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Sabina Menschel Explains Intelligence Work In Plain English

April 18, 2016

Kenyan Safari Ants

Behind the facade of our orderly lives with its commercial and corporate underpinnings are the quiet professionals who do exhaustive homework for money. This is the intelligence game. It’s the process of collecting advantageous information done by governments and the private sector.

When practiced by the former it’s the trade of spooks and spies. In the latter, it’s the job of investigators. Forget about the goddamned martinis and nice cars. Unless, of course, you’re compelled to look into the irregularities within the liquor and automotive markets.

Now here’s Sabina Menschel with Investigative Due Diligence: Beyond Google. A few months after joining the private investigations firm Nardello & Co. she published one of 2015’s underrated gems that explained the how to of her livelihood.  Ms. Menschel certainly knows what she’s writing about given her background.

A veteran of the top corporate intelligence firm in North America with stints in the FBI and Harvard Business School credentials, Menschel was a catch for Nardello & Co., which has offices in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and China.

What Menschel does in her short article is break down investigative work into three broad activities. These are Googling it, looking at public documents, and asking questions.

Hardly groundbreaking but it does confirm that intelligence work is the same as that other pursuit, plain old journalism, hence their ultimate classification as homework–the task of finding answers demanded by superiors.

So the different varieties of private eyes are just like their counterparts in the media? Actually more like their counterparts in genuine state-funded intelligence agencies who are in turn boring professorial types. Take it from Siegfried Beer, the director of an open source newsletter on covert activities, who appears to have visited the CIA often enough.

“They act like I did in university, sitting in the office,” he said in a 2014 interview with Cafe Babel. “…I felt like I was in uni, one doctor after the other. Specialist work on specialist problems, 9 to 5, it’s totally normal.”

The sentiment is echoed in the chapter about Olivier Schmidt and Maurice Botbol from Philippe Baumard’s book Tacit Knowledge in Organizations published in 1993. The founders of Intelligence Online, both former journalists, have used Nardello & Co’s methods for decades.

According to Botbol his editorial team “read what others publish so as to know what is publicly known.”

Which fits with Menschel’s proclivity for search engine-ing facts and plumbing social networks even if the results are imperfect.

Then Botbol, and by extension Menschel, reach out to people as a final “intuitive” touch.

“Knowing which approach will resonate with an individual source requires contextual knowledge and experience,” is Menschel’s advice in her article. “An investigator should have questions prepared, but be flexible and ready to pursue unanticipated lines of inquiry.”

Now Botbol: “Why do people give us what we’re looking for? They often have something they want to say, to express their disagreement over something perhaps.”

And, “we maneuver through muddy waters, and when we get hold of something we don’t let go, we cling on until we can make some sense of it.”

In Menschel’s view, however, trips to government offices are indispensable since “records can be reliable and accurate sources of information, but public access to records varies drastically from one jurisdiction to another.”

She does caution the reader with appeals to ethical conduct and awareness of the law. Not every market for big business is a liberal democracy.

What Menschel ultimately teaches us–the masses of the Internet–is how effective intelligence work is done. You learn, then fact check some more, and possibly ask people who know better. It’s obvious others have figured out Menschel’s approach on their own and produced impressive results, albeit with a programmer’s slant. Besides, nothing she has written would surprise anybody in a newsroom.

But Nardello & Co’s playbook is worth learning and knowing about since it demystifies a line of work cloaked in its own pretend ambiguity.

Don’t be too enamored with intelligence activities though. Menschel’s article appears to bestow a halo of legit practice on the trade which is par for the course in the white collar world. It’s worth mentioning in the fatal terrain of subterfuge the counterpart of painstaking research is the familiar grease to loosen tongues preferred by operators.

That is, the lure of money and bribes.