Spam in a Van: 39 Things a Good Surveillance Operative Knows

sur·veil·lance   (sər-vā′ləns)

1. Close observation of a person or group, especially one under suspicion

2 The act of observing or the condition of being observed

By:  Steve Koenig

Pursuit Magazine – Article

When I first began as a surveillance operative, I was at best, average. I wouldn’t doubt that some may have described me as “spam in a van.” But I had a sincere interest in this profession, and that, I believe, made up for my initial shortcomings.

My then mentor was a former police detective and surveillance expert. After my first year as an operative, he told me, “You don’t realize how much you have learned over this last year.”

I am paraphrasing, as it was many years ago (and there may have been some whiskey shared that fine evening). But what he said got me thinking: I, too, might become a good surveillance operative—in another ten or fifteen years or so.

“I haven’t been deer hunting in years, Red. It’s too much like my work week.” —Loren Estelman, Retro: An Amos Walker Mystery

What the Good Surveillance Operative Knows

On the journey to becoming a Good Surveillance Operative, you should gain a true and deep understanding of the tradecraft and the surveillance profession—and wear it like a second skin.

Here are a few articles of faith:

A Good Surveillance Operative…

1. Is nimble, flexible and understands what is required from the profession.

2. Relies on tried-and-true tradecraft and embraces new techniques and modern surveillance technology.

3. Knows when to be covert and when to be overt—in a covert way.

4. Has all the necessary equipment of their trade but needs the most basic tools to accomplish their mission.

5. Embraces the daily grind and continually works at improving their tradecraft.

6. Understands the general rule of law and how to accomplish their operations within the generous shade of her boundaries.

7. Knows that you must “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Whether it’s sitting in surveillance vehicles on brutally hot or freezing cold days, surveilling a subject in a tough neighborhood, following vehicles in heavy rush hour traffic or remote country roads, knocking on someone’s door at night to gather information, or being available 24/7/365 – to name a few “minor” inconveniences.

8. Will melt into the background, wherever they happen to be. “The trick is NOT to be tricky. The trick is NOT to be invisible. The trick is to be unremarkable.”

9. Knows the trade lingo, like: The subject and I got the eyeballblockers and bracketing; get set-upburrow-in; grab that plate; get an I.D. shot; whiz bottle; dumpster dive; choke points; spot-checks; head to the rez; the difference between fixed and mobile and foot and covert surveillance; getting burned andmade; acting hinky and leap frogging; backing off and pulling off; re-engaging and going in; following from the front; soft-tails and parallel tails; progressive tails and hard-tails; hook a chain to his bumper; camo-up; got rolled up on; make a scam call; lost contact; got a fix on-em; nailed-em; and terminated for the day.

10. Knows the importance of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and is constantly maintaining sources of information and cultivating new sources.

11. Understands that surveillance is, in-part, about falling into the routine and rhythm of your subject. People are creatures of habit, and those habits and routines are there for the operative to exploit.

12. Understands that streaks and slumps are part of the surveillance game.

13. Understands the importance of redundant systems and has a backup video camera, extra camera batteries and video cards, various covert body cams, extra surveillance vehicle keys, pens and paper, and pee bottles. Also has an assortment of props to change their look with hats and coats and canes and glasses and magnetic signs for their vehicle.

14. Knows that equipment will on occasion fail or not match the situational requirements. And that it is necessary to practice and test equipment in the field on a consistent basis.

15. Does NOT tempt the surveillance gods by being braggadocious or boastful.

16. Speaks of their exploits in vague terms and only to the most confidential of associates.

17. Knows the importance of “local knowledge” and what a plus it is (versus “parachuting in” to unknown territory).

18. Seeks out potential clients and is customer-service oriented. Is patient with clients and does not take them for granted—without customers, there is no work.

19. Provides unbiased reports of their findings, despite what the client may believe—and despite what the client may want to hear.

20. Knows that during surveillance, an operative may need to show sincere restraint, and that sometimes an operative must boldly attack.

21. Knows their limits, both physically and intellectually, and seeks a spiritual balance.

22. Knows the importance of taking notes, properly briefing clients, and writing reports. Report-writing is afundamental skill that must be developed over time. And it is essential to take good notes in order to write good reports. If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.

23. Knows that they must ALSO have strong fact-finding and intelligence-gathering skills, i.e. locating and analyzing open-source intelligence and interviewing people. Routinely seeks the advice of more experienced surveillance operatives.

24. Knows that they must not approach all cases the same way, even if cases seem smiliar. Carefully considers numerous factors, such as surveillance locations, the subject’s background, the timeline of the case, whether the case has been worked before, whether an operative has been burned by the subject before, whether the subject has legal representation, the authorized budget, and counter-surveillance issues—to name but a few.

25. Maintains calm, even amid an inner storm of personal doubts and fears and external storms of raging voices and complaints.

26. Knows the effects of adrenalin on the body and mind. In a rush, anyone may lock keys in a surveillance vehicle, drop things, catastrophically misspeak, or experience explosive bowel or bladder failure. That’s why a good operative remembers to take a breath and check himself before leaving the scene: Spectacles, testicles, wallet, and cell phone.

27. Is the first to recognize when he has made a mistake, and the last to take credit when things go well.

28. Is self-aware, confident and humble, NOT egocentric, narcissistic or conceited.

29. Approaches each mission like a wolf attacking its prey but also has empathy for their subject—BUT does not let the latter affect the former.

30. Eschews other professional distractions. Surveillance and intelligence gathering are all they know and all they do.

31. Knows the importance of having an appropriate cover story and that the best cover stories are very simple, with very few moving parts to juggle or lies to remember.

32. When to use a magnifying glass and when to use a sledgehammer.

33. Needs neither badge nor gun to accomplish their mission.

34. Knows that in order to be successful in the surveillance game, grit, guile, and common sense are required.

35. Understands that surveillance work can be feast or famine. But no matter how slow the work is, another assignment is just around the corner.

36. Does NOT refer to himself as a Good Surveillance Operative, nor does he judge other surveillance operatives, in the much-beloved tradition of the Monday Morning Quarterback.

37. Knows how to fuse professional life and personal life, so that the two may coexist.

38. Knows that their work may go unappreciated and unrecognized and that they will receive very little credit for the important case intelligence that they gathered or the millions of dollars they saved their clients. And they are okay with that.

39. Knows that sometimes, despite performing only minimal effort, an operation may go really well, and that they will look like a Good Surveillance Operative. And sometimes, despite superior effort, an operation may go poorly, and they will look like an idiot.

“Son, not everybody thinks that life on a cattle ranch in West Texas is the second-best thing to going to heaven.” —Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Not everybody thinks that the life of a surveillance or intelligence operative is the second-best thing to going to heaven—especially those who have seen the business from the inside out.   Many gladly move on to new lives, leaving the surveillance life behind after a few years.

But for those who, for reasons untold, continue to embrace the life, it is a great challenge. It can be a tough and maddening and rewarding career that puts the operative to the test daily.

I want to make it clear: I am NOT a Good Surveillance Operative yet. But I hope to become one—in another ten or fifteen years or so.

End of Report


About the Author:

Steve Koenig has more than twenty-five years of experience investigating cases for insurance companies, attorneys, corporations, and private parties. He owns an investigations firm, Koenig Investigative Agency, in Nebraska, and is founder and past president of the Nebraska Association of Licensed Private Investigators. You can check Steve out on LinkedIn. 

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