07 December 2012

Tradecraft: Surveillance 101

At some point in your life, you've probably wished you could follow a person to see where he or she was going, maybe find out more about them. It could have been a loved one you suddenly had reason to mistrust, or it could have been an errant child you feared was running with a bad crowd and about to get into trouble. Or perhaps it was merely a whim on your part concerning a stranger who suddenly piqued your curiosity by something he did. Of course if you're a writer, you can always fall back on the excuse that you were simply conducting research to make your latest story seem more real.

It makes no difference to me what your reasons are. For twenty-five years, I conducted surveillance on bad guys from on foot, in moving vehicles, from airplanes and helicopters, from blinds in the woods and from stationary positions such as adjacent buildings and undercover vans. Each method has its own procedures and its own reasons for use. Just know that this is an adrenaline filled activity, and if you try it, you'll find it's actually fun to do. In fact, I've put on a couple of surveillance workshops for one of the chapters of Mystery Writers of America, a Left Coast Crime Conference and repeat performances for the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Amazingly, some civilians can be quite good at foot surveillance after only an hour briefing and then placed directly into a field exercise.

See how many of these celebrity authors ("rabbits") from the Denver Left Coast Crime Conference you recognize.
Roughly, here's some of the knowledge you need to know, a shortened version of what I teach civilians before forming them into teams to follow "rabbits" on foot in a downtown area or large shopping mall.

The first things to learn are what to wear and how to act. Wear only ordinary clothing for the area you'll be working in, nothing flashy or anything that will stand out. You want to become invisible or at least un-noticeable. Think for a minute, when you arrive at a big city hotel, the doorman opens the door for you. That's his job. He's in uniform. You thank him and go in. But, did you really take note of him? Could you pick him out in a lineup of other uniformed doormen? Probably not. You saw what you expected to see and soon dismissed any facial image. He blended in to the surroundings because he belonged there. That's what you want to do when you are following someone. Sometimes, it doesn't hurt to carry a backpack or shopping bag containing a rapid change of outside clothing and hats. Changing appearance helps keep you from becoming noticeable.

As for how to act, you act the way you're dressed. Do not draw attention to yourself, plus have a cover story as to who you are and why you are there just in case you are suddenly confronted by the one you're following or even by someone in the vicinity, such as a storekeeper or a security guard. At this point in the lecture, I usually tell my story about the Safeway Store Shootout in Kansas City. At the time, I was doing good surveillance on the parking lot from inside the store and had told a convincing tale to the store manager as to why I was lingering in the front of his store, right up until the guns came out. But, I've already related that little fun filled event in an earlier blog, so we'd best move on.

The best surveillance operatives are of average size and average looks. I know a six-foot tall lady of extreme intelligence and ivy-league background whom the CIA did not hire because of her height and good looks. They thought she would stand out in a crowd and therefore be too noticeable. Point in case, blend in as much as possible. Disappear, disappear, disappear, or at least become un-noticeable.

So now let's discuss what you want to learn or verify from your surveillance. This may determine how close you have to get to your subject. For instance, if you're looking for information leading to a divorce action, then your object of interest will probably be large, such as a meeting between subjects or a motel room being used. If you're looking for evidence against a stereo thief or shoplifter, then what you're watching for may be of medium size. However, if you're following a spy, then you may need to be on the outlook for small objects transferred in a handoff between two people or something picked up from a dead drop. Distance quickly becomes a factor.

The simplest form of moving surveillance is the One-Person Foot Surveillance, a tough way to operate because you are the only one out there, no team member to assist or rely on. Since one-person foot is usually conducted on the same side of the street and reasonably close to the subject in case he makes a sudden turn into a store or building, if you get burned by the subject or lose The Eyeball, then you are out of business for that day.

However, if your subject has a regular routine, you can usually come back the next day about the same time and pick up where you lost him and start following until you lose the subject again. Then come back on the following day and start from that point. Continue until you find his destination. That's how the Isrealis found out exactly in which town and house that Eichmann lived. This process helped them decide where and how to best take possession of him in order to spirit him out of that country.

The above info should be sufficient for a start on this topic. If it turns out there is enough interest, then I will continue in future blogs to cover the A B C Method of Team Surveillance, vehicle surveillance, other surveillance and the ever popular list of how the other side detects your surveillance. In the meantime, keep looking back over your shoulder. Who knows?


  1. Yes, I'm interested in more. Please!

  2. Very interesting, R.T. Yes, let's hear some more about surveillance. My mind immediately goes from legitimate surveillance to helpful advice for a stalker (in a story, or course).

  3. Good piece. Write more

  4. I agree with the ladies. Let's hear more!

  5. Great article, R.T.! But now I am completely paranoid--are you following me?

  6. I agree with everyone else - more, more, more.....Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  7. It appears there is enough interest in the topic to keep going with this thread, so the next installments on surveillance will cuntinue on January 18th with the ABC Method of Team Foot Surveillance. My December 21st & January 4th blogs are time sensitive for the holiday seasons and are already written and in the Sleuth Sayers queue for those dates. Stay tuned in the meantime.

  8. R.T., I'm sorry it took me so long to stick my oar in the water, but I was having a hard time getting to boat for while. LOL

    VERY glad to hear you'll give us more!



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