Getting Professioinal Tradecraft Training

The Institute measures education providers, trainers and courses against hundreds of criteria in order to establish if they and their product meets professional standards. The ultimate judge of professional tradecraft training is if the supplier and the course carries approved qualification, licensed institution or professional registration qualification. However, in the absence of these a potential student can examine the resources, capabilities and characteristics of a provider and their offer to identify and separate the professional from the amateur.

Professional development is critical to maintaining a current knowledge of best practice. However, it can be very difficult to decide which to choose with so many providers publicly available. For busy professionals finding the right criteria to search by can be resource intensive on its own. Then a potential student has to find and narrow the pool of providers and courses. For this reason, and because of the risks inherent to tradecraft training, the Institute has presented some important criteria for selecting professional tradecraft training that should help steer potential students away from riskier providers and towards reputable professionals.

Through the Looking Glass

Tradecraft exists across every intelligence discipline from analysis to signals intelligence. Generally, it simply refers to the tools, tactics and techniques used to accomplish specific operational tasks within that discipline. When the Institute receives requests for bespoke tradecraft training it most often pertains to a combination of clandestine operational techniques used by human intelligence operators. However, tradecraft is of no use when taught in isolation. It is part of a wider skill set and spans a variety of specialities that take months or even years to learn in their entirety.

Therefore, the only benefit such a field tradecraft training course could offer would be as a refresher course for fully trained human intelligence professionals or as part of a wider programme of training and education. The Institute’s intensive training programme takes approximately 20 weeks in total over ten courses and two concluding exercises and this regularly incorporates night exercises, 12-hour days, blended learning, pre- and post- training professional development and more. Courses that teach tradecraft and all its pre-requisite skills in an attendance programme are possible but students should expect a duration of no less than six months.

Covert training places an individual at risk. It changes the way that they view society and the way society views them. It brings them into a world where they become aware of and useful to actors in international conflicts and issues of social importance. In short just undergoing training in this field will change a students life, and not necessarily for the better.

They may attract the attention of criminal elements and foreign powers, certain careers will no longer be available to them, law-enforcement and the judicial system will treat them with suspicion and socially, they will find reactions such as disbelief, fear, awe or hostility commonplace. Curiosity, power, self-defence or other personal reasons are a poor motivation and will inevitably leave the trainee feeling fearful, isolated, powerless, alone and wishing they had never opened Pandora’s box. Training can change a persons life, so it is important that it is undertaken for the right reasons and in full knowledge of the costs to their personal and professional life.

Professional Training

Once an individual has decided that training is right for them and that they can put it to good use in the public interest, the issue of how to identify professional training presents itself. For that reason the following features of professional tradecraft training have been highlighted regarding potential training providers, their faculty and their course.

Tradecraft courses should demand extensive previous or concurrent intelligence training, the difficulty level of the course and the target audience should all be clearly and specifically communicated as pre-requisites to entry. If not, students will struggle to place the training in any meaningful context, or learn advanced skills built on pre-requisite knowledge they do not possess.

The content of the course must deliver on human intelligence objectives. A list of broad topics covered should not be acceptable. Professional courses will have a list of specific learning objectives they intend to deliver on over the programme. Although they may be called different things, learning objectives should appear as brief statements that describe what students can be expected to learn, the language will differ between providers and courses but the general aim communicated should always be the same.

“All warfare is based on deception. There is no place where espionage is not used.”
Sun Tzu, General & Philosopher

Learning objectives are central to proficiency-based learning, linked directly to job performance and should be present in any professionally-oriented course. If learning objectives are absent or unclear this is a significant indicator that the course has not been developed by a proficient educator, does not relate to professional standards and as a result will not prepare its students for the workplace.

Given that tradecraft appears in a broader spectrum of skills and knowledge, any course exclusively dedicated to tradecraft should teach, expect as a pre-requisite, or demand in concurrent training or education knowledge and skill in: intelligence theory and methodology, investigation, interviewing, research and analysis, covert collection, counterintelligence, security and protection, surveillance and covert operations. These are typically covered in national intelligence, military, law-enforcement, investigative and undercover journalism and independent private sector training courses. Although academic programmes have been known to cover some elements in depth.

Learning objectives on such a tradecraft course could include the following:

  • Apply operational security and other security practices employed in high-risk, fast-paced intelligence and covert operations environments (3 days).
  • Understand surveillance and surveillance detection concepts, planning, methodology and common covert tactics employed at the tactical level (3 days).
  • Understand technical intelligence assets that can be deployed in support of covert operations, deploy and detect technical surveillance (2 days).
  • Understand best practice, professional standards and historical cases of success and failure in covert operations (4 days).
  • Conduct pre-deployment, tactical, contingency and compromise planning based on threat and risk assessments (2 days).
  • Deter, disrupt and neutralise targets and operations where traditional methods have proven inefficient or unsuccessful (1 day).
  • Conduct high-speed pursuit, vehicular evasion, extraction and evacuation (3 days).
  • Provide primary and secondary trauma care or intervention (5 days).
  • Develop and maintain technical surveillance devices, penetrate computer systems and employ covert photography (5 days).
  • Plan and conduct interviews, interrogation, debrief and elicitation and employ counter-interrogation tactics (3 days).
  • Conduct reconnaissance, static, foot and mobile surveillance techniques, plan and conduct covert entry and search of persons, vehicles, premises and areas (5 days).
  • Understand the psychology and methodology of agent identification, screening, recruitment and handling, processing walk-ins, defectors and using informants in undercover, counterintelligence, technical and special operations (5 days).
  • Plan and conduct covert infiltration, investigations, and exfiltration from hostile environments (3 days).
  • Develop problem-solving, interpersonal and communication skills, apply deception, deception detection, conflict management and de-escalation techniques (2 days).
  • Plan and utilise techniques in escape and evasion and demonstrate survival, navigation, fieldcraft and combat tactics (5 days).
  • Provide security, self-defence, restraint and tradecraft training and other short-term support to persons under cover (3 days).
  • Provide covert support to external operations, establish and utilise covert communications and infrastructure (2 days).
  • Create and use credible and realistic cover and legends, plan short and long-term undercover operations, use disguise, camouflage and concealment techniques (5 days).
  • Penetrate target groups and identify unknown subjects of interest and their activities. Provide current, actionable and sustainable intelligence and evidence on targets and their activities (2 days).

On enquiring about the learning objectives with the provider, it should be clear that they were devised from a capability study and an analysis of industry requirements. Learning objectives should link explicitly to occupational and professional standards. The classes provided in the schedule should also clearly link in subject matter to the learning objectives.

The duration of any such training would also depend upon the number of learning objectives fulfilled in a training course. In order to provide some idea as to a reasonable timescale, an estimate as to the minimum time required to reasonably deliver on each learning objective has been listed in brackets next to the objective above. The entirety of the content listed above could not reasonably be expected to be delivered in less than 12 weeks at 5 days per week. If a course listing such learning objectives is also advertised as having a duration less than the cumulative time of that allocated to the learning objectives above, justification should be sought from the provider.

“Once you’ve lived the inside-out world of espionage, you never shed it. It’s a mentality, a double standard of existence.”
John Le Carre, Author

However, it does not necessarily follow that a course is of poor quality if it delivers those learning objectives in less time. The estimate assumed a day attendance of approximately 6 guided learning hours per day with no supplementary learning or practice. There may be mitigating factors in the delivery of shorter courses or they may have used alternate methods in order to achieve reductions in time. For example, blended learning, intensive/extended learning, additional work or exercises, pre-learning and pre-requisite training not covered in the statement of duration would all reduce the delivery time.

Training should be completed in a structured systematic manner clearly designed to deliver learning objectives in a logical order. Delivery should be partly classroom based and partly delivered through exercise in approximately a 50-50 ratio using the latest technology in use within the profession. In doing so the course gives students the opportunity to practice existing skills and improve performance whilst filling skill gaps in new areas expanding underdeveloped knowledge.

Delivery of the course across a number of classes should be flexible, offering a variety of teaching methods such as lectures, seminars, exercises, practicals, workshops, e-learning, reading, research, physicals, assignments, mentoring, webinars, coaching, etc. Learning should be blended, a mixture of independent study or practice and guided learning. If a course is not flexible, inappropriate delivery methods may be used to instil the learning in students. Delivery methods should be discussed at length in a course handbook which every student should have access to. The course handbook should discuss the curriculum, its purpose, methodology, delivery and assessment methods in depth.

The course curriculum will have been scientifically developed based upon market research and the occupational requirements of practitioners and organisations from across the sector. Curriculum developers will have academic experience and qualifications in research. Across the faculty it should be understood that modern intelligence is a discipline that spans a multitude of sectors and is used by almost everybody to some degree, and is no longer exclusive to government. The syllabus should reflect this, demonstrating building current, cross-sector, transferrable knowledge and skills in a legal and ethical way.

A potential student should expect to encounter a diverse variety of qualified and experienced educators from different backgrounds in the faculty. Faculty should be at various stages of their professional careers and should not be mostly retired. The provider should be located in a cosmopolitan city with extensive business links to decision-making centres of the clients they represent. Successful intelligence enterprises will also be decentralised and international, having a presence across the world.

Suppliers will exhibit corporate social responsibility either in a specific policy or through their mission, values and actions. Courses will be oriented towards addressing social issues and trainees will be required to submit to extensive background checks and sign several waivers, non-disclosure agreements and other contracts prior to enrolment. Intellectual property and any information that could be potentially harmful will be protected using special measures similar to that for protecting classified material of equivalent sensitivity. Professional trainers will treat the knowledge and skill they transfer with respect and be acutely aware of the potential for civil liability and criminal culpability if they are negligent of who they train and why.

As an example, the Institute has a comparably open policy on its covert training and deliberately tries to lower barriers to entry. However, background checks, vetting, waivers, contracts and training in law and ethics are just some of the expectations of those entering onto covert programmes.

Within intelligence as a discipline, a provider’s motives for delivering training should be socially oriented, providing a service that will benefit society or help others accomplish that aim. They may be incorporated as a non-profit, social enterprise or even a charity. But even private for-profit enterprises should present a significant social obligation and orientation in their work.

Yesterday's Men

As mentioned previously, not all training is professionally-oriented. Some training publicly available is unfit for purpose, dangerous, unethical or even criminal. If we are to ask how to identify training that is professional, it is also fair to ask how to identify that which is not. However, although professionalism has a distinct appearance, incompetence, negligence and malpractice come to us in infinite variety. However, after close examination of these providers, it became apparent that some of their characteristics appeared together more often than they do apart. Therefore, it has been possible to group these common characteristics together into a number of archetypes.

“There are some who become spies for money, or out of vanity and megalomania, or out of ambition, or out of a desire for thrills. But the malady of our time is of those who become spies out of idealism.”
Max Lerner, Journalist & Educator

To be trained by mercenaries or amateurs is a detrimental entry on any resume and will do an individual’s career much more harm than good. Therefore, the following four archetypes have been presented, representing common providers that incur the highest professional and personal risk for their students and as a result should be treated with extreme caution:

The “reluctant lotus eater” represents an individual or small network of individuals with an extensive work history but little or no professional education or current training. Professional development has been neglected and in recent years professional experience is also lacking. These individuals are by far the most common and the most dangerous. They most often appear as retired practitioners running small, unprofitable, training or consultancy businesses on a part-time basis. They function through independent funding only, such as misappropriated grants/contracts from their previous employer or by making contributions from their own pension. However, they will not present commercial viability by filling a market gap with a meaningful product or service. The trainer’s motivation is entirely personal and they are most often having difficulty retiring. They are trying to instil the illusion of relevance both to themselves and their old colleagues by maintaining any kind of professional contact with their old workplace and profession.

This is incredibly dangerous for a number of reasons, only some of which can be covered in this article. Firstly, as the purpose of the enterprise is to draw attention, so it does just that, both friendly and hostile. Secondly, training will be incomplete, outdated and irrelevant as courses are mostly duplicated from distant memories of military, police or intelligence programmes trainers experienced in their previous roles rather than the research and analysis of occupational requirements. They will also be of poor quality as trainers will likely not have experience or qualifications as educators. However, most importantly, the courses will most likely train individuals in methods that have subsequently fallen out of common use as they are ineffective, unethical or even illegal. As a result, this places the trainer and trainee at great personal, ethical and legal risk.

They can easily be identified through their extreme and narrow views. Specifically, a bias in favour of an organisation or group of organisations. For example, only accepting trainees from specific national government, law-enforcement, allied military, private-security, etc. This bias should match the background of the supplier and the supplier will probably express the attitude or belief that these are the only true practitioners of intelligence. They will also display an intense dislike, or even hatred, of professional accreditation or qualification as this forces them to confront the uncomfortable fact that their experience is both outdated and insufficient to deliver the skills and knowledge they claim.

The “lord of the ivory tower” is the polar opposite of the reluctant lotus eater. It represents an individual or small group of individuals with an impressive academic and/or training record but little or no professional experience. Their professional history will clearly be linked to an academic track with a history of research projects, publications and professional education and training. However, their employment history would not have been in intelligence or if it has been it would have been some time ago. No effort would have been made to engage in regular intelligence work outside of academia. They appear in universities, think tanks, research centres and similar institutions around the globe. Research is the motivating factor behind their work and so they have little interest in teaching or even learning how. If they are delivering courses they are most likely being compelled to do so by their organisation as a part of their wider role and have managed to survive as poor lecturers by excelling in other areas the organisation assigns a higher value to.

Their training will likely be entirely classroom based and will probably concentrate exclusively on theory delivered by unenthusiastic lecturers whose background may not match the material. Although an awareness and knowledge will be conferred, it is highly unlikely students will develop the required skills to perform the role in practice. Although they may conduct background checks, these will not be any stricter than the criteria imposed by a university. Criteria for entry will mainly be academic and although they may enquire as to a students reason for attending, they will not differentiate between personal and social motivations.

The largest risk surrounding this archetype is that they are largely ignorant of the special operational security measures regarding intelligence personnel. Students may find themselves sitting in a classroom with intelligence officers from hostile intelligence services. Their personal details, professional affiliations, work history and home addresses may be stored insecurely or worse distributed on digital e-learning platforms. Lecturers may openly discuss the nature of their work on unsecured lines, un-encrypted e-mail, by text message or on social media placing the student, their family and future employment at risk.

“You get so used to lying that after a while it’s hard to remember what the truth is.”
Phillip Agee, Intelligence Officer & Author

They can be most commonly identified by their laissez-faire attitude to matters of operational security. Intelligence professionals are respectful of security, even when they have become accustomed to it. However, this archetype doesn’t even acknowledge that operational security is an issue that affects them in their work, at least not beyond the most abstract theoretical explanation of it to their students. Also, as lecturing is seen as a distraction from their real work rather than their main duty, a student may find them cold, distant, uninterested, difficult to arrange meetings with and unresponsive to communications.

The “toy soldier” is rarer but does sometimes occur. It represents an individual or group of individuals whose skills lie close to but outside the sphere of intelligence. They may possess extensive training, education and experience in law-enforcement, counter-terrorism, the military, diplomacy, etc. but not in intelligence itself. Courses will be advertised as intelligence training, but will appear to lack the necessary learning objectives. Instead, the trainers expertise will be prominently represented throughout the learning objectives and the course as a whole will be presented under the guise of intelligence training. The trainer is most probably looking to make a course appear more exciting and interesting by attempting to tap into the mystery and hollywood drama of espionage.

This archetype can be found almost anywhere as they are otherwise highly proficient individuals, just not in the sphere of intelligence. They comfortably exist within their profession and appear as experts in that field. However, they are prone to emerge at conferences, events, reports and in the field of training as well, mainly due to customers or organisers failing to conduct adequate due diligence on their providers or representatives. Unfortunately, the student’s association with them is more likely to benefit the provider’s resume than the students. As with the lord of the ivory tower, the biggest risk is that of operational security. Not having any experience or training in intelligence, the provider is likely to be completely unaware of those concerns.

They can be easily identified as proceeding from a false assumption, that their discipline falls within the sphere of intelligence. Questioning them on some of the most fundamental theories of covert intelligence that any career officer would know, quickly strips away any veneer of competency. It is unlikely that an exclusive expert in counter-terrorism is going to have knowledge of any depth in the source recruitment cycle, the principles of elicitation or surveillance detection route planning. They will avoid these topics at all costs, most likely trying to touch on them briefly before re-directing the conversation back to their area of expertise.

The “tin pot spymaster” represents an individual or small group of individuals with extremely limited resources. They would not have fully committed to the venture or may be economising to the extent that it is harming their business and the services they supply. They will seek low-rents in remote locations and as such are likely to be disconnected and isolated from the industry. Essential technologies and equipment will be missing. Training will suffer as they may not have invested in radio-nets, technical surveillance equipment, weapons, ammunition, licenses, software, pyrotechnics, computer systems, cameras, etc. There may be a shortage of staff resulting in some subjects being inadequately covered and courses may appear unusually cheap compared to market prices.

The primary motivation of the tin pot spymaster is acquisitive. They may be involved in a number of other related intelligence activities, such as self-publishing, conferences or private investigations, each heavily leveraged for profit and sacrificing quality for quantity at every stage. They will not discriminate in those they train or why they train them. Their services will be broadly oriented to catch as many potential customers as possible but not specific enough to meet any of their individual needs. Flexible learning approaches will not be adopted, and as a result any knowledge may not be efficiently or effectively conferred, skills may not be developed and learning not reinforced.

This archetype can be found in any number of small private training companies or as sole-traders. Although these providers may seem appealing based on the cost, students should be aware that participating in these programmes will result in knowledge gaps, underdeveloped skills and an ignorance of contemporary technologies. In short students will find themselves unable to perform the role as a result. However, they can be easily identified as they rapidly accrue a poor reputation in the profession, will find it very difficult to supply favourable references and will have almost no repeat customers.

Other Factors

Although this overview may provide a good indication of the type of provider a student is considering, compliance still falls short of the standards for institutional, professional and course accreditation and this is ultimately the standard that customers should look for.

However, there are two other more intangible factors that presented themselves as worthy of due consideration. Firstly, if the organisation adopts a collaborative approach with the student, their organisation and other educators to building skills and knowledge in training. By combining ideas and building off each other’s techniques, better practices are developed. Training should acknowledge that learning has been undertaken before the trainee arrives and will continue after they leave. Development plans and points of contact should be shared so training can be integrated into workplace learning, future and historical professional learning and the students own independent learning and vice versa.

Secondly, diversity is important. Not only culturally, experiencing different geographical approaches and perspectives. But professionally, experiencing different approaches and perspectives from sectors, industries and even professions other than the student’s own. With a variety in demographics, students are exposed to a wider breadth of ideas and opinions that allow them to learn more and take more than the subject matter back to their employer.

When taking all these elements into account, narrowing down the plethora of professional development opportunities should be far easier and allow a trainee to find the perfect learning opportunity to benefit them and their organisation.