Rumors of a recent high-level Chinese intelligence defector bring into focus a much-neglected facet of human intelligence (HUMINT) that begs for greater energy and innovation. A typical U.S. HUMINT operator, if asked to explain the goal of HUMINT, would likely respond that it is intelligence provided by a clandestine agent inside an adversary government or country. In fact, HUMINT is simply intelligence provided by human beings, and sometimes those humans are clandestine sources working in-place. While the recruitment of agent penetrations of U.S. adversaries is its highest expression, other forms of HUMINT also offer tremendous potential to answer key intelligence questions

Intelligence defectors, for example–individuals who flee their countries conveying their secrets with them rather than covertly sharing them from inside–have historically supplied the United States with vital insights into the capabilities of dangerous foes. Despite their demonstrated high impact, I contend the United States does not have a well-defined defector strategy, nor has the defector facet of HUMINT received the level of doctrinal attention commensurate with its historic contribution to national security. But even if this deficiency were corrected, it would not represent an innovation, rather the overdue refinement of a known element of espionage. What then would a true innovation look like in a HUMINT context?

One innovative, hybrid approach would be to marry HUMINT to a fundamental competitive advantage the United States and other countries in the free world have over authoritarian adversaries like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba: Freedom of expression. Sticking with the defector theme, the United States has typically handled intelligence defectors by discreetly collecting their secrets and then converting them into U.S. secrets, which are shared with a select few. If one accepts the Washington Post’s motto that “democracy dies in darkness,” it should then follow that: tyranny decays in sunlight.

With this in mind, in addition to welcoming or even soliciting intelligence defectors merely to feed their revelations into classified intelligence channels, might U.S. HUMINT actively cultivate a new family of defectors, ones who after being safely sprung are disengaged from the intelligence machinery and left to speak publicly, bringing the dark secrets they possess out into the sunlight for everyone to see?

In this scenario, the intelligence role would be limited to artfully generating awareness of this opportunity among the narrow category of individuals who possess the crown jewel-level secrets needed to qualify, educating them on ways to securely identify themselves, validating their qualification, and then effecting their departure. In essence, the intelligence role would be limited to enablement: picking the locks, leading them to safe ground, then stepping back. The work of independent investigative entities such Bellingcat and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) clearly demonstrate the ability of journalists to competently and responsibly run these stories to ground.

Adding this innovative twist would offer important advantages:

  • It would expand the pool of individuals with access to critical adversary secrets who would consider exposing them. The math of classic espionage penetration operations is dismal. It is rare to find someone with the nerves and moral fortitude needed to provide secrets from inside a police state. Given the option to flee rather than work from inside, that pool grows. Even then, there are many for whom the stigma of providing secrets to U.S. intelligence, even from the relative safety of U.S. shores, would be too high a barrier. If provided the option to escape and then expose their insights for all of mankind to see rather than just the U.S. government, i.e., serve as more of a public whistle-blower against tyrants than as an intelligence source, logic suggests the pool of the willing would grow more still.
  • Secrets revealed to the broader public as part of a sunlight program would also avoid the traditional dilemma of using classified information while protecting sources. Such information could be investigated and acted on immediately by those most affected. If, for example, someone came out and publicly exposed the plans and capabilities of Russia, China, or Iran against U.S. critical infrastructure, these could be more promptly shared with threatened utilities and security experts than information collected from clandestine human or technical sources requiring protection.

There would also be clear challenges:

  • Escaping authoritarian countries does not mean escaping danger. Russia has demonstrated the intent to track down and kill regime opponents and perceived traitors or effect their return to Russia by coercion or treachery. North Korea and Iran have demonstrated the same, and China, too, is surely capable of this. Traditional foreign intelligence agents resettled in the United States are provided a measure of protection, but if U.S intelligence relinquishes ties to sunlight defectors upon arrival, basic human responsibility dictates establishing some mechanism for their onward security.
  • Beyond physical security, it would also be necessary to facilitate their integration into U.S. society, including meaningful financial assistance, at least during an initial period. The CIA has learned hard lessons about how difficult this process can be, and the complexity of this problem should not be underestimated. If intelligence stands back after effecting the escape of sunlight defectors, arrangements will have to be made for others to meet this obligation.
  • Public Law 110 from the CIA Act of 1947 permits the admission of up to 100 aliens into the United States per year for intelligence purposes. Although the CIA or other U.S. intelligence organizations might help facilitate the exit of citizens of adversary States as part of a sunlight program, the hybridized goal of placing their information into the public domain rather than intelligence channels might require passing new legislation.

Devising a sunlight strategy would be a gratifying way to turn the asymmetrical operations tables against U.S. foes. Autocrats have a problem. A people problem. They do not trust them. They fear them. The trend in such countries is thus not toward greater openness, but increasing repression and control, leading to alienation. This is rich fodder for HUMINT. U.S. intelligence needs to leverage this more imaginatively, and a sunshine strategy could help.

Consider a few statistics:

  • A May 2021 poll by an independent Russian agency indicated that almost 22 percent of Russians across all age groups were definitely or likely willing to move away from Russia. Of Russians in the 25-39 age group, the number jumped to 33 percent, and among 18–24-year-olds, this mushroomed to 48 percent. Among all age groups, 10 percent said they were either in the process of moving, had made a firm decision to move, or were exploring opportunities for departure.
  • In 2018, China was the origin of 67,000 new lawful permanent residents in the United States, commonly known as green card holders, the third largest group after Mexico and Cuba. The United States is the top destination for Chinese immigrants, and the U.S. Chinese-born population, almost 2.5 million people, is the third largest foreign-born population after Mexico and India.
  • In 1990, the U.S. Congress established the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery, aka the green card lottery, to diversify the country’s immigrant population. In a typical year approximately 50,000 visas are issued in this manner. In the 30-day window in which applications were accepted for the 2020 drawing, 290,000 applications were received from Russia, and over 709,000 from Iran, even though each of those countries was allotted less than 5,000 visas. Chinese citizens were not eligible.

The above is not to suggest that alienation does not exist among the populations of the United States, whose struggles play out openly for all to see. That is the nature of democracy. Nevertheless, the relative level of human attraction–and repulsion–between the free and autocratic worlds are not remotely reciprocal. The powerful migratory urges of the populations of repressive regimes reveal a compelling asymmetrical advantage that should be more imaginatively folded into U.S. HUMINT strategy. Obviously not every Chinese, Russian, or Iranian interested in coming to the United States should be presumed willing to discuss secrets they may possess, but the above data suggests that there is substantial unmet demand to escape such regimes, likely including some who possess vital secrets on key threats. Some might be willing to share their information in exchange for a new start if presented creative options, and it would not take massive numbers to make a massive difference.

The United States desperately needs definitive insights into potentially back-breaking threats. If, for example, China extinguishes Taiwanese democracy through force of arms or the threat of invasion in concert with a blockade that the United States and its allies are unable, or unwilling, to counter, the geopolitical consequences will be seismic. America will forfeit its credibility as the standard-bearer of democracy to the great peril of democracy itself in the face of an advancing and modernizing global authoritarianism. If the United States should find itself in open conflict with Russia or China, what are the risks to the U.S. power grid? If an ice storm can collapse a major element of the U.S. grid, what damage could a peer adversary like China or Russia inflict after decades studying U.S. vulnerabilities? In 2012 Vladimir Putin alluded to Russian work on weaponry based on “genetic” principles. What did he mean, and what does U.S. intelligence truly know about China and Russia’s offensive biological weapons activities, which could pose even more of a doomsday threat than their nuclear weapons? It is these kinds of secrets, those related to weapons of mass destruction, attacks on national infrastructure, ethnic repression, political assassination, and war and peace — i.e., ones that have broader societal implications beyond narrower forms of nation-state competition — that would be most fitting for a sunlight strategy.

These are not complex mysteries to be divined. They are secrets. The answers are known. By people. The people working on them. The U.S. HUMINT community must imagine more innovative ways to find and engage them, or better yet, devise new ways to sensitize them to the life-changing benefits of reaching out to expose for all mankind what they know about the malevolent schemes being put to the service of tyranny. The current focus of U.S. HUMINT operations is too narrowly defined. By broadening its interpretation to embrace a hybrid intelligence-enabled whistleblower strategy in which adversary secrets are revealed to the public rather than just U.S. intelligence, the pace of their unmasking can be increased, perhaps dramatically.

Image: A man looks towards a bridge in heavy fog on December 14, 2004 in Beijing, China. Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images