Spycraft: How to Be a Good Spy, According to a Former CIA Officer

Do you know how a spy works or what it takes to work in an intelligence agency? What a lot of people think when they are asked about spies and the intelligence community is what they’ve been shown in the media, and that’s because it is a world shrouded in secrecy with very hushed practices. If we knew more about what it was like to be a spy then our intelligence agencies wouldn’t be doing a great job, would they?

Former CIA Officer Jason Hanson.

Spy tactics have surfaced quite a lot in the media, with spies being poisoned, Russian intelligence agents interfering with elections, government secrets and speculation over torture. But very rarely do we actually get to see what life is like as an intelligence officer, as it is a quiet tradecraft centered around covert tactics and practices. While this is done to protect a nation’s interest, and hopefully to make the world a safer place, it also means that there is a lot of speculation and shady practices that might slip through the radar.

This secrecy makes it difficult to get to the real answers of spying such as ‘how to be a spy’, ‘how to tell if you are being followed’, or ‘how to join the CIA’. That is until we get a real chance to shine the light on the world of intelligence work and spy agencies.

In this valuable opportunity, a former Central Intelligence Agency Officer and founder of the Spy Escape and Evasion School surfaced on an open forum where The Prepping Guide, as well as many other spycraft enthusiasts, were able to ask their burning questions and get real answers about the nuts and bolts of the spy world.

Jason Hanson was a CIA spy for six years, and during that time received two exceptional performance awards for things we can’t know about. Having since left the CIA, Hanson is now on his own mission is to help good and honest people learn critical survival tactics that could mean the difference between life and death. To do that he provides his own training platform through the Spy Escape and Evasion school, backed by ABC TV funding show Shark Tank, and his New York Times bestsellerSpy Secrets That Can Save Your Life, to provide a detailed view of spycraft, survival and basic preparedness methods (yes, he is a prepper too). He says everyone should know how to protect themselves and their family in an increasingly dangerous world.

If you came here looking for James Bond stories, this is not the place. Instead, Hanson gives detailed views into spy fundamentals such as how to tell if you are being followed, how to keep your identity private, what characteristics make a good spy, and what to do if you are held hostage. So let’s take a look at these spy tactics, know-hows, and valuable insights.

What to do if you are taken hostage?

What is the best way to deal with a criminal in a situation where you’re being held hostage? What would be the proper way for a hostage to deal with that situation?

Hanson: “If you’re being held hostage do this: leave some type of trail so it’s easier for the FBI to track you. So, cut your finger and leave blood in the van or in a room. Make yourself puke so you’re leaving DNA evidence. Since the kidnappers are likely to move you, you want to make it as easy as possible to rescue you.

Also, do not be a pain in the butt and be submissive. You want the kidnappers to think you’re a wimp so they put less security on you and don’t watch you as closely, making it easier for you to escape. Lastly, develop an “illness”. Start pretending you’re sick so that criminals are more likely to release you and not keep you for long.”

How to tell if you are being tracked or followed?

How do I know if I’m being tracked/followed?

Hanson: “The best way to know if you’re being followed is to run an SDR (Surveillance Detection Route.) Its what spies run before they go meet someone. In short, instead of going straight from point A to point B, you might go to the gym, then Starbucks, then Walmart, and then to your final destination. If you see the same cars or people at the gym, Starbucks, etc. then you know you’re being followed and you would abort your meeting.”

 What is your worst-case scenario for a SHTF situation?

What would be your worst nightmare/worst case scenario in terms of location in a SHTF situation?

Hanson: In a SHTF scenario, the last place I would want to be is an inner city in a low-income place. (Baltimore, Detroit.) First, I don’t want to be in a crowded place where the population can quickly get out of control. Second, I’m a big believer in having food and water storage. If someone is broke and doesn’t have a lot of money they won’t be able to afford these extra supplies, so when the SHTF they’ll become desperate quicker since they won’t have any way to take care of themselves.

What is the best firearm for home defense?

What do you consider the best firearm for home defense? (I realize everyone has different preferences, but what’s in your nightstand?)

Hanson: “I use a handgun because I have young kids and I keep the gun in a rapid access safe on my nightstand. (The gun is a Sig P226). If I didn’t have kids I would be comfortable with an AR-15 or even a Remington 870 shotgun with 00 buck.”

How do you keep your identity private?

Did you use TOR in relation to your work? How can you assure your identity will not be discovered when navigating an open web or deep website using Tor/Tails (say, by an ISP, man in the middle, or an attack from the server designed to reveal your identity)?

Hanson: “I do use a VPN on my computer. I stay out of any places where I’m worried I will be discovered. Truthfully, I’m much more worried about my physical safety and making sure people can’t find me, which is why I have nothing delivered to my house (I use a UPS store as my address) and why my driver’s license and my car registration, etc. all have the UPS store address.

You can use an LLC or a Trust to buy your house. (And have the LLC address be your P.O. Box or UPS store address).”

What do you think about preppers?

How do you feel about the prevalence of “prepper” shows these days? Do you feel that they portray these people in a more negative light?

Hanson: “A lot of prepper shows do portray people in a negative light just so they can get ratings. I am all for the shows if it convinces people to actually stock up and be self-reliant. I personally have a year’s supply of food and a month’s supply of water.”

What to do in an active shooter situation?

In an active shooter situation, what is the best course of action? Most companies say to run away in a zig-zag pattern, is that actually effective?

Hanson: “In an active shooter situation, it depends on where you’re at in location to the shooter. But, in many instances, it is best to rush and swarm the shooter. The fact is, when someone bursts into a school and starts shooting, everyone (naturally) runs the other way and that gives the shooter a wide open place to start shooting people in the back. If we trained more people to rush the shooter, many lives would be saved.

…it’s not a great answer and you will probably get shot, but it will save a lot of lives.

If just one person rushed a shooter and took them down, dozens of lives could be saved.”

What characteristics make a good spy?

What characteristics make a good spy?

Hanson: “What makes a good spy? Someone who can sell. You’ve got to be able to mingle and interact with people and sell them on working with you. Spies have to be able to get along with anyone and build rapport with anyone. After all, spying is all about building relationships and then convincing someone to spy on behalf of the United States (or whatever country is trying to recruit someone.)”

How to be a competitive applicant to the intelligence community

What makes an applicant in the IC (Intelligence Community) competitive? Is a college degree, knowledge of a critical language, and a good amount of foreign experience (~2 years) usually enough to get an interview? What is a day-to-day schedule like in HUMINT?

Hanson: “College degree, military experience, foreign language are good to have.

In HUMINT you might be having a meeting, casing new meeting locations, doing research, all types of different things. There is no typical day to day schedule.”

What is the CIA office environment like?

Was the CIA office environment laid back or was did everyone keep it very professional? Did you ever suspect anyone working with you was a spy?

Hanson: “It was actually both. People were laid back and fun but were very professional and serious when they needed to be. Nope, I never suspected anyone I worked with was a spy.”

How to build a network of sources

What are your main tips for efficiently building a network of sources (without necessarily recruiting them)? Would you see any value in doing that in a systematic way in civilian life? Also – would you agree that HUMINT in its traditional form has become too expensive and time-consuming and should, therefore, give way to an emphasis on OSINT and maybe a digital OSINT-HUMINT hybrid? Thanks in advance.

Hanson: “I think it’s a great idea to build sources in a civilian life. I want as many people on my side as possible. The best way to build sources is to essentially make friends with everyone you meet and take care of them. So, when you go out to eat, really get to know the hostess and the waitress and tip them well. When you go to the bank, ask your banker questions about their life and get to know them. I’ve even done this with my local law enforcement where I live.

I believe that HUMINT is the best way to collect intelligence. There’s nothing like having “boots on the ground” and building personal connections. I don’t think it’s too expensive and time-consuming and over the years, I know that the majority of the best intelligence we’ve gotten has come from HUMINT.”

How advanced is facial-recognition technology?

How advanced is facial-recognition technology? Is using this technology to find a person who has changed their identity (without surgical interventions) feasible?

Hanson: “Facial recognition technology still has a long way to go when you’re out and about on the streets. So, if Facebook is using it to identify your face from a picture, that’s different than when you’re on the streets in a disguise, which is a lot tougher to identify you.”

Spying is common sense on steroids

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Hanson: “The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is from a buddy of mine who’s also a former CIA Officer. He told me that “spying is common sense on steroids.” If more people used common sense these days, they’d be a lot safer.”

What about the current attacks on the intelligence community?

What is your thoughts on this current climate of political attacks on our intelligence community? What do you think the outcome of the Mueller investigation will be?

Hanson: I’m obviously not a fan of the political attacks on our intelligence community. The men and women of the CIA and all the other intelligence agencies do amazing work and should not be dragged into politics like they are.

Regarding the Mueller investigation, I really don’t think they’ll find much. If anything, I think they’ll find that people unwittingly gave the Russians info. After all, a spy isn’t going to come up out of the blue and say, “hey, I’m a spy, give me this info, etc.” Instead, you never know the person is a spy and you never realize you’re giving them information that you shouldn’t.”

Do you want to be a spy or learn more about spycraft?

I have always been interested in the topic of spycraft. There is a whole resource out there that remains very classified and untold of the way in which spies go about their business. However, as their job entails, spycraft is secret because it is a dangerous role involving very compromising situations where practical precautions must be taken every single day.

There are some things that we can learn from former spies such as Jason Hanson, as his advice on how to deal with dangerous situations comes with a very practical approach, such as dealing with attackers, people following you, keeping your identity safe online and offline, and that mental preparedness where elements of situational awareness and public safety come into play.

If you enjoyed the conversation with Jason Hanson, check out the original Q&A forum over at Reddit where you can view the comments, responses, and insights that others gave to questions and Hanson’s other responses. If you liked reading his answers, you will find much deeper content in his new book Survive Like A Spy and through the practical lessons he provides in his Spy Escape And Evasion School.

If you are interested in learning more about what it takes to be a spy, or you do want to be a spy there are a number of tests available on the CIA website that test and promote a few practical spy skills. There is also an interactive test ran by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) which is an online testing platform to test whether you can pass a listening skill and observation component of intelligence service requirements. Give the test a go and let me know how you go in the comment section below.

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