Surveillance and Sideview Mirrors

CIA case officers become experts in surveillance detection. It is not an optional job skill like mastering pivot tables in excel. The case officer’s (c/o) life may depend on it, and certainly the asset’s life counts on the c/o ensuring that he or she is free of surveillance before making a meeting.

Equally important though is being able to perform a surveillance detection route (SDR) without the host country intelligence service knowing you are doing so. Ostensibly, as a c/o arriving in country, the local intel service doesn’t know who you are. But they sure hope to. Some of that information may come from local nationals and others they have recruited to provide information on Americans in the country. 

But some of it comes through good old fashioned leg work. Local intel officers and contractors will surveil foreigners as they go about their daily activities. In their best case scenario, they hope to catch a foreign intel officer in the act of committing espionage, but they know that if they are dealing with a professional, that is a low likelihood. But they may find a foreigner acting differently than other foreigners, or than he/she should be. It might be someone having an affair, or buying/doing drugs, or even, someone engaged in espionage. So what they are really hoping to do is winnow through the targets so they know where to put more resources. Once they see that individual’s patterns are abnormal for a foreigner, then they will take a closer look at them.

As a c/o, if you head out on your SDR and detect you have surveillance, you are not likely to make your original meeting, but instead, will change your plans. What you hope you don’t do is let surveillance know that you have detected them, thereby betraying that you are surveillance aware, and thus a likely intelligence officer. You want to lull them into a sense of complacency.

And sometimes, surveillance is there just to harass and aggravate. Operating in a 3rd world environment where cars were relatively sparse, but scooters were ubiquitous, brought its own challenges. The locals could clearly see me a ways off, and picking out specific scooters in a throng of Hondas and Suzukis wasn’t easy. Most of the time we were in congested city traffic, on old center streets designed for carts and foot traffic, so we moved at slightly more than a snail’s pace. But inevitably, I would get to a section of road where I was able to pick up a little more speed, making it a challenge for the 100cc scooters to keep up and certainly facilitating identifying which ones were trying to do so.

This wasn’t anything specific to my operational profile, it fit within my normal pattern of activities. And all of us regularly received pretty heavy surveillance from the locals. Whether I intended my actions to be aggressive or not though became irrelevant, as it became clear that the locals at least thought I was being aggressive and trying to lose them.

One morning I walked out of the house into my courtyard where my vehicle was parked. Note, the courtyard was surrounded by 10 foot tall concrete walls, topped with concertina wire and a locked solid metal gate on rollers. I opened the gate, and got in the car and started it. As I looked down and to my left to use my side view mirror to back out of the drive, I noticed that the mirror was not there. A quick glance to the right confirmed that side view mirror wasn’t there either.

I turned off the car, went back in the house and told my wife and the maid (a local national who was probably regularly interviewed about my patterns of movement) what had happened. And then headed in to the office and shared the same information with my chief and the security officer. After some thinking about it and analyzing the previous couple of weeks, we figured it was the local service sending a not so subtle message about their perceptions I was ditching their surveillance.

That evening at home the maid shared that she had gone to the local police office in our ward to talk about the event. They professed no knowledge of the incident and expressed sorrow that such an event might sully our view of their nation’s hospitality. Furthermore, they noted that if I needed to replace my side view mirrors, I would probably be able to do so in the “thieves market” a few wards over. 

Off I sent the maid with a handful of local currency and sure enough, she was able to get replacement mirrors. Well, I should say, purchase my mirrors back. I had the only model of my car in the entire country, there were no parts suppliers there. The mirrors she bought in the thieves market were the mirrors actually stolen off my car.

And so began a pattern. I settled down on my driving habits and kept the surveillance teams nice and bored. And they left my vehicle alone. They’d eventually rotate on to someone else until it was my time under their microscope again. 

But periodically, I would offend one or the other of them and then they would exact their revenge, breaking in to the courtyard and stealing my mirrors again. And again we would dutifully report it to all parties before heading down to the thieves market to buy them back and have them reinstalled. And I would be reminded by my boss not to piss off the surveillance teams again. 

And the game of cat and mouse would slowly continue through the humid heat of this 3rd world capital. I often wondered if the gentleman I sold my car to when I left suffered the same. I guess I should have told him in advance where to buy his replacement mirrors.