In the spy trade, elicitation is the term applied to subtle extraction of information during an apparently normal and innocent conversation. Most intelligence operatives are well trained to take advantage of professional or social opportunities to interact with persons who have access to classified or other protected information.
Conducted by a skillful intelligence collector, elicitation appears to be normal social or professional conversation and can occur anywhere – in a restaurant, at a conference, or during a visit to one’s home. But it is conversation with a purpose, to collect information about your work or to collect assessment information about you or your colleagues.
Elicitation may involve a cover story or pretext to explain why certain questions are being asked. Some elicitation efforts can be pretty aggressive, imaginative, or involve extensive planning. For example: A professor from a south Asian country was teaching a night class in business administration at a Maryland university. In one assignment, her students were assigned a term paper on the company where they worked. One student reported to the FBI that her paper was returned by the professor three times. On each occasion the professor asked for more details on the company. The student became concerned when the directed expansion of the assignment began to involve sensitive, possibly proprietary information.1
For the foreign intelligence operative in the United States, one attraction of elicitation as an intelligence-collection technique is that it is a very low risk activity. It is hard for the target to recognize as an intelligence collection technique and easy to deny any intentional wrongdoing. It is just a pleasant conversation among colleagues or friends.
Another attraction is that it often works. Through elicitation, intelligence collectors may confirm or expand their knowledge of a sensitive program or may gain clearer insight into a person’s potential susceptibility to recruitment.
Testing willingness to talk about matters of intelligence interest is one step on the road to recruitment discussed in How Do I Know When I'm Being Targeted and Assessed? If you provide useful information once, you may be considered a "developmental contact." If you do so regularly, you may be classified as a "trusted source."
You should feel free to expand your professional and personal horizons by meeting with foreign colleagues, as long as you keep in mind that not everyone you meet has the best intentions. Follow these rules when talking with foreign colleagues: