The intention of this article is to give some tips and suggestions for covert operators, and to point out some of the more common, and therefore predictable – and therefore detectable – indicators and mistakes that many operators tend to make. These indicators and mistakes apply to most types of covert operations – from hostile surveillance to surveillance detection, covert security and protective surveillance. This article will therefore cover many of the problems and mistakes you’ll want to look for in others, while avoiding yourself. Though these insights come from my own operational and instructional experience, I want to make it clear that I am in no way an absolute authority on the subject (mostly because there is no such thing). If you happen to disagree with, or question, any part of this article, I would be very grateful for any comments or questions you might want to leave below.
None of the photos in this article were taken from covert operations or trainings I have managed or participated in.
Cover and cover story
Let’s go over the basics first. A cover is the visual projection of what a covert operator wants people to see, and therefore think of him/her. For example, if you want people to think you’re a homeless person, you dress and look the part so that even from a distance, anyone looking your way should conclude – just by sight – that you’re a homeless person. A cover story, as its name suggests, is the verbal representation of your cover. In other words, what, and how, you might have to verbally explain who you are and/or what you’re doing. For obvious reasons, the cover story has to fit, and even strengthen, the cover, otherwise it would seem suspicious or curious if the person who looks homeless, for example, talks like a law enforcement officer.
One of the keys to the cover/cover story dynamic is to always start with a good cover, and then work your way towards a good cover story. This order is important because the main idea is to visually embed yourself into the environment in such a bland and boring way that no one ever pays any attention to you, much less tries to question or talk to you. A common mistake I have seen many people make when trying to establish a cover is to invest too much energy in appearing as harmless as they can, while forgetting that a cover that’s interesting, fun or attractive is almost always a bad one, since it fails the boring test.
I have also seen many people spin elaborate stories about what their cover story is, and then fail to fit a boring enough cover to go with it. Again, start with a cover – make it boring – and then add a cover story to it. As for the cover story itself, keep it simple, try to keep it within the boundaries of things you actually know from experience (so you can talk about it naturally, and even elaborate, if – and only if – you are asked to do so), while staying far enough away from information that can actually lead to who you really are. Do not volunteer too many details, and keep it bland and boring so that the person you’re talking to will forget you as soon as he/she walks away.
Posture and movement
There is a celebrated quote by Winston Churchill, who, after being asked to what he attributed his success in life, answered “Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down”. This little tongue-in-cheek answer does actually make a good point when applied to covert operations. In most cases, movement attracts more attention than non movement; standing attracts more attention than sitting. Bland and lazy are your best friends here.
In my experience, most people who gravitate towards covert operations tend to have backgrounds in military, law enforcement, security or all of the above. The reason why I mention this is because serious people with these types of backgrounds, naturally move and posture themselves in ways that are the opposite of bland and lazy. For the exact same reasons that standing and moving around are good military, law enforcement and security habits (allowing the officer to project more of a deterring presence, while extending visual control), they are bad habits for covert operations. The tendency to maintain a command presence, and to want to visually control your environment, will usually make you stick out; as will any sudden movements, abrupt stops and quick head turns. At the very least, these actions will make you look interesting; suggesting that there’s something going on. As a covert operator, you should want the exact opposite – bland, lazy and boring. You should also keep in mind that it will be difficult to look bland and lazy if you don’t look comfortable. And since it’s hard to look comfortable if you’re not, make sure you actually get physically comfortable. A person that’s physically uncomfortable probably looks uncomfortable, and looking uncomfortable can attract interest, curiosity and suspicion.
As for looking boring, another useful expression here is “If you’re bored, you’re boring”.
Sit down, calm down, get comfortable and try to get bored.
Which leads us to the next point.
The two main advantages that sitting down will give you are a less noticeable appearance, combined with the ability to see and notice more yourself. That sitting will make you less noticeable was already mentioned in the category above, but I can’t tell you how many times I have heard myself repeat this simple instruction during trainings. And though It might seem strange that such a basic idea would be so difficult to follow, this is precisely why field exercises are so crucial – to show you that simple ideas in theory feel very different, and are much more difficult, in practice. There are relatively few reasons for being in a fixed position without sitting down, and most of those reasons not only fail the boring cover test, but keep you from being as observant as you could otherwise be.
Find somewhere to sit down, get comfortable and relax.
No changing fixed positions
So you sat down. Great. Now, stay there!
It’s often the case that only after you’ve already assumed a vantage point (hopefully sitting down), you notice an even better vantage point you could have picked. There’s nothing ironic about this – you’ll always be able to see and understand more after you stop moving and sit down (which is one of the main reasons you sit down in the first place). But as tempting as it is to move to that other position, don’t do it. There might be many legitimate reasons for normal people to move from one nearby spot to another, but even in the best case scenario, doing this will make you stick out more than if you just stay at your original spot, and in the worst case scenario, your movement from one vantage point to a better one will be picked up as a classic surveillance indicator/mistake by someone who knows what to look for.
You’ve made your bed, now lie in it. Next time, try to find the better vantage point to begin with, but for now – stay put.
The bus stop
This one comes up allot: You get to a new location and quickly look for a good vantage point. As is often the case in urban areas, a bus stop just so happens to be perfectly positioned for this. It even has a number of people standing and sitting there – all the better for you to blend into. Good vantage point, right?
Wrong! Or at least almost always wrong (there are some exceptions, as usual).
Bus stops do indeed provide a logical justification for standing (or hopefully sitting) in very central locations, but this justification only makes sense if the bus stop is used for its intended purpose – to get on a bus. Using this vantage point for an extended period of time will not make sense because everyone else in the bus stop will eventually get on a bus, leaving the covert operator looking out of place. You might be able to justify a good 20-30 minutes at a bus stop, but eventually, you will have to board one of the buses that stops there.
The same principle applies when conducting mobile surveillance on foot. It is important to keep in mind that mobile surveillance will almost always contain stops; many of which will be short ones (traffic lights, etc). Blending into a small group of people standing at a bus stop for some 30-40 seconds until the target starts moving again might seem very inviting, but, once again, remember, there’s only one logical justification for standing at a bus stop – getting on a bus. Either spending a long period of time at a bus stop, or walking away from a bus stop without having boarded a bus, can get you detected by someone who knows what to look for.
Finally, if you absolutely have to use a bus stop (for a relatively short amount of time – until you actually get on a bus), pay attention to where the bus is coming from. The other people at the bus stop will almost always look that way, and you don’t want to enact the old surveillance cliche of the single person looking the wrong way.
Your cellphone can be your best friend or your worst enemy – depending on how you use it. Not only is your cellphone the best and most natural – and therefore least suspicious – way to communicate in general, with the advent of smartphones, it can provide necessary occupations that can justify your presence at various locations. Look around you the next time you’re out and about, and notice what bored/boring people are doing (remember, you want to look boring). Nine times out of ten, they will have their smartphones in their hands. Your phone can even help you when conducting mobile surveillance on foot. As was mentioned above, unexpected stops are almost unavoidable in these situations, and using your phone as a momentary justification for stopping, to seemingly answer some text message, etc, can be helpful at times.
It might feel counter-intuitive for people with strong security/military/law enforcement backgrounds to keep playing with their phones during important operations. But that’s precisely one of the advantages the cell phone gives you – making you appear distracted and unprofessional, which is all the more useful for covering up your background, and what you’re actually doing.
Now that we covered the benefits of the cell phone, let’s talk about cellphone mistakes that can get you in trouble. For starters, if you’re going to use your phone to justify your presence or to justify a quick stop, make sure you’re actually doing something with it. In other words, don’t just pretend to play with a blank screen. If you’re sitting down comfortably, make sure you actually have some facebook or email page open; if you have to stop unexpectedly, make sure to actually click on some text message (even if it’s an old one). Staring into a blank cellphone screen can give away the fact that you’re pretending. It will also be a good idea to silence your ringer. Though a ringing cellphone is not special in any way, it can still draw attention to you. In addition, if you’re pretending to talk on the phone in order to justify your presence somewhere, you don’t want your cellphone to actually start ringing while you hold it to your ear (if someone actually calls you by chance), this too can draw attention.
As for actually using the phone (or any PTT device that looks like a cellphone) for operational purposes, try to avoid using classic tactical communications when out in the field. People with military, law enforcement and security backgrounds have a bad tendency of saying such things as “Command from mobile-1. Target traveling southbound on Franklin street”. Needless to say, this is not how most people talk on their phones. Rather than establishing official callsigns, try using names (they obviously don’t have to be your real names), and make up a name for your target too – maybe something like Ted. So instead of the example above, why not say something like “Hey Chris, it’s Matt. What’s up, man? I think Ted’s actually heading down Franklin”. As for the length of these calls, keep in mind that most people don’t simply call to say one sentence, so you might want to keep talking. You don’t have to fill up your communications network with chatter to do this – hang up (or release the PTT button) and blab on for a few more seconds to make it seem more like a normal phone call. If two operators are communicating with each other while in the same area (inside a coffee shop, sitting on different benches in a city square, etc), try not to start and stop communications at the same time, since this can be picked up as a correlation between the two operators. Instead, one of the operators should keep blabbing for a little bit after the other has gotten off, in order to make it seem like there is no connection between the two.
As for hands-free extensions (both wired and wireless), I’m not a huge fan. Besides the fact that you don’t see them as often as you did a few years ago, these extensions are designed to free up your hands for other purposes, which is what makes them so obviously useful for covert operations – which is exactly my problem with them. Some type of low profile communication method is almost always necessary for covert operations, and is therefore one of the first telltale signs that a professional will look for. The hands-free cell phone earphones with a mic (usually dangling down from just one ear) is something I see too often on covert operators – making them quite easy to detect.
As for other types of covert communication, though I regret having to even mention this, since it does come up occasionally, I feel compelled to mention that there’s nothing all that covert about the classic radio “surveillance kits” that dangle a ‘pigtail’ from your ear, and force you to talk into your sleeve or collar. More advanced wireless skin colored mini earpieces and microphones might do a better job at concealing themselves, but if you’re interested in two-way communication, you’ll still have to awkwardly (and suspiciously) talk into what looks like thin air. You could, of course, mask this by pretending to talk into a regular cell phone, but in that case, why not actually talk into one for real? The biggest irony in using advanced technology for covert operations is that if these expensive and rare tools ever get discovered, there’s a much bigger chance you’ll get exposed than if you just text or call with an ordinary (or ordinary looking) cell phone.
Working with others
From my experience, when most people consider what a covert operator might look like, they tend to think of a single individual (usually male). When instructing an SD course, it usually takes trainees a few days to come up with the idea that it might be beneficial to work in pairs (or even groups in some cases) – and indeed it is. The archetypal covert operator is the lone male, and this should give you all the more reason to try to work together with someone if possible and appropriate. Few things are more innocuous looking than a man and a woman sitting together in a coffee shop or walking down the street. What are the man and the woman doing over there? They’re sitting and talking – right? Moreover, a couple can often take this innocuous appearance with them from one location to another; pretty much bringing their own self generated covers with them.
Yet another obvious advantage that working together can provide is teamwork. Two people can sit facing each other, for example, pretending to have a casual conversation, as one is focusing on the target and describing what they see, and the other (the one whose facing away from the target) is jotting down the information.
Now that we covered the advantages of working together, let’s consider what might get you in trouble. Perhaps the main thing to avoid is any type of meeting or splitting up. If you come alone, you leave alone, and if you come together, you leave together. Watching people meet up or split up is much more interesting/memorable than seeing people arrive together and leave together. The absolute worst thing you could do – a classic mistake – is arrive in the area together, and then split up to take different positions.
You’ve probably noticed how often coffee shops come up when I discuss covert operations. This is because coffee shops often provide some of the best vantage points. For starters, there are quite a few of them around, and they tend to be even more prevalent in many areas that might be of special interest to potential surveillance entities (I will not go into detail about this for obvious reasons). Part of what makes coffee shops so ideal for surveillance and SD is that unlike most other businesses, they will let you spend pretty much all day in them, more or less unharassed. The closest thing to a coffee shop situation might be a restaurant, but those usually have servers who will keep checking on you, and who will eventually expect you to pay for your meal and go on your way.
As an aside, if you must take position in a restaurant (maybe in order to closely surveill a target that is having a meal there), make sure to pay for your meal as soon as it arrives. You will not want to frantically wave over your server for the check if your target begins to leave unexpectedly. Conversely – from the SD or PS perspective – look out for restaurant patrons who pay for their meals as soon as they get them.
There’s no point in ignoring this fact – the archetypal covert operator is male, somewhere in his 20s – 50s, usually with a background in military, law enforcement, security or all of the above. Lest you think this discriminates against those who don’t fall into this narrow demographic, let me assure you that the opposite is the case. Simply being female, gives an operative a natural advantage, as does a younger or more advanced age. The reasons for this, as politically incorrect as they might sound, should be pretty obvious, and I can tell you from a few years of experience that some of the hardest individuals to detect (on both sides of the surveillance/SD fence) are the quintessential ‘little old ladies’. Conversely, though I would never endorse doing such a thing, the fact cannot be ignored that the use of children (usually for hostile surveillance), is not uncommon, and should therefore be acknowledged.
One of the most important, yet difficult, factors for covert operators to deal with is their personality, and how it affects the way they look to others. As had been mentioned before, people who gravitate towards covert operations very often have backgrounds in military, law enforcement, security or all of the above, and many operators with these types of backgrounds tend to unknowingly reveal them in various subtle ways – thereby harming their covers.
When considering how to dress for a covert operation, you might be tempted to go for the type of cloths you’re used to wearing in casual situations. The problem is that ‘casual’ is a subjective idea that stems from – and therefore represents – your personality; and the personality of a someone with a strong background who’s serious enough to get into covert operations, is not a thing you’d want to represent in your external appearance. The main point to understand here is that a thing that’s casual for you, probably reveals something about your personal taste, which has the potential to reveal something about your background and about what you might be doing.
The most common manifestation I keep seeing of this is the classic off duty or low profile officer/agent look – a casual and comfortable look that’s very common to industry professionals (even on their down time). Some of you already know what I’m talking about – comfortable jeans, khakis or cargoes, loose fitting, untucked Golf or buttoned-up shirts (the kind that’s good for concealing a weapon), and comfortable walking or sporty shoes. This is a very common – and therefore predictable – look for people who want to be casual, but also want to feel comfortable enough to jump into action if things “go south”. A few more easy giveaways I’ve seen over the years are: tactical or sporty sunglasses (oftentimes Oakley’s), tactical shoes and backpacks (most notably 5.11s), G-Shock type watches, tactical looking ruggedized cell phone cases, clip-on pocket knives, Golf/Polo shirts worn over undershirts (oftentimes by the Under Armour brand), baseball caps, soft-shell jackets, and anything that’s considered “Casual Tactical” or “Covert Tactical”.
Am I saying that anyone who possesses any of these items is necessarily a covert operator? Not at all. I can safely say that the vast majority are nothing of the sort, but these items can increase the risk of your being added to the list of potential positives. And if a potential positive also happens to have somewhat of a serious disposition, and occupies a potential vantage point, he can be easily tagged as a strong positive.
Many people fail to realize that there’s a big difference between non-uniformed, low profile work and covert undercover operations, and I often meet law enforcement officers who confuse (or sometimes knowingly misrepresent) low profile work for undercover work. Officers with undercover narcotics experience know very well how different these are.
The following photos (the first from London and the second from New York) are good examples of low profile work that had been easily detected (and photographed) by Occupy Wall Street activists.
I’ll be honest, the typical low profile officer look is one that I myself like, but the fact that someone with my background and personality likes this look is all the more reason to avoid it when trying to hide what type of person I am. A good way to go about selecting what to wear is to consider whether you think something looks good on you. Odds are, if you think it looks good on you, it’s probably because it fits – and represents – your personality, which means you should probably go change. Try to wear something that doesn’t represent who you are. Most people have some articles of clothing in their house that they don’t like – how about those skinny fashion jeans that your girlfriend or wife got you a while back? Or how about that wimpy cardigan sweater that some well meaning aunt got you for Christmas a few years ago? The fact that these don’t suit your taste, and definitely don’t suit your idea of what might be good for a tactical operation, is exactly the reason why they will do such a good job of masking who you really are and what you’re doing. This same principle also applies to your behavior, as had been discussed earlier in the article. Conducting yourself in a way that looks dull or even somewhat dimwitted, as you slump down in your seat and play with your cell phone, might feel like the opposite of what you’re used to when it comes to important tactical operations, but, once again, that’s precisely what makes it so good for masking who you are and what you’re doing.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of training and working with a number of individuals who did not possess the typical covert operator personality traits. This gave them a natural advantage, since they didn’t have to overcome any personality, appearance and behavioral traits in order glide under people’s radars and blend into the environment. These included short, skinny, bicycle riding hipsters; young Asian females; ‘little old ladies’ and more; and they have been some of the most formidable operators I have ever seen – almost effortlessly invisible, even to those who were actively trying to detect them. But for the rest of us who do have to contend with our backgrounds and personality traits, honest self reflection is the first step towards better understanding what you look like to other people. Training can certainly help here, but you also need a sincere willingness to step out of your familiar comfort zones, make a few mistakes, and never stop learning.
As always – no article, book, or seminar can be said to actually teach people how to perform covert operations. Though some of the wording in this article might seem instructional, please keep in mind that this article is not intended to teach anyone how to execute covert operations.
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