So You Want To Be a Covert Operator

What follows is Chapter 12 of my new book Surveillance Zone
The book gives you an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look into the mysterious world of private-sector espionage, surveillance detection and covert protective operations.

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By this point in the book, some of you are bound to start asking how you, too, can get in on the action and become covert operators. So let me explain a few things about the work and what it’s like, and if you’re still interested, give you some pointers on how to get started.

What It’s Like

There’s no denying that covert, special operations can be very interesting and even exciting at times. In fact, much of this book was dedicated to telling you about that. But if you want to understand what this work is really like, I should fill you in on the not-so-exciting parts as well.

Now, it’s impossible to describe exactly what covert operations are like, if only because no two operations are the same. But here are two very common ingredients you’re likely to find.

Tedium

Most operations have long stretches of time when nothing much is going on. I specifically chose the word tedium rather than boredom because despite the fact that not much is going on, you can never completely relax. It’s only in retrospect that you can conclude nothing happened, but while you’re still in it, no one’s going to give you any warning if something comes up. In fact, you’re the one who’s supposed to detect it first and warn others about it. So even though absolutely nothing is happening the vast majority of time, you have to remain raiser-sharp.

To get a tiny idea of what this can be like, picture a situation where you’re covertly observing, say, an intersection from 5:00 am to 5:00 pm, for days on end, without detecting anything suspicious the entire time. Many people might assume (wrongly) that if a client was concerned enough to hire a surveillance detection or covert protection team, something dramatic must take place at a certain point. And though I have certainly had my share of dramatic moments, the majority of operations are long, tedious and drama-free.

Ambiguity

Considering how observant you have to remain when engaged in field intelligence operations, it’s a bit ironic how little you actually learn. Even if you detect everyone in the area, it’s quite unlikely you’ll discover exactly who everybody was and what exactly they were up to. It’s information that’s simply not available to you. To make matters even more frustrating, you’re often going to report your findings to a client who will investigate them but never let you know what they discovered. Even if your detections are reported to an intelligence and investigations department (especially if they’re reported to a department like that), you’re probably not going to hear back from them about their findings. There’s no reciprocity when it comes to intelligence operations, and clients often have to contend with privacy, liability and disclosure issues that keep things on a need-to-know basis. The field operator is a source of data, not a consumer of intelligence. And though you might really want to find out how things panned out, you’ll often have to contend with not knowing.

What It Takes

Though there are no formulas for what it takes to become a covert operator, here are a number of important factors that often come into play.

Heightened awareness

By this I don’t mean a heightened level of anxiety but rather an elevated level of visual awareness and careful observation. Maintaining these qualities is not only a function of using your eyes but of using what sits behind your eyes. It’s a matter of concentration and attention to detail.

Now, I could tell you that this game is more of a marathon than a sprint, but a marathon only lasts around half a day or so while covert operations can go on for much longer than that. Anyone can maintain heightened awareness for short bursts, but can you maintain it for days on end? Which leads us to the next point.

Patience

When an operator detects suspicious activity or hostile surveillance indicators, it might look like an exciting incident unfolded very quickly. But that would be a gross misrepresentation of where much of the operator’s talent lies. If you’ve ever watched a documentary about magicians, you know that what looks like magic is the result of an insane amount of practice and preparation that preceded the execution of the trick. In much the same way, behind almost every interesting detection (from people surveilling the target to individuals flying small drones near a protected area) are days and days of tedium which could have bored a less patient operator into complacency, preventing him/her from making the detection. Behind every molehill of a detection is a mountain of patience.

Discipline

In the context of covert operations, discipline is the ability to accept and execute difficult instructions, even if you don’t understand the reason behind them. This in no way means you have to always blindly accept orders. As in everything else, there’s a balance to be struck. But in a secretive, complex, need-to-know type of environment, you’re not always going to be given the full picture, and there are times when instructions simply need to be followed—no questions, arguments or explanations.

Self-discipline

Self-discipline is your ability to execute the mission without cutting corners, to stick to it indefinitely even when you’re not being supervised. Covert operators work alone most of the time, and, as I said earlier, much of the time nothing interesting is going on.

Imagine you’re tasked with observing the abovementioned intersection for days on end, only your shift is 5:00 pm to 5:00 am. The temptation to start cutting corners at a certain point will be very strong. You might think that any decent operator would never compromise a mission for base, petty reasons, but I can tell you that being cold, tired, annoyed and burned out for days on end can really play with people’s heads. And if you don’t even think the role you’re playing is an important one—that it’s just a big waste of time and energy—the only thing that’ll keep you going is self-discipline.

The ability to deal with ambiguity

I touched on ambiguity in the section above. It’s very often the case that you’ll get instructions from your client or manager without getting a satisfying explanation for why. Ordinarily, for conventional operations, this would not be a good thing. After all, we want every single operator to know as much as they can about the mission, the goals, who’s involved in what, and what their methods of achieving their goals are. But we’re not dealing with conventional operations here.

When it comes to unconventional operations, you very often have issues of privacy, operations security (OPSEC) and non-disclosure, which means information gets disseminated on a need-to-know basis. You’ll have to be OK with the fact that your instructions might not always make perfect sense to you, that much of the big picture will be hidden from you, that you’ll be giving much more information than you’ll be receiving, and that no one owes you any explanations or follow-ups.

You’ll have to also control your desire to find out how things panned out after a certain incident took place. You might be dying to know what happened with a certain suspicious person you reported on, especially after slaving for days until you made the detection. But it’s considered very bad form to ask too many questions. If the client or manager didn’t notify you, you should consider it as none of your business, and move on.

Self-reliance

It’s very often up to the operator to find tactical vantage points in the field, to establish a cover and cover story, to decide on various courses of action, and, most importantly, to adapt to unexpected situations. A field operator has to be a self-sufficient agent when the need arises, which it often does.

The ability to learn from mistakes

I don’t just mean this in the generic way that mistakes can be good learning opportunities. The SD and covert methodology learning process is practically based on your making mistakes. Causing you to make these important mistakes and to experience failure is a big part of SD training. Accepting the fact that you made a mistake is not easy for most people (myself included), but having made so many of them, I can tell you that it’s a vital ingredient in learning how to do things correctly.

Intelligence

This is a big one and goes way beyond common sense. You have to be able to understand complex and ambiguous situations. You have to understand people and decipher the meaning and relevance behind what they’re doing. You not only have to plan things intelligently, you have to react and adapt to unexpected situations in clever and inventive ways.

Self-reflection

This is the ability to realize how you look, sound and feel to others around you. It’s important for tactical reasons—to avoid calling attention to yourself as you blend into different environments—and it also comes into play when you communicate with a client.

It’s common to find a lack of self-reflection in competitive, dominant people who transition from military, law enforcement or security work to sensitive, covert operations. In order to stop being a bull in a china shop, you’ll have to first realize you’ve got big horns on your head. This is why training and learning from mistakes is so important, not just for understanding your environment but for understanding yourself.

Level-headedness and calm

Last but not least, this might be the cornerstone that holds up all the other factors. Covert, special operations often contain many risks and potentially far-reaching consequences. You’ll have a very hard time maintaining the factors mentioned above if you can’t find a way to calm down and approach stressful situations in a level-headed way.

What Kind of Person Can Do It

The short answer here is that as long as they have the abovementioned qualities, anyone can do it. There’s no single type of person or background that needs to fit any mold here. I’ve worked with people from many different walks of life who became successful at it, and many who didn’t.

I suppose it’s less surprising to discover that many of the people who excel at covert protective operations have military, law enforcement and security backgrounds. I’ve seen ex-Navy SEALs, ex-Secret Service agents and ex-undercover narcotics agents do amazing work. But some of my favorites (because they so beautifully go against conventions and common pre-expectations) are people who don’t fit the classic mold. No disrespect to anyone with a strong military, law enforcement, government or security background (I have one of those myself), but it’s always thrilling to see young Asian women, little old ladies and bicycle-riding hipsters run circles around ex-special forces guys in the field.

I touched on this topic in Chapter 9, but beyond appearance and demographics, what makes some of these people so great at covert operations is their flexible, unconventional open-mindedness. They still, of course, have to possess the qualities I mentioned earlier, but the bottom line is that there’s no single type or character or background for this type of work. Different people with different backgrounds can all bring important and useful qualities to the table.

How to Get Started

OK, so now that you’ve found out as much as you have about private sector covert operations and read all my warnings about it, if after all that you’re still interested in getting into it for some odd reason, let me give you a few pointers on how to do it.

I can’t really speak for the industry as a whole, nor can I guarantee that you’ll succeed in getting into this field (most people don’t), but I can tell you what it takes to work for me and a few others I know.

The number one thing you’ll need is to gain your employer’s trust. Many people miss this point, and I often get emails, messages and calls from people who throw their credentials at me, expecting to be immediately hired. Needless to say (or, unfortunately, not so needless), this is not the way it works.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doubting anyone’s skill and experience, but it take a lot more than that. To take part in covert operations is to be brought very deeply into the fold, and clients and employers have to get to know you first. Skill and experience are necessary but not sufficient qualities on their own. There has to be a certain level of comfort and trust before “jumping into bed” together.

One way to get your foot in the door is to have a trusted insider vouch for you. This won’t get you completely in but might kick-start the process. Another way to get started is to spend years working with someone like me on conventional protective operations. Then, after I get to know and trust you, we might take things to the next level. This can take quite a bit of time, which is another reason patience is an important virtue here.

In case you don’t have any connections (and, actually, even if you do), training in surveillance detection and/or covert protection can also get things started. It’s obviously vital for teaching inexperienced people the ropes. But even for people who already have some skill and experience, training is a low-stakes opportunity to show your employer what you’re able to do and to get noticed and gain their trust.

Training is also an opportunity for the employer to see your specific brand and style of work. As I mentioned earlier, people from different backgrounds can bring different qualities to the table. But we, the employers, have to understand exactly what your qualities are and how they can be incorporated into our operations.

Get Surveillance Zone now!

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