Once I had “paper walked” — mapped — my tentative routes and filled my belly, I figured that it was time to hit the streets and do some spy sh-. OK full disclosure – “spy sh-” meant, at that point, nothing more than looking like the bumbling, lost tourist that I actually was.
In an optimal situation, I would have been met by another officer who had been in-country a while and would be able to show me around and point out places to avoid like police stations, banks, churches and school zones. Why these places, you ask? Well think first about the movies that you may have seen and books you may have read about intelligence related operations – a lot of skulking around and sitting in cars, right? Well for obvious reasons, doing so around the first two can and will land you in hot water. Lots of cameras and folks with guns and a suspicious eye hanging around. As for the second two, have you ever seen some random person or thing and thought, “something isn’t right here?” Well multiply that by 1000 in a school zone or church parking lot and you can understand why we are taught that sitting in or conducting operations in such areas is strictly verboten (that’s zee German for “forbidden” or some such thing.)
So I walked. And I timed that walk. I didn’t wander aimlessly and that wasn’t just because I had memorized the tourist map – though I carried it with me just in case I was stopped or a curious cabbie asked what I was up to – I had a reason for every turn, every store that I walked into, and every purchase that I made. Unlike the movies and books we enjoy, the point of surveillance detection is not to spot someone following you, then take them on a high-speed chase while whipping down alleyways and jumping curbs until you lose them. Yeah … no. There are two main points to the act of trying to determine if you are free from prying eyes as I have learned them: first, lull anyone on you into complete and utter boredom so that after five and half hours of watching you get your dog groomed, get a haircut, then hit the matinee showing of Casablanca they will say “this guy/girl is boring … and annoying … but mostly boring …” and deem you not worth the effort. The second is to make the determination as to whether or not you should continue with the mission — and shopping is the best way to determine both.
In most cases, the answer to the above question is a resounding NO. The last thing that you want to do is drag surveillance to that meeting with your agent, because – well that won’t end on a positive note for anybody. But for certain actions – stuff like leaving a package or a marker for your agent to see (the former FBI agent, traitor and current prison lifer Robert Hanssen comes to mind) — “being covered” won’t matter if you time your act precisely. I won’t go into details here, but I have seen it in action and it is absolutely incredible when done correctly. For the record, none of that was happening this day. Right now, my main concern was walking out my planned route, getting the timing down right and making sure that the details were ironed out, because the smallest details are what kill you.
Think about it. When you are planning a day trip, or even a two-week getaway, you try to work everything out way ahead of time, right? How does that saying go? “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” In the intel world – just as in special operations – this rings absolutely true. As I walked my route, I took note of the places that I planned to make stops in. I looked for things like set up – if I am covered, will they send someone or a few people in to watch me? I am hoping yes because that will give me a chance to get a look at them and see if I spot them later, part of confirming that I do/not have coverage. Are there cameras in the store or outside? In today’s world that is almost always a yes, and nothing to panic about (that part comes earlier when you choose the place for your meeting/act) but it is nice to take note of. Who – at first glance – frequents the place? Probably not a good idea to be hanging out in a café frequented by law enforcement peeps, who tend to be both naturally suspicious AND have a keen eye for spotting someone new in town. Yeah – best to move on to the Starbucks down the block. Last, but most certainly not least – what are the venue hours? It does no good to check off all the other stuff then start your run for real only to find out that the place you chose for a timing stop or worse yet the meeting is not open yet or closed an hour ago.
So, after walking my route, checking my stops (oh, and making a small purchase at each, where it made sense, to make my being there plausible), I sauntered on to “where the magic was going to happen.” I had done all of the internet and map research that I could, but there is no substitute for being on the ground and eyeballing it, because like store hours, things change and there is nothing more stomach churning than doing everything right, then getting to the spot and seeing the sign that says “Please pardon our appearance as we renovate – we will reopen in March 2018.” Yeah, that’s a real confidence builder for your asset/agent. Along the way, to and from, I stopped and asked for directions to random places, stopped and feigned being lost while I stared at my tourist map, and generally acted like the innocent and naïve tourist or businessman out and about on his time off. Convinced that I had the routine down pat, I headed to grab something to eat, then went back to the hotel for the next act in this “what the hell have I gotten myself into” play.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons