speak directly to the sources of information, control the topic of discussion, and direct the source's activities. Human sources can obtain access to information that is not obtainable any other way.[3]


HUMINT is the oldest intelligence discipline and the one that is most often written about in the media. The CIA is the primary collector of HUMINT, but the Defense Department also has responsibilities filled by defense attachés at embassies around the world and by other agents working on behalf of theater commanders.

HUMINT collection methodologies include five general categories:
  • Screening.
  • Interrogation.
  • Debriefing.
  • Military source operations.
  • Liaison.[4]

The types of HUMINT range from high-level, strategic, national security information, for example, to unit-specific information collected on the battlefield. HUMINT may also be acquired overtly or clandestinely.

In overt collection, the collector meets openly with sources as a declared U.S. Government representative. Overt collection comprises many forms of information collection, including debriefings of persons who have travelled to countries of national interest, diplomatic reports from embassies on host-country officials' stated reactions to U.S. policy initiatives, and law enforcement reports on criminal activities, such as drug trafficking.

Clandestine collection is conducted in secret. A clandestine collector must locate a person with access to desired information, initiate and discreetly develop a relationship with that prospective source, and ultimately convince the source to divulge secrets. A source may or may not be told of his interlocutor's U.S. Government affiliation. After the source is recruited, contact is usually strictly controlled in an effort to elude discovery. The recruitment of a clandestine human source can take months or years, but the leak of a source's information may immediately eliminate access to that source.

Many observers have argued that inadequate HUMINT has been a systemic problem and contributed to the inability to gain prior knowledge of the 9/11 plots. In part, these criticisms reflect the changing nature of the international environment. During the Cold War, targets of U.S. HUMINT collection were foreign government officials and military leaders. Intelligence agency officials working under cover as diplomats could approach potential contacts at receptions or in the context of routine embassy business. Today, however, the need is to seek information from clandestine terrorist groups or narcotics traffickers who do not appear at embassy social gatherings. HUMINT from such sources can be especially important as there may be little evidence of activities or intentions that can be gathered from imagery, and their communications may be carefully limited.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 stated the Sense of Congress that, while HUMINT officers have performed admirably and honorably, there must be an increased emphasis on and greater resources applied to enhancing the depth and breadth of human intelligence capabilities. In October 2005 the National Clandestine Service was established at CIA to undertake HUMINT operations by CIA and coordinate HUMINT efforts by other intelligence agencies.


  1. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Pub. 1–02: DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Nov. 8, 2010, as amended through May 15, 2011) (full-text).
  2. Congress as a Consumer of Intelligence Information, at 5.
  3. U.S. National Intelligence-An Overview 2013, at 46.
  4. ADRP 2-0, at 4-5.

See also[]